Come and See
An Immersion in Atrocity
What makes for an immersive film experience? The most obvious answer would be to see the film in the cinema, but many films watched in film theatres don't offer the intensity demanded. We can't thus reduce it to the technology, but nor can we indicate it is simply the variables at work which makes us in a particular mood on one day, and another the next. While, ideally, it makes sense to watch a film in the cinema on a large screen with a great speaker system, we know of plenty examples when we have watched a film in such circumstances and come away from the movie quite indifferent; other instances where we have watched a film on a small TV screen, even a laptop, and felt very engaged indeed. If we could have seen that film we watched on the small screen in the cinema, would it have been even more engaging? Perhaps, but so many of these experiences are based on the mood we are in, the expectations we have before hand and where we are in our lives. None of this is irrelevant, but it is very hard to make claims for such experiences except to write as directly about the work from that encounter. We needn't claim the film is overrated or underrated, a masterpiece, a work of that was so enthralling or so unengaging. This might so often be the language of criticism, but it seems to us to be little more than in the realm of opinion. Opinion is often too close to a personal response - that the film is too long might mean that one's bladder is too small; that the actor lacked charm may rest on a particular set of characteristics we have never found appealing.
All this is by way of introducing Come and See, Elem Klimov's 1985 account of WWII, and more specifically the Nazi German presence in Belarus, where hundreds of villages were ransacked, burnt out and their inhabitants slaughtered. The film narrows its focus chiefly to one young man who finds a rifle buried in the sand and wishes to join up. At the beginning of the film it is a brash and rash wish; by the end of it, after witnessing numerous atrocities, he is ready to fight in earnest. But though the film is harrowing, what makes it such an intense experience one feels is its relationship with time even more than with representation, even if we won't find it easy disentangling these two aspects. In representation we have particular moments that we cannot easily watch; in time we have the accumulation of moments that are not easy to experience. There is a moment in Come and See that is a very extended sequence that took place during the war: the Nazis put a village full of folk into a barn and set fire to it. The scene is based on historical record, but so much more indirectly was one in the later The Patriot (a World War II incident in France) and retransplanted into the American Civil War: a deed done by the English to the Americans. The scene in The Patriot is not hard to watch even if it is representationally similar enough to the moment in Come and See for it to pass for doubly disrespectful: it plagiarises from a masterpiece, and steals from history for its own commercial ends. But our point is that it is relatively easy to view as Come and See is not. This is where the temporal dimension of the film is vital. For two and a half hours in Elem Klimov's we watch a boy become increasingly immersed not just in war, but hell, and one reason why it happens to be hell is that the boy cannot easily either act or perceive. In many a war movie, the focus is on adulthood and on action, so that atrocities can be countered by acts of revenge and by territory regained. Equally, even if the film is focused on the child, then the film can offer reliable perception, Come and See closes down both avenues. Though Florya (Alexai Kravchenko) wishes to join the army, while he literally sees action, he can't participate in it, and perhaps after all can't even witness it. Instead, he goes a little crazy, as if in lieu of advancing towards action he retreats into a melodramatic madness, as though seeing events that confirm his worst fears about humankind rather than finding the best values within himself. What makes the film all the more despairing is that the events are as we've noted based on historical fact. The film concludes by telling us of the hundreds of villages burnt down. Saving Private Ryan, A Bridge Too Far and numerous other WWII films do not tell us that war is hell even if also based on facts; they tell us war is complicated at best, will make a man out of you if given to the jingoistic and the macho. Come and See does indeed make a man out of the young boy. By the film's conclusion he looks like he has aged many years in a matter of months. His face is lined and his hair turning grey. War has made a man out of him but the only action he has seen has been action he couldn't quite countenance - or couldn't do anything about. Indeed, some of the action he sees retrospectively. He returns to the village and finds his mother and his siblings dead, bodies piled up behind the dacha and flies surrounding the food. The deaths are recent but the perpetrators long gone. The best our hero can do is go into frenzied denial, with the film managing to move into a subjective mindset without losing the objective need to show us the realities of war.
The realities of war is a big phrase, one that films like Saving Private Ryan have insisted they have shown us, but perhaps these realities create a paradox: that the reality of war can best be found in the poetics of experience. Klimov turns the film into the most gruelling act of rite of passage, a film that wants the real rather than reality: wants us to countenance the shock of what we cannot easily imagine over the brilliance of what cannot easily be recreated. This is central to the difference between Spielberg's film and Klimov's. Spielberg seems to say that now we have the technology to capture events as they happened, as he utilises numerous camera speeds, complex sound effects and CGI to make us feel that we are there, Klimov instead indicates that we are never there, that the human couldn't possibly experience such atrocity without at least some capacity for denial. This makes Come and See paradoxically very realistic and thoroughly surreal. The lengthy steadicam shots create a woozy sense of a world disintegrating around the character while he is disintegrating inside himself. He seems to be dreaming a war that can at any moment turn into a nightmare, with Klimov's sound suggesting that everything is taking place inside his head. He might be dreaming when he watches entranced the lovely young blonde dancing for him the rain; he is witnessing a nightmare when people are pushed out of their homes and into the barn in the film's lengthy last section.
In one scene when he is expected to remember the names of everyone in a house to prove that he comes from the village, the film enters the numerically surreal: somehow Klimov has managed to fit everyone into the cramped space of one room and used a lens wide enough to get them within the frame. Horribly, it foreshadows the later scene in the outhouse, as though if this many people are willing to share a house, think how many you can burn in a barn. It is a terrible transposition that we might believe only a Nazi logic can entertain, but part of Klimov's nightmare is to get us to entertain it too. We find it hard to believe that there are so many people inside a dacha that looks no bigger than the one our central character, his mother and two siblings occupy earlier in the film, but there they are, as our incredulity is stretched further, and our sense of what a human is capable of, likewise, when the Nazis push body after body in the tightest of spaces all the better to set them on fire.
It is is one of the great set-pieces in cinema, and we must be careful how we phrase this since so often critics talk about great set-pieces that from another point of view are terrible historical moments. 'The Ride of the Valkyries' scene in Apocalypse Now is obviously Coppola's specific take on events, but someone from Vietnam watching the film might not see Coppola's brilliant innovation and choreography, but their own tragic history dwarfed by aesthetic indulgence. There must be a place where we can talk about aesthetics that attends to the ethical without falling into it, without demanding of film that it plays fair to the facts and must always subsume the aesthetic to some perceived moral reality. In other words, how can we defend Apocalypse Now while condemning The Patriot, how can we talk about the set-piece in the former while condemning the appropriation of an event for easy cinematic gain in the latter? We can talk here about convention, confrontation and realisation, or realism. The Patriot is a conventional film that wants as straightforwardly as possible to show the Americans gaining independence and presents the English as awful enough for such a desire to be entirely warranted. Ergo, we have a scene from WWII transposed to the American Civil War so that this awfulness can be manifest. It starts with a conventional feeling which we might call outrage, and then fishes around for an example of it, finding from the dictionary of atrocity the Nazi razing of a village in France. Coppola does not want the convention; he wants provocation and thus aestheticises the bombing of a Vietnamese village using Wagner all the better to say this is an Imperial mindset at work. He does not say the Americans are like the Nazis, but again we might believe the Nazis have been evoked. But this time not at all for the sake of convention but for confrontation: to feel the adrenaline buzz of men given immense power and then abusing it with immense firepower. Coppola crosscuts between the troops in the helicopters and the Vietnamese going about their business, but it would be a stretch to say he empathises with the latter. Coppola presents a way of life; he doesn't present a people, and certainly not persons. They are in film terms extras, not leads, not even character players. But what Coppola would seem to want to convey is the pointlessness of the US fighting in Vietnam, when they have very little to fight for but astonishing machinery to fight with. There is a complex idea behind the set-piece; a simple-minded one behind The Patriot.
Yet they are both set-pieces and so is the scene of the barn-burning in Come and See. The scene is no more realistic than Coppola's sequence, no matter if it is much more precisely historically accurate. Klimov seeks like Coppola a realisation but without confrontation: in other words, he doesn't want to make us side with the killers as Coppola's adrenaline kick sequence happens to do. He wants us always to remain behind the eyes of a boy who cannot quite believe what he is witnessing, what he is part of, what he may or may not escape. The film's realism rests on its realisation: it wants to show the shock of the real for a boy who cannot absorb what is happening to him. In another film, with a weaker sensibility, we might expect the boy to be shaken out of his stupor and become a killing machine, But the film is his stupor and Klimov wants to stay in it all the better to show us the reality of his experience. Subsequently, we watch the barn-burning not from between our fingers, but behind the boy's eyes. It is vivid but not atrociously realistic. Klimov stays outside the barn as it burns, as if attending to a hundred and one other things that are taking place partly because the boy is trying to make sense of his surroundings. The director refuses it as a singular tragedy that demands all our attention by showing other things going on at the same time, with the Germans finishing off the burning of the village, preparing to leave etc. We shouldn't be afraid to talk of set-pieces in fllm no matter how horrific the events the set-piece happens to show us are. But if we keep in mind, history, ethics and aesthetics we should avoid falling into the insensitive. Come and See possesses one of the great set-pieces in film, no less so than Apocalypse Now. If we are resistant to regard The Patriot in the same category it isn't only that it lacks the ethical and aesthetic complexity of those in Klimov and Coppola's films, it is that it denies the complexity it invites. Any film that believes it can conflate an actual historical event from the 1940s and transpose it to the 1770s without at all attending to the nature of that historical sleight of hand has made what we usually call a 'dubious entertainment'.
What makes an entertainment dubious, in our reckoning, is when it wants the pleasure of villainy, for example, without attending to the complexity of the evil that it invokes. Sometimes a filmmaker will deliberately offer this dubious entertainment and perhaps nobody more so than Quentin Tarantino when he wishes us to feel the pleasure of sadism and the horror of torture at the same time in Reservoir Dogs, or wants us to feel the glee of Christoph Waltz playing a cruel and calculating Nazi while we squirm with our identificatory characters Michael Fassbinder and Melanie Laurent in Inglourious Basterds. But The Patriot director Roland Emmerich wants to take advantage of the dubiousness without acknowledging the nature of it. Tarantino is problematic because he wants to entertain us with the 'unentertaining' and we are diegetically caught between the pleasure of the entertainment and the displeasure of what that entertainment is signifying. We are put into the position of sadists and masochists often simultaneously. Tarantino doesn't so much produce art (which is what we believe Coppola and Klimov achieve), but he does complicate entertainment. Emmerich simplifies the entertainment yet nevertheless makes it dubious if we know anything about history while watching The Patriot. One knows this is a transposition for entertainment ends: to make the English ever more villainous and our American heroes all the more heroic and understandably vengeful. The set-piece can be masterful as 'pure' entertainment or as 'pure' art, but while the pure entertainment must remove itself from the complications of history and society, pure ar' will almost certainly involve that society and history. Occasionally there are those who manage to make art out of abstracting events (like Jean-Pierre Melville), just as there are entertainments that manage to become art partly because they entertain the societal - Jaws as a great cover-up film from the mid-seventies that can't help but invoke Watergate. But when a film piggybacks off atrocities far stronger than its aesthetic can, so to speak, entertain, then we arrive at dubious entertainment in the worse sense. The Patriot is that worst sense.
Come and See carries with it the burden of history that Klimov was well aware of while making the film. He was also still going through a difficult period in his own life, having worked on Rasputin over a number years, facing various censorial problems along the way, and lost his wife while making it: the filmmaker Larissa Shepitko. Come and See's budget was high, the sort of funding filmmakers in the Soviet Union would get when making films that were speaking to the nation. And spoke to the nation it indeed managed: almost 29 million Russians saw the film, according to Denise Jeanne Youngblood. (Russian War Films) Yet the film doesn't at all feel propagandistic, quite distinct both from Eisenstein's masterful but unequivocal twenties films, Strike, Battleship Potemkin and October, and late fifties post-Stalinist works, The Cranes are Flying, Destiny of a Man, Ballad of a Soldier and others. This lies partly in its passivity, as if the aspect of suffering prevalent in Soviet cinema as sacrifice manifests itself here as unequivocal despair. The Russians might have done more than anyone to win the war if we equate military victory with human cost: some twenty-seven million lplus people ost their lives in one form or anotther to the war effort, but Klimov isn't much interested in seeing the sacrifice offering a greater success. Come and See was released four years before the collapse of the Berlin Wall and contains within it the despair we can find in numerous films of that late period: The Asthenic Syndrome, Letters to a Dead Man, Whispering Pages and Don't Move, Die and Rise Again! amongst numerous films that indicated a country falling apart. The great myths that could sustain the early years after the revolution and the Kruschev period in the late fifties couldn't be maintained by the mid-eighties. There is a sense in Come and See that people were lambs to various slaughters of which the Nazi occupation in Belarus was the most appalling. This isn't to suggest that the numerous crimes done in the name of Communism were equal to those of the invading Nazis: this would be too close to the very thing we have been attacking The Patriot over: seeing one atrocity as interchangeable with another. More to say that while the earlier Soviet films we have mentioned indicate a further victory out of defeat or despair, Come and See acknowledges almost exclusively the nigtmare. When near the beginning of the film Florya says he is off to fight, the mother picks up an axe and says he might as well slaughter her there and then. She will be left along with the two young siblings. His purpose should be stay and defend the family home rather than go off and fight for his country. Would a twenties or fifties Soviet film have such a scene?
Let us not pretend to be any more of an expert on Soviet cinema than we happen to be, but nevertheless, this scene is obviously more affiliated with a cinema of hopelessness rather than hope. Though of course set during a World War the Soviet Union was central to winning, by being made at a time near the end of the cold war that it was so clearly losing, Klimov puts into his film both his personal and his social despair., someone who seemed to anticipate things to come. By the mid-eighties, few believed that the Soviet Union could compete with the West ideologically and materially. In Camera Historica, Antoine de Baecque, quotes historian Jacques Rupnik saying The Roman and Ottoman empires took more than two centuries to fall apart, the Soviet empire less than two years. Strobe Talbott, in an essay 'The Man who Lost an Empire' says that neither Gorbachev nor Reagan realized that the empire itself was on the verge of implosion. From the day he became general secretary, Gorbachev paid little attention to the Soviet vassal states of the Warsaw Pact. He believed that they would follow his own reforms. After all, since the early 1950s, East Germany, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia had made attempts to liberalize, only to be invaded by Soviet tanks. (New York Review of Books) But anyone looking closely at the films of the period might have seen it coming. The irony is that if Come and See is one of the greatest of war films (as the fifties ones are not), this lies in acknowledging a context beyond the war itself, as if aware of a despair the war contained but that the contemporary life Klimov was living in in the Soviet Union was exacerbating. One reason many see it as such a great war film rests on its unremitting aspect, a feeling that by the end of the film when Florya joins up this is because he has nothing to live for rather than something to fight for. He may have gone through a hell that makes fighting the Nazis a necessity, but this isn't the same as saying he will be fighting with much hope.
If many a film has a problem convincing us that war is hell this partly because of our earlier point: the difference between watching and experiencing. Steven Spielberg in Saving Private Ryan wants us to experience the first twenty minutes of the film but watch the rest. The film loses its internal tension to satisfy an audience demand: clearly identificatory characters searching out a clear goal. and arriving at audience gratification. Tom Hanks, Ed Burns, Jeremy Davies and others go in search of the missing Private Ryan. After all, Mrs Ryan has lost her other three sons; it is imperative the last must survive. We watch them find him; we don't experience the war. Vital to the intensity of Come and See is that Klimov insists we watch nothing and experience everything. In the earlier scene when Florya and the young Glasha (Olga Mironova) he meets return to Floryan's home, we don't watch Florya's return; we experience it. Thus the bodies remain mainly offscreen as if Florya cannot face the reality of his family and villagers having been slaughtered as the film relies on metonymy to register the horror: the flies that he finds everywhere when he returns. This makes the experience all the more horrific for the viewer too, perhaps, since we cannot look away at a fly: it is hardly there on screen at all and, anyway, the sound is constant. This makes death doubly horrific: people haven't just been slaughtered, they are also in the process of a mass decomposition. Rather than sentimentally giving us a brief image of the bodies accompanied by a bit of Bach or Pachelbel, Klimov insists on the music of nature, with the fly both the apotheosis and the antithesis of foreshadowing. It is the antithesis because the fly comes after the event: it dawdles over the death that has already taken place. But it is also foreshadowing: we notice the flies gathering in and around the house and know something untoward has happened. Thus we experience the flies and also the deaths as we might only have watched the bodies had the film focused too exclusively upon them.
Another way in which we watch films rather than experience them is if we feel the film is a means to an end. Some of those Soviet films of the fifties only really wanted us to experience what was necessary so that a point could be made, and that point rested on the immense patriotism of the Soviet War effort. This is clear in Destiny of a Man when the soldier gets to return home from the front only long enough to kiss his girlfriend and get back on the train to fight again. The purpose is to convey patriotism far more than exhaustion and waiting. Waiting and exhaustion are present, but for a further ideological goal. Eisenstein's genius rested in making the experience at least as strong as the watching. He doesn't just let us witness the massacre on the Odessa steps in Battleship Potemkin, he asks to experience it, to feel caught up in the middle of the chaos. Nevertheless, one comes away from the film knowing what should be done: hope is much more present than despair. In Come and See despair is much more present than hope, as if the experience has been so gruelling that one cannot watch it all, cannot see in it either entertainment nor purpose. By the end we might believe it isn't about war at all: it isn't a war film but a hell film: a film that tries to convey what hell might be like and shows us Nazi atrocities during WWII to find it.
As many have commented, the boy starts young and within months becomes old. Mark Cousins says, the accumulation of horrors [are ] so appalling that his hair turns grey. (The Story of Film) It isn't only his youth that has been taken from him but his adult years too: by the end of the film he is hopelessly and prematurely wizened. If it looks like he is going to join the army initially as a useless young man, too green behind the ears to be of much use, by the end of the film he might be useless all over again, a man too old to fight though still a teenager. This is central to the film's great achievement: it makes us believe in the ageing process, much more successfully than other, very fine films, that show ageing taking place over many more years than Come and See. Whether it is Once Upon a Time in America or Little Big Man, the prosthetic department and great actors (De Niro and Hoffman respectively) work very hard to convince us many years have passed. Yet Klimov does it more successfully even if only a matter of months have gone by. This cannot only rest on casting a young (non-professional) actor who manages to convey in his youthful face age, nor in a makeup department that succeeds in giving his hair a bit of grey and his face quite a few premature lines. It resides also and perhaps most especially in our utter willingness to suspend disbelief as though in a variation of Florya's own. How could somebody not age so greatly in the face of such events that will then show up on his own visage? It is as though the reality he cannot easily face becomes instead the lines that are etched on that face: the conscious denial exacting unconscious despair. If most of us have the occasional nightmare when we sleep, Florya exists in a continual one he can't countenance, and thus on the countenance it will instead show. But of course, there is no sense on Klimov's part that he would expect Florya to do anything else but do his best, however impossible, to protect himself. Indeed, Klimov talked about protecting the very actor in the process of making the film, while determined not to cast a professional who would use technique to do so. "A professional actor...could have protected himself psychologically with his accumulated acting experience and skill." Klimov, though, wanted "to find a simple boy, fourteen years of age. We had to prepare him for the most difficult experiences, then capture them on film. And at the same time, we had to protect him from the stresses so that he wasn't left in the loony bin..." (Soviet and Post Soviet Visions) Casting a non-professional, Klimov conveys well the idea of a young man who doesn't know what is going on around him, and then adds to this wide-eyed wonder that could invoke either awe or dismay, just enough makeup to make clear the transformation. Obviously, this is easier to do with a 14yr old boy ageing rapidly rather than a man ageing very slowly. Hoffman and De Niro are young men who age over a long period of time, and there is technique to be observed in this process as the actors cannot rely on the makeup alone but have to find ways to contain in their bodies old bones that are nevertheless still young, This is the plausibility required of the actor; Klimov demands the plausibility of the mise en scene. In other words, the actor has to control the nature of their performance to convince us that they have aged over decdes; Klimov has to register in his mise-en-scene and the horrors of that mise-en-scene, how quickly a boy can get old. We can admire De Niro and Hoffman's work through the performance; we admire Kravchenko's chiefly through the direction.
And what is that direction? We have already said one or two things about it already, but it is a mise-en-scene that manages to convey the beauty of Belarus with the horrors of war, much rarer a feat than we might think - Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line, of course, did so utilising the Pacific rim, but in a very deliberate way, with Malick putting the war into nature's context. Klimov asks us to see it within the context of the land, a subtle distinction perhaps but central to our understanding of the difference and nevertheless making clear why such an approach is rare. The war film, after all, isn't only a historical reenactment, it is also a genre, as we've noted above. To what degree does the filmmaker wish to violate the generic milieu with a mise-en-scene that transcends that milieu? If we witness bombed out buildings, slaughtered masses, crying babies and hungry mothers, this is not only a town or village, it is more especially motivation: our heroes have lives to avenge. The village fades into the background and the war effort becomes all the more pronounced. The village, we realize, is the ransacked: it doesn't really have a pre-life or an afterlife, and we see this in anything from Platoon to Dunkirk. (Part of Apocalypse's Now's genius is to show very briefly the village's calm before the storm of bullets and bombs raining down on it, but we can't pretend Coppola has an interest in Vietnam village life) Come and See does not indicate the foreshadowed generic catastrophe where a village is merely pre-ransacked, awaiting the generically inevitable, or the post-ransacked where our heroes discover the degree of vengeance that must be taken (as in Braveheart) It is as though the same mise-en-scene could be used for a very different kind of film, not quite a Chekhov story where nothing happens, but close enough for us to feel the tranquillity of the uninvaded, of a quiet place that history could very easily have passed by. If Malick indicates in The Thin Red Line a natural environment devastated by the war it has no inkling of, Klimov here suggests that the villagers are no more culpable over what happens to them than a snake sliding through the grass, a bird singing in a tree. The idea of being burned to death in a barn is an unequivocal atrocity, but all the more so surely if one believes those killed are not soldiers fighting a war, but villagers gasping for their lives. The more the casual nature of that environment is shown, the more horrified we may feel over the lives lost.
Yet the feeling of horror is quite distinct from the feeling of vengeance, Horror can be a passive emotion; vengeance an active one. An aspect of Klimov's brilliance here rests on balancing the two as he offers a very extended scene showing the Germans captured. In the sequence, some of the perpetrators insist that they were only acting under orders as we witness a fear on their faces in some ways greater than the fear on the villagers' visages going to their deaths in the barn. This is understandable: who could have thought such an atrocious fate would await them as being burned alive en masse? The German soldiers know death almost certainly is close to hand: they are soldiers who have just committed an atrocity and have now been captured. Klimov, however, manages to extract from the scene a degree of pity for these pathetic creatures who a few minutes before (in screen time), were perpetrators of terrible acts. It isn't until a proud Nazi (a German who believes the Russians don't deserve to exist) that a number of the Germans are killed. It isn't that the proud Nazi is any worse than the others: he has the courage of his convictions and these are convictions the others share too - just not so blatantly that they wish to lose their lives for them. Though lose them they will anyway, yet in a scene that might seem as sorrowful as vengeful; that can give us a sense of horror without the desire for revenge.
This is exemplified in a sequence using archival footage that reverses time as we see the shocked face of Florya looking as if back through history, seeing how the inexorable rise of Hitler took place. The reverse footage ends with a baby Hitler on his mother's knee, and Florya's anger dissolves in the face of innocence. There we are looking at Hitler's face (though actually another baby altogether made to look like a baby Hitler) and we see innocence on the baby's and its opposite on Florya's. But Florya's anger is stilled, as though aware that the baby we have earlier seen tossed into the barn could be the baby that we see sitting on Hitler's mother's lap. There may be nothing subtle in Klimov's technique, but there is something very subtle about the director's ethical system as he works hard to make an anti-war film that doesn't fall back into a pro-war feeling of vengeance. He does so by immersing the viewer in an experience so intense that we are in hell rather than in battle; that what matters is getting out of hell and not winning the war. That doesn't mean the Russians shouldn't have fought the Nazis, that the loss of twenty-seven million odd lives (the number depends on the source) was irrelevant; what matters even more however is to acknowledge in common parlance that war is hell, a quagmire of despair that can never really have winners or losers, but victims of war itself, and victims of ideologies that start with a baby sitting on someone else's knee. The magnitude of the film's horrors and the deaths it invokes was at least ably matched by roughly the same number of Russian viewers watching the film on its release. A proper example of mass art at work as Russians would have seen aesthetically a political dream collapse while watching ostensibly a film about a war they helped win.
© Tony McKibbin