We spread the word about Larisa Shepitko, one of the true visionaries of Soviet cinema, when we released two of her incredible films in 2008, but she remains an under-the-radar figure for most movie lovers. By 1979, when she was tragically killed in a car accident at the age of forty, Shepitko had already built up an impressive oeuvre. Probably her most staggering accomplishment, though, is her last film, 1977’s The Ascent, is a frightening vision of World War II that’s at once visceral and numinous.
Shepitko conceived of this very dark film during some of her grimmest days: she was pregnant with her son, and a serious spine injury had made her condition life-threatening. She funneled her morbid thoughts into The Ascent, a brutal and brilliantly made morality tale that follows two Belorussian peasant soldiers—the angelic Sotnikov and the more self-interested, weak-willed Rybak—on the run from occupying Nazi forces. It’s a work of startling violence and hushed spirituality, sometimes within the same scene. In the following sequence, in which Sotnikov and Rybak try to elude capture by hiding out in a widow’s attic, Shepitko also establishes her mastery of space and cinematic suspense.