Such great heights

Criterion renews a 20th century classic with ‘The Ascent’

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A still from 'The Ascent'
The Criterion Collection

Great movies don’t require a signature shot, but it helps when they have one. What would Vertigo be without that dizzying dolly zoom? The Godfather without the door closing on Kay? The Graduate without Benjamin Braddock trapped in the crook of Mrs. Robinson’s leg? They are brief moments, but they distill the film’s aesthetic and narrative qualities into a moment of visual poetry that lingers with us long after the plot and the character’s names have faded from memory.

In The Ascent, a 1977 Russian World War II drama newly restored and released from The Criterion Collection, director Larisa Shepitko gives us her signature shot 45 minutes into the story of two Byelorussian soldiers trying to survive the subzero winter of 1942. Nazis have captured the soldiers and are transporting them via horse-drawn sled to the nearest occupied town for trial and execution. While in transit, Rybak (Vladimir Gostyukhin) fantasizes about escape and swift death at his captors’ hands but lacks the agency to act. His comrade, Sotnikov (Boris Plotnikov), tried to kill himself as a way out but couldn’t go through with it; now he peacefully lies on the sled as the world pulls by. Shepitko and cinematographer Vladimir Chukhnov keep the camera tight on the men’s faces, letting their weary mugs fill the frame. But when Shepitko cuts to Sotnikov, the camera glides upward and floats just above him. The camera pulls focus to the background — nature, life, all rushing by without a care to the men on the sled — then back to Sotnikov, a shadow across his face as the camera settles back down. It’s as if his soul rose six inches and took a look around.

For the remainder of The Ascent’s 109-minute running time, the camera will remain tethered to Sotnikov’s face, basking in his kind eyes and soft features. He looks like a Byzantine Christ, and though he expounds no teachings, his demeanor throughout capture and interrogation is sublime. He even amasses a small following of disciples with a village elder (Sergey Yakovlev) taking on the role of Peter and Demchikha (Lyudmila Polyakova) as Magdalene. Portnov (Anatoliy Solonitsyn), a Soviet collaborator, dons the robes of Pontius Pilate, and poor Rybak plays Judas.

It’s a remarkable work, and The Ascent became Shepitko’s most powerful film. But before all that, she had to hide the religious parable from Soviet censors, painting Sotnikov as a solid Soviet peasant. Then when the movie came out, a fate of good fortune — rhapsodic praise from Pytor Masherov, a high-ranking government official — kept the film in the graces of the Communist regime. And when The Ascent took home the Golden Bear at the 1977 Berlin Film Festival, the USSR submitted it for Oscar consideration. The Academy chose not to nominate the film. Neither the first nor the last time the Academy failed to reward excellence.

Tastes change, nations rise and fall, yet movies remain. And with its stunning black and white cinematography, harsh realism and humanist portrayal, The Ascent has found new life in the 21st century as a bona fide masterpiece, one you can now own on Blu-ray or DVD from The Criterion Collection. The set includes a new 4K digital restoration (which looks spectacular); select scene commentary from film scholar Daniel Bird; contemporary interviews with Polyakova and Shepitko’s son, Anton Klimov; a 1967 short film from Shepitko, The Homeland of Electricity (reviewed favorably in BW’s Home Viewing, Oct. 15, 2020); Larisa, a 1980 tribute from husband and fellow filmmaker, Elem Klimov; an archival interview with Shepitko; two Russian television programs about Shepitko; and an essay by poet Fanny Howe.  

ON THE BILL:  ‘The Ascent,’ now with extras on Blu-ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.