10 September 2008
THE ASCENT (Dir. Larisa Shepitko, 1976, Russia) - An intimate war film
Andrei Tarkovsky was a magnificent film maker because of his ability to make us feel the textures of life. In ‘Stalker’, Tarkovsky constructs his pared down and elliptical mise en scene by pausing frustratingly to make us listen to the dense layers of natural sounds that seem to reverberate through the minds of characters who are journeying aimlessly through what is supposed to be some kind of parallel universe. In ‘Stalker’, the cinematic impulse comes from a starkness that is perversely pleasurable, ensuring we are captivated by an absence of action and narrative motivation. Tarkovsky was unique in how he could make us experience textures; water, earth, fog, - elements that are distilled to the point of becoming abstract symbols of nature. I mention Tarkovsky with such reverence because his influence was felt amongst his fellow colleagues who were also emerging in the 70s as film makers with a vision of cinema that embraced aesthetic choices over the ideological dogma of an orthodox Russian school of thought which was marked by Eisenstein political gesturing.
Larisa Sheptiko only ever got the chance to make two films as her career was cut short when she was tragically killed in a car accident. Had she gone on to make more films, she surely would have mirrored the illustrious careers of her contemporaries like Tarkovsky. To be honest, I had never heard about Sheptiko until now, and was fascinated by the prospect of being able to watch her 1976 masterpiece, ‘The Ascent’, on a newly restored and re mastered DVD print. Released by Criterion, who seem to be the most important DVD company working anywhere in the world today, ‘The Ascent’ rightfully deserves a place in the cannon of great war films. Simply put, the film is a genuine revelation; a brutal, aching and beautifully bleak film that manages to capture the suffering and trauma experienced by a band of Russian partisans who seem to have become adrift in the harsh, wintry landscape of Belarus.
As contemporary cinema continues to accelerate forward each year with great disregard for traditional techniques, it becomes harder for us to engage with specialised film making as it’s associations with the past provokes polarised debates that seem to serve no real purpose other than appearing to sound hip and cool. Leone forged an entire body of work out of the close up, which is not a bad thing considering how neglected the close up has become in today’s world of ultra fast, high concept cinema. Today, the close up is only ever used for dramatic high points, but in ‘The Ascent’, Sheptiko’s camera uses such a device to probe beneath the impenetrable austere of an entire nation who felt compelled to repress any kind of real human emotion when faced with the prospect of occupation and destruction from German soldiers.
Shot in black and white, the imagery of snow and ice literally overwhelms the frame to such an extent that at times it feels as though Sheptiko wants us to immerse ourselves in the textures of such a grim visual style so that we share the agony and torture as experienced by the helpless, shell shocked Russian partisans. The Ascent is unlike any other war film I have come across as Sheptiko does not feel compelled to offer us the visceral pleasures of the classic war conventions, opting for a much more intimate approach that is painfully uncompromising in her depiction of a reality that seems largely absent from a genre accused of distorting history in favour of narrative convenience.
The Ascent is an evocative ode and testament to the courageous resistance of an entire nation and deserves to be positioned alongside great war films like 'Paisan', for it's real inspiration lies in the enduring influences of the Italian neo realists and films like 'Bicycle Thieves' that also offer an equally unforgiving representation of humanity.