The Unsparing Judgement of Oneself: the Life and Work of Larisa Shepitko
Cinematekene er et samarbeid om felles digitale visninger på cinematekene i Bergen, Kristiansand, Lillehammer, Oslo, Stavanger, Tromsø og Trondheim. Montages setter gjennom ukentlige artikler fokus på filmene i utvalget. Larisa Shepitkos Oppstigningen («The Ascent»/«Voskhozhdenie», 1977) vises fra og med torsdag 7. april – sjekk tidspunkter i oversikten hos ditt cinematek.
Gabrielė Liepa (b. 1993) is a film & literature graduate from Amsterdam University College. Gabrielė’s interests include literary and film history, and art films of the Cold War era.
If you have heard of Larisa Shepitko before, you have probably only done so recently. Although the Ukrainian Soviet director once held the international film industry in awe, she had fallen into obscurity until the restoration, in recent years, of two of her films, Wings (1966) and The Ascent (1977). The latter, made under circumstances as extraordinary as the tale it tells, deserves to be seen on the big screen and appreciated by all. So does its remarkable director.
The Ascent begins strikingly: the film plunges us into a snow storm which seems to bury all discernible landscape and subsequent signs of civilisation, from static shots of a disappearing church to pylones, crooked as if to emphasise the harshness of this freezing wind. A sense of vastness and desolation rules, aided by ravishing black-and-white imagery. Yet, it’s a deception: a band of people, some of them armed, some wounded, emerge from under the snow as if they, too, were buried, and run for safety. Their dark clothes contrast uncomfortably with the snow – they would make for an easy target.
Suddenly, we’re facing them up close, ploughing through the snow together, the camera shakingly glides past some and lingers on others. Some are dragging the few possessions they’ve got, others are carrying children. The sheer exertion required to trudge along is palpable; clanking of wares, people’s worn out gasps and occasional whimpers all discernible. It’s immersive cinema at its finest – visceral, devoid of sentiment yet immediately arresting. Then, the inevitable happens – someone hears the Germans approaching.
Even their truck is camouflaged in white, suggesting an unequal balance of power between the occupants and Nazi occupiers. A partisan turns around to fight back – it is our first protagonist, Rybak (Vladimir Gostyukhin), whose rifle pitifully attempts to stall a machine gun. We see another partisan in a Red Army uniform as he shoots down an enemy. This is Sotnikov (Boris Plotnikov, who passed away in December of 2020 due to COVID-19), our second protagonist. They manage to halt the anti-partisan squad, and we’re back in the midst of people fleeing, now under cover, in a forest, while the wind continues to blow snow in their faces. We don’t know it yet, but the plight of these two men will make us ask uncomfortable questions about what we presume ourselves – and our integrity – to be.
The visual language of the film is stunning. As people slump down to rest, panting, they look so misplaced, like trees ripped out, roots and all, after a storm, like a place of a massacre. Both impressions are apt. They share out spoonfuls of wheat – their last food. Shepitko showers us with her signature close-ups: stunning images of faces we inappropriately examine for traces of inner turmoil, yet emotion is a luxury people can scarcely afford at war. As Rybak and Sotnikov are sent out to look for food, an unforgettable tracking point-of-view shot bids farewell to the people left behind who once again melt into the landscape.
Rybak and Sotnikov are as different as it gets: Sotnikov, a maths teacher before the war, says little and coughs a lot, while Rybak is an open book who chatters away, confessing he’s happy to have company, though he admonishes Sotnikov for coming with him since he is clearly sick – a liability. Rybak gives his scarf and last food to Sotnikov, who reluctantly concedes. Their mission to bring back food fails, and they are inescapably captured by the Germans. The men will each have to decide – collaborate, or perish.
Shepitko had grander ambition for The Ascent than to make an action film set on the Eastern Front. The theatre of war – the ultimate setting to test one’s humanity – serves as a backdrop to a merciless interrogation of individual responsibility, failure thereof and the sometimes gruesome costs of commitment to one’s virtue.
The Ascent has been largely interpreted as a religious parable, owing from its title and Sotnikov’s appearance deliberately resembling Orthodox depictions of Christ, to the hurdles Shepitko had to overcome to make the film (the authorities initially ruled it as insurrectionist to their dogma.) In spite of that, she dismissed its religious framing and referred to a kind of a secular spirituality that the story espouses.
Viewed as a temporal tale, the film has significantly more to offer to the viewers. What The Ascent achieves is that it lays bare the weight of authentic action, the potential pointlessness of individual sacrifice, the uncomfortable ease and subsequent peril of self-preservation, and the disturbing strength of the human spirit despite the havoc it may wreak. The way the tale unfurls, without caricature-like exaggerations about good or evil, without judgement and with great nuance, seems to suggest that, in the end, barely anyone can survive a war with a clear conscience.
The film’s narrative is concerned with the struggle for human conscience which stretches far beyond the story’s specificity. According to Shepitko’s husband Elem Klimov (director of another outstanding WW2 film, Come and See), The Ascent exemplified her preoccupation with the “unsparing judgement of oneself and the great responsibility each of us has for the things we’ve done in life.” It is this battle between the preservation or betrayal of one’s integrity that commands each character in the film, be they civilians or soldiers.
Shepitko’s existential concerns are exemplified by the confrontation between Sotnikov and a local auxiliary police officer Portnov (Tarkovsky favourite Anatoli Solonitsyn). It is noteworthy that Germans themselves are barely present in the film; the narrative is focused on the nuances of petty or egregious betrayal of the locals, be it in order to save oneself, or, in more complicated cases, others. The fact that perseverance and refusal to collaborate can lead to death not only of oneself, but of others, too, is an unsettling reality of war that Shepitko does not shy away from.
Portnov acts as the antithesis of the soldiers – similar in background and appearance to Sotnikov, he, however, espouses fascist dogma, denigrating his fellow citizens while mocking any notion of humanist ideals. He confidently refuses to recognise individuality – call it a soul, if you prefer – behind the flesh facade, which allows him to side with the occupiers. In his own eyes, he has nothing to lose and everything to gain. Which, of course, is not true: his power is illusory, he seems to be repulsive even to the Nazis whose dirty work he’s doing. Portnov eventually will be in awe of something terrifying, something he did not know he could have had within himself and then lost, irretrievably. Without a doubt, he will be haunted by this vision to his pitiful dying day.
One of the lasting impressions of The Ascent is that, retrospectively, it is difficult to judge the righteousness of the decisions people make throughout the film. For example, at first it seems noble of Sotnikov to go out with Rybak to look for food without protest; however, he is clearly ill, weak and of no great use. It will be because of him that the soldiers will be caught. There are more complications, too. When Rybak and Sotnikov are ambushed by a German patrol, Rybak – further ahead and carrying a lamb to his starving unit – chooses to come back for his comrade. This seemingly noble decision is hard to reconcile with our realisation that the group of villagers in the forest – including the elderly and children – must now starve because of this choice.
There is an ambiguity in The Ascent as to whether sticking to a principle will help preserve a clean conscience; in times of war, integrity can come with a harrowing suffering of innocents, too. In an interview that Shepitko gave shortly after winning the Golden Bear at the 27th Berlin International Film Festival, she admitted to wanting to explore what she saw as the “spiritual fortitude” of the Soviets that allowed them to defeat the Nazis. However, the film avoids both the reductive valorisation of heroes and the damnation of the failure to persevere. After watching The Ascent, one is left with an uncomfortable realisation that this fortitude requires unrelenting sacrifice of the kind most of us may not be capable of, not for a long time, at least. The struggle itself is unrelenting, and continuous. If anyone could know the difficulty that entails, it was Shepitko herself.
Born in 1938 in Eastern Ukraine, her experiences of war were to shape her life to come. Depredation, displacement and family suffering seem to have taught her that going easy on yourself was a useless luxury. At 16, she entered filmmaking studies at the then All-Union State Institute of Cinematography (now VGIK), the only female student in the whole school. In fact, the institute tried to dissuade her from directing to instead choose a more ‘appropriate’ profession for a woman, such as acting. Luckily, it was to no avail.
Her mentor and fellow Ukrainian was the legendary Alexander Dovzhenko, who would become highly influential to both her style and work ethic. She called him a “maximalist,” something that well applies to her, too; later on, she realised how difficult it would be to live up to his teachings of artistic integrity. Having studied during the Khrushchev Thaw, Shepitko expected to shoot uncompromising, nuanced stories of the lived Soviet reality, but as the political climate shifted for the worse, her career was continuously marked by censorship.
Shepitkos’ graduation feature Heat (1963) was a great success, although it, too, was marked by difficulties, although of a different kind. Shot during summer in a Kirghiz steppe, it would get so hot that the film stock would often melt. She insisted on continuing the shoot even after getting ill with hepatitis, giving directions from a stretcher. This would be her only feature film not to involve fights with the Soviet authorities.
Afterwards, came Wings, a superb character study about a female pilot, an alienated war veteran – a taboo subject at that time. A quiet masterpiece of isolation, misogyny and generational conflict, it was seen as extremely controversial and banned after a limited release. Next, she participated in an anthology film with the project The Homeland of Electricity, which was deemed disparaging of the Bolsheviks and shelved for two decades. During its shooting, Shepitko fell and suffered a severe spinal injury. As if it weren’t enough, she was also pregnant, yet decided to go through with the pregnancy despite the grave risk to her life. This brush with death reanimated a core lesson from Dovzhenko: “Make every film as if it’s your last.” This lesson is haunting in retrospect. Shepitko’s career encompassed only four feature films – The Ascent was her last.
You and I (1971), an urban existential tale of two doctors seeking fulfilment, was heavily cut by the authorities. Then, Shepitko was dropped from her own production of Belorussian Station due to her planned changes to an optimistic script. Creative freedom was never a given in Soviet society, and in order to make The Ascent, Shepitko had to learn to be cunning. Having been denied permission for her vision of Vasil Bykaŭ’s novel Sotnikov because of her reputation, she conspired with a former study colleague in the administrative sector to lie about the authorities’ refusal of the project, resulting in the project advancing, albeit with great difficulty.
In an attempt to avoid censorship for The Ascent, Pyotr Masherov, the first secretary of the Communist Party of Belarus, a former partisan and a colleague of Elem Klimov’s, was invited to a special preview. Initially dubious, he was so affected by the film that, with his influence and enthusiasm, there could be no talk of censorship. The realism of The Ascent which so impressed Masherov was hard-won. Shepitko talked of the extensive research they put into the script, making her realise what they thought happened on the front “paled before the inhuman realities. With the years, our memory spares our nerves and blunts our pain. We have tried not only to understand the pain, but to relive it.” This, she took seriously.
Following her ideas of artistic integrity, the film had to be as authentic as possible. The actors – and Shepitko herself – wore clothing of the time, risking hypothermia in temperatures that could drop to -40 C. She said that they “tried to approximate these conditions to the ones which our characters had to endure. The actors and other members of the crew often had to be exposed to extreme hardship. I think we all drew strength from the feeling that we were dealing with a theme that is held sacred to our people.”
Given her frail health, she often worked until she could not stand – literally – and had to be carried back to the hotel. In the mesmerising scene of villagers fleeing through the heavy snow, for example, Shepitko ran with them, behind the camera – she demanded nothing that she would not endure herself. The “unsparing judgement of oneself,” the great theme of her work, stretched to her art, and her life, as well.
The main theme of The Ascent translates all too well to her attitude towards artistic responsibility. She said: “Every day, every second of our lives prompts us to fulfil our everyday needs by making some kind of compromise, manoeuvring, keeping silent, knuckling under just for now . . . But it turns out that while everyday life seems to let us cheat for five seconds and then make up for it, art punishes us for such things in the most cruel and irreversible way . . . It’s pointless to deceive yourself with this illusion. Once you have stumbled, you will not find the same right road again. You’ll forget how to get there.” Or, as Sotnikov remarks in The Ascent: “Don’t crawl in shit. You’ll never wash it off.”
Shepitko died in 1979, at the age of 41. While out scouting locations for her next project (Farewell, which would be finished by Klimov), her film crew’s car crashed, instantaneously killing her and four other crew members. Her life cut short, Shepitko still has a lot to offer. Maya Bulgakova, leading actress in Wings, said of working with Larisa: “I may have realised for the first time… that, when a person is talented… they are immortal.” It was talent, but it was spirit, too. This spirit, her spirit, is immortal.
Today, as we watch in awe her fellow Ukrainians’ bravery and refusal to relent, The Ascent, and Shepitko’s life, may give us a clue as to what is worth fighting for.