The Ascent

Released:  1977

Cast:  Boris Plotnikov, Vladimir Gostyukhin, Sergei Yakovlev, Lyudmila Polyakova, Anatoli Solonitsyn

SUMMARY:  In the Soviet Union during the Second World War (I think winter 1942, but couldn’t swear to it), a group of Soviet partisans elude a German punishment squad and take refuge in the woods.  However, they are far from out of trouble, as the group is extremely low on food.  The commander decides to send two men, Rybak (Vladimir Gostyukhin) and Sotnikov (Boris Plotnikov), out to scout for food.  They find a sheep at the home of the headman (Sergei Yakovlev), who collaborates with the Germans, and take it with them back to the unit.  On the way they run into more Germans, and Sotnikov tries to fight them off.  He manages to kill one, but is himself shot in the leg.  Rybak then abandons the sheep and drags Sotnikov to safety in the woods.  He leaves briefly to look for shelter, and returns with news of a nearby cabin, which seems to be empty.  The two men stumble into the cabin, only to find that it is not empty:  there are three children inside, waiting for their mother Demshikha (Lyudmila Polyakova) to return from work.  Demshikha is not excited about having the men in her home, as she has no more food to give them, but she cannot help trying to clean up Sotnikov’s wound.  Unfortunately, the group is surprised by the arrival of three Germans, who invite themselves in.  Sotnikov and Rybak attempt to hide in the attic, but are found and captured, along with Demshikha (the children are left at the house).  All three are taken to the Nazi headquarters, where they are interrogated by another Russian collaborator, Portnov (Anatoli Solonitsyn).  Oddly, Portnov led a children’s choir before the war, but there is little trace of that remaining.  He is a cold and brutal interrogator:  when Sotnikov refuses to answer his questions regarding his partisan group, Portnov has him branded.  Despite the torture, Sotnikov refuses to reveal any information, and is eventually tossed, unconscious, into the basement.

When Rybak arrives for his interrogation, he tries a different tack:  he tells Portnov information that he thinks they already know, in the hopes that they won’t kill him.  He believes that if he can just stay alive, he will be able to escape in the future.  Portnov offers to let Rybak join the police force he leaves, but Rybak refuses; he is then thrown into the basement with Sotnikov.  The two are eventually joined by Demchikha, the headman, arrested for “helping” the partisans, and a young Jewish girl.  During the night, Rybak tries to persuade Sotnikov to play along with the police, buying time until they escape, but Sotnikov refuses to compromise his morals.  In the morning, everybody is taken out of the cellar and into the local village to be hanged publically.  Sotnikov attempts to confess to everything in the hopes that it will save the others, but is ignored.  This horrifies Rybak, who now begs to be allowed to join the police force.  His wish is granted, and he is ordered to help with the executions.  He is supposed to help the injured Sotnikov, but Sotnikov refuses any assistance, save holding the block of wood he must stand on to reach the noose.  He, Demchikha, the headman and the girl are then hanged.  As Rybak walks back to headquarters with the Nazis, the townspeople mock him, calling him a Judas.  Rybak apparently now regrets his actions, and tries to hang himself with his belt in the outhouse.  When he cannot manage this, he is forced to rejoin the Nazis.  As he steps outside, he sees the door of the headquarters open, revealing the small village below.  He begins to laugh and cry hysterically, and collapses to his knees.

MY TAKE:  I didn’t purposely watch two Soviet-made WWII films, but I actually thought both were pretty good.  I wouldn’t say I enjoyed them, because both were sad, and this one was hard to watch at times, but they were both good movies.  It also shows a perspective (that of the Russians) that we aren’t too used to seeing.  If you’re at all familiar with WWII history, you know that the war between the Soviets and the Nazis, particularly the war inside the Soviet Union, was extremely brutal.  Both sides abhorred the other — the Germans thought the Soviets were subhuman, and the Soviets hated the Germans for the invasion and treatment of the people — and it resulted in some really abominable behavior.  The Nazis were pretty good at abominable behavior, as we’ve seen before.  If I’m right about the time period of this film, it would be at the time that the USSR was really struggling against the Germans, and a lot of Russians were starving to death.  This explains the partisan group:  due to the frequent retreats, lots of Soviet soldiers got cut off from their units, and joined passing partisan groups.  It also explains the civilians in the group (fleeing the Germans) and the extreme hunger.  Poor Sotnikov and Rybak are the saps who have to go look for food, and they apparently aren’t too careful about where they find it or how they get there.  Seriously, when you take something from a Nazi collaborator, you know they’re going to find out sooner or later, whether the headman tells them or not.  They get captured, and unfortunately the Germans also arrest the single mother of three children, which really broke my heart.  She didn’t even want the partisans there, they just broke in.  However, the part that I really hated was watching Rybak truly turn into a Judas.  He clearly believes that nothing is more valuable than his own life, and is willing to throw anybody, including his own buddy, an innocent mother and a young girl, under the bus to save himself.  I can’t say how I would react in this situation, obviously, but I hope I would be able to keep some semblance of pride, and go out bravely.  Even the little girl managed to do that.  Then, only minutes after helping the Germans execute these people, he realizes he can’t live with himself.  Tremendous lack of foresight, there.  How did he think things were going to turn out?  Sorry, but I don’t have an ounce of sympathy for the man.

RATING:  Very good.

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