Wednesday, September 09, 2015

The Ascent

Based on the novel Sotnikov by Vasil Bykaw, Voskhozhdeniye (The Ascent) is the story of two peasant soldiers who both trek through the cold woods of Belarus seeking refuge as they’re cut off from their fellow soldiers. Directed by Larisa Shepitko and screenplay by Shepitko and Yuri Klepikov, the film is an exploration into the study of war and its fallacies during one of the darkest periods in World War II for the Soviet Union. Starring Boris Plotnikov, Vladimir Gostyukhin, Sergei Yakovlev, Lyudmila Polyakova, Victoria Goldentul, Anatoly Solonitsyn, and Nikolay Sektimenko. Voskhozhdeniye is an entrancing yet haunting film from Larisa Shepitko.

Set in early 1940s during World War II, two Soviet soldiers find themselves lost in the cold and snowy woods of Belarus in an attempt to get food and supplies for their unit where things go wrong as they later encounter German soldiers and a woman with three children. It’s a film that plays into the world of survival during war as two men are dealing with the situation they’re in where it’s not just in the snowy woods and cold winters they had to deal with but also German soldiers looming where an encounter with them would be troubling. The film’s screenplay would explore exactly what soldiers were going through in that time where Sotnikov (Boris Plotnikov) and Rybak (Vladimir Gostyukhin) were ordered by their platoon leader to find food for the soldiers and villagers that had joined them.

Instead, things go wrong as the film’s first half is about them lost in the woods as it’s second half is a much starker film where they meet a woman with three children as an encounter with German soldiers would lead to trouble. Especially as Sotnikov is wounded as he would later be interrogated in the most brutal manner as it plays into a sense of what men will do to survive. Even in the third act as it relates to the actions of those who are trying to save themselves but with some dire consequence for others as it plays into betrayal and desperation.

Larisa Shepitko’s direction is truly intoxicating to watch in its approach to imagery and composition. Shot on location in Vladimir Oblast in Russia, the film is shot during a cold winter where Shepitko would make these locations part of the story as it adds to this sense of unforgiving climate these soldiers are enduring as well as the fact Germans are patrolling in the area. Shepitko’s approach to medium shots and close-ups are among some of the most evocative moments in the film where she would frame everything to play into not just the chilling atmosphere of war but also to play into men who are trying to see if they can survive with honor as there’s a spiritual element to the story.

There are also moments that are very chilling such as a scene of Sotnikov and Rybak hiding at an attic from Germans where Rybak would look into what he could but do also see its drawbacks. Especially in the third act where decisions are made but also play into this air of death where people are watching as it also would contain spiritual elements in a world where faith is frowned upon in those times. Overall, Shepitko creates an astonishing yet ravishing film about two men trying to survive during World War II.

Cinematographers Vladimir Chukhnov and Pavel Lebeshev do amazing work with the film‘s black-and-white cinematography as it has a dream-like quality to some of the images as many of the exterior shots in the snow are gorgeous in its imagery as well as the interior scenes where the usage of black and dark lights play into the unsettling atmosphere of the locations. Editor Valeriya Belova does fantastic work in the editing to create some stylish cuts including some unique rhythms in some reaction shots and eerie moments that play into the suspense.

Art director Yuri Raksha does terrific work with the design of the ruined farms and homes of some of the smaller characters including the town where the Germans have occupied the place. The sound work of Yan Pototsky is superb for the atmosphere it creates in the locations as well as some eerie moments in the interrogation scene. The film’s music by Alfred Schnittke is brilliant for its usage of orchestral music that is very low-key yet occurs in moments that add to this sense of spirituality that looms on its characters.

The film’s phenomenal cast includes some notable small roles from Nikolay Sektimenko as a Soviet officer earlier in the film, Sergei Yakovlev as a village elder, Mariya Vinogradova as the elder’s wife, Victoria Goldentul as a young village girl who is captured by the Germans, and Lyudmila Polyakova as a village woman with three children who gets in trouble with the Germans. Anatoly Solonitsyn is brilliant as a Soviet interrogator working with the Germans who torment Sotnikov during the interrogation scene. Vladimir Gostyukhin is amazing as the soldier Rybak as a man who is more experienced in fighting as he copes with the harsh conditions as well as the need to survive as he tries to figure out every scenario that could kill him. Finally, there’s Boris Plotnikov in a remarkable performance as Sotnikov as an intellectual who tries to maintain his principles as he gets wounded and later tortured where as it’s a very haunting yet mesmerizing performance from the actor.

Voskhozhdeniye is a tremendous film from Larisa Shepitko. Not only is it a compelling war film that doesn’t play by the rules but it’s also an intriguing film of spirituality and survival. Especially as it plays into the Soviet’s perspective in their war against Germany in World War II which showed some of the darkest moments of inhumanity. In the end, Voskhozhdeniye is an outstanding film from Larisa Shepitko.

Larisa Shepitko Films: Wings (1966 film) - (13 PM) - (You and I (1971 film))

© thevoid99 2015


ruth said...

Great review! From reading about how it was filmed, it must be quite a difficult task for the actors to act under such harsh conditions but I always wonder if that would actually make the performance more natural.

Chris said...

I've noticed people I folow on letterboxd speak very highly of this one, only a matter of time before I see it for myself. The film sounds quite unsettling from your review, happy to hear you found it compelling and worthwhile!

thevoid99 said...

@ruth-It took a long time to shoot as Shepitko wanted to make something that felt real as the weather helped make the performance more real than she wanted it to be which I think adds to the film's legend.

@Chris-It is definitely worth watching to see a film that isn't a conventional war movie but rather a study of humanity and survival.

Anonymous said...

I'm so on board with this. This sounds rather incredible. Great review.

thevoid99 said...

@Fisti-See it or wait till the next Criterion sale as that film along with Wings will be on sale.