With all of my not being able to see the fuss around Andrei Tarkovsky’s oeuvre I had completely forgotten about the other pieces of Russian cinema that I have watched and loved (e.g. Russian Ark and The Cranes are Flying). For whatever reason, I had been putting off watching The Ascent because I had gotten it into my head that it would be similar to Red Psalm, when it’s more like The Red and the White.
Coming from the UK, where all films about World War II are stricken with patriotism and ‘that Bulldog spirit’, it is always an eye-opener to watch a film made by a country that was actually occupied. For the most part, I think that there is something incredibly special about those made in Eastern Europe. I don’t know if it’s because of the more matter-of-fact nature of these films or the bleaker aesthetic, but so many of these films are able to succeed by creating stories that are incredibly human and, sometimes, almost mystical.
The Ascent is incredibly moving. It’s the story of two members of the Soviet resistance who leave their group to look for food, only to find themselves being on the run after being spotted by a group of German soldiers. What unfolds is an incredibly psychological look at these two Russians as they deal with pursuit, capture, torture and their scheduled execution.
This is one of those rare films where everything works. The two lead actors are excellent in their roles of the soldiers. They both have incredibly different roles to play with regards to how they follow their conscience, but there’s no question that they were perfectly cast. If you are more used to British or American films about the Second World War you may find this film has a bleaker look and a slower pace than what you are used to… however this is perfectly suited to the story that the director is trying to tell.
Speaking of the director – the fact that this is the final film of director Larisa Sheptiko before she died in a car accident at 41 is such a tragedy. Similarly, it is tragic that in all the recent talk about looking back on films by female directors there has been a complete lack of recognition on the work she did on The Ascent. With this being her fourth feature film, I do feel an agency to track down her previous work – even if it’s to make sure that these films have another pair of eyes on them.
There isn’t a lot in it, but this is still beaten out by The Cranes Are Flying as my favourite film from the old USSR. However, I have a feeling that the ending to The Ascent is one that will haunt me for a while to come. Not only because of the horrendous tension that Sheptiko was able to build around the execution seen, but also the ever worrying question of what I would do if I ever found myself in the same situation as these soldiers.