Dir. Elem Klimov. Starring Aleksey Kravchenko, Vladas Bagdonas, Olga Mironova
Come and See lays animals into the picture in ways that I don’t think any other war movie even attempts to do. Consider the turkeys which get full camera focus in Flor’s house, or the cow that Roubej gives his life to steal. Think of the crane that follows Flor and Glasha around in the forest, before Flor finds out that his family has been murdered; it peeks into their little hut of sticks at one point and surveys the small surroundings. And of course there’s that loris which rides around on the German commander’s shoulder, who is captured as much as his owner and is inspected by the Soviet partisans. Animals can normalize a scene; the turkeys are commonplace, and the cow seems a worthy prize for partisans to abscond with. Animals can also create a sense of unease when we see them where they are unexpected. That crane is strange in that forest, a representative of the weird; the loris, cute as it is, has those giant eyes that add shock and strangeness to the Nazis who vaporize Perekhody village. And sometimes animals are both common and unnerving, as when Flor accidentally crushes a bird’s nest.
Come and See aims for the uncanny from the get-go. In the first shot of the film, we see the back of an old men’s head as he swivels around, yelling at the local boys not to look for guns in the sand. I wondered if the camera, with its cheap resolution, would stay there and record the man as he continued to turn around, and the camera remains as the man looks and speaks directly into it. This is one of my favorite techniques in a film; there is nothing a director or DP can do which is so startling and off-putting as letting their actor look directly into the audience. Ferris Bueller does it for the lols, and it’s on purpose. The fourth wall is not breached, much less broken, lightly. If it’s done, the strangeness of putting the person on screen into any kind of conversation with the viewers can really mess with their heads; thus the use of comedy, which takes advantage of our nervousness to make us more susceptible to jokes. Klimov doesn’t have many jokes for his characters to tell. They act like the camera is not there, and they look directly at us in a way that is uncanny.
The whole movie is uncanny in that way. It lives to put its characters faces in close-up, and when the camera looks at them, they look back. It is remarkable how frequently it occurs – it happens more in two hours of Come and See than it does in all of the other movies I’ve ever seen put together – and what’s even more remarkable is that it never loses its power. That success must be attributed to his actors as much as Klimov himself. Kravchenko’s face goes from the face of a bright, whimsical boy to the face of an old man, much like the viewer does. Part of that is makeup, naturally, but I think some of it has to do with the chronological filming schedule, which goes from merely tense to some of the most horrific and jawdropping filmmaking of all time. It would not surprise me if Kravchenko were a changed person between the beginning and end of the filming process.
Come and See indulges frequently in screams but rarely in baby’s cries, and it uses an abstract score to create anxiety. In one scene, as Flor and Glasha attempt to cross a bog together, their cries and grunts as they try not to sink into the marsh and drown, punching through mud with a rifle, are silent. It’s the score that takes over. And I only realized after that scene, which is agonizingly McQueen-esque in length, that my upper back had tightened into knots; I spent most of the next three or four minutes trying to roll my shoulders back into place.
For all of the work that it does sonically, though, Come and See means to throttle you with its imagery. The old man who leads off the movie, we find out later, has been burned to a crisp by German soldiers having a lark. His charred body is one of the images which is indelible and savage. Others include the skull sticking out of an improvised explosive hidden under a German army jacket; the burning building where the population of Perekhody is extinguished; the bloody, shuffling legs of a teenage girl gang-raped by German soldiers. How could anyone imagine these images? asks the viewer on the couch, and the response comes immediately, Because real things are not imagined. The film tells us towards the end that nearly 700 Byelorussian villages got the treatment from the Einsatzgruppen which Perekhody did in the film: brutal extermination, with only a few remaining to spread the terror. The burning building is especially impressive here, because it impresses upon the viewer something like relief at first. When the Germans arrive in their swarms, it is a fearful moment, and the storing of the villagers in the one church is equally nervous. It’s very clear that none of those people will survive the morning. When the church is set fire to, it creates a feeling almost of relief as the doors stay closed; after nearly two hours of atrocities, one cannot bear to watch another one. (There were more, of course.) But as the fire lasts longer and longer and as the screams continue and as the scene keeps playing, the viewer’s imagination takes over. Without showing a single person melting or ablaze, Klimov wins again. The bloody respite only becomes bloodier, and after those two hours of atrocities the mind is utterly tenderized. I have never known another movie to treat me more like a slab of meat and pound me so repeatedly. If it isn’t the impish smile of Glasha or the crying visage of Flor or the unnatural long bill of the crane to create the uncanny, then it’s the unremitting violence of the last hour which promises no safe harbor.
As Flor becomes more and more enmeshed in war crimes, they become more expected but no more understandable, and we don’t have any tools to cope with them. When the Germans pose him for a picture – a Walther against his head – and then drop him, more interested in the souvenir than the killing, he crumples up and falls to the ground and stays there. I did about the same thing.
World War II is America’s Good War, the one that we had to fight to stop the menace of Hitler and fascism and Japanese expansionism. What often goes unspoken in America about World War II is that it is not “the Good War” for Russians, who lost somewhere between 20 and 40 million to the war. Russians, especially Russian citizens, took the brunt of the war in the way that no other nationals can relate to. This is the World War II movie worth watching, not a vainglorious trumpeting of the values of a war, but the high-pitched agonizing calamity which makes it very clear what happens when the battle is joined.