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Larisa Shepitko’s “The Ascent”: An Archaic Iconography

The Ascent draws on “the great ‘storehouse’ of those images and symbols without which there is no ‘great tradition’ transmitted from generation to generation.” The film’s narrative imitates the events of the Passion, but, what is perhaps more important, it appropriates the iconography of its depiction in Western art.

The Ascent thus plays on the ironic inversion of the socialist realist typology of heroes of the Great Patriotic War. The embodiment of resistance is not the impetuous and combative hero. Rather, it is the meditative figure of self-sacrifice who refuses to betray the resistance or himself. In The Ascent there is no victory in the world of material action: the protagonists do not become minor saints in a Stalinist narrative. Victory comes through transcendence: rising above the worldly, it takes the form of spiritual redemption. The saintly Sotnikov does not follow in the path of a father figure, according to the central myth that Stalinism sought to construct. He undergoes a spiritual transformation, what the film represents as an imitation of Christ, according to St. Augustine’s exhortation: “Thou wouldst perhaps be ashamed to imitate a lowly man; then at any rate imitate the lowly God.” The Christ-like Sotnikov attempts to take upon himself the sins of the others. The Ascent thus taps into a much older mythology, with deep roots in the Soviet Republics’ collective consciousness, particularly among the disparaged class of the peasantry.

The parallels between The Ascent’s narrative and the life of Christ, particularly as it is represented in Western painting, become most apparent in the depiction of the ascent that brings us to the narrative climax: the hanging of the prisoners. This is unmistakably a dramatic restaging of the crucifixion where the culminating events of the Passion of Christ are brought to mind, irradiating the events the film recounts. The Ascent draws on “the great ‘storehouse’ of those images and symbols without which there is no ‘great tradition’ transmitted from generation to generation.” The film’s narrative imitates the events of the Passion, but, what is perhaps more important, it appropriates the iconography of its depiction in Western art.

Consider how the sequence of the ascent develops visually. The stationary long shot that begins the sequence of the ascent gives us a view of a snow-covered road climbing a hill. On one side, village buildings; on the other, an expanse of snowy landscape. The prisoners and guards, seen from behind, emerge into the bottom of the frame, beginning their ascent; at the top of the rise in the distant background we see dark figures waiting for them. Two succeeding long shots show us a straggling group of villagers walking behind the condemned and a high-angle view of a snowy landscape with a mutilated tree. Two close-ups of the desperate Rybak, now a collaborator, are interpolated in the long shots: in pleading tones he tells Sotnikov of his plan to escape and continue the resistance.

In the fourth long shot, we see the faces of the prisoners emerging from the bottom of the frame; as they approach, they are caught in a medium close shot. A reverse-angle shot establishes the object of their point of view: an iron gate from which nooses hang. Several closer shots show groups of German officers hanging around. One of them informs Portnov that the commandant is not pleased with the turnout. Men arrive to put logs in place, on which the condemned will stand so their heads reach the nooses. In the complex series of shots that follows, Sotnikov performs a set of gestures that reveal his humility and compassion: he asks forgiveness of the mother who is to be hanged with him because his sneeze caused her downfall; he comforts and embraces the condemned; he asks Rybak to help him mount the log; in a ninety-degree angle long shot of the gallows, we see Rybak clutching at the stump on which Sotnikov stands and in a later shot grasping at his coat; Sotnikov exchanges looks and a smile with a young boy who is weeping. As Sotnikov is hanged, his face falls toward the camera and there follow two extended reaction shots: the young boy who is wiping his tears away; Portnov, the fallen, who cannot avert his eyes and smiles bitterly.

It takes little exegesis to link the elements of this scene to the Passion of Christ in Western iconography. The hill that ascends; the gallows shot at a low angle that suggests its symbolic relationship to the cross; the painful ascent of the condemned; the Germans loitering about the site like Roman soldiers at the crucifixion—we take the elements of this scene as an analogy to the depiction of Golgotha, the hillock outside the walls of Jerusalem where Christ was crucified. The iconographic motifs suggest Sotnikov’s apotheosis: he becomes a preternatural, charismatic figure who acknowledges his faults and transfixes those who observe his suffering. He is the Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi, whose sympathetic exchange with a child, figure of innocence before the Fall, confirms. His magnetism draws the look of the rueful Portnov, irretrievably fallen. Rybak, whom an old woman will shortly call “Judas,” stands at the foot of the scaffold as the tortured figure of betrayal.