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Discovering ‘The Ascent,’ Cinema’s Lost Masterpiece

Larisa Shepitko, who died 35 years ago this week in a tragic car crash, was the greatest Soviet director you’ve never heard of

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Soviet film director Larisa Efimovna Shepitko (1938-1979), Moscow, 1963. (Leonid Lazarev/Getty Images)
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Among the many indignities of aging one is particularly stabbing: the realization that you are not again likely to come across a work of art that might leave you a changed person. When you’re a teenager, every book’s a revelation, every album may resonate like an ode to joy, and every film is absorbed by your pores, becoming an organic part of you. But live a reasonably curious life, and at some point you’ll discover, usually shortly after noticing those first streaks of gray in your hair, that you’ve seen and heard and read everything that’s truly great, and that from this moment on life will be a string of perfectly fine works, all pleasing but none astonishing.

Except sometimes, when you’re very fortunate, a wholly lost masterpiece appears and wreaks the sort of emotional and intellectual havoc you haven’t felt in decades. And when that happens, the only proper response is to rush and shout about it with all the blunt enthusiasm of a teenaged convert. So here goes: The Ascent is one of the greatest films ever made, and you should cancel whatever plans you have for this weekend and watch it—again and again.

Before I tell you anything about the film, though, I must tell you about the director, Larisa Shepitko, who died 35 years ago this week in a car crash at age 41. One of three children abandoned by their father, a Persian officer, and sentenced to a hard life with their mother in a remote Ukrainian village, Shepitko grew up abhorring conventions, compromises, and the other soft covers of polite society. She wanted to make films, and at 20 she had talent that was already striking enough to gain her admittance to the prestigious VGIK state-run cinematography school, a few years behind Andrei Tarkovsky. Her mentor there was Alexander Dovzhenko, one of Soviet cinema’s founding fathers, who gave Shepitko not only advice on technical matters but a motto to live by as well: Treat every film, he said repeatedly, as if it were your last one.

The good student listened. Her graduation film, Heat, was set in farming community in Central Asia; “a cruel film,” the director later told an interviewer, “about hard work and human conflicts.” The title wasn’t allegorical: It was so hot on the set that Shepitko’s film stock often melted as she tried to insert it into her camera. Eventually, exhausted by commanding a swarm of large agricultural machines, Shepitko melted as well and had to be evacuated to safety. She called on Elem Klimov, her film-school comrade, to complete the shooting; he ended up becoming her husband and a noted director in his own right.

Then came two more films, a serious spine injury, an imperiled pregnancy, and motherhood. Death was on Shepitko’s mind, and, always true to her credo, she looked at it without mercy.

The result was The Ascent, released in 1976 and now available on Hulu Plus. As is the case with all seminal works of art, a plot description is almost beside the point: Two partisans, shivering and starving, trail through the frozen Belarusian countryside and are eventually captured by the Nazis. The movie’s strength, however, is in the unremitting way it presents each man’s worldview. One, Rybak, is a survivor: In acts physical and spiritual, he affirms his commitment to the belief that little in life is worth the ultimate sacrifice. The other, Sotnikov, is a martyr, and Shepitko frames his face like a medieval Russian icon as he again and again chooses to save his convictions rather than his hide.

Which one is more noble? Which worthier of our sympathies? Shepitko never tells. Instead, she lets us breathe the thin, thin air of moral ambiguity, leading us to empathize with one point of view before shifting around wildly and pressing on the other. The partisans are eventually joined by other prisoners, and they, too, provide impossible dilemmas: Should the mother of three small children betray the person who had hidden a young Jewish girl? If so, she would be spared the gallows and reunited with her babies, but a brave and innocent person would die. Watching these dramas unfurl without a shred of sentimentality, we inevitably ask ourselves what we would have done in the characters’ stead. And to our horror, we come up with no good answers.

Bathed in harsh, cold light and superbly acted, The Ascent refuses to color its gray zones black-and-white. It delivers little comfort. But it gives us people in all their broken-down glory, intermittently ugly and graceful, despondent and brave, and always human. Like Shepitko’s Heat, The Ascent, too, delivers on the title’s promise: It’s uplifting, but not in the cheap way of a sudden and unlikely happy ending. Instead, it insists that we have the capacity to exercise our will even when our fate is grim, and that even if we die violently and young we’ve still the choice to die defending something we solemnly believe, a death that colors life with another layer of meaning. It’s a very sober view of salvation, one that Jewish viewers in particular should find appealing. And it’s a movie that should absolutely not be missed.

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Discovering ‘The Ascent,’ Cinema’s Lost Masterpiece

Larisa Shepitko, who died 35 years ago this week in a tragic car crash, was the greatest Soviet director you’ve never heard of

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