Very often I encounter articles penned by some well-meaning cineaste or journalist ruing the state of female-driven cinema. Such articles follow a similar pattern: they tell you that women make up half the population but are grossly underrepresented as media creators, show you a few statistics to illustrate their point, then invariably include a list of female directors that have not been sufficiently recognised in the author’s opinion. The usual suspects on such lists are Kathryn Bigelow, Sofia Coppola, Jane Campion, Penny Marshall, Amy Heckerling, Nicole Holofcener. Sometimes, desperate for names, there may even be a mention of a Catherine Hardwicke (you know, of Twilight fame) or Nancy Meyers (of Something’s Gotta Give and The Holiday). If the scribe is actually somewhat knowledgeable, you might see a shout-out for Lucrecia Martel, Kelly Reichardt, or Lone Scherfig. Leni Riefenstahl and Chantel Ackerman make lists with an eye to history.
But in such historical lists, one name I rarely ever see is that of Larisa Shepitko. Have you heard of her? If not, it’s a real shame. These articles lose credibility with me when they fail to mention the single greatest film ever directed by a woman: The Ascent (Восхождение, for the Cyrillic-minded). A student of the famed Alexander Dovzhenko, Shepitko made only four films before a car crash cut her career short. (I guess an abbreviated film career could contribute to her lack of renown, but James Dean only made three films…) The Ascent is no less than her masterwork; a haunting film of stunning beauty; its images permanently burn themselves into your memory.
OBLIGATORY SPOILER WARNING. I DISCUSS THE ENTIRE PLOT IN THIS ESSAY!
The first thing you notice about The Ascent is how old it looks; that is, it doesn’t look like a product of its time. (A contemporary of Tarkovsky, Shepitko made The Ascent shortly after The Mirror.) In Academy Standard, on grainy black and white stock, it seems Shepitko desired to make the film look like a product of its setting—namely, World War Two.
The plot is straightforward: Two Soviet partisans, Rybak and Sotnikov, leave to go find food for their company. They are spotted by a German patrol, and though they manage to escape, Sotnikov is hit by a bullet. They attempt to take refuge in a nearby farmhouse, but are discovered by the Germans anyway, and taken back to the German camp, with a few assorted villagers. Hilarity ensues.
The opening scenes are masterful in conveying the isolation suffered by the men and their comrades. Human figures are dwarfed by the great white void of wind and snow.
When the Germans appear out of this void, faint and apparitional, it feels like one body meeting another in the infinite vacuum of deep space.
In fact, Shapitko’s images are so strong, The Ascent could have been a silent film.
Here I must mention one of my favourite shots in the film. The men have just stumbled upon the home of Demchikha, mother to three very young children. Believing the house to be empty, Rybak has a look around. He stumbles upon the bed that Demchikha’s children share. On the wall is a picture of a house, very much like the one they are in. In front of the painting is the children’s blanket with a floral print.
It’s like a reversed, idealised version of the soldiers’ situation: instead of the farmhouse alone in a vast expanse of cold, white snow, it is the farmhouse amidst a bed of luminous flowers, atop the carefree innocence of children. The image struck me with such force, I had to pause the film.
Speaking of striking images, here I must mention Shepitko’s stunning use of the close-up. Such close-ups I have not seen since Carl Dreyer in The Passion of Joan of Arc. Like Dreyer, Shepitko conveys anguish solely through the faces of her actors, and in so doing makes their pain more palpable, more tangible than it would ever be otherwise. While most filmmakers nowadays linger on ripped flesh, gushing blood, and crunching bones—the shallow physicalness of the human body in Hostel, The Human Centipede, I Spit on Your Grave, etc—Shepitko understands that we are hard-wired to empathise with the human face. Focusing on the visage of a character not only transforms their pain into something the audience can feel, it becomes sublime, transcending the mere physical into something cosmic. If my language seems grandiose, then it is only because I am trying to convey the experience of watching Shepitko’s actors and failing. But if the angelic countenance of Falconetti in Dreyer’s film stirred anything in you, you will be similarly moved by The Ascent’s images.
Not that The Ascent is a violent film; like Joan of Arc, the violence is internal, and characters wrestle with their own souls and consciences. The central dilemma Rybak and Sotnikov face is what to do now they are captured. The Germans will surely torture them, and threaten death. Sotnikov is wholly prepared for this—he very nearly killed himself at the start of the film to avoid capture by the Germans. He is resolute that he will never betray his homeland.
Rybak is not so sturdy. The prospect of death terrifies him, and the threat of torture makes him chattier than he should be. He is adamant that he and Sotnikov should join the German police to stay alive and escape later. So which is better: dying out of loyalty and love of homeland, or living to one day return, even if it means present, petty betrayals?
The key here is that Rybak does not want to stay alive to escape; he just wants to stay alive. His fear of death trumps pride, patriotism, or love of Sotnikov. Sotnikov is so wholly connected to the Soviet Union that betrayal is not an option—betrayal is death. Actually, betrayal is worse than death, a corrosive that decays your soul and all the lives your betrayal affects.
The film makes this point of view clear—it is Soviet propaganda, after all. Sotnikov accepts death with such nobility and grace that you can see his resolve transfer to the villagers after he passes. And our final images of Rybak show him in torment—yes, he has kept himself alive, but at the cost of a never-ending internal hell. This is what would have become of Dreyer’s Joan of Arc if she had renounced God and her visions.
In the end, we leave Rybak as we found him: lonely, in a limitless, ashen void.