During the Great Patriotic War (World War II), two Soviet partisans go to a Belarusian village in search of food. After taking a farm animal from the collaborationist headman (Sergei Yakovlev), they head back to their unit, but are spotted by a German patrol. After a protracted gunfight in the snow in which one of the Germans is killed, the two men get away, but Sotnikov (Boris Plotnikov) is shot in the leg. Rybak (Vladimir Gostyukhin) has to take him to the nearest shelter, the home of Demchikha (Lyudmila Polyakova), the mother of three young children. However, they are discovered and captured.
The two men and a sobbing Demchikha are taken to the German headquarters. Sotnikov is interrogated first by local collaborator Portnov (Anatoli Solonitsyn), a former Soviet club-house director and children's choirmaster who became the local head of the Belarusian Auxiliary Police, loyal to the Germans. When Sotnikov refuses to answer Portnov's questions, he is brutally tortured by members of the collaborationist police, but gives up no information. However, Rybak tells as much as he thinks the police already know, hoping to live so he can escape later. The headman, now suspected of supporting the partisans, and Basya Meyer, the teen daughter of a Jewish shoemaker, are imprisoned in the same cellar for the night.
The next morning, all are led out to be hanged. Rybak persuades Portnov and the Germans to let him join the police. Sotnikov and the others are executed.
As he heads back to the camp with his new comrades, Rybak is vilified by the villagers. Realizing what he has done, he tries to hang himself in the outhouse with his belt, but fails. A fellow policeman begins calling for Rybak until Rybak opens the door. The policeman tells Rybak that their commander wants him, and leaves Rybak alone in the courtyard. Rybak stares out the open camp door. He begins to laugh and weep.Boris Plotnikov as Sotnikov
Vladimir Gostyukhin as Rybak
Sergei Yakovlev as Village elder
Lyudmila Polyakova as Demchikha
Viktoriya Goldentul as Basya Meyer
Anatoli Solonitsyn as Portnov, the collaborationist interrogator
Maria Vinogradova as Village elder's wife
Nikolai Sektimenko as Stas'
All motion pictures are personal but the desire to film The Ascent was almost a physical need. If I had not shot this picture it would have been a catastrophe for me. I could not find any other material with which I could transmit my views on life, on the meaning of life.
Before The Ascent, the director Larisa Shepitko shot the film You and I. The filming took place under an atmosphere of severe stress. Technical and organizational difficulties led to the necessity of calling the ambulance for the director’s health care. The release of the film was not any easier; the censors deleted critical scenes and Shepitko had to fight for every single one of them. This struggle was not always successful. Despite the fact that the film was one of the prize winners at the Venice Film Festival, the removed scenes were a terrible blow to Shepitko, who believed that changing an important moment leads to the loss of main ideas.
For Shepitko it was a difficult time after the film's release. By her own admission the director was for the length of four months in "a monstrous mental and physical exhaustion." The realization what was subsequently necessary came to her suddenly when she was recuperating at a Sochi sanatorium, but her creative plans were undermined by a disastrous fall, which led to a serious concussion and a spinal injury. For a few weeks Shepitko was confined to bed. The situation was also aggravated by the fact that she was preparing to become a mother, but it was during her pregnancy that she came to an astute understanding of life in its whole complexity. Every day she was haunted by the possibility of death and reading the novel Sotnikov by Vasil Bykov in this period helped Shepitko express this state on the silver screen.
For the most part the screenplay written by Yuri Klepikov follows the novel. Shepitko turned to Klepikov on the recommendation of her classmate Natalia Ryazantseva but he was already busy working on another script. Basically Klepikov did not refuse but he asked to postpone working on The Ascent for a week. Shepitko urged him to start work immediately and one telephone conversation with her convinced him to drop everything he was doing. Klepikov by his own admission "could not withstand the energy of the typhoon whose name was Larisa" and started the task of revising the literary foundation which he later described as "a piping philosophical parable which combined the high spirit of man with his obvious desire to keep the body as a receptacle of the spirit ". The result of the work became a 70-page script that Shepitko then meticulously edited. Shepitko practiced the "engineer's" approach: she did not tolerate uncertainty or haziness in work and did not rely on director’s improvisation or creative inspiration. Every frame, every remark, every scene was carefully checked and aligned in advance. According to Yuri Klepikov even "the fruitful spontaneity was due to the very environment of the shoot," which was ensured by the carefully crafted script.
When adapting the script from Sotnikov the main concern of the director was not to lose the deeper philosophical content of the story. While the literary work by Bykov was full of sensual details like "icy cold", "famine", "danger", Shepitko strongly discouraged attempts to be satisfied with external action and demanded an "internal justification" of each movement, gesture and glance of the heroes. In order to express the spiritual states she often had to deviate from the literary basis. For example in the finale of the story Rybak decides to hang himself in the latrine but discovers that he forgot to ask back for the belt which was taken by the policemen an evening before. Theoretically the film could portray the absence of the belt but then according to the writers the scene would be limited to the designation of the circumstances: informative but unimpressive denial in terms of the artistic sense. The authors "returned" the belt to Rybak but he was deprived of the ability to hang himself; implying that even death refuses a traitor. Their idea was to leave Rybak alone with the knowledge of his fall. The following long close-up of majestic nature signified the freedom which Rybak desperately desires and was intended to emphasize the utmost despair "of a person who lost himself".
Shepitko's husband Elem Klimov invented the film’s title. Long ago in 1963, a tradition was established between the future spouses that for a good idea he would receive ten rubles. When they just started dating, Klimov came up with the name for Shepitko’s thesis film – Heat. Shepitko and Klimov decided to continue this playful approach of rewarding each other but after all the years of their union the Klimov alone received the ten rubles and only twice: for Heat and for The Ascent.
The next step was the need for the script’s approval from the State Committee for Cinematography. By that time Shepitko already gained a reputation of an "inconvenient" director and back in 1973 when she only raised the topic of making the film the answer from an official of the State Committee for Cinematography came back as a firm negative. The director did not make a confrontation but she also did not offer any other projects. Throughout her directing career Shepitko only started working on films if she felt that "if she does not do it, then she dies".
For help in overcoming the resistance of the authorities and the State Political Directorate, Shepitko turned to Gemma Firsova with whom she studied at VGIK who was an administrator of an association of military-patriotic films. Firsova was affected much more by the script than the novel and the same day went to the meet the Minister of Cinematography Philippe Ermash. In a conversation with the replacement of Ermash (in her memoirs Firsova did not call Boris Pavlenok by his name) Firsova said that she takes the script under her responsibility, with a lie that "everything will be fine with the State Political Directorate". Ermash’s replacement reacted skeptically to the pleas, and the subsequent process from approval to acceptance of the film’s actors, was accompanied by considerable difficulties. The main accusation was that Larissa allegedly made a "religious parable with a mystical tone" from the partisan story that which was insurrection to the atheistic Soviet cinema. Shepitko retorted that she is not religious and that a story about betrayal is antediluvian. According to her, Judas and Jesus have always existed and that if the legend connected with people then this means that it is alive in every person. Officials met Schnittke’s score with resistance and they ordered to remove the allusions to biblical texts.
From the moment she read the story Sotnikov, it took Larisa Shepitko four years to prepare and to obtain permits from the authorities to start shooting the picture.
Shepitko decided to use unknown or little known actors whose past roles would not cast a shadow on their characters in The Ascent. Because of this, she had to reject Andrey Myagkov who really wanted to act in the picture. The same fate befell Nicolae Hubenko. Vladimir Vysotsky who yearned to play Rybakov and because of that experienced jealousy towards the other candidates also did not pass the selection. At the time when the castings for The Ascent were taking place, Vysotsky was starring in the film The Negro of Peter the Great The filming took place at the "Mosfilm" sound stage, adjacent to where the castings were held, and during his breaks Vysotsky often went to see what was happening at Shepitko’s sound stage.
From the beginning of the search for the actor who would play Sotnikov, Larisa Shepitko instructed Emma Baskakova, her casting assistant, to keep in mind the image of Christ, although it was impossible to mention this out loud. Boris Plotnikov, a 25-year-old actor of the Sverdlovsk Theater turned out to be the best candidate for the role according to the director, but the officials of Goskino saw in Shepitko’s plan the intention to "drag Jesus on to the Soviet screen". Plotnikov whose repertoire until then largely included the roles of magical animals, even had to be made up for the purpose of greater glorification of the character so that the artistic council would approve him for the role. The actor went through seven test shots altogether for which he always had to fly to Moscow from Sverdlovsk.
For the role of Rybakov the director screened twenty candidates. The twenty-first applicant for the role was the young, unknown actor Vladimir Gostyukhin. Gostyukhin, who worked for six years in the theater of the Soviet Army as a furniture and prop maker, once replaced a sick actor in the play Unknown Soldier, where he was noticed by Svetlana Klimova who was the second unit director of Vasiliy Ordynski. Gostyukhin received an invitation to act in the series The Road to Calvary, where he played the role of the anarchist and bandit Krasilnikov for whom charisma and a strong temperament were required. It was specifically on that film set he was noticed by the assistants of Larisa Shepitko. Gostyukhin who was invited to audition initially could not match "a woman of great beauty with the super masculine, tough and tragic story by Vasil Bykov". But after a 20-minute conversation with the director, he was convinced that only she could film the adaptation of this weighty book. But Shepitko initially had doubts about the candidate who even with his actors education was still a stage laborer. Plotnikov immediately attracted the director with his constitution, smile, look and plasticity while Gostyukhin’s appearance did not coincide with the how Shepitko saw Rybak: the young actor came to audition with "frivolous" bangs which were uncharacteristic for a partisan. Gostyukhin’s rude manners initially alienated other members of the selection committee but Shepitko explained away his behavior as shyness and decided to examine the candidate who already at the first rehearsal made a stong impression on everyone with his fierce tenacity in realizing the character.
The actor for the role of Portnov was selected based on the image of Sotnikov. Larisa Shepitko requested to seek someone similar in external characteristics with Plotnikov, saying: "They are similar, but Portnov is an antipode to Sotnikov based on internal beliefs. This should be a very good actor. Their duel, yes, yes, the fight with Sotnikov - the eternal conflict, the everlasting battle between spirit and lack of spirituality ... Dying suffering Sotnikov wins because he is strong in spirit. He dies and rises above his tormentor".
Anatoly Solonitsyn at first did not see anything interesting in this "supporting role" as described by him, which he considered a "rehash" of what was filmed earlier. Initially, the actor did not even understand what was wanted of him despite the fact that he diligently played the "enemy", "a man with a bruised heart", "a man without a future" as was required. But even he knew that the character was turning out to be similar to a mannequin, as in cheap popular literature. Only a long conversation with the director allowed him to understand her vision of Portnov: the personification of the negative side in the eternal history of the man's struggle with the animal in him in the name of the supreme value – namely, the value of the spirit. The director insisted that the Great Patriotic War was won by the Soviet people because of their high level of awareness, so Portnov's "anti-hero" role was especially important because the character was supposed to emphasize the superiority of the human spirit's power over matter.
Filming began on Jan. 6, 1974 – the birthday of Larisa Shepitko (according to other sources filming began on January 5 ) and took place near the town of Murom. The first scenes were shot on location in the middle of fields, forests and ravines despite the fact that the fact that the weather was forty degrees below zero. According to Boris Plotnikov the frost and the virginal snow were mandatory conditions which Vasil Bykov put forth. This approach was endorsed by Larisa Shepitko, according to whom the actors had to "feel the winter all the way down to their very cells" for a more reliable way of entering the character. Together with this, the filming process was planned in such a way that the actors started with the easiest acting in the psychological sense, and scenes, which allowed them to gradually sink into their characters.
From the outset Shepitko managed to inspire every co-worker with her idea, those who understood that the film is about sacred things: motherland, higher values, conscience, duty and spiritual heroism. Her ability to enthrall her colleagues already manifested before: Yuri Vizbor (lead actor in the movie You and I) said: "We have worked for Larissa, specifically, personally for her. She had faith and that was the reason. Faith in goodness and the need for our work, and it is this faith that was absolutely a material substance, which can be very real to rely on".
In harsh conditions in which the shooting took place this factor was very important: on the set frostbite occurred among extras and crew members but no one complained. Shepitko herself did not require special treatment and the colleagues remembered her as an example of courage, faith, patience, and extraordinary care. For example Boris Plotnikov was dressed very light and quickly grew numb from the cold and the piercing winds in the open field but after the command "Stop! Cut! " the director came up to him to warm him up and to thank him. She also had to warm up Vladimir Gostyukhin who later wrote: "It was worth it “to die” in the scene to be able to feel her gratitude". He said that almost no one knew what effort Shepitko gave when shooting each frame. Sometimes Gostyukhin had to carry the director from the car to the hotel room by himself: Shepitko was sometimes not very well and occasionally her strength weakened. Long before The Ascent Shepitko became ill with hepatitis on the set of the movie Heat. Ignoring the advice to go to Moscow, she left and went on to shoot the picture from a stretcher on which she was brought from infectious barracks. Moreover, Shepitko did not recuperate enough, and the consequences of the disease adversely affected her well-being in the future, in particular on the set of The Ascension. In addition she experienced extreme pain which was caused by her recent spinal trauma. But Shepitko still rose two to three hours before the crew to have time to recover, after which she worked at the maximum limit of strength throughout the day. For example in one scene for a long time guerrillas are running away with difficulty from the punishers who are chasing them. On the screen it was needed to show the deadly fatigue of the flushed, panting people. To avoid hypocrisy in the scenes, the director ran alongside the actors when filming, experiencing their state with them. With this dedication the shooting took place without interruption and was completed one month ahead of schedule.
In order to achieve the desired acting performance from the actors, Shepitko sometimes talked for a long time with them out in the cold. For example, despite the crew’s full readiness, the director would talk for a long time with Boris Plotnikov, whose character she carefully studied during the filming. Shepitko's habit of clearly stating her thoughts contributed to a successful transmission of information; she always avoided abstruse terms that may mask the lack of clarity. She waited for the necessary for her expression of emotion, for the right facial expression and gestures and then suddenly would command to start filming. Boris Plotnikov later said that he would like to repeat this experience in other films, but nothing worked. On working with Shepitko Plotnikov spoke as "a meeting with a living genius." Vasil Bykov also shared a similar opinion about the film's director, he called her "Dostoevsky in a skirt." Bykov valued Larisa Shepitko very much and once admitted that had he met her before he would have written Sotnikov in a different way.
Vladimir Gostyukhin described the filming process not as acting but as "death in every frame." For him and Plotnikov it was extremely important to validate the director's trust who had to defend them long and hard in front of the leadership. Gostyukhin spoke of Shepitko's ability to convey an idea to the actors akin to hypnosis under which he with Plotnikov, the newcomers of the film studio, could produce the "miracle of transformation." During the first rehearsal Shepitko even sprayed their faces with snow. By the latters suggestion it was done to collect their attention and will and also to give texture and credibility to their characters. Later it became a kind of ritual, often preceding the next take on the film set. Gostyukhin recalled that he transformed into Rybak to such a degree that even the made-up bruise only fell from his face after three weeks. After the film was shot the actor tried for a long time to leave his role behind and to become himself again that even he refused to star in the next film by Larisa Shepitko which was called Farewell despite her persistent requests.
The production designer Yuriy Raksha later spoke about the situation as follows:
"We started to work and began our unique existence along with the characters. I can say that the film matured us too. Speaking about the holy things, about categories of high spirituality, we were obligated to apply the high standards to us too. It was impossible to be one person on the set and to be another one in real life"
The film was on the verge of a ban: regulatory authorities believed that a "religious parable with a mystical tinge" was shot instead of a partisan story. The chances were very high that the film would be shelved and Elem Klimov (the husband of Larisa Shepitko and also a film director by profession) decided to take a desperate step. While Klimov just started preparing for the shooting of the film Kill Hitler (which was released under the title of Come and See in 1985), he met with Pyotr Masherov, the first secretary of the Communist Party of Belarus, who strongly supported the director and even acted as a historical consultant; during the war, the senior official was himself a partisan and moreover in 1942 the occupiers hanged his mother for collaborating with the guerrillas.
When Klimov bypassing Mosfilm, invited Masherov to a special preview of The Ascent (the still somewhat wet film was brought to Minsk directly from the lab, and Larisa Shepitko sat at the mixing console )), he initially was skeptical and was expecting to see "effeminate directorial work." As twenty or thirty minutes passed after Masherov started watching, he could not tear himself away from the screen, and by the middle of the movie he was crying, without shying away from the republic's leaders who were present in the hall. At the end of the film Masherov contrary to tradition (usually at such premieres opinions were heard first from the lower ranks and then from the highest) he came on to the stage and spoke for about forty minutes. His words were not written by anyone but Elem Klimov testified that his excited speech was one of the best he ever heard addressed to his wife. Belarusian writer and veteran of the Great Patriotic War, Ales Adamovich, who was present at the screening described Masherov as someone who questioned, "Where did this girl come from who of course experienced nothing of the sort, but knows all about it, how could she express it like this?" After a few days The Ascent was formally accepted without any amendments.Elem Klimov (1987). "Лариса: книга о Ларисе Шепитько" ["Larisa: book about Larisa Shepitko"] (in Russian). Moscow: "Iskusstvo". p. 290.
Hermann Klimov; Marina Murzina; Andrei Plahov; Raisa Fomina (2008). "Элем Климов. Неснятое кино" ["Elem Klimov. Unshot cinema"] (in Russian). Москва: Chroniqueur. p. 384. ISBN 978-5-901238-52-3.