The world of cinema has always benefited from the talent of women as directors, if in absurdly paltry proportion to the number of films directed by men. From Lois Weber and Alice Guy-Blaché in the silent era to Ida Lupino and Agnes Varda (and the inestimably talented Leni Reifenstahl, even if her work served her fascist dictator) in later generations, few women in film’s first half-century were able to direct. In Hollywood until very recently the percentage of films directed by women hovered for decades between four and ten percent, and elsewhere across the world few others gained the opportunities afforded men in the industry. A select few like Lina Wertmuller, Chantal Ackerman, and Jane Campion earned international acclaim for the work.
Perhaps lesser known than some of her contemporaries, the Russian director Larisa Shepitko produced a body of work in the 1960s and 1970s that is extraordinary for its accomplishment if not its volume. Her 1977 The Ascent stands as a remarkable achievement of production, a war film shot in excruciatingly harsh conditions that eschews battle scenes for a character study in human dignity under extreme duress. Shepitko’s adroit direction and narrative skill elevates what is on the surface a simple plot to an allegorical tale of sacrifice and betrayal—and lasting testimony to her extraordinary life and talent.
Behind the film’s opening credits, a skirmish between Russian partisans and a German patrol plays out in a bleak, harsh snowscape on the Eastern Front of World War II, known to Russians as The Great Patriotic War. When the Germans open fire, the ragtag villagers—women and children among them—suffer casualties and are forced to retreat into the woods. Freezing and with only small handfuls of grains to share, Rybak (Vladimir Gostyukhin) is sent on a mission for rations with Sotnikov (Boris Plotnikov) selected to accompany him. Their mission, capture, and then torture constitute the bulk of the plot.
Shepitko is not interested in the tropes that mark most war films. In fact, she wholly eschews the tactical maneuvers, ideological exposition, intra-group conflict, letters from home, or extended battle sequences that Jeanne Basinger and others cite as central to the genre. Their journey is arduous and exhausting, the more experienced Rybak—who pines for battle and dreads isolation—leading the way. The two abscond with a sheep from the farm of a collaborationist (Sergei Yakovlev) but then, as they head back to their unit, are spotted by the Germans once again. In this, the second and last gunfight, the two men briefly escape, but Sotkinov, already feverish, is wounded and the two are captured.
The film’s setting and plot demanded shooting in difficult conditions. Production began in January of 1974 in and near Murom in Vladimir Oblast, Russia, along the bank of the Oka River, and in harsh, blizzard-like conditions. Despite the cold, wind, and snow, and despite her illness (spinal trauma brought on by hepatitis during the shooting of Heat), Shepitko would patiently instruct her actors in their motivations and traipse alongside them through the deep snow. Hers was a complete and total commitment to her project that earned her the absolute trust of her cast and crew.
In this first half of The Ascent, Shepitko’s focus is on these extreme conditions. The Belarus countryside blinds with the whiteness of its harsh winter, the two men’s faces and exposed hands caked with frost. Sound design emphasizes their exertion as they engage the Germans. Rybak carries his wounded comrade (and both their gear) through the woods, each trudging footstep tracked through thistle and snowdrifts. Brief moments of statis focus on the two men’s faces in close-up, contrasting Rybak’s more expressive, emotional responses with Sotnikov’s dispassionate, ethereal gaze. The contrast between the swarthy, vigorous, battle-eager Rybak and his more youthful, solemn, and peaceful Sotnikov, introduced in the first act, will be further emphasized in the second and third.
But again, the maneuvers of battle are not Shepitko’s focus. Here, war serves as a backdrop for a study of the two men’s humanity, the contrasting ways in which each man faces his fate. Rybak guides the injured, weary Sotnikov to a villager’s cabin inhabited by three children and a woman, Semchika, but the group is captured there and taken to the German headquarters for interrogation. Along the way, Shepitko glides her camera ethereally alongside the sled where Sotnikov, his head in repose framed by strands of straw that resemble a wreath of laurels, gazes upwards peacefully, the first of several subtle visual references to the film’s title: The Ascent. (Shepitko’s husband, the director Elem Klimov, coined the film’s brilliant title, earning himself ten rubles as a friendly reward for this adaptation of the novel titled Sotnikov by Vasil Bykaŭ.) Sotnikov, questioned first, resists his captors with silence, even when branded with a hot iron; Rybak, agitated and fearful, offers less resistance. The interrogator, sensing Rybak’s weakness, flatters his intelligence and offers him a bargain: work for the Germans and avoid death. All face death by public hanging, but Rybak can be spared should he agree to join his oppressors.
At the film’s midway point, then, Shepitko wholly abandons the worn tropes of combat films for a study in her subjects’ humanity. Faced with torture and bribed with reward, the two men respond differently to their fate. Fearing death, Rybak pleads with the weakening Sotnikov to avoid death; Sotnikov, now made more resolute and determined, refuses to compromise, and willingly faces his own mortality. An angry, frightened Rybak rails. Here, Shepitko’s camera focuses less on environment and more on her subjects, often framed in tight close-up, sometimes together just inches apart as their conflict heightens. The two men’s contrasting actions parallel those of Jesus Christ and Judas Iscariot, one accepting the necessity of death for his beliefs, the other willing to betray him. Shepitko frames Sotnikov almost exclusively in close-up, a heavenly light shining on his high, broad forehead and thinning shock of blond hair.
The actors who play Sotnikov and Rybak, respectively, had little experience or recognition, just as Shepitko intended. Wanting to avoid recognizable faces, Shepitko sought actors whom her audiences would not know. Winning the role over 20 other candidates, the unknown Vladimir Gostyukhin, a set dresser and propmaker, was cast as Rybak for his masculinity and charisma. For his appearance and demeanor, Boris Plotnikov was selected from the Sverdlovsk Theater over well-established stars for the role of Sotnikov. Shepitko’s thoughtful, risky casting nearly perfectly contrasts the two characters’ actions and reactions.
A second ascent follows as the captives are led by the Germans on a slow, cold march up the hill to the hanging platform. Shepitko frames the group in a slow, static, extreme long shot lasting more than a minute before cutting to Rybak pleading desperately with Sotnikov to accept his betrayal. A sled slides into the frame, and a child skips along behind it: he will soon bear important witness to the execution that follows. At the gallows, Shepitko cuts from long shots of empty nooses to a series of close ups focusing primarily on Sotnikov as he and his fellow partisans are hanged. The boy, now randomly one of the crowd gathered to witness, gazes and grimaces at Sotnikov’s death. With the Germans focused on their execution and Rybak desperate for absolution, the boy alone seems to register Sotnikov’s sacrifice. His lip quivers, a single tear drops, and after a time, he lowers his eyes to the ground, a gesture that suggests Sotnikov’s death will not go in vain.
As a student at the All-Union State Institute of Cinematography (aka VGIK, formerly the Moscow School and today the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography), where all Russian film production was centered, Shepitko and her fellow students would surely have been trained in the Kuleshov effect, where shots of an actor intercut with other images (a casket, a bowl of soup, etc.) elicited highly specific reactions from viewers. In fact, Lev Kuleshov himself served as creative director at VGIK into the mid-1960s, through Shepitko’s tenure there—she graduated in 1963 at age 22 with honors for her thesis film Heat—and his key contribution to the cinema is one Shepitko masters here with her many close-ups of her characters’ faces: the boy’s anguish, Sotnikov’s resolve, Rybak’s fear.
Only through a stroke of luck and the film’s genius did it survive the strict censorship of the Soviet regime: Pytor Masherov, a veteran of the Great Patriotic War, was so moved by a private screening of the film that he advocated publicly for its release in spite of concerns about its allegorical and antiwar themes. The Ascent won the Golden Bear at the 27th Berlin International Film Festival in 1977 and was selected as the Soviet entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 50th Academy Awards. At age 40, Shepitko herself had ascended near Russia’s top rank of filmmakers and looked forward to a promising career.
Tragically, The Ascent would be the last film Shepitko would make. Two years later, while scouting locations for her next film with five of her crew, Larisa Shepitko was killed in a car crash outside of Leningrad. In death she would leave behind a child, her husband Elem Klimov, and a regrettably small body of work. Nearly immediately, Klimov threw himself into the project she left behind.
The film that Klimov finished in her stead, Farewell, met with only tepid acclaim, but perhaps the most eloquent testimony to Shepitko was a short film he made in her honor, Larisa. Its opening sequence—a simple, elegant montage of still photographs from Shepitko’s birth through childhood adolescence, and maturity, each of them portraying her piercing gaze, assured posture, and (yes, nearly every commentator has remarked upon it and I will, too) her radiant beauty and accompanied by a haunting elegiac orchestral score—charts her vibrant life. And within a single minute, her tragic death and somber funeral, followed by Klimov’s narration ensues, with her colleagues offering their eulogies before the film gives way to Shepitko’s own words, her voice providing a ghostly posthumous perspective on her life and work.
“Everything, every single shot in my films, was created from my perspective as a woman,” Shepitko says. “Not a single man is able to grasp certain phenomena in the psyche of human beings on such a deep, intuitive level as a woman.” That a woman would be encouraged to direct in the Soviet Union of the era was unusual if not unheard of. A family friend encouraged her that her multiple talents—singing, acting, writing, reading, painting—could be lent to the cinema, and from 16 on Shepitko trained for her career in filmmaking. The last few minutes of Klimov’s eulogy return to the personal as her haunting gaze and radiant smile, interspersed with close-ups from her feature films Heat, Wings, You & Me, and The Ascent, form a montage that links the tragedy of her death to that of Sotnikov’s.
Klimov concludes his tribute with two impeccably beautiful shots. The first depicts an eternal tree shrouded in fog, the last footage ever filmed by Shepitko. Shot for the film she would not live to make, the image silently suggests an eternal life, one of immense beauty and reach.
The second, an iconic image of a smiling Larisa Shepitko helming her film camera, hands at the controls, reminds viewers of her immense talent and dedication. Her life may have been cut short, but her work remains and The Ascent—along with her husband’s eulogy Larisa—provides eloquent evidence of its timelessness.