The film is set in Nazi-occupied Belarus and follows the story of two partisans (Soviet resistance fighters): Nikolai Rybak (Gostiukhin) and Boris Sotnikov (Plotnikov). A German counterinsurgency detachment surrounds the starving partisans and refugees in a frozen forest. The partisans’ commander sends Rybak to get food for the insurgents from neighbouring farms. Sotnikov volunteers to help Rybak. While the latter is a career serviceman, the former is a school teacher who seems to be unfit for the challenges of the war. After the Germans wound Sotnikov, he and his partner find refuge first in the house of an elderly couple and later in the hut of a widow with three children. The Germans eventually capture Rybak and Sotnikov, sentencing not only them to death but also everyone who gave them refuge. The only way to save one’s life is to agree to serve in a Nazi auxiliary police unit. Interrogated and tortured by the local collaborator Pavlo Portnov (Solonitsyn), Sotnikov perseveres through all the torments and dies like a hero. Rybak, on the other hand, breaks under torture and agrees to serve the Nazis. The film’s narrative is a psychological suspense story examining the darker sides of the individual’s psyche and the effect of social terror on an individual’s integrity.
Having based her script on Vasil Bykov’s short novel Sotnikov (1970), Shepitko altered the relative significance of characters in her adaptation in order to express more clearly her auteurist understanding of the moral choices that individuals faced during the Second World War. If in Bykov’s book the contrast between Sotnikov and Rybak creates the major narrative tension, in Shepitko’s film three characters play key roles in the plot. Sotnikov and Portnov struggle for the soul of Rybak. As a result, the story centres on Rybak rather than Sotnikov. In order to survive he makes a moral compromise that destroys him as an individual.
Shepitko juxtaposes Rybak’s physical stamina to Sotnikov’s physical weakness. His strength is of a different nature. When Portnov questions Sotnikov and Rybak, he decides to start with Sotnikov assuming that he will be able to break the physically exhausted man. But Portnov is mistaken. Sotnikov may be weak physically but he is strong spiritually. The interrogator hopes that a standard torture method used by Germans against captured partisans will make Sotnikov talk. With a branding iron shaped like a star he burns the communist ‘red star’ on Sotnikov’s chest. The destruction of Sotnikov’s flesh, however, only strengthens Sotnikov’s spirit. To depict Sotnikov’s transformation, Shepitko changes the mise en scène. At the beginning of the torture scene, Sotnikov and Portnov talk in a room with a window boarded by planks. After the torture, the planks disappear from the window. Sotnikov sees the light that not only makes things more visible in the room, but also clarifies what the two men stand for spiritually. This light fills Sotnikov’s eyes (they literally become larger, like the eyes of the Saviour on the icon of ‘Christ Made Without Hands’) and gives him the power to pass the ultimate test of his values.
As it is clear from the film’s title, Shepitko’s picture pays homage to Christian iconography and the Gospel story. This layer of intertextual references comes to the filmmaker via Andrei Tarkovsky’s films about the protagonist’s spiritual journey amidst war and destruction in Russia. Critics noted that the mise en scène in Shepitko’s film remind us of the mise en scène of Ivan’s Childhood (1962) and Andrei Rublev (1966). The ascent of Sotnikov and other martyrs to the hill where they will be executed is modelled on the story of Christ going to his snowy, Russian-style Golgotha in Andrei Rublev. In the scenes of Sotnikov’s Christ-like torture and execution, the filmmaker uses extreme close-ups of Sotnikov’s face lit with a holy glow. Just in case the viewers missed the parallel between Sotnikov and the Saviour, a peasant woman appears on the side of the road, crosses herself, and bows to the martyr. After Sotnikov’s hanging, another peasant woman calls Rybak ‘Judas’ for betraying his fellow soldier. The war story acquires the significance of a religious parable about the holy war between Good and Evil. Not surprisingly, Shepitko chose black and white film stock for her film. The moments of ultimate moral choices do not allow much space for compromises and shades of grey.
Like the major novels of Fedor Dostoevsky, Shepitko’s film offers its viewers a quasi-religious narrative of fall and redemption. The filmmaker actually reaches out even beyond Russian literature, back to the kenotic ethics of the Russian orthodox tradition. The kenotic view of Christ’s life celebrates the Saviour as a humble martyr dying for the sins of man. The first Russian saints, St Boris and St Gleb, were canonised for their humble acceptance of their martyrdom when they refused to take up arms against their power-thirsty brother, eventually stopping the bloodshed. Sotnikov accepts his martyrdom passively, like St Boris, and at the film’s end, right before the execution, the viewers learn that Sotnikov’s first name is Boris. If in Bykov’s novel Sotnikov never reveals his real name, in the film Shepitko wants the viewers and especially Sotnikov’s enemies to know the name of their martyr-opponent and to think about the power of Christian humility. Shepitko’s Germans are obviously beyond any comprehension of whom they are fighting with, but Portnov catches Sotnikov’s gaze before his death and realises that even Nazi atrocities cannot rival the power of kenotic humility.
With the help of Alfred Shnitke’s music, the filmmaker also makes her story of Sotnikov’s self-sacrifice audible to the viewers. The sound structure of Shepitko’s film underscores perfectly Sotnikov’s spiritual ascent. At the beginning of the film viewers hear only noises: the sound of the snowstorm and gunshots. Human voices appear much later. Only when Sotnikov and Rybak are captured and on their way to the place of their last trial, and we see the face of Sotnikov (the close-up like ‘The Saviour Made without Hands’), does music emerge from behind the background noise. The music is diegetic, subjective, and only audible to Sotnikov who looks up at the sky/heaven and starts comprehending the meaning of this last stretch of his earthly existence. Eventually a clear and deeply sad main musical theme of Sotnikov’s ascent muffles all other noises and meaningless rejoinders of the dialogue.
Made in the Soviet Union, Shepitko’s film pays homage to Soviet ideology and iconography as well. Before his heroic death Sotnikov tells his tormentors that he was born in 1917, the year of the Bolshevik Revolution, and this matters for him a lot because he knows what he dies for. He looks at the crowd who gathered around the gallows, and the camera cuts to the face of a child wearing a ‘Budyonnyi hat’ with a faded communist star – a reference to the Red Cavalry leader and the ideals of the revolution.
The execution scene, witnessed by a child who learns a higher moral lesson at the moment of the martyr’s demise, is reminiscent of the closing scene in Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945). Like Don Pietro, Sotnikov is a spiritual teacher who passes the baton to the future generation. Children in Shepitko’s film are not only watching us, they are the paragons of higher moral standards. They earned this position because they suffered a lot like their parents, but unlike the adults they are not implicated in the atrocities that many of the adults committed.
In her treatment of the communist and the Christian faiths Shepitko seems to follow the ideological model offered in Rossellini’s Rome, Open City where communism and Christianity become allied ideologies in their struggle against fascism. Shepitko, however, has a different point of view on the communist faith. She has profound misgivings about the redemptive power of communism. The major carrier of communist ideology in the film is not Sotnikov but the Nazi interrogator Portnov. Before the war he was the head of the local community centre where he taught communist ideology to adults and Bolshevik propaganda songs to children. When Nazis moved in, he turned out to be the best enforcer of the new order. He kills his former adult students and rapes his former child student. Portnov explains his credo to Sotnikov: ‘Terror will replace everything. You’ll finally become true self, an ordinary human, full of shit. I know what a human is really like’. In Sheptiko’s film, the ex-communist Portnov has more in common with the Nazis in his practice than with Sotnikov. The latter ends up on the gallows next to a deeply religious local peasant, who gave him shelter, and finds answers to his moral quest in the Gospel story.
Most likely because of Soviet censorship, Shepitko downplays the theme of Nazi genocide against Jews. In Bykov’s novel, a Jewish girl, Basia, dies next to Sotnikov. Bykov makes a point to talk about Nazi extermination of Jews because the official Soviet histories of the Second World War omitted the Shoah. Without prior knowledge of the novel, Soviet viewers would have a hard time figuring out why Basia has been hiding from the Nazis and why the police make such a big deal about those locals who gave her shelter. She is neither a partisan, nor did she aid them. In the film, neither Germans, nor local collaborators allow themselves any anti-Semitic slurs against Basia in order not to invoke the Holocaust and disturb Soviet censors. The film, however, does not erase Basia from the narrative completely; rather, it blurs her identity with other Soviet martyrs.
The official heroic myth of the united Soviet nation defeating the Nazis in the Great Patriotic War did not allow any nationality or religious denomination the right to have its own individual story of martyrdom and struggle against the Nazis. For this reason the destruction of European Jews by the Nazis has been a taboo topic in Soviet cultural texts until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. The few moments in Soviet history when prominent artists mentioned the Holocaust in their works and challenged the official narrative of the Great Patriotic War, like the publication of Evgeny Evtushenko’s poem ‘Babyi Yar’ in 1961, usually caused a major controversy and paranoid reaction on the part of Soviet cultural authorities. The official story of the great victory did not allow any splintering or competing narratives of martyrdom or victory. Shepitko’s film follows this official Soviet line of the quiet denial of genocide against Jews and its representation as part of Nazi atrocities against all Soviet citizens.
Sheptiko, however, incorporates several conflicting narratives of the war in her film: the Soviet narrative of victory, the hagiographic story of martyrdom, and even hints at the forbidden story of the Holocaust. These narratives do not fit perfectly into the artistic structure of the film and make Shepitko’s picture a site of ideological crisis. This crisis-driven structure of the film did not meet the demands of Soviet cultural authorities but created a complex artistic text that brought Shepitko domestic and international acclaim. The film won the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1977.
While the quasi-hagiographic story of Christ-like teacher Sotnikov provides viewers with an example of martyrdom, few can live up to such moral heights; the story of Rybak, I would argue, provides the viewer with an experience one can identify with. Rybak is an average human being confronted with the test of his integrity that few can pass. Shepitko does not judge her character. However, she does not exonerate Rybak from the responsibility for his choices. And as it fits a modern narrative, the ordeal of the flawed individual, not the ascent of the martyr, becomes the major narrative interest for the viewer.
While the film is titled The Ascent, Shepitko does not close her picture with the scene of Sotnikov’s superhuman feat. Instead she takes the viewer back to Rybak who tries and fails to commit suicide in an outhouse next to Nazi headquarters and is cursed to continue his physical existence with a memory of his betrayal. In a way, the film poses a question about everyone who survived the terrible war. What kind of choices did these people have to make in order to save their lives? Contemporary critics discussed the film a lot because it offered a fresh perspective on the war, different from standard Soviet celebrations of military hardware and the superiority of Soviet ideology. In the September 1977 issue of Russia’s premier film journal Art of Cinema, Elena Stishova wrote the most insightful review of the film. She argued that the film condemns the war as a social situation that forces people to make impossible choices, such as the choice between life and conscience. Rybak is secondary to this bigger anti-war message of the film. Stishova does not judge Rybak and she thinks that Shepitko condemns only the war.
Shepitko’s film left a lasting legacy in Russian cinema and culture. In the 1970s it triggered a discussion about who and how is allowed to commemorate the Great Patriotic War. Most importantly, the filmmaker depicted the community ruled by total terror and its corrosive impact on the individual. What Shepitko presented as a community created by the Nazi occupation, in retrospect, looks a lot like a community too familiar to Russians from their Stalinist past.
Cast & Crew:
[Country: USSR. Production Company: Mosfilm (Third Creative Unit). Director: Larisa Shepitko. Scriptwriters: Iurii Klepikov, Larisa Shepitko. Cinematographers: Vladimir Chukhnov, Pavel Lebeshev. Music: Alfred Shnitke. Cast: Vladimir Gostiukhin (Rybak), Boris Plotnikov (Sotnikov), Anatoloy Solonitsyn (Portnov).]
Denise Youngblood, Russian War Films. On the Cinema Front, 1914–2005, Lawrence, Kansas University Press, 2005, pp. 180–4.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.