The Ascent

The Ascent ★★★★★

Even if I had not watched Come and See back to back with my second rewatch of The Ascent it would be hard not to make comparisons between the two. Both films are definitive, masterfully crafted accounts of Soviet soldiers in crisis amidst the most notorious global conflict in the history of the modern world. Not to mention the fact that both films were respectively directed by the power couple of Soviet cinema that was Larisa Shepitko and Elem Klimov. However, looking past these extremely superficial connections I think the resemblance between the two really stops there, in fact, they are extremely different films. Come and See indulges in a brutal and catastrophic vision of the war that is unrivalled. Klimov renders roaring acts of madness and cruelty that are deafening in the all-encompassing reach of their carnage. It is such a profound and uncompromising film that after my first watch, it is admittedly very hard to acknowledge any other cinematic interpretation of war, but to do so would be a facile mistake. After all, the very nature of such a decisive and sweeping moment in the history of the human race means that there countless stories which merit a cinematic rendition. Thankfully this rewatch of the film confirmed that even beyond my irreversibly changed perspective on cinema in a post Come and See world, The Ascent remains an indispensable staple in the canon of cinema.

Shepitko brings distinctive imagery to her apocalyptic vision of war, that holds its own by preferring a more restrained approach. One of the most crucial aspects of this film from both a visual and thematic standpoint was the choice to set the story amidst an especially unforgiving winter. The central narrative of The Ascent commences as a group of Soviet soldiers and civilians who are resisting the adversary forces of Germany just nearly escape a confrontation with their enemies only to discover the urgent complication of a complete lack of food sources. Thus, two soldiers are tasked with retrieving supplies from a nearby village in order to vitally feed their allies. For a majority of the first 40 minutes of the film, the two protagonists find their primary adversary to be the hostile tranquillity of the frozen terrain. From the very opening shots of the film, it is unmistakable as to the significance that the cold and the snow have in relation to survival. The snow itself becomes a character in the film comparable to the Coen’s iconic 1996 Fargo. Treacherous layers of snow and frost cover everything from total domination over the landscape to the beards and hats of the film’s characters, paired perfectly with a howling wind that can be heard throughout the film. Snow is always present in the exterior environment and always has an exhaustive and demanding burden on the characters. Since the film is shot in black and white the monotonous constancy of the white snow is often used to create haunting minimalist images with a perfect understanding of contrast and negative space. At points, the frame can feel nearly empty producing an atmosphere that conjures an intensely cold feeling.

In the second half of the film, the narrative takes a different direction and concerns a philosophical and mental battle which attempt to unpack the concepts of hero and traitor. Specifically survival through the compromise of personal principles versus the heroic death of martyrdom. It is at this point that the film becomes enthralling in its themes, which resolve in the narrative in an especially thought-provoking way. Furthermore, while the acting on the part of the films leads is exceptional throughout, the performances from Boris Plotnikov and Vladimir Gostyukhin especially shine in the films second half. The performances are delivered through the presence of breaths that perfectly capture the exhausted condition of the characters. Plotnikov gets several amazing close-ups towards the end of the film, through a range of different contexts that span from agonizing to angelic.

Even beyond the use of the environment to perfectly create an ominous atmosphere, the filmmaking of The Ascent is full of effective and interesting choices. The cinematography can feel claustrophobic in particularly intense long takes that use tight framing. In a couple of scenes, Shepitko uses the subjectivity of the camera to portray characters perspectives in really impressive ways in which a still camera suddenly moves to revel that the shot was actually a POV shot. This technique is used twice, and both times the film cuts perfectly to match on the action of the character to the movement of the camera in the previous POV shot. There were also a few moments when shots did not represent reality but rather a subjective manifestation of character thoughts, which was used to especially good effect.

Although it was really hard not to just write another review about Come and See (since I spend a majority of the first paragraph praising the film), the respect and appreciation I have for The Ascent left me with plenty to discuss in my second viewing of film. The film managed to leave me thinking and have me reaching for a blanket for the second time. It is a masterpiece that very much deserves its spot among my favourites from one of my favourite national cinemas.


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