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Film / The Ascent (1977)

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The Ascent (Восхождение, Voskhozhdeniye) is a 1977 film made in the Soviet Union, directed by Larisa Shepitko.

Sotnikov and Rybak are two soldiers with a Red Army partisan unit in Belarus in 1942 during World War II. The partisan unit, which includes women and children, is hiding in the woods, and has run out of food. Sotnikov and Rybak are sent off in search of something to eat. They go to a farm that Sotnikov knows, only to find that it has been burned to the ground and abandoned. Next they find the house of the local village head man, who is a collaborator in cahoots with the Germans. They deprive him of a goat, but on the way back they run into some Germans, and Sotnikov is shot in the leg. The two men take refuge in the home of Demchikha, a young woman with three small children, but tragedy strikes when they are caught by a German patrol.


One of only four feature films made by Shepitko before her death in a car wreck in 1979 at the age of 41.

This film provides example of:

  • Action Prologue: The opening scene is a firefight between the partisan unit and a squad of Germans.
  • Allegory: By the end, the film has become an allegory of Christ and Judas, with Sotnikov dying a sacrificial death for Russia while Rybak betrays him.
  • Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence: Seemingly alluded to in the case of Sotnikov. There's the obvious Christ symbolism during the scene where he is executed, as well as the title.
  • Badass Bookworm: Sotnikov used to be a math teacher, but later became an artillery officer. While he's hardly a One-Man Army, he refuses to crack under torture and is the only Russian shown onscreen to kill German soldiers.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: The Nazis hang Sotnikov and the civilians and turn Rybak to their side. Rybak's attempt to kill himself in atonement is unsuccessful and he can't bring himself to run away.
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  • Better to Die than Be Killed: Sotnikov attempts to shoot himself when he thinks he's about to be captured, but Rybak returns and drags him to safety.
  • Blood from the Mouth: Sotnikov coughs blood onto Rybak's face during their argument in the dungeon.
  • Bungled Suicide: Rybak tries to hang himself in the outhouse but somehow his belt won't let him.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: Sotnikov is braded by Portnov in an effort to get him to give up where the partisan unit is hiding. He doesn't crack.
  • Les Collaborateurs: There are a lot in Belarus. The village elder is one. Rybak and Sotnikov are questioned, and Sotnikov is tortured, by a collaborator named Portnov. And Rybak winds up joining a unit of collaborationist Soviet police.
  • Conscience Makes You Go Back: Rybak, who is carrying the goat, goes back to help Sotnikov when Sotnikov is shot. Later, his conscience gets weaker.
  • Daydream Surprise: Twice does Rybak imagine fleeing from his German captors and getting shot to death in the process.
  • Death Glare: Sotnikov passes out after being branded, but when he wakes up he fixes Portnov with such a brutal death glare that Portnov is shaken and orders him taken out of the room.
  • Death of a Child:
    • A preteen girl who was hiding from the Germans is one of the ones to be hanged. They have to get an extra block for her to stand on so her head reaches the noose.
    • Basya, who can't be much older than 12, is hanged with the other characters at the end.
  • Defiant to the End: Sotnikov doesn't give in, even after being brutally tortured by a Torture Technician. Later he calls over Portnov to admit to being a commissar and wishing that he could have killed even more Nazis and collaborators.
  • Deliberately Monochrome: Combines with all the Snow Means Death everywhere to establish a suitably bleak, despairing mood for a film set in Belarus during the Great Patriotic War.
  • Dirty Coward: Rybak caves and gives in to Portnov without being tortured.
  • Doomed Moral Victor: Sotnikov. He dies for Russia, but as everyone watching the movie would have known, the Soviet Union would eventually win the war and crush Germany, and collaborators like Rybak and Portnov would get theirs in the end.
  • Downer Ending: Sotnikov, Demchikha, the little girl and the collaborator head man are all hanged. Rybak is left weeping, his spirit broken, looking through the front gate of the German compound to an outside where he can never go.
  • Drone of Dread: Much of the soundtrack, particularly the song that plays during the climactic execution scene.
  • Face Death with Dignity: Sotnikov, the young girl and the headman are perfectly calm when led to the gallows. Demchikha is still in despair but gets over it when Sotnikov asks her for absolution.
  • Feet-First Introduction: Portnov the traitor first appears with a shot of Sotnikov being thrown onto a floor at German headquarters, with Portnov's spotless boots seen right next to his head.
  • Grand Inquisitor Scene: One where the collaborator Portnov tries to get Sotnikov to betray the other partisans by appealing to his sense of self-preservation. Sotnikov rejects him and calls him "human scum", leading Portnov to resort to other methods.
  • I Have a Family: Demchikha mentions her three children as a reason to spare her life.
  • Interrupted Suicide: Sotnikov attempts to shoot himself when the Germans approach in the field, but then Rybak returns to drag his comrade into safe territory.
  • Kubrick Stare: Sotnikov gives one to the German soldier who captures him in the attic.
  • The Load: Sotnikov in first part of the movie. He is of no help to Rybak and only delays their return march due to his sickness. Lampshaded by Rybak when he asks his partner why he volunteered for the mission in the first place.
  • Make an Example of Them: The hanged ones are a deterrent for others to not side with the Partisans.
  • Messianic Archetype: Sotnikov is a pretty obvious Christ figure, with Rybak as his Judas.
  • No Name Given: The collaborationist village head man is never named.
  • P.O.V. Cam: From Sotnikov as he lies on a cart, being hauled in to the German headquarters.
  • The Quisling: Portnov. Also Rybak is in the process of becoming one. He is called out on this by an old lady after the execution process during which he pushed his friend Sotnikov from a pedestal to his death.
  • Reality Has no Subtitles: None of the German dialogue is subtitled.
  • La Résistance: Partisans fighting the Germans behind the lines.
  • Retraux: The film is made up to look like a 1940s movie, with its World War II setting, uses of Academy ratio (an aspect ratio long disused by then) and black and white cinematography.
  • Significant Birth Date: Towards the end, Sotnikov mentions that he was born in 1917—the year of Red October.
  • Single Tear: Seen on the face of an adolescent boy as he watches Sotnikov and the others being hanged.
  • Smug Snake: Portnov, especially during the interrogation scene where his Breaking Speech to Sotnikov completely fails and he's forced to resort to brute force.
  • Sneeze of Doom: When the two partisans hide in the attic, Sotnikov cannot prevent a sneeze which alerts the Germans.
  • Snow Means Death: Pure white snow covering everything, as a pitiless and brutal war is being fought. Establishes the mood effectively.
  • Take Me Instead: Sotnikov pleads with Portnov to let the other prisoners go and execute only him. Portnov is unmoved, as he apparently has a quota of people he needs to execute to please his superiors.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: We never learn what becomes of the larger partisan unit or Demchikha's children.
  • Winter Warfare: Partisans battling the Germans in the snows of a Russian winter, cold, hungry.