It is never a good idea to engage in the game of "best ever" or "Top 100" lists -- they are often only useful for what they exclude. In any event, it is worth noting that this 1977 outing by Larisa Shepitko is not included on TIME critic Richard Corliss's list of 100.
And, although a masterpiece like this is greater than the sum of its parts, it is perhaps easier to comprehend why it stands so far above its peers by considering it in parts. To begin with, Shepitko's choice of black-and-white is not one of those self-consciously "arty" choices (as with, for instance, Woody Allen) -- instead, the color scheme serves a symbolic purpose. It also assists in making the snow-blind visuals all the more stark and compelling.
Second, the score, by Russo-German composer Alfred Schnittke is by turns bizarre and terrifying. During the "hallucination" sequences, we hear echoing clarinets and simmering percussion. The music for an execution is an incongruously jolly march, a satire of German military band music. At any rate, Shepitko uses Schnittke's music carefully, doling it out in dribs and drabs (like a cook seasoning a meal) until the very end, when she lets the score roil up to a harrowing climax. I have no reservation in proclaiming her use of music to be the best I have ever encountered in a film. Although Hitchcock's collaborations with Herrmann are fine stuff, here we have a composer of greater technique scoring a movie of greater profundity than any of Hitch's work.
Third, the actors' performances are uniform in their high quality, although particular mention must be made of the (name?) actor who plays Portnov, the turncoat investigator for the Nazis. Much of this actor's power must lie in the physicality of the man himself: the deep-set, bright little eyes, like a pit-bulls'; the little predatory teeth; the bulging nose and forehead. He is every bit the ambitious stooge, gamboling and simpering at the heels of his Nazi handlers like a slightly out-of-place retriever. And the patient gaze of Shepitko's camera allows us to look right down her actors' throats, almost right through them at times.
Fourth, Shepitko's photography is as beautiful as anything by John Ford. She is equally comfortable with the vast, snowy expanse of tundra, or the claustrophobic prison interior, lit by a lantern dangling from a girl's hand.
Another reviewer -- not on this website -- remarked that "The Ascent" is one of those films that you can only bear watching once or twice, so profound is its emotional power. And indeed, it is a bruising, teeth-rattling piece of work. It is certainly not for someone looking for a light bit of entertainment. It should, however, be seen at least once.