Come and See (1985)

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I have been trying to get my hands on a copy of this for years. I expected it to be incredible and it was. The film that I imagined it to be is indeed in it, as part of a section that goes beyond what I’d imagined and fully off the deep end. That section roughly forms the final third of the film – excepting a coda whose success I would not have thought possible either after what precedes it or on its own terms. The first half of this film, and the section preceding the one described, is a different beast. Altogether as a film, it seems foolish to write about Come and See, but I can at least say confidently that it deserves recognition alongside those whose work it brings to mind: Remarque, Tarkovsky, Solzhenitsyn, Hemingway, Coppola, Dostoyevsky, even Levi and Lanzmann.

The recurring, defining image is Florya’s aghast face, directly at the camera. His role in CaS is like the camera’s in that it fluctuates between embodying our viewpoint, (we are constantly involved, as in the reccie sprint to the treeline) reflecting that viewpoint back to us, or constituting the object of the audience’s gaze. At these moments however he embodies the Revelations quotation that inspired the title:

And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see! And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.

Belarus in 1943 is a point at which expressionist religious imagery and realistic mimesis convene; it is the hell we have been told we can only imagine, cast onto the real landscape and into the towns and villages.

(The non-sequential summaries I have read seem reductive; the sequencing and development of CaS deserve parallel description, so I will go through it chronologically here)

Opening with a man telling boys not to dig. Beckettian waiting, searching for the treasure of a gun which will enable them to go and fight. After their success the credits roll over the sound of a plane drone, (instrumental? a leitmotif that evokes Hemingway’s Spanish War on planes’ perspective and terrorist factor) marshal drumming and a brass march. Throughout CaS recognisable classical music is interwoven and layered with Oleg Yanchenko’s own score and often dense field recordings; chaos that occasionally gives way to recognition or clarity.

The mother’s direct appeal to the camera. Lav Diaz. F only with a brainless smirk which will slowly depart, as the game which he makes out of his mother’s grief to entertain his twin sisters becomes real life. Other characters stare into us (the general with a hardened gaze, the german commander like Achebe’s ‘Vultures’ with his bushbaby) but none are so striking, besides F, as Glasha. Piercing blue eyes. Her games with F: masculine / feminine conflict, (a soul) a glimpse through machismo. (The amazing line: “you’re not living. You don’t hear the birds singing”) After twining with and being wrenched away from F she will be left behind with the starving mothers; she makes a harrowing visual reappearance as a victim and a symbol of the violent rape of the nation. Nazi on the importance of eradicating children to prevent the continuation of races that do not have “the right to exist;” genocide as a crime aiming to destroy all its witnesses – the importance of come and see.

I understood that this would be a very brutal film and that it was unlikely that people would be able to watch it. I told this to my screenplay coauthor, the writer Ales Adamovich. But he replied: “Let them not watch it, then. This is something we must leave after us. As evidence of war, and as a plea for peace.”

The sparing use of weapons in the first half is confined mainly to the exploding trees. The destruction seems to be coming up out of the Earth; nature vomiting violence, inhumanity crawling out of a hole and spreading across the continent like the soldiers who then stalk across the clearing.

The expressionistic detail kicks in here as the violence induces distortion: the watchful stork; the frenetic dance atop the wet wooden box with imagined ragtime. Nod to Ivan’s Childhood as F looks down the well near his home.

At and after which the culmination of the first half: the true horror; the truly nightmarish device of G seeing the bodies of the family F is looking for – sprinting both to and away, split denial; bird recordings swelling into an oppressive hail. At the camp a choral score and folk chanting and disembodied ghostly voices and drones as the visions explode – the uncle again, burnt alive: “didn’t I tell you not to dig?” It would be better to die with the family than go on seeing; later punishment of being posed for a Nazi photo (mirroring the patriotic, powerfully earthen Red Army one at the beginning) with a gun to his temple that isn’t fired. “It’s all my fault” c/ the blameless beginning. Halfway with a full moon – nadir. This first part is like a cross between Mirror and Aguirre, the psychological nightmare of war.

Realism in the second half after partial recovery. The Nazis become banal, evil but apprehensible: they drop empty bottles and leaflets “Kill the bolshevik kikes! Smash a brick in their ugly mugs!” (“Is that all?”)

The Kurosawa mist after the cow’s death (see Andrei Rublev). Out of this born into the main sequence, drawn from the germ of the film: the destruction and massacre of Belarusian villages (over 600).

The development leading from the raid of the village, through the herding of the villagers, their captivity, F’s escape, the fire – inevitable slide, horrifying pacing and accretion. I can only compare with the painting that I anticipated from the beginning of the fatal rounding up. After the modernist horror of the first section we are still firmly in the realist mode, (“maintain order and discipline!”) and now we are looking not at the war itself (behind which the Germans had appeared so comically banal) but at the enemy, who embody inhumanity. (this is interesting analysis wrt/ Ivan’s Childhood, but doesn’t stress enough the more “subjective” experience of CaS‘s first half, which is more Tarkovskian – thereby, I think, dramatising the kind of stylistic shift that the essay tracks from Khrushchev-to-Glasnost era change. Think it also inaccurately stresses the second half’s “sense of not-quite-participant, of being present and yet disconnected” – see the bullets almost hitting the camera in the cow scene.) This is War and it is war: while acknowledging the eurocentrism this is the absolute trough of modern human experience, the horrifying pinnacle that we can barely look in the face. In the heat of the flames – both onscreen and of the film itself – there are moments like forged carbon motes which defy explanation: the applause; the bushbaby; a beautiful female officer eating lobster in a van’s front seat; a senile Russian grandmother gazing wistfully into the distance in front of the furnace.

A reckoning, which is determined but does not emulate. Then the film begins to break down: filtered historical shots. The Village Voice: “The bit of actual death-camp corpse footage that Klimov uses is doubly disturbing in that it retrospectively diminishes the care with which he orchestrates the town’s destruction.” I agree except for “diminishes” – it strengthens the imperative to represent by exposing it. It is truly horrifying.

The coda is of a piece with this moment, but I will not describe it here, except to say that it is seared with rage and absurdity, a scream back down history towards the glow reflected in the eyes of The Cabinet and in the portrait of a blank infant boy on his mother’s knees.

Total film – all stops are pulled out. Everything is given time to settle in; there is no conciliatory suggestion or editing. This could not be made again or in another country. I am amazed that it really exists at all. Mentioned some artists that I would compare this to but it really is total.

Klimov did not make any more films after Come and See, leading some critics to speculate as to why. In 2001, Klimov said, “I lost interest in making films … Everything that was possible I felt I had already done.”

I think this is probably the greatest film ever made about war, (without including Shoah in that definition) and one of the greatest films ever made.

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