Unremitting weather and uncomfortable hunger are the horrid foundation of The Ascent, a film that follows two Soviet soldiers on the search for food and comfort. Their journey deep into the heart of German-controlled land is not just tense, but soul-crushing for both audience and actor. Their plight is ours also, with Larisa Shepitko hiding none of the gruelling, agonisingly emotive responses to the war effort. Our western view of the war against Nazism is shrouded by the prevailing forces of Britishness, keeping calm and carrying on. The Ascent showcases two men who do indeed keep calm and carry on, not because they are picked up by a pithy slogan, but because if they were to do anything else, it would surely mean their and their squadron’s demise.
Personal responsibility plays a large part of The Ascent. Its journey through the unknown sees two soldiers come desperately close to the fringes of a breakdown. As one sits with his back to a tree, hacking away at the branches in front of him, there is a tension shown that presents its characters as cold, caring and contemplative of their very survival. Boris Plotnikov and Vladimir Gostyukhin are tremendous in their leading roles, their journey together bringing them closer not through a brotherly bond, but with fear. They are terrified of the unknown, the dark remits of the tundra around them connect with them deeply, primarily through frostbite, but also with a stark horror for the two men to share in.
Shepitko’s direction is concerned only with the characters and where they go. She adds detail and variety elsewhere but only so much can be done with the terrors of the icy storms. It is with this, though, that the cinematography is given its beauty, the world around them comes to life, and the terrifying troubles these men head through are fully realised. They seek refuge in cabins, encounter those on the opposing side of the war effort, Shepitko knows that giving these characters a break would stop the flow of the story. They are constantly struggling, not just to survive, but to understand the reason for their journey. A simple trip for supplies turns into something far darker and deeper.
Sotnikov (Plotnikov) and Rybak (Gostyukhin) can be perceived as traitors and cowards should we know nothing of their journey. A struggling band of survivors probably believe them to be terrible individuals who have fled the hard times of group survival in the hopes of making a better living for themselves. Strength in numbers does not apply. Hostilities are inevitable, but the hostility comes from those who are likely on the same side of the fight as they are. It is the effect of hunger, of brutality, of a desire to make it through the war in one piece with your family and friends alongside you. The Ascent captures that self-preservation well, and had these two leading characters abandoned their group intentionally, are we really in a position to blame them? They cannot help their group if they cannot help themselves, and while Shepitko never portrays them as cowards, we cannot help but expect this perception from those they encounter.