The Ascent

Collected Works: Film


The Ascent

directed by Larisa Shepitko
Feature film

View a still from the film

A wounded man is caked in snow. It clings to his hair, to his clothes. He uses one leg to push against the yielding, white ground. He is heaved along by his comrade, who crawls ahead, two guns slung over his shoulder. The percussion of shunted slush forms a counterpoint with the loud respiration and grunts of exertion. When the pair emerges from the thicket, the comrade goes to get their bearings. The injured man is left alone, propped up against a tree. His expression, crisscrossed by icy branches, becomes beatific.

Rybak and Sotnikov never make it out of enemy territory. They are captured by the Germans, along with the woman whose home they hide in. The moral drama of The Ascent only begins when the setting shifts to a dark, rat-infested cellar. Sotnikov refuses to tell the German investigator anything, enduring horrific torture as a result, but Rybak is keen to avoid such a fate. He is determined to survive, tempted to share what he thinks is already known information. For Sotnikov, it is better to die than live without a conscience.

The bleak bite of the Belarusian landscape becomes the film’s third protagonist, its oppressiveness reinforcing the captives’ hopeless situation. The area’s gelid indifference to human tragedy helps us to understand the two soldiers’ attitudes: the defiance in the face of death; the desire to transcend one’s own suffering. In a later scene, frozen with despair, Rybak is left unable to escape the imprisonment of guilt. The desolate enormity that stretches out before him seems to exacerbate the knotted dilemmas he faces.

When Sotnikov looks out upon the same sight, head in noose, he gathers strength from the vastness, reminded of his own insignificance. He takes on a saintly appearance once more, acceptance in his heavy-lidded eyes. This time, no tangled wood obscures him. With a half-smile, he exhales frosty air. The haunting image is etched into our mind, a suitable motif for a film that examines war through an intimate human lens. The Ascent may drag us through monochrome, but its ethics cannot be reduced to black and white.

Words by Emma McKinlay

More to discover

You can watch an excerpt from The Ascent here. Michael Koresky has written about the film for The Criterion Collection, as has Peter Wilshire for Offscreen.

Question of the day

Which war films would you recommend, and why?
Let us know on Facebook, Patreon, or Twitter.

Come and See, directed by Elem Klimov. A Soviet war drama that strips away the glamour and heroism of war and shows us the random cruelty and pointlessness. (→)

– Marina Lewycka, author (The Lubetkin Legacy, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian) (via The Brief →)

Tama Tu, directed by Taika Waititi. A short film with no dialogue, it really captures a feeling of isolation and togetherness in the absurdity of war. (→)

– Yumi Zouma, synth pop group (via The Brief →)

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