Sometimes, you have to wonder if the censors in the Soviet Union just plain hated art. It seems, doesn't it, that just about every great filmmaker to come out of that country had at least one of their films stomped on by the House That Stalin Built, whether that film could be properly called "counter-revolutionary" or not (even Sergei Eisenstein, so ideologically pure that his life's dream was to film an adaptation of Marx's Das Kapital, witnessed the suppression of Ivan the Terrible, Part II, eventually released ten years after the director's death).

I bring this up to point out an injustice: that Larisa Shepitko's The Ascent, winner of the 1977 Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, was quickly pulled by Soviet authorities on the grounds (take your pick) that it was insufficiently respectful towards the men who served in World War II, or that it contained an unabashed Christian allegory; thanks to those good comrades, the film has been only spottily available until its very recent release (along with Shepitko's 1966 feature Wings) as part of Criterion's Eclipse line. Robbing the world of a film which, thanks to its inaccessibility, was frequently cited as being the greatest Soviet film of the 1970s. That may or may not be strictly true, but at any rate, it's certainly on the shortlist.

The Ascent is a tremendously significant film in the life of its director, who never had a chance to become tremendously significant herself. Having graduated from the Moscow Film School in 1963, Shepitko had produced three features and a segment for an omnibus feature by the time she gave birth, at the age of 35. This was a risky pregnancy for the director, who was warned that she might well not survive delivery; of course, survive she did, though the experience left her quite shaken and convinced that she must find some way to translate her new sense of her own mortality into cinematic form. Thus came about her fourth and final feature, the one that promised to make her an international luminary. Unfortunately, while scouting locations for her next project in 1979, Shepitko was fatally wounded in a car accident, only 41 years old.

With that kind of story surrounding it, you'd better believe that The Ascent has some baggage attached to it. Tragic premature death always makes an artist's work seem more precious than it might be otherwise (what's that line about James Dean? "Dying was the best career move he ever made"?). At the same time, there has to be something backing that tragedy up, for it to be sufficiently tragic in the first place (it's why someone like Heath Ledger and not someone like Chris Farley could be immediately tagged with "The New James Dean" memorials). And The Ascent is indeed a masterpiece, and it is indeed heartbreaking that the world was robbed of any more works from a woman who was clearly one of the great cinematic minds of her generation.

In the deep winter somewhere in the USSR in the Second World War, two Soviet partisans are accompanying a band of starving women, children and invalids as they move through the woods en route to a military camp some miles away. As it becomes increasingly obvious that nobody is going to survive without food, the soldiers - Sotnikov (Boris Plotnikov) and Rybak (Vladimir Gostyukhin) - head to a nearby farm to find supplies. When they arrive, they find that it has been destroyed by the Nazis, and rather than head bag to inform the refugees that it's time to get ready to meet their fate, the pair heads off further into the German-occupied countryside, hoping to find any haven where they might find supplies. Eventually, they're caught by a group of collaborators, and brought to an occupied town where they are to be interrogated and tried, and summarily executed.

So much for the plot. I'm sorry, I don't mean to be flippant. It's a fine plot, and one that taught me things that I didn't know about WWII (such as the fact that there were partisans and collaborators in the USSR, too. What can I say, it's not my strongest period in history). But for Shepitko's concerns, the film doesn't need to take place during whatever stretch of the 1940s it does. It doesn't even need to take place during a war, really; it only needs to take place in a time when two men must decide who they are, and how they are going to respond to the ultimate demands on their morality.

The division between the two men is clear without being a harangue, at least until very nearly the end: Sotnikov would rather martyr himself and only do that which is good, while Rybak will do what he must to stay alive, and fix things with his conscience later on. Which is why - spoiler alert, for pretty much the rest of the review, I'm afraid - Rybak agrees to join the Nazi-supported police run by collaborator Portnov (Anatoli Solonitsyn), convincing himself that he can run away as soon as the chance presents itself, while Sotnikov permits himself to die by hanging, aided in no small part by his former brother-in-arms.

It's virtually impossible to see this as anything other than a debate between the positions of self-interest and sacrifice to the greater good, and given that final moments of the film make it unmistakably clear that Rybak will be haunted by his actions for the rest of his (probably short) life, I can't imagine anybody walking away with the belief that Sheptiko wished to condemn the selfish and praise the patriotic. Yet it got banned anyway. In no small part, I suspect, because it's just as impossible to ignore this as an allegorical retelling of Christ's betrayal by Judas (an interpretation helped along by the requisite Angry Old Woman in a Babushka who hisses "Judas! Judas!" after Rybak), something that the Communists might not have been quite as keen to endorse. Yet it doesn't strike me that the film is trying to show how one man acted in a Christlike way; if anything, the obviousness of the parallel indicates to me that Christ is himself the metaphor, the ultimate example of a man who was willing to suffer that others might be free from suffering.

I'll leave the full impact of all this philosophy to the viewer; and it's a powerful impact at that. 109 minutes though it might be, there aren't many films that left me as fatigued as I was after The Ascent, and almost all of those directly involve the Holocaust. Rather, I'd like to switch gears over to the remarkable skill with which Shepitko and her crew carry this all off; the film's effect (as it is always with the very best films) is inseparable from its technique, which isn't necessarily revolutionary, but is perfect nonetheless.

Up above, I suggested that the film doesn't "need" to take place during a war; but it does, absolutely, need to take place during the winter. Shot in frankly oppressive whites by Vladimir Chukhnov, The Ascent is one of the coldest movies ever made, hellishly stark in a way that makes the similar Fargo look cozy. Like that much more familiar film, the boundless snow is used as a metaphor for its protagonists' bleak inner worlds; unlike that film, it's far more terrifying than it ever is "pretty". Shepitko's (probably unintentional) use of the Academy aspect ration, 1.37:1, is well-chosen in this regard: rather than expansive snowy vistas, Zhivago-style, we see giant blocks of white and light grey throughout the movie. And when the film moves from wide shots of the unforgiving environment to close-ups of its characters (and virtually every shot of a human is a close-up), the sense of horrible claustrophobia is just as intense as the feeling of bitter cold was. It's the best of both nihilistic worlds!

Those close-ups are among the most powerful of the whole 1970s, particularly the ones that track Sotnikov's increasing degeneracy (he is taken sick early in the film). In his first-ever screen performance, Boris Plotnikov gives an absolutely flawless representation of absolute suffering, aided by what I dearly hope were make-up effects that leave his skin clammy and mottled. Even if the script didn't make it explicit, we'd be well able to pick up on the Christ allegory just from the way that Plotnikov stares through the other characters, sometimes through the camera itself, at some undiscovered country.

As fine as the film is visually, its greatest success comes, unexpectedly, from its use of sound. Shepitko is practically avant-garde (scratch that, this was the Soviet Union in the '70s; she was dangerously avant-garde) in her use of overlapping offscreen sound, coupled with a top-notch score by Alfred Schnittke, to bring home the particular intensity of her grim vision. Especially at the end, as Rybak comes to grips with the full terror of what he's done: this is dramatised not through acting or writing, but simply by cutting between long still takes of Vladimir Gostyukhin's ashen face and the barracks gate he longs to run through, while a great cacophony of seemingly every noise the Germans are making around him pounds into his - and our - ears. I haven't the skills as a writer to describe this final scene, which could all by itself make the case for the whole movie; it communicates in the strongest possible terms all of the conflicts within and around the characters throughout the whole, and it requires the context of the whole preceding movie to reach its tremendous power.

In short: The Ascent is a masterpiece, and I pray that the new DVD will garner it something remotely like a new audience. 31 years is far too long for anything this brilliant to collect dust; though I don't like to proselytise so baldly, I'd beg everyone who reads this to find a copy at the earliest convenient moment. This is a life-changing work of cinema.