The crowning triumph of a career cut tragically short, Larisa Shepitko’s final film won the Golden Bear at the 1977 Berlin Film Festival and went on to be hailed as one of the finest works of late-Soviet cinema. In the darkest days of World War II, two partisans set out for supplies to sustain their beleaguered outfit, braving the blizzard-swept landscape of Nazi-occupied Belarus. When they fall into the hands of German forces and come face-to-face with death, each must choose between martyrdom and betrayal, in a spiritual ordeal that lifts the film’s earthy drama to the plane of religious allegory. With stark, visceral cinematography that pits blinding white snow against pitch-black despair, The Ascent finds poetry and transcendence in the harrowing trials of war.
Larisa Shepitko’s final film, The Ascent, receives a new Blu-ray edition from The Criterion Collection, and is presented on a dual-layer disc in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1 with a 1080p/24hz high-definition encode. The master comes from a new 4K restoration conducted by Mosfilm, sourced from the the 35mm original camera negative.
Criterion had previously released the film on DVD through their Eclipse line, paired with Wings, and this marks the first time Criterion has upgraded one of their previous Eclipse titles to its very own Blu-ray edition. The previous DVD presentation was quite good, taken from a then-new high-definition restoration, and it has held up surprisingly well through the years: it looks clean and sharp, with decent contrast and very little damage, and it was the better looking of the two films in that set. Compression, an expected shortcoming of the DVD format, is its only real issue.
The new restoration and presentation now does away with that issue, as one would hope, but it also offers notable improvements in all other areas as well. The image is far sharper and cleaner, rendering the fine grain in a more natural manner, and whatever marks and damage were to be found in the original DVD's presentation are now all gone. The film takes place primarily over a bright white, snowy landscape, which can be deadly for a digital presentation when not done right. The DVD handled this remarkably well, contrast balanced as to not blow out the whites or make the blacks too deep, and details were still there and grays still blended nicely. The Blu-ray’s presentation handles all of this better as well, allowing finer details to show through in the snowy landscapes. The biggest upgrade over the DVD, though? The removal of the window-boxing around the image that plagues a lot of Criterion’s 4:3 releases from the same time period.
The image ultimately delivers a more film-like look, is sharper and clearer, and again has significantly better compression to boot. A real sharp looking picture.
The films Russian monaural soundtrack gets an upgrade from Dolby Digital to single-channel lossless PCM. The track does sound a bit cleaner with less distortion, but there’s still a general flatness to the dialogue and some sound effects. Music reaches for highs but does get a wee-bit edgy at times. Some filtering has probably been applied but it’s still pleasing enough.
I remember going through the original Eclipse set for Wings and The Ascent (my first time with both) and coming out a bit shocked Criterion didn’t feel either film warranted its own edition, with The Ascent sticking out as a real missed opportunity. Thankfully Criterion has corrected that oversight, well over a decade later, packing this new edition with a significant amount of material.
Things start off with a 19-minute introduction by Shepitko’s son, Anton Klimov, who explains her mother’s intentions with the film and how it ultimately got made. Criterion then includes a scholarly select-scene audio commentary featuring Daniel Bird. Playing over 33-minutes’ worth of the film and divided into 8 chapters, he explains how Shepitko turns the original story, based on a novella by Vasiliy Bykov, into a parable about choice through the film’s imagery and music. He also compares a couple of key sequences in the film to how they play out in the original story, pointing out the differences and why Shepitko made the changes she did. Though a full commentary would have been welcome this short one still delves into the film's (and source story's) themes in a very concise and clear manner.
The disc then features a new interview with actor Lyudmila Polyakova, who plays the mother, Demchikha, in the film. She amusingly recounts how, at a very young age, she proclaimed her desire to her grandmother (who told her she was too tall) before speaking a little about her theater work and then how she came to do this film. Her getting the role was more than likely thanks to Shepitko’s husband, director Elem Klimov, whom she had worked with prior; she attributes her success to just having met the right people.
Criterion then packs on two short films: Shepitko’s early 39-minute scontribution to a 1967 omnibus film, The Homeland of Electricity, and then Klimov’s own 1980 tribute to his wife, Larisa. Homeland follows a young engineer who goes to an isolated village to help them construct a water pump out of an old motorcycle, with the goal of irrigating the fields. There’s a very “workers unite” vibe to the film, loaded with shots of the weathered faces of the villagers, so it came as a surprise to me to learn the film was shelved for a couple of decades until Klimov himself was able to save it and get shown in the 80’s. The notes state that the communist censors felt the portrayal of the villagers wasn’t flattering, though maybe the spiritual undertones found in the film (including a conclusion that I would never call subtle) was what irked them.
Whatever the reason, the original negative was taken by the government and ultimately destroyed, but thankfully a print was made from the negative beforehand, then hidden away until it could be shown. That print is the source for this standard-definition presentation. It has been battered a bit, looks rough, but Shepitko’s striking imagery doesn't suffer at all.
Klimov’s 22-minute tribute, on the other hand, has received a nice-looking restoration and is presented here in high-definition. The film is a very loving reflection on Shepitko and her work, with testimonials from those who knew her. Along with quick clips from her films it also features footage from her unfinished adaptation of Valentin Rasputin’s Farewell to Matyora (Shepitko and four crewmembers died in a car accident during its production).
It's a passionate film by Klimov, with an obvious ache behind it, and that passion and ache again shows up through Klimov during the included 1999 television program featuring the filmmaker speaking about his wife (and here it's where he shares how The Homeland of Electricity was saved from destruction) that then leads into footage from a 1978 interview with Shepitko conducted during the Berlin International Film Festival that year. The interview focuses primarily on The Ascent and the novella on which is based, leading to a conversation on spirituality and Russian national identity. Shepitko backs this up with stories from the production, including how locals, who worked as extras in the film, put up with the harsh weather conditions to help get the film done out of a “common obligation,” to the point of getting frostbite. The program as a whole (running around 52-minutes) is probably the most satisfying supplement directly related to Shepitko, as it offers a personal third-person account around her and her work (from Klimov) and then a first-hand discussion from Shepitko addressing the subject matter and topics that interest her.
The disc then closes with two more lengthy television episodes (running about 40-minutes each), both made for Russian airwaves in 2012: Islands and More Than Love, the former providing a fairly in-depth look at her short career and her output (mixed with interviews with family, friends, and those that worked with her), the latter looking at the relationship and work between her and Klimov. The second program ends up being a little disappointing because it focuses more on Klimov (it gets in-depth into his career after Shepitko’s death) but it still offers a wonderful overview of the two. The included insert then features a short essay by writer Fanny Howe, who goes a little into the film’s story and production, and then a lot into the Christian symbolism.
It's a stacked edition and I was more than happy to go through all of it.
It seemed unfair that Criterion had initially relegated the film to their Eclipse line, but they more than make up for that with this rather gorgeous release, packing in a wealth of supplemental material around the film’s director, Larisa Shepitko, and delivering a sharp looking presentation for the film itself. Definitely worth picking up, even if you already own the previous DVD set.