I'm going to steal from this movie. I don't think there's a higher compliment. That doesn't mean it's my new Criterion favorite, Alambrista and An Angel at My Table still hold that honor. But this one is up there. And it has a few elements that are incredible and one moment that impressed me so much that I know I'm going to use it; somehow, some way.
The Ascent is a 1977 film made in the then Soviet Union by Larisa Shepitko who tragically died shortly after making this film. It tells the story of two Russian partisan fighters during World War II who get cut off from the rest of their unit. They are captured and each makes a critical choice.
As I said there are some elements that are outstanding. In the early going, the shots of the Russian countryside in winter are astonishing. This is a black and white film and the stark white backdrop is used to great effect. Often the two characters Sotnikov and Rybak look like they are lost in some kind of limbo. And in a way they are.
Early on Rybak seems like the stronger character. Sotnikov is sick and later wounded. Rybak is healthy and pretty clever. That changes after they are captured. Sotnikov stays resolute and endures tortures that even impress his captors. Rybak keeps trying to weasel out of his predicament. He keeps telling Sotnikov that if they tell the Germans and their collaborator friends what they want to hear, they'll let their guard down and they can escape.
This leads to the next great moment. Sotnikov refuses to compromise. There are several innocent people in the cell with them who will be executed along with them. Sotnikov confesses to killing a German soldier and asks that he be killed and the others released. The Germans refuse. Rybak finally breaks down and asks to join the "police" a group of Russian collaborators. The Germans accept. And then we come to the Ascent of the title. Sotnikov and the other prisoners are lead up to the place of execution. The scene has almost a religious feel to it. Sotnikov is a committed communist but his eventual execution is treated as a martyrdom. It's incredible how deeply religious this film and Andrei Rublev are even though they were made in the Soviet Union.
Then we come to the scene that I am going to steal. Sotnikov and the other prisoners are executed. Rybak joins the rest of the police as they return to the barracks. In the final scene Rybak sees the gate to the barracks is open. Freedom is beckoning him. But he can't move. Then it becomes clear, he was never waiting to escape. He was just trying to live another day. And now he can never be free because he will never risk his life to chance freedom. His moral decision to value his own skin over everything else now has him trapped. It is a brilliant piece of film making and also a keen observation on the human character. That's another thing that reminds me of Andrei Rublev.
Obviously I think this film would be a great template for filmmakers to study both as directors and writers. The story is morally complex yet simple, direct and riveting. The movie has tremendous style and it's a shame the director died after making this one.