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  Ascent, The What's The Difference Between A Hero And A Coward?
Year: 1977
Director: Larisa Shepitko
Stars: Boris Plotnikov, Vladimir Gostyukhin, Sergey Yakovlev, Lyudmila Polyakova, Viktoriya Goldentul, Anatoliy Solonitsyn, Mariya Vinogradova, Nikolai Sektimenko, Anatoli Chebotaryov, Sergei Kanishchev, Mikhail Selyutin, Leonid Yukin, Aleksandr Zvenigorsky
Genre: Drama, WarBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: The frozen East in the Soviet Union in the depths of the Second World War, where Russian partisans are waging an intermittent battle against the Nazi invaders, which enrages the Germans and makes the all the more determined to recruit locals to their cause. Almost anyone fighting for the partisans would never believe they would be so weak-willed as to go to the other side, but the fact remains the Nazis have their powers of persuasion, and the promise of staying alive can be a potent one. So it is that this group of freedom fighters are struggling after encounters with enemy soldiers have picked too many of them off, and their hunger grows worse...

Between them, Larisa Shepitko and her husband Elem Klimov made two of the most widely recognised Soviet era war movies, and both of them happened to be their last. Klimov helmed the perhaps more infamous Come and See in 1985 as if it was an answer project to his late wife's final effort, The Ascent, which had been released eight years before, and like many a picture from the Russian industry was war themed. Most of these were designed to remind the populace of what they had sacrificed and achieved back in the war years, in order to bolster their patriotism as austerity bit down hard: remember how bad things used to be, comrades!

And take that into account when judging your life of today, but Shepitko took a different tack, as there was no glory here, it was unrelenting misery from start to finish, unless you were about to accept its religious imagery as proof there was a reason to make it through the bad times to reach the Kingdom of Heaven once you had died - though even then, there was no guarantee you might not end up purely as food for the worms. Still, there was a definite feeling that this film was telling you off for ever having the temerity to complain about anything, even when to get from there to now there had been so many of those who suffered so you could appreciate that luxury.

We are asked to decide who had it worse, the chap who made it through the sheer Hell to "ascend" to potential Heaven, or the bloke who denied himself that to opt for the chance for more precious life, only with the caveats that he was now a traitor to all he held dear: every man has his price. Would he be able to live with himself with the scorn of those other survivors who did not give in, no matter that many of them would either see loved ones die or die themselves (so, er, not survivors for long, then)? These two points of view were embodied by a pair of the partisans, Sotnikov (Boris Plotnikov) and Rybak (Vladimir Gostyukhin), who separate from the group to find them some food, a basic human need the war has taken from them. That is not all it will take, as simple dignity is heading out the window as well.

So these two men endure freezing physical conditions and meagre supplies for the chance to be shot at by the Nazis once they establish the farm they were heading for has been burned down, and in all likelihood the partisans are going to starve to death. Before they can return with the bad news, it gets worse, as the rebels are attacked and captured, along with an innocent mother of three who happened to give in to a single moment of conscience betrayed by a cough from the ailing Sotnikov. There follows some of the bleakest drama ever put on film as the interrogations begin, but which of them will crack? Using a combination of stark, monochrome photography and an increasingly melodramatic music score (by Alfred Schnittke) with intense performances, Shepitko concocted her version of the unimaginable ordeal of life under the Nazis where evil reigned supreme, and you had to say, while she undoubtedly got the tone correct, that stern lesson from your betters, be they the authorities or religious leaders, was not always easy to accept, as if it was there for its own sake. But the grimness of its ferocity was not easily dismissed.

Aka: Voskhozhdenie

[The Criterion Collection release this on Blu-ray with the following special features:

New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
New selected-scene commentary featuring film scholar Daniel Bird
New video introduction by Anton Klimov, son of director Larisa Shepitko and filmmaker Elem Klimov
New interview with actor Lyudmila Polyakova
The Homeland of Electricity, a 1967 short film by Shepitko
Larisa, a 1980 short film tribute to his late wife by Klimov
Two documentaries from 2012 about Shepitko's life, work, and relationship with Klimov
Program from 1999 featuring an interview with Shepitko
New English subtitle translation
PLUS: An essay by poet Fanny Howe.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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