Every Friday, our resident film fanatic Alex Aciman will dig deep into the pile of cinematic masterpieces and fish out one forgotten classic you should watch soonest.
The Ascent (1976), by Larisa Shepitko
Long before Russian wartime epics became inspirational star vehicles with a vague melancholy, Ukrainian film director Larisa Shepitko released her WWII film The Ascent. It is the story of two men stuck in a snow-blind Russian winter trying to outsmart Nazi-sympathizers while hoping to survive the realities of a place where nothing can live for long.
What this movie does so well is that it tells a wartime story that is neither oppressively sad nor heartbreaking, but instead completely matter-of-fact, set in a place so inescapable as to feel completely suffocating. You want so badly for the world to return to a sort of Zhivago serenity; instead, Shepitko tells the story of people so far beyond the usual struggles of soldiers—such as moralism in the face of wartime sacrifice— and focuses instead on two men reduced to a far more fundamental animal pragmatism and a nihilism that seems to exist only in Russian art. Coupled with a stunning, pale cinematography—almost as if the whole film were an inverse pastoral scene—and two actors who stare out into an abyss with a perpetually chilled, expressive gaze, this film is not about war itself, but about the people who go to war, which is far more compelling than bullets ripping through trees.
The Ascent is a deeply emotional story. There are some genuinely touching moments of the kind that exist in few other WWII films. In one scene, one of the soldiers realizes that his friend has been shot and finds him in a frozen trance, eyes glacial and still as if ready to succumb to the Russian winter wilderness. With disarming tenderness, the man approaches his friend and warms up his face and ears using his breath, tells him to be still, not to worry. For a film as haunting and as hopeless as this, Shepitko manages to put forth a work more peaceful and gripping than something like this should ever have been.
(The Ascent is available for streaming online here.)
Alexander Aciman is a writer living in New York. His work has appeared in, among other publications, The New York Times, Vox, The Wall Street Journal, and The New Republic.