Voskhozhdeniye (Ascent) (1976)
Director: Larisa Shepitko.
Starring: Boris Plotnikov (Sotnikov), Vladimir Gostyukhin (Rybak), Sergei Yakovlev (Village elder), Lyudmila Polyakova (Demchikha), Viktoriya Goldentul (Basya), Anatoli Solonitsyn (Portnov, the Nazi interrogator), Mariya Vinogradova (Village elder's wife), Nikolai Sektimenko (Stas').
two Soviet partisans fight against the Germans
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire movie.
It's winter in the Soviet Union with lots of snow on the ground. Gun fire is heard amidst the howling wind. After it stops, people in heavy coats get up from hiding and start moving again. Then a German truck is seen coming their way. The call goes out: "Punishment squad! Germans!" The leader of the group shouts: "Everyone into the woods!" The truck stops and German soldiers start jumping out. A fire fight commences. The Russians start taking casualties, but a number of German soldiers are either wounded or killed. The long column of villagers moves into the woods. After awhile the leader tells the people to rest. He asks Krotsky to get out something to eat. The people don't have much food. So the leader sends some guys to to get some food. They are asked to check out the Kurgaev farm. After all, it's still a long way to Dubovai. Matyushenko is to be one of the men going. But the man says he has to fix the machine gun. So two other men are chosen: Sotnikov and Koyal Rybak. Sotnikov has a really bad cough. He tells Rybak that he once was a math teacher. After quite a bit of walking the two men find the Kurgaev farm destroyed by the Germans.
Rybak tells Sotnikov to stay at the farm while he goes ahead a couple of kilometers to see if he can find anyone. But Sotnikov, despite his coughing, follows him. Rybak tells Sotnikov thank you for tagging along. Rybak doesn't like to be alone. Not finding anyone, the men decide to find a village.
They come across an old man and have something to eat. Rybak kills a sheep and throws it over his shoulders to take it back to their hungry comrades. As they start walking back they are discovered by German soldiers. A fire fight breaks out. Sotnikov is wounded in the leg. Rybak plunges into some woods and, still carrying the sheep, forces his way through the bushes and small trees. He gets quite far away from the firing, but then decides to go back for Sotnikov. He pulls on Sotnikov while Sotnikov uses his legs to help push his body through the snow. Rybak runs into a lake and they have to negotiate around it.
As they walk around the lake they come to an empty cabin. Rybak helps Sotnikov into the cabin. He says he will come back for him. But then he discovers that there are three children in the cabin. The older girl tells the Partisans that father has gone away and mom is working for an old man for food. The mother's name is Demchikha. While they talk, mother arrives. She comes in and asks what's this about? Mother is a bit worried by the men and Sotnikov tells Rybak: "Let's go!" But as they look outside from the farm house, they see three German soldier coming to the house. Mother tells the guys to get up in the attic. They do.
The German soldiers come into the house. They look around, but are not concerned. But then Sotnikov coughs and the Germans start looking for the man who coughed. One of the soldiers sticks his head up into the attic to look around. He then gets his automatic weapon and says he will strafe the attic. To prevent this, Rybak gives up. The Germans put the two Partisans into a horse-drawn sled. They bring along with them the mother of the two children. Mom is very worried about what will happen to her three children back at home.
Passing through a village, the Russians look at the three prisoners in the sled going by them. The prisoners see the Nazi flag hanging from a building. Arriving at the jail, Rybak gets beaten by the Russian guards working with the Germans. Sotnikov also gets beaten up a bit.
Sotnikov is brought before the Russian interrogator. The interrogator named Portnov asks guard Gamanyuk why is this man roughed-up? Gamanyuk asks why is that his fault? Portnov demands that Gamanyuk untie Sotnikov. He does so. Portnov then asks Sotnikov his name and Sotnikov tells him to call him Ivanov. The interrogator wants to know his squadron and the name of the leader. He also wants to know how long the woman (Demchikha) has been his agent? Sotnkiov absolutely denies that woman has ever worked for or with them He tells the interrogator not to touch the woman. She has three children, he says. Portnov says that if he wants to save the woman, he will have to give up some important information. Sotnikov says: "I won't betray anyone." The interrogator laughs heartily. Sotnikov calls the interrogator "scum" and "human scum". Portnov says that when the torture begins he will talk. And, even if he didn't talk, they would just get the information from another Partisan.
Portnovv tells Gamanyuk to come in. He says to Sotnikov: "Now you'll see what true scum is." He says that Sotnikov's pride will be replaced by sheer fear, fear of losing his hide. Gamanyuk and another man bring in the instruments of torture. A large star-shaped branding iron is put in the fire to heat it up. Sotnikov has his arms tied behind his back. Then his shirt is ripped open and the branding iron is applied to his chest. The unconscious Sotnikov is awakened with water thrown in his face. Portnov tells the guards to take the man away. Next Rybak is brought in. He gives his real name to the interrogator. He says he was born in 1916 near Gomel. He is much more cooperative than Sotnikov and gives a few names and places. Because of his cooperation, Portnov tells Rybak that he may be offered the job of working for the Germans as a policeman.
Rybak is thrown into a cell. There he finds Sotnikov sleeping. Sotnikov awakens and wants to know how did Ryback do with the interrogator? But Rybak only insists that they must coordinate their stories. He does tell Sotnikov that the Germans offered to take him for the police force. Sotnikov is not pleased with that possibility. Rybak defends himself by saying that Sotnikov is a fool. He says Sotnikov graduated from the Institute for nothing. He accuses Sotnikov of already being in the grave and of trying to drag him into the grave with him.
The prison door is opened. The old man the two Partisans got some food from is thrown inside. Sotnikov calls the guard for some water. After a short wait, a guard pushes a young girl into the cell with some water. He names is Basya Meyer and is the shoemaker's daughter. The Germans want to know from her the name of the person or persons who hid her. Shortly afterwards, Demchikha is thrown into the cell. She is desperately worried about her children all alone in the cabin and she cries. She speaks of Portnov as a Judas. He graduated from the Vitebsk Institute. The young girl says that he was their choir director. When the interrogation is mentioned to Basya, she starts crying.
Sotnikov speaks with Rybak alone. He says he will take all the blame for the death of the German soldier. He pleads with Rybak to not let him die before morning.
In the morning the prisoners are brought outside for "liquidation". Sotnikov shouts that he wants to make a statement. He says he was the one who killed the German soldier and the German should kill him alone, not the others. The interrogator comes over to ask: "What now?" Sotnikov gives Portnov his real name, Boris Andrevich Sotnikov, and tells him he was a teacher at one time. He pleads with Portnov to do something for the others. The interrogator asks the German officers something about the police force. He returns to the prisoners and asks Rybak if he still wants to join the police force? Rybak says: "Yes!"
When Demchikha hears that Rybak will be spared, she begs the interrogator to release her too. She says she will tell the interrogator who hid Basya. She gives a name, but the interrogators dismisses it saying that the man is already gone. The interrogator then puts Rybak to work helping to execute the prisoners. Sotnikov is disgusted by Rybak and knocks him down. Rybak gets back up and helps escort the prisoners down a village road to their place of execution. Rybak thinks about escaping, but doesn't do anything.
As the prisoners approach the place of execution, they are shocked to see that they are going to be hanged, not shot. Demchikha gasps at the prospect. All the villagers are forced to come out to watch the executions. Demchikha begs for mercy for the sake of her children. When she realizes they will do nothing to save her, she calls them "bastards" in her native language. She looks accusingly at Sotnikov and he says to her: "Forgive me."
The four prisoners (a young girl, a middle-aged woman, an old man and Sotnikov) are made to stand either on a bench or on a tree stump, or, in the young girl's case, on both. With the nooses around their necks, the bench and tree stumps are pushed over and the four start slowly to strangle to death. The Germans put up a sign saying: "We're Partisans who shot German soldiers." The other Russian guards congratulate Rybak on a job well performed. (But one of the Russian villagers in the crowd calls Rybak a Judas.) The interrogator tells Rybak to come and see him later. Rybak goes into the latrine, locks the door and tries to hang himself using his own belt. He tries twice, but both times the belt can't hold his weight.
He gives up and comes out of the latrine. He stares at the open prison gate. He screams and cries.
Good movie. Simple, uncomplicated story. Through telling the story of two Russian Partisans fighting the Germans, the audience gets a better idea of some of what the Partisans were up against. With the brutal Germans on one side of the world and the brutal Japanese on the other, World War II was a particularly terrible war. The fascists virtually completely blurred the distinction between soldier and civilian. Both groups, civilians and soldiers, could be summarily executed regardless of what they did or didn't do. Given the brutality of the Germans, I think I would have tried to kill the Germans in the farm house rather than surrender. I was shocked when the two Russian Partisans just surrendered. Another interesting choice presented to the Partisans was: refuse to cooperate and die or cooperate and live.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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