Belarus: winter 1942. A partisan unit, moving through the deep snow, is retreating from a German special anti-partisan commando. Among the partisans are women and children from the devastated villages: everyone is worn out und utterly exhausted. Two men – an experienced partisan called Rybak, and Sotnikow, a Soviet officer who broke through enemy lines to join the partisans after his own unit was surrounded – leave the group to procure provisions. Sotnikow is ill and could have refused the assignment; but stubbornly, and with his last reserves of energy, he chooses to follow Rybak through the snow-covered fields and the icy winds.
The partisans have a chance encounter with the militia, who are collaborating with the Germans, and only manage to escape with great difficulty. They seek refuge in a farmhouse, where they are taken prisoner. They are interrogated and tortured, and have to live with the tormenting fear of certain death.
Under these extreme conditions, fundamental differences in their characters appear. One of the two, Rybak, searches for a way out, a compromise, and soon finds himself in a situation in which he acts against his conscience. He becomes a traitor. The other, Sotnikow, is convinced that he is fighting for a just cause and, with this awareness, manages to overcome his fears of all that lies ahead. He radiates of an almost supernatural confidence and sense of superiority, thus providing a source of comfort and moral support for the other prisoners. His inner strength proves particularly distressing to his adversary, the Russian Commissar Portnow, who is working for the Germans. […]
Translated from: Festival-Programmblatt der 27. Internationalen Filmfestspiele Berlin 1977
by Larissa Schepitko
with Boris Plotnikow, Wladimir Gostjuchin, Ludmila Poljakowa