The extraordinary story of The Ascent begins when those two soldiers set out for food and doesn't end until one has reached the depths of despair while the other attains a sense of purpose, of meaning, in his final moments. The two soldiers, Sotnikov (Boris Plotnikov) and Rybak (Vladimir Gostyukhin) wander out of the woods, Rybak looking back as the group recedes into invisibility among the snow speckled trees, a shudder running through his body as a flurry of wind sends a pack of snow down from the trees and onto his neck. They venture out into the seemingly endless open fields, covered with snow, battered by wind, and with no village anywhere in sight. Rybak likes to talk and even though he feels it unnecessary to have assigned two men to the task, he's happy for the company. Finally, they find a cabin and inside a collaborator, a Russian farmer willingly working with the Nazis to keep whatever semblance of a normal life he has intact. From here, the two men encounter obstacles that will ultimately lead them to a fate neither could have possibly predicted.
Larisa Shepitko had been directing in the Soviet Union for several years, making her first venture into the cinema at 22 with the movie, Heat, a student film she had completed upon graduation from the All-Russian State University of Cinematography (now the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography) in 1963. Her first feature film out of school was Wings, a touching portrait of a female former fighter pilot in World War II, now looking back over her life and realizing that she and her daughter occupy vastly different worlds. When she began work on The Ascent, she had matured as a director and turned to the bitterly cold winter of 1942 for her greatest examination of humanity.
Shepitko used techniques in The Ascent, such as hand held cameras for fire fights but steady, mounted cameras for more intimately dramatic scenes, that movies like Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan would use to great effect several years later. Shepitko's war has little in common with either the Hollywood or British war films of the forties, fifties, and sixties and her soldiers and refugees live in a world that really does feel like it is surrounded by a world at war. Filmed on location, in unmistakable bitter cold, with no scenes of victory or heroic fighting, The Ascent feels like one of the very few war films that truly has removed all the glamour and romance from the picture, leaving a stark and unflinching reality. For comparison, perhaps only All Quiet on the Western Front comes to mind.
Boris Plotnikov made his debut in The Ascent with the role of Sotnikov but his deeply complex portrayal gives the impression that he was an old hand at film acting. He continued acting in movies in Russia straight into the new century but his debut remains his most celebrated performance.
Vladimir Gostyukhin made only three films before The Ascent but also carries himself like a veteran of the silver screen. His performance is arguably the tougher one, his character cycling through dozens of emotions and conflicting beliefs. In his final moments onscreen, he communicates a desperation to the audience that is offers no relief and respite from the pain. It's one of the best performances of the year.
The Ascent was submitted by the Soviet Union as its entry for the nominees in the Best Foreign Language Film category of the Academy Awards for 1977 but it didn't make the cut as one of the five finalists in what has to be one of Oscar's most glaring omissions in the history of that particular award. Not only was The Ascent the best foreign language film of the year, it was probably the best film of the year, period, from any country. Today, its reputation has finally caught up with it and it is internationally recognized as one of the great works of world cinema and certainly one of the greatest and starkest portrayals of war to ever reach the big screen. Larisa Shepitko would not live to see its reputation grow or even long enough to make another film. She was killed in an auto accident just two years after its international release and the world lost one of its best directors. But she left behind a great body of work with The Ascent at the top. It remains one of the best meditations on war, life, and morality ever made.
By Greg Ferrara