by Brandon Colvin
Prep your Netflix queues.
This week, we’ve got a double dose of post-thaw war films about Soviet partisans fighting in 1940s Nazi-occupied USSR – a Christian-ish parable of sacrifice, betrayal and integrity, Larisa Shepitko’s The Ascent (1977), and a devastating onslaught of horrifying inhumanity and bitterly deserved revenge, Elem Klimov’s Come and See (1985). And, the films aren’t the only perfect pair involved; the two directors of these visually and aurally assaulting tales of wartime desperation and brutality were . . . married.
(more after the break)
Shepitko and Klimov comprise perhaps the most potent wife/husband filmmaking duo ever to unite their careers in celluloid matrimony, rivaled only by the incredible 1-2 punch of Agnès Varda and Jacques Demy. Their respective masterpieces, The Ascent and Come and See are visceral, yet remarkably lyrical, never losing the spiritual and existential thrusts of their narratives while maintaining propulsive, riveting dramatic tension.
Certain moments from the films are absolutely indelible; indeed, they emblematize the movies in my memory lucidly and absolutely. Regarding The Ascent, it is a single, remarkable shot. The injured protagonist, Sotnikov (Boris Plotnikov), is bleeding profusely from a gunshot wound. Captured by Nazis, he lies on a wagon being pulled by his captors. The shot is a close-up, from above. Sotnikov’s head sticks off the edge of the wagon, stark white snow moving under it. He seems to levitate in relation to the blurred ground. His face is flecked with frost. His eyes are distant, perhaps locked onto some rapidly approaching metaphysical realm. Life is leaking out of him, and he floats, a prelude to his eventual martyrdom. The poetic fluidity of motion transforms the material into the transcendental.
Come and See’s outstanding moment, one of many (and one that, thankfully, provides no real spoilers), depicts a bombing of Byelorussian partisans camped in a forest, including the film’s young hero, Florya (Aleksei Kravchenko), and his pubescent love interest, Glasha (Olga Mironova). As the children wander through an endless expanse of trees, a Nazi explosive crashes near them. When the bomb hits, the film’s aural design is obliterated, then recast. Reflecting the sonic disorientation of the panicked, traumatized Florya, voices and diegetic sounds drop into a wobbly, unintelligible mess. The only audible element is a sharp, destructive ringing as Florya goes temporarily deaf. Wandering frantically through the exploding woods, Florya and Glasha make it to a nearby village, already reached by the Nazis, only to discover the gruesome fate of its inhabitants – the first annihilative step on a hellish journey toward the dark core of war.
In the exceptional canon of Soviet war cinema, The Ascent and Come and See stand equal to, if not above, any film one could name, from Battleship Potemkin (1925) to Ivan’s Childhood (1962). The sheer virtuosity of technique, intensity of characterization, and lucidity of style contained in Shepitko and Klimov’s films make it clear that their names should be included on any list of Soviet cinematic masters, alongside Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Dovzhenko, Parajanov, Tarkovsky, and Sokurov. However, both filmmakers remain relatively overlooked. With two of Shepitko’s films recently made available through Criterion’s Eclipse series, this will hopefully change, as both directors are disappointingly underrepresented on DVD. Even if The Ascent and Come and See were the only legacies left by this cinematic couple, their reputations would be sufficiently solidified; once you’ve seen them, you’ll never forget them.