Larisa Shepitko was born in eastern Ukraine in 1938. Her mother was a schoolteacher; her father, who left the family, fought in World War II. Her mother raised her and her two siblings on her own, and the moment Larisa graduated from school, she was on the road to Moscow to study filmmaking. She was sixteen and sure of her vocation.
She entered the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography (VGIK), where Andrei Tarkovsky was then still studying. The war had been permanently etched into the minds of Soviet children, who had witnessed its atrocities or lived with their effects. By the time of the cultural thaw that began after Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953, they were beginning to be able to express in film and literature what they had seen, and in this way analyze it beyond politics and psychology.
At film school, Shepitko found her mentor in Alexander Dovzhenko, a major figure of early Soviet cinema. The realist films being made throughout Europe in the postwar period provide a glimpse of a time before women had or expected much. We still stirred the batter and shook out the broom and changed the sheets by turning them over. (The last children to witness this have almost disappeared.) But Shepitko was destined for more.
From her first feature, her graduation film, Heat (1963), she was recognized and awarded. She went on to make three more feature-length films—Wings (1966), You and I (1971), and The Ascent (1977)—in addition to two student shorts, a segment of an omnibus film, and a movie for television. Her greatest works possess a startling intimacy: Wings is the story of a former fighter pilot, once ecstatic in the air, now dulled by her return to ordinary earth as a school principal; The Ascent is a wartime parable whose stark winter landscapes throw its characters’ suffering into terrible relief. In both of these, the whiteness of snow and clouds punctuates the plight of the human figures.
The Ascent is also particularly haunting for its Christian symbolism. Religious practices that were by and large derived from the Eastern-rite Catholic Church in Ukraine lingered underground there after the churches were shut down by Stalin. The relics of Christianity still turn up, shadowy and broken, in the backgrounds of many Soviet postwar productions. You see this even in works by the most secular filmmakers, well into the eighties; Shepitko, who later in life found a spirituality that inclined toward the mystic, did not regard herself as religious.
Tall, dark, and good-looking, Shepitko married the great director Elem
Klimov (whose Come and See, like The Ascent, ranks among the great war
films) and gave birth to a son, Anton. She was continually interrupted
by illness and accident—she suffered from hepatitis during the making of
Heat, sometimes becoming so ill that she directed from a stretcher;
and, while shooting her short The Homeland of Electricity (1967),
seriously injured her spine in a fall—but did not hesitate to go to the
limits with her actors and crew. She shot her last film in perilously
cold weather. Shepitko had a continuing fear of death that made her both
superstitious and visionary. She died at age forty-one in a car crash.
The story of The Ascent—based on the 1970 novella Sotnikov by Vasil Bykov—is a simple one, a tale for all times: two Soviet partisans get separated from their unit; they are lost and lashed by snow and wind. The film opens in an empty white field that slowly unfolds into a cluster of soldiers, who rise to their feet, carrying their belongings with them. It is not long before the stakes of the story are established: Shots ring out like bells. The people fall and run; one turns and shoots back and hits someone as the rest climb toward the hills and woods. After this retreat, Rybak (Vladimir Gostyukhin) and Sotnikov (Boris Plotnikov) leave in search of supplies and sustenance.
Rybak, the tougher of the two, knows their whereabouts, and Sotnikov, the weaker one, follows him. They go to a house Rybak fondly remembers for the woman in it and a night he spent with her. It is now ashes, ruin, the bed broken in the rubble. Rybak is a tender man who loves life as something under his control. Sotnikov is afraid of the world. Together they eat dried raspberries out of the cups of their hands.
They walk on through the ever-deepening snow toward other houses. At one, they encounter an old man who has sold out to the Nazis—a visit after which Sotnikov is wounded in the leg by gunfire. At the next, they break in and find three hungry children waiting for their mother to come home. She does. She is rough and hostile but allows the two partisans to hide in her attic when they hear Germans coming with shouts and guns. The Nazis’ brutal occupation of the house takes place swiftly, outrageously, and the mother is dragged from her children, thrown onto a sleigh along with the two soldiers and taken to a German-held barracks. The cries of the children fade into the distance.
“I see in The Ascent Shepitko’s relentless search for the source of evil, as well as for the glimmers of divine reality that have not yet been annihilated.”
At their final stopping place, Sotnikov and Rybak are put before a local collaborator with the Germans, a military bureaucrat who wears the obscene smile of a sadist. He focuses his attention on Sotnikov, who refuses to cooperate. Rybak, by contrast, will say anything to save his own skin. Surgical tools are brought in for use on Sotnikov, and this familiar scene of torture conjures up the death of every victim who has so far transcended the pattern of history to remain innocent.
I see in The Ascent Shepitko’s relentless search for the source of evil, as well as for the glimmers of divine reality that have not yet been annihilated. I imagine her beside her huge filmmaking instruments, seeking to find meaning in bodies and faces, and in the environment surrounding them—a drive to confront humanity in all its complexity. Rybak’s uncalculated kindness in trying to keep his companion alive is balanced by his fury and heartbreak after he himself attempts suicide and fails; he comes to resemble one of Ingmar Bergman’s lovable but tragically foolish men. In The Ascent, Shepitko is seeing from the point of astonishment, and the camera is her instrument that asks: What is going on? She uses it to uncover the existential woe common to the moral confusion of wartime.
Eventually, Sotnikov and Rybak are dragged to a dark cellar and left there. Three other prisoners—the old man and the mother from earlier, and a young Jewish girl—follow, and in this black hole all five acquire uncannily familiar features, since they evoke pictures we have seen. I think of Rembrandt’s darkened biblical figures, their blurred features, and the stills of the camps on the day of liberation—faces shaded and eyes filled with bitter hope. Shepitko sees and films her characters, their faces especially, as replications in a tradition of religious paintings, icons, wonder tales, and poetry.
From the time he is shot, and down in the cellar after being tortured, Sotnikov is weakening from blood loss. But there are glimpses of his face that begin to show him wobbling between profane and sacred consciousness: one where he knocks ice off branches with a stick, and another where his face looks up from the snowy ground at the sky above. In both cases, the image asks: Is a human worth saving, and what for? Sotnikov’s face is a flesh circle dropped into the snow, reduced to lips, eyes, mouth, as a species of alien thrown down from the sky—an embryo, an infinite glued to time. His expression suggests that he has caught sight of the beyond. And Sotnikov’s resistance to the authorities seeking to break his will gradually resonates as an act of sacrifice. (In casting Sotnikov, Shepitko specifically sought an actor who resembled images of Christ.)
The Ascent is set in Belorussia, the
site of a Nazi genocide. Survival by collaboration was rife, and Nazi
massacres of peasants and Jewish people frequent. Shepitko had been a
child in the world where this was happening. Her movie shifts between
the business of survival and another ultimate question: Why live in such
a world? The Ascent is about varieties of snow as much as it is about
varieties of religious experience. The snow blinds you, gets in your
boots, freezes your feet and hands, breaks on your lips, and slows you
down. In the film, there is no straight path through it, partly because
the snow has obliterated almost any signs of paths or stopping places.
The sites where action occurs have either been burned to the ground or
are about to be.
There is a syndrome called visual snow syndrome, in which white dots are endlessly sprinkled across a person’s field of vision—comparable to the “snow” we know on analog screens. Visual snow, all you can see, the face of Christ just as easily found in there as the shape of a tree—an afterimage that trails the snap glance, organizing it into the hollow face we know from painting and film. In a similar fashion, the viewer scours the forbidding, snowbound images of The Ascent for such signs of life and meaning. Throughout the film, there are traces of a dying Christ, of pale martyrdom, of pure nihilism. Nothing comes to save or enlighten the two soldiers. Their faces and actions are recapitulations of faces and actions that have occurred throughout history.
When I first saw this film, in London in the 1990s, I was still very
fascinated by much of Russian and Soviet culture: its poetry, its
novels, its social reform, its composers, and its unrelenting drive for
eternal truths. I brooded on the geographic weirdness of being at the
top of the world, encompassing several time zones and so many ethnic
histories. I don’t know why, but this passion came over me so young that
I majored in European history at college and focused on revolutionary
Russia. It may be because my father joined the army in 1943 and was gone
two and a half years. He came back liking the Soviets he’d met better
than the British.
Shepitko was there for the iciest days on the set of The Ascent, even though she was frequently ill. It was grueling to shoot in the cold, but her cast and crew were there to accompany her in her attempt to account for the brutality that had overtaken the world in the first several years of her life. “The impression of a global calamity certainly left an indelible mark in my childhood mind,” Shepitko said.
Some say God died in the Napoleonic Wars, at Jena; some say Friedrich Nietzsche struck the final blow; some say God died in Auschwitz. Sometimes we make out on a stone or glass the image of the H-bomb, or smoke from napalm, and it hurts too much to face directly. The Ascent takes place in a fallen world where such portents are inescapable, but it is the unyielding presence of the Christ-effect that fascinates me most about the film. It won’t go away, the sense of a divine spirit at the margins of the frame, despite the bleakness of the landscape, the torture, and the unbelief all around. It’s a remnant like afterbirth, in a film where a child’s smile is the only joy we glimpse.
Christ didn’t die during the Feast of the Ascension, which seems to me to be a celebration of liberty from earth: Jesus whirling around, even underground to check on the dead, before his astonishing hover over his friends and then his disappearance into the cosmos. Light and snow in The Ascent are of the same order as light and clouds in Wings. They indicate a continuation of consciousness in full space. The human mind and the atmosphere knowing one thing. Ascension.
But the struggle down on the ground is the most ineffaceably haunting aspect of The Ascent. The sun spreads its platinum light across floor and furniture and on the awful evil of the suited man at the desk who organizes tools for torture, the shiny implements used by doctors around the world. The prisoner’s idealism and defiance only make the interrogator smile. When the prisoner asks him what he was before the war, the laugh is on the prisoner when the man all but says, I was like you.