Have You Seen… The Ascent (1977)?

Welcome to ‘Have You Seen….’ a regular column exploring an interesting film that is worthy of greater attention – for good or for ill. The focus is on the underseen, the undersung or the underrated – or just those films you just need to write about. The focus is analysis more than evaluation so, expect spoilers!

Though there are many literal ascents in Larisa Shepitko’s underseen classic, the title more refers to the ongoing and escalating despair that defines the film. This is the tale of two Soviet partisans in the Second World War. They begin the film on a mission to find food for their compatriots, in a freezing, snow covered winter, and this simple mission spirals into despair. This eventually leads to capture and then to one of the most devastating sequences in 20th Century cinema.

This film is remarkable for so many reasons, one of which being its director: Larisa Sheptiko. This was her last film before a tragic accident, and has become her most acclaimed – winning the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. She was an alumni of the All-Russian State University of Cinematography, the film school that also produced Elem Klimov (the director of Come and See, whom she would later marry), Sergei Parajanov (The Colour of Pomegrantes) and Andrei Tarkovsky (Stalker, Solaris and Mirror) among other notable figures. Though less discussed than these three, Sheptiko is every inch their equal, as proven by this remarkable film.

To put it bluntly, The Ascent is the style of film that they still rarely let women make. It is a sad fact of the patriarchal film industry, and a reality still leveraged against female filmmakers today. Part of the reason that Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker was so revelatory to so many was it coming from a woman – despite her previous filmography making her sensibilities very clear. However, these depictions of war and the human condition almost always fall into the safe hands of men, the idea that stories of war are so intertwined with machismo and unbridled masculinity – hence the ‘need’ for a male hand on the steering-wheel. This is of course nonsense, but it persists to this day, with female filmmakers finding it hard to secure funding, and beyond, for films in certain genres – especially in ‘prestige’ genres. A key example is Jennifer Kent, who achieved such acclaim for the Babadook (the frequent maligning of horror making it more fertile ground for ‘atypical’ filmmakers) but was barely allowed to make her next feature, The Nightingale. This latter film is obviously a very serious and intense film about important and weighty themes. It was never going to be an audience hit or a clear financial success; however, these kind of prestige projects that garner acclaim are made by men all the time, with little issue. Though many filmmakers struggle to get projects made, it is undeniable that being a man helps – especially when making films like The Ascent.

However, The Ascent also fills into that wonderful category of female directed films that truly understand masculinity and the male experience. While male helmed films about femininity often ring false, there is a long lineage of great female films about masculinity. The zenith of this genre is perhaps Claire Denis’ fabulous Beau Travail (one of my favourite films of all time), a poetic exploration of loneliness and male identity. The reason why women filmmakers are often so good at presenting masculinity, while male filmmakers often fail in this regard (even touted male directors still primarily trade in male wish fulfilment and unknowingly toxic expressions), is because – due to our crushingly patriarchal world (for the most part, I cannot speak on behalf of all) – women have to deal with masculinity where men can choose not to. Men project their masculinity into the world, in an unreflective manner, and women are at the receiving end of this. To exist as a woman in society is to have to constantly parse and navigate externalised masculinity.

This is not to say that The Ascent is a broad critique of machismo or the patriarchy, it is not at all. It is just that it feels very true. It is a film that focuses on isolated men dealing with internal and external struggles and its treatment of such feels as real and incisive as any other element. And this is a brutally real film. From early on, we are overwhelmed by frigid nature. Uniform snow blankets the land, overwhelming compositions, especially in perfectly framed long shots that evoke despair. The struggle of man against environment, dealing with the external cold, is mirrored so well with the internal struggle. These men have to stay reserved, cold and resilient and the way they push themselves through the snow, at great cost to themselves, echoes personal and internal dynamics. One of the most memorable scenes, mainly for its unshakable reality, is one man dragging the other not over the snow but through it, following him being shot by German forces. The camera stays close, as it often does, as we see his body break through the environment. It is similar to the effect of Wilfred Owen’s Exposure, and similarly visceral and poetic in impact, where we see that the enemies of the soldier are numerous – and are often the landscape itself.

This continues as every point of potential safety becomes one of conflict. There is a sublime scene of the soldiers hiding out in a local woman’s attic, while it is searched by occupying Nazis. It pre-echoes many scenes in cinema, notably the immaculate opening to Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds. However, as excellent as that scene is, there is a level of showboating and grandstanding – of filmic presentation – that makes it sink below The Ascent. This is a film that uses cinematic grammar very well for effect – it is a beautiful film – but it never feels cinematic in the artificial or pejorative sense. The opening of Inglorious Basterds feels like a masterclass in creating tension; the echoing scene in The Ascent just feels real.

This effect continues, as the film escalates further into despair. The title also refers to a very literal ascent of one of the characters, as a result of their capture. One of the film’s central themes is how conflict defines identity and Shepitko gives a wide illustration of both conflict and identity. This may again link to her background as a female filmmaker taking on the traditionally male dominated field of the war film. It may just be her clear skill in general. However, the film is able to evoke the struggles of those fighting and those left as civilians, forging a broad portrait of war and its multifaceted effects. We see how all are involved in the conflict and, in the same way nature becomes an opposing force, we see how the civilian population become an active participant in warfare. This also allows it to present, and explore, wider conflicts. The war doesn’t end with the soldiers and the consequences are never clean and limited.

One woman makes the decision to hide Partisan soldiers, and this is framed as the right thing to do, but the film is also cognisant of the risk here. The final act of the film is an equalising one, where soldiers and civilians exist together in a prison. This flattened hierarchy is hugely important, with no distinctions left. By having the same destination for all of these characters, Sheptiko is able to eloquently express shared purpose and responsibility. Women, in most cases, were not allowed into the war’s main stage; Sheptiko just draws back the curtain to reveal that this limited stage is part of one larger environment which involves all. Consequences hit all the same and an occupying army fights against a land and a population, not just an armed group.

This brings us back to the literal ascent of one of the Partisans, and the theme of consequence that hangs heavy over the film. Our two soldiers are brought together through struggle, a struggle often taking place against the environment rather than against another army. When this active struggle ends, things complicate, each dealing with capture differently. The film starts to explore how different people respond to the same situation, and pragmatic responses. Both prisoners are interrogated for information, and take different approaches to this. One refuses to say anything and takes the brutal consequences; the other tries the tactic of providing the information he thinks the interrogators already know – playing the game. This playing of the game does help him, and actually secures him a position – an ascent. There is a very powerful scene where the two debate their approaches, the one who talked making the point that it has helped him to continue the fight, that you can’t keep up the struggle if you are dead.

On the surface, this logic is very appealing, tempting even. It is a bleak display of pragmatism and of doing what you need to do to end the struggle. But here the wider view comes in again. We know that many taken prisoner do not have this way out; his status as a soldier suddenly gives him a privilege that the civilians do not have, which is a very interesting lens to view war through. But, as this is a faultlessly real film and a piece of intentional filmmaking, it knows exactly what it needs to say. After all, Sheptiko knows that the Nazi game is not one you can play, that the deck is stacked. In fact, actually giving the collaborator a reward in the regime is a potent message by itself. This is a film that realises the scope of individual action, that one soldier surviving to fight another day will probably not change anything; one soldier divulging information to a larger group, that’s an impact. The film shows us that the simple actions of these soldiers have spiralling consequences; then, one of them tries to see himself as an independent agent, and once again forgets that his self-serving action will condemn many more.

This is all brought together with a sequence of heart-breaking scenes where the divulger becomes beyond complicit in what happens to his partner, and the other prisoners. It is a horrifying scene and we see how he goes from an illusion of agency to utterly powerless. And it just escalates, or ascends, from here – in ways I actually will not spoil. The way the arcs end for each character are very purposefully matched. Ultimately, we end with a focus on a single person expressing extreme emotion. So much of the film is this same close focus: we just see people staring and reacting to the hell around them. It is through spotlighting the human, by focusing so closely, that Shepitko reveals the real dehumanisation of war.

At the end, it is all clear: our actions have wide consequences and we need to do what is right, even when it risks us. The film has already shown us several times that the fascists do not play fair. They are fascists. Therefore, submitting and trying to play their game will never let us win. Ultimately, because of the weight of war – and, as this film shows, because of how its effects spread so far – we can never just win. But it is tempting to think we can do so, that we can be involved in victorious struggle. However, it is all just struggle and, while we cannot win in a concrete sense we most definitely can lose. But how we lose also defines us.

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