Ascent, The (1977): Larisa Shepitko’s Soviet War Film, Top Winner of the Berlin Film Fest

Acclaimed Soviet director Larisa Shepitko made The Ascent, a visually striking, emotionally intense tale of men at war, based on the novel “Sotnikov” by Vasil Bykaŭ.

Grade: A- (**** out of *****)

During World War II, two Soviet partisans go to a Belarusian village in search of food. After taking a farm animal from the collaborationist headman (Sergei Yakovlev), they head back to their unit, but are spotted by German patrol.

During a gunfight in the snow, one of the Germans is killed, and the two men get away, but Sotnikov (Boris Plotnikov) is shot in the leg. Rybak (Vladimir Gostyukhin) takes him to the nearest shelter, the home of Demchikha (Lyudmila Polyakova), the mother of three children, but they are discovered and captured.

The two men and Demchikha are taken to the German headquarters. Sotnikov is interrogated by local collaborator Portnov (Anatoli Solonitsyn), a former Soviet club-house director and children’s choirmaster who became the local head of the Belarusian Auxiliary Police, which is loyal to the Germans.

When Sotnikov refuses to answer Portnov’s questions, he is brutally tortured by the collaborationist police, but gives up no information. However, Rybak tells what he thinks the police already know, hoping to survive and later escape.

Meanwhile, the headman, now suspected of supporting the partisans, and Basya Meyer, the teen daughter of a Jewish shoemaker, are imprisoned in the same cellar.

Rybak accepts Portnov’s offer to become a cop and the Germans let him join the police, while Sotnikov and the others are executed.

Heading back to the camp with his comrades, Rybak is vilified by the villagers. Realizing what he has done, he tries but fails to hang himself with his belt.

A fellow policeman tells Rybak that their commander wants to see him, then leaves. Rybak stares out the open door and begins to laugh and weep.

The original story ends with Rybak’s decision to hang himself in the latrine, only to realize that he forgot to ask for his belt, which had been taken by the policemen. In the movie, however, Rybak has his belt but he is deprived of the ability to hang himself, implying that even death refuses him as a traitor. The filmmaker’s idea was to leave Rybak alone, with the knowledge that he had fallen.  This sense of loss is contrasted with the next shot, a long close-up of majestic nature signifying the freedom that Rybak had longed for.

The film won the Golden Bear award at the 1977 Berlin Film Festival.

It was also selected as the Soviet entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, but did not make the final cut of nominees.

Sadly, it became Shepitko’s last film before her death in a car accident in 1979.

Boris Plotnikov as Sotnikov
Vladimir Gostyukhin as Rybak
Sergei Yakovlev as Village elder
Lyudmila Polyakova as Demchikha
Viktoriya Goldentul as Basya Meyer
Anatoli Solonitsyn as Portnov, the collaborationist interrogator
Maria Vinogradova as Village elder’s wife
Nikolai Sektimenko as Stas


TCM showed this movie on October 6, 2020.