The Ascent – Blu-Ray Review

The Ascent is a film by Russian filmmaker Larisa Shepitko, who was married to Elem Klimov, the director of Come and See. Shepitko died young in 1979 due to a car crash, just two years after The Ascent came out. At that point Klimov, who had up until then had directed mainly black comedies but was already planning Come and See at this point, became a much more serious filmmaker. Klimov was always under scrutiny from the Communist Party, but usually managed to get things past them, and Shepitko’s film was also almost banned by the Soviets. They thought it was a religious parable with a mystical tinge, but the secretary of the Party former partisan Pyotr Masherov,  was so wowed by a screening set up by Klimov that it was passed through the censorship board anyway. Shepitko, of course, was looked down on as a woman working in film.

Shepitko had made another World War II film, Wings, but The Ascent is the the film she is remembered for. There are both similarities and differences between this film and Come and See. It’s a very simple film in some regards: it’s about these two Soviet partisans on a mission to get food for their unit in the middle of winter. They have Nazis breathing down their necks, and they have to deal with their own psyches. It’s a film of two halves, with the first a normal sort of wartime struggle, very beautifully shot in black and white. In the second half, the pair are captured by the Germans and they have to decide how they will deal with this.

The cast were primarily first-time actors, not even that well-known later on in Russia. It was based on a novel by Vasil Bykaŭ, a well-respected Russian author who had been in the Red Army during World War II. It could be described as an existentialist war movie, and is set in Nazi-occupied Belarus.

It’s a very impressive movie, but not the onslaught that Come and See is, either visually or aurally. Instead, it’s a more human film that focuses on the internal struggle of the two soldiers. I do think the ending is a little cheesy, without the punch it could have delivered. The primal scream that ends the picture is clearly overdubbed and loses some power due to that.

The film was not a huge release outside of Russia, but it did win the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 1977. As far as I know, it’s only had one festival screening in the UK… last year in Glasgow. It did play on West German TV, and was shown in New York in 1978, probably because it was the Soviet entry for the Academy Awards that year (though it did not get through to being nominated). The film has gained in stature recently, and if you “like” Come and See, The Ascent is an obvious watch, and a much more digestible movie despite being equally as bleak in many ways. It’s a very impressive movie, so it’s a real shame that Shepitko’s filmmaking career was cut short.

The Ascent is the very first Eclipse film to be upgraded to Blu-Ray by Criterion, with a 4K restoration, and Wings should have been upgraded as well—it would have made a great two-disc set. Incidentally, it seems incredibly unlikely that Come and See will get any kind of Criterion Blu-Ray release in the UK because of the animal cruelty laws regarding films, which have become more restrictive and are being applied to films made before these laws existed (however, the US release is in A/B format, so will play on a UK player). In lieu of the availability of Come and See, it’s great to have The Ascent available.

The disc includes a selected scenes commentary by the film scholar Daniel Bird, a video introduction by the director’s son Anton Klimov, an interview with one of the actors, a short film made earlier by Shepitko, a short film by Klimov about Shepitko, two documentaries about Shepitko’s life and work, a 1999 programme that includes in interview with the director, and an essay by poet Fanny Howe.

★★★★

Ian Schultz

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