The Soviet Cinema Power Couple

If you’re feeling like four and a half hours of emotional horror, watch a Soviet double feature about the worst days of World War Two. I did just that, to “celebrate” the 75th anniversary of V-E Day.

Only after I’d gotten through the first half, The Ascent by Larissa Shepitko, did I learn that the two films I’d chosen were made by respective halves of a power couple of Soviet cinema: Shepitko and her husband Elem Klimov. You would think, from the black and white look of The Ascent, that you’re dealing with a historic film from the 1950s or early 60s, but it was made in 1977.

You could say that American filmmakers were already attempting the great Vietnam film, and those poor Russians were still stuck in World War Two, but then you’d have to acknowledge that The Ascent and Come and See (1985) were just plain better all-around films than any American war film.

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THE ASCENT is full of details reminding you that these are familiar people doing and enduring horrific things.

War, in my childish imagination, meant lining up tens of thousands of soldiers along a line of scrimmage between territories, and trying to move that line. The first army to move it to the other’s capital won. Add a dose of moral certainty and you’ve got Lincoln and Grant surrounding Richmond, or Eisenhower crossing France. You can use a color pencil set to trace the slow triumph of good over bad.

The Ascent, written by Shepitko and Yuri Klepikov, based on Vasiliy Bykov’s novel, is set in Nazi-occupied Ukraine, where partisan guerrillas are hiding in the woods trying not to starve in winter. You shiver with them and watch in real time as handfuls of crunchy wheat bulgur get passed around, until two volunteers, Rybek and Sotnikov, head off to find some food for the group, and it doesn’t go well.

There is Rybek’s girlfriend’s parents’ farm, where he thinks he can find food – and it’s leveled. There’s the “head man,” a collaborator whose life they spare after stealing one of his sheep – and who turns out much more complex and sympathetic than they expected. And there’s Demchikha, the presumed widow trying to raise three kids, whose tiny house the guys happen to be hiding in, without asking, when the Nazis arrive.

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Shepitko died in a car accident location-scouting the film after THE ASCENT. She had he coolest haircut ever.

All along the way there is the one partisan Sotnikov, an ideologue of pure socialist ideals, whose conscience steers them right at key moments – and whose chest cold, and then bullet wound to the leg, make him a literal drag on the mission. Rybek is the more experienced partisan fighter, and kind of a charming scoundrel, but with an impatient, angry edge to him.

Sotnikov is my kind of guy. I’m somebody you’d want around to keep the workers at the munitions plant in a productive mood when news comes that our rations are going to be cut, but I’m not the first person you’d choose to be with in a foxhole. You need both of us to win a world war, but I’ve lived long enough to know that the Rybeks of the world, with their get-shit-done survival ethic, find people like me frustratingly dreamy-headed.

Well, this Rybek in The Ascent, after all he’s done to keep Sotnikov alive, can’t persuade him even a bit that some moral prestidigitation with their interrogators is called for, to save them from being hung. It’s a genius dramatic conceit, and a setup for a gruesomely poetic finale.

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Sotnikov.

That the story is something we experience from Rybek’s perspective, and without a full conversion to Sotnikov’s martyrdom, makes it very politically mature. “What do I do now that I have compromised myself?” is not something you’d expect from a major World War Two film of a country known for censorship and so invested in its own heroism.

Come and See, written by Klimov and Ales Adamovich, is set in Belarus around the same time. It was getting some attention before the quarantine, since it just got a 35-year anniversary restoration and was screening around the country.

Compared to The Ascent, Klimov uses a much more innocent protagonist to take you on a more hair-raising journey. It’s also about partisans – and includes another long sequence about a livestock appropriation gone horribly wrong – but this time the hero is a 15-year-old boy named Flyora. One of the endearing things about Shepitko’s Rybek is how he recounts his one sexual liaison with his girlfriend before the war, delivered in a way that makes him seem young and sweet, not just a combatant in a dirty war.

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Flyora in custody.

Well, Flyora still has one foot in boyhood when he enlists, and his mother responds by slapping the crap out of him. He gets passed over for his unit’s first attack – forced to trade his relatively new boots with an older fighter. He’s dejected till he teams up with Glasha, a beautiful girl of about 16 who endures guerrillas staring at her, but opens up to Flyora.

When they’re not dodging bullets from passing Nazi paratroopers, they’re unchaperoned in the forest and understandably getting frisky. It’s like Moonrise Kingdom, but with live ammunition. It feels like cheapening the dead of the Eastern front, to say that Come and See is a story about teenage rites of passage, but it’s about something universal besides the war.

Short descriptions of Come and See often praise its surrealism, but those seem like accents to me on an otherwise focused and purposeful narrative. It has scenes that evoke Amarcord and Romeo and Juliet, and it rewards repeated viewing – I’ve now seen it twice since Saturday!

Only on second viewing did it sink in how much time was spent staging the group photo of the partisan brigade, and how that sets up a momentous photo near the end. When the scene of Glasha dancing in a wet dress in a sun shower for Flyora’s pleasure lingers on and on, it’s inviting the male viewer to enjoy looking at her – a setup to make you feel horrifically dirty at the end when you see her after the Nazis have had their way with her.

Come and See is more spectacular than The Ascent, and in color, and since it takes place near “the front” and not miles behind enemy lines, the world of us-versus-them is more about soldiers of The Reich and less about the shades of collaboration. It is also about an immature protagonist – about sex and politics. A 15-year-old who just wants to stay alive gets a free pass on the bigger questions, so you can watch things unfold as he experiences them, without ever really dwelling on the horrifying choices people around him are making…

…until the second-to-last scene, that is, when the band of partisans surrounds a dozen or so captured Nazis and gives them an impromptu hearing. I’m sure the denouement with its historical footage of Hitler has been written about many times – and I can’t wait till its safe to browse in physical bookstores again – but let’s just say this was not an out-of-place choice of two films to watch on Mother’s Day weekend either.

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Happy Mothers Day, by the way.

If you’re wondering where I’m seeing all these, the Criterion Channel is one thing getting me through this coronavirus spring – the best eleven bucks I spend every month. You not only get to see an important (and often enough entertaining) film every day, Criterion’s extra features, its mini-lectures by critics and historians, are consistently on point and just the right length.

Comments

  1. This is a good one. Have to check out The Ascent. Come and See I saw at Film Forum during the re-release.

    jbk

    >

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