A Country As Ugly As War Itself
“Walk in my footsteps. It’ll be easier.”
François Truffaut’s conundrum about the impossibility of making an anti-war film has been reheated and turned over until it’s become inedible; a fresher tidbit for us to chew on is how national cinemas portray war based on their own experiences of it. In the first century and a half of film, it has been the American cinema (and to a lesser extent, the British) that has focused more on the glory and grandeur of war, while the Continent and Asia, with more firsthand experience of its intolerable devastation, make movies that focus on the human cost rather than the moral victories to be gained. While people everywhere have the experience of war, for Americans in particular it is a sort of abstraction, a subtraction from society rather than an active force raging everywhere around them. None in living memory know the cost of battle on the home fields, and so it is in our art that we create imaginary analogues for what war does to a country, in the form of aliens, monsters, phantom legions of unreal armies. The immediacy of war, its deprivations and daily horrors, and most especially what it does to the people who do not have to fight it but are forced to live through it, are things that we can only tell ourselves about in fiction.
No such luck for the Russians. No country in the last century suffered as horribly from war as did the Soviet Union; the toll in human lives and environmental devastation was so cripplingly high that even the ruin of western Europe seemed mild by comparison. The way Stalin hurled shovelful after shovelful of Soviet men and women into the crucible is one of the Second World War’s most decisive factors, and one that is still not entirely apparent to the Europeans, who had their own human wastage to contend with, or the Americans, who used the war as a springboard to kick off a period of dominance and exceptionalism and fell quickly into the we-saved-your-asses-back-in-the-big-one mode. It’s not for nothing that the Russians still refer to it as the Great Patriotic War, or that their post-war cinema, even under the watchful eye of an authoritarian regime, expressed itself in terms of grief, loss and misery more than in terms of triumph and exaltation.
Such is the case with Larisa Shepitko’s magnificent final film, The Ascent, produced in 1977 by Mosfilm. Ernie Pyle, commenting on the ruin World War II had made of the natural beauty of France, once wished that he could see a war fought in a country as ugly as war itself; Shepitko’s Belarus most surely fits the bill. Its sheer slabs of snow are beautiful enough, as are the ice-encrystalled trees, but the camera is never allowed to trick us into thinking the scene is one of anything but misery. It’s beyond trite to describe the black-clad soldiers moving along the pure white of endless snow as “stark”, but that’s the only word for the amazing visual compositions captured by her smart, observant black & white camerawork.
It begins with an absolutely riveting scene: a blank white mass is all we see, hills and paths obliterated by snow; we only are able to determine what we are looking at when a head peeks out, then another, then another and another, moving up and down over the punishing terrain. It becomes clear that a small attachment of Soviet troops are moving cautiously through the area, bearing with them (sometimes literally carrying) the survivors of a local village that has been obliterated. They’re under near constant assault by German invaders, who nominally control the area and have the Russians, with their barely-functional First World War-era weapons and dwindling supplies of ammo, outgunned. Fortunately, they are few in number, and are suffering from the same brutal environmental factors: snow that reduces all movement to an agonizing crawl, painful cold, and everywhere, a near total lack of food.
Shepitko makes no fancy humanist attempts to imbue all these villagers with personalities or backstory. They are what war has reduced them to: shambling creatures, barely alive, their entire identities clearly readable on their faces depending on how long they’ve been deprived of food and shelter: anger, frustration, misery, sadness, and, in the worst of cases, nothing but the blankness of waiting for death. After a lightning raid by a passing German patrol, it becomes clear that they can no longer go on without food; exhaustion and hunger have paralyzed them. Two men are needed to visit a nearby farm and get something to eat, with little compunction about how this is to be accomplished. A grizzled vet, Rybak, is chosen for duty, but won’t go alone: one man is spared this malformed mission because he’s needed to help repair the ancient guns, another because he’s already taken a bullet. Finally, a beatific young artilleryman named Sotnikov draws the job.
There is no kind of for-the-Homeland-boys propaganda in the scenes that follow. The truth of war yields little glory, and so too does the dazed wandering of Sotnikov and Rybak: they trudge through the snow huffing and panting, bullshitting about their civilian lives; they lose each other in the indistinguishable terrain; they stumble upon the farm they’re looking for and steal a lamb from a hysterical housewife (who heartbreakingly calls Sotnikov “son” while she pleads with him not to take her food or kill her collaborationist spouse). Her husband is our first clue that we will be seeing no clear bonds of loyalty or trust, no easy refuge in patriotism or heroism: he has clearly collaborated with the Nazis not for any personal gain, but out of pure fear of being murdered, and his face is not that of a sneering turncoat enriched by his treachery but of a broken, defeated man who wonders only what country will forge the bullet that kills him.
Feverish and starving, and loaded down with a trickily symbolic dead lamb, the soldiers depart and, trying to find their way back to the detachment, engage in a half-assed battle with an equally lost and confused German patrol. This sets up another amazing series of images: Sotnikov takes a bullet in the leg, and tries to fight off the Germans, who he can barely see; he finally decides to kill himself, but in a blackly comic bit, his leg is too weak and his foot too entangled in its various layers of boots and wraps to work the trigger. In what he assumes is his last moment of life, he gazes up at the moon, and while a lesser filmmaker would have sapped this for all the mawkishness she could squeeze, Shepitko whacks it with a supremely solid dose of reality as Rybak drags him off to temporary safety, crusting him in snow like he’s a bag of rocks.
The Ascent is one of those movies that’s so outstanding that it constantly dares you to think of all the moments where someone less talented might have gone wrong. The next sequence finds Sotnikov, helpless under a tree, gazing out at the ice-heavy limbs in a gorgeously framed shot; so much does the camera adore the handsome face of Boris Plotnikov, who plays him, that it’s enough to make you shudder at the possibility that the movie is heading down an Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge path, but instead, in a flood of frustration, he just flails away at the branches with his bayonet. Rybak, in what will be the first of a series of impossible compromises, decides he must get back to his men and leave Sotnikov behind; he stashes the younger man in a nearby cabin with a widow and her children, but they are all soon found out and turned over to the local puppet authorities.
The Germans in The Ascent are shadowy figures, rarely seen even when they are nearby and experienced mostly through shouting. This is as it should be, because Shepitko’s focus is squarely on the people of her homeland and what the ominous, inescapable presence of war does to them. The German soldiers are a reminder of oppositional violence, but the most menacing figures are the collaborators, the “headmen” who are selected to enforce the Germans’ will in small towns and villages while their soldiers are committed to expanding the front. When Sotnikov and Rybak are dragged on a dog cart to the nearest town to be tortured, it is these headmen that they learn to fear, and it is these headmen that lead Rybak to make his next terrible compromise. Though the book The Ascent was based on is named for Sotnikov, it is Rybak who drives the story, with his fateful decisions — always well-meaning, always realistic, and always devastatingly wrong — leading to its awful ending. In Apocalypse Now, Coppola and John Milius tried to show us the consequences of fighting a war with an army only familiar with the luxuries of peace, with “rock and rollers with one foot in the grave”. Shepitko shows us the consequences of fighting when war has saturated every aspect of society, where fighting men and civilians alike suffer the soldier’s dilemma of deciding which of two contradictory commands they will obey — of deciding, essentially, how they wish to die.
This is made explicit when Sotnikov meets with the boss headman, Portnov, a colorless bureaucrat who delivers the same speech that’s won over a thousand generations of snitches and grasses: talk. No one will know. If you don’t somebody else will. And we’ll make you suffer if you refuse. Portnov makes no allowance for heroism or nobility; Nineteen Eighty-Four‘s O’Brien in a bad suit, he explains to Sotnikov that no matter how bravely he resists, no matter what glorious truths about protecting the Motherland he uses to fight off the pain, he will end up dying like a traitor, even if he isn’t one. In the end, he’ll be like everyone else: “a simple human nonentity full of ordinary shit. That’s where the truth is.” This proves depressingly true, but the story spares no less pain for Rybak, whose constant dancing along the edge of treachery — always telling himself that he does it only so he can betray the collaborators, so he can escape the Germans, so that he can return to his people and show his true loyalty — is just as great an illusion. I’ve rarely seen — and I’ve certainly not seen in American film — so clear a message about the impossibility of making rational, human choices in the blind murderous haze of war. It’s Catch-22 with the humor curdled into frigid Slavic despair.
It’s also a film full of constant visual beauty; Shepitko has a realist’s eye but a classicist’s sense of composition. It forever amazes me when pseudo-populist critics claim that it takes some special quality borne of, I guess, spiteful pretension to sit through what they perceive as snobbish foreign fare like this. When I see noisy, busy CGI spectacle, my mind wanders, because I’m being asked to count the colored bits of ground glass on a beach full of sand; but in The Ascent, I literally cannot take my eyes off of what is happening on screen, it is all so immediate and present. The minimal use of sound only plays up how oppressive are soundtracks that hammer every emotional note down your ear canal; the resourceful deployment of effects (such as a scene where Sotnikov is awakened by a crack that he thinks is Rybak shooting the collaborationist farmer but is really the lamb’s neck being broken, or the POV shot of the upper stories of the village as the wounded men are dragged away on a sled) are all the more impressive for how they don’t need to call much attention to themselves.
Postwar Soviet cinema is a major blind spot in my movie knowledge, but The Ascent has sparked a desire to correct that with a quickness. It was, unfortunately, Larisa Shepitko’s last film; she lived to see it win accolades in Berlin the year it was released, but died in a car crash outside of Leningrad a year later, making a widower of her husband (filmmaker Elem Klimov, whose Come and See is an equally harrowing account of the Great Patriotic War in Belarus) and laying low a major talent. The 1970s were a shifting time in global cinema, in Russia more so than anywhere, but Shepitko saw them off with a story that, while soaked in ambiguity, uncertainty and confusion, could not have delivered a more clear message about the psychological cost of war.