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Come and See: An Epic of Derangement

By Will Stone.

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“The lamb opened one of the seals
and I heard one of the four beasts
saying ‘Come and see’…”

             – Revelation of St John the Divine – New Testament

There is a scene at the closing stages of the film Come and See (1985) by Russian director Elem Klimov, where a fanatical SS man cornered by the partisans and incensed at the craven grovelling for mercy of his fellow executioners, spells out with the fervent conviction of an Aryan ‘Meister aus Deutschland’, the reason why they have perpetrated their wholesale massacre on the civilian populace of Byelorussia. ‘Some races do not deserve to exist’. ‘Yours is an inferior race and must by exterminated…our mission will be accomplished whether it be today or tomorrow.’ We have heard the rhetoric before, but in Klimov’s hands in this the final dramatic scene of the film it is as if we are hearing these evil pronouncements afresh. The camera then pans to the disgusted yet somehow composed faces of the partisans, relatives of those recently murdered, their guns levelled at the butchers. In this intense exchange, as in so many others throughout the film, Klimov manages to encapsulate the terrifying supremacy of derangement and inconceivable human debasement that mark the Hitlerian adventure in the East. Humanity is here faced with the unpardonable crime of its own nature and proves unable to do anything more in reply than exact a cauterizing revenge in a hail of bullets…

When the Russian director Elem Klimov died in 2003, he left behind a modest but highly respected body of work often imbued with visionary qualities. He only produced five films, enduring protracted periods between them of frustration and deliberation exacerbated by personal tragedy. What turned out to be his final film would be set in the countryside of Byelorussia in 1943, focusing on the traumatic events there in which mass ethnic cleansing by German occupation forces left over six hundred villages razed to the ground, their populaces annihilated, all in accordance with Hitler’s demands for a ‘gloves off’ racial ‘purification’ of the occupied territories. Klimov, son of devout communists and child of the war, who had endured a harrowing passage with his mother across the Volga during the inferno of Stalingrad, was looking for a vehicle in which to depict the inferno he had witnessed first hand. His last film Agony a lavish production which took a staggering nine years to make and ten more to see release, was set in the Romanov period and followed the life of the ‘mad monk’ Rasputin. Though a critical success, Klimov ultimately considered it a failure due to, in his words, having failed to express ‘those extremely complex emotional states’ which were his original intention. This perceived weakness nagged at Klimov, leaving him with a sense of which he needed to resolve. A book by Ales Adamovich on the massacres at Katyn gave Klimov the bedrock he needed and he decided to set the new film in Byelorussia, scene of some of the worst atrocities on civilians of the war. Originally the film was titled Kill Hitler but to mention Hitler by name at all in that period fell foul of the Soviet authorities. Then the passage from the Revelation of St John the Divine was discovered, and the repetition of the words Come and See gave Klimov his title. Another book which Klimov claimed never left his desk during filming I come from the flaming village, provided gruelling accounts by those few who had survived the SS Einsatzgruppen ‘actions’. Klimov, profoundly moved and struggling to mentally accommodate what he had read, was determined that there would be no blurring of the edges in his account, no falsifying, he had to show things as they had really been, though he confessed afterwards that he felt the film was ‘somewhat reserved’ and that if he had shown the unadulterated truth it would have been unwatchable even by those with the strongest nerves. Even so reports of ambulances speeding to Russian cinemas on its release only confirmed its searing impact.

The ordeal of filming and the difficult subject matter, placed a severe strain on all concerned with it, none more so than its lead actor the virgin performer Alexei Kravchenko, who was only thirteen years when filming began. One of the more notorious stories surrounding the film concerns the fact that Klimov employed methods of hypnosis on his lead actor in order to protect him from the considerable psychological demands of his role. There was a genuine fear that the boy might absorb so much horror he would be left permanently damaged by his experiences. Fortunately this did not happen and Kravchenko, whom Klimov praised for his nerve and composure on set, went on to lead a comparatively normal acting career. Given the scenes witnessed during the film, this is some achievement, especially since Klimov was at pains to make his sets as authentic as possible, even using live ammunition to achieve realism. However, Kravchenko later attested to the fact that in certain harrowing scenes such as the burning of the church he genuinely feared for his sanity.

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Come and See is continually cited as one of the greatest war films ever made, finding its place on lists alongside the likes of Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Cross of Iron (1977). It is hailed for the visceral power of its images and its entirely plausible scenes of carnage. The setting is easily recognisable, World War II and two opposing sides, the partisans and the German occupiers are locked in a grim conflict that offers little alternative but mutual extermination. But this war film categorization becomes onerous with over simplification when one fully appreciates the striking visionary elements and artistic achievements Klimov attains. In terms of the viewer’s emotional upheaval after watching it, Come and See has little to do with what people consider a conventional war film. It is a film about internecine human atrocity, the sudden and brutal loss of innocence, the impotence of the guileless, the appalling rupture of benign rural communities by technologically enabled destructive forces spewing from a poisonous ideology. It is about how men are capable of committing the most heinous acts at the frayed end of a psychopath’s ideological whip and how the stain of unhinged reasoning spreads into a destructively motivated crowd, but also how the determined victim collective produces an equally powerful will to resist the occupier and bring justice or at least survival to the subjected.

The storyline may be familiar, a young boy joins the partisans filled with anticipation and idealism only to be swallowed up in the mayhem of conflict. However, from the outset one is aware this story is the frame on which to construct a poet filmmaker’s expressive vision. The viewer is transported through a rural landscape intermittently stricken with human-foisted horror, barren, foreboding and unforgiving in places, eerily beautiful and mysterious in others. Klimov favours subdued tones of green, grey and browns throughout, relieved only by the massed red orange of flames and the relentless pallor of the ill-starred participants faces. The film follows the young Florya on his journey through a personal hell to the final overwhelming act of the burning of an entire village and its inhabitants by SS extermination squads in carnivalesque mood. Florya visibly ages as one trauma builds on another and Kravchenko’s face changes from that of a fresh innocent often beaming boy to a prematurely aged feral youth with lip permanently pursed in spasm, his embittered features revealing all he has suffered along the way. Kravenchenko’s ability to present a tortured countenance is exemplary and when his hair is clumsily shorn in the manner of the concentration camp, the suggestion of dehumanisation is even more acute. Along the way he meets Glasha, an enigmatic peasant girl and sometime lover of the Partisan leader. They are thrown together when the partisan camp is attacked and journey on together, their mutual innocence rudely eradicated following a visit to Florya’s village on the heels of the SS.

In the opening scene when young Florya, desperate to join the local partisans and requiring a rifle for admittance, arduously digs a gun out of the sand on a deserted beach, his fate is sealed. This is signalled by the arrival overhead of a German reconnaissance plane and the morbid drone of its engines. Klimov uses this melancholy unsettling sound effect to alert us to the fateful process, we then have a shot from the plane looking down at the boys on the beach, but the image of them is blurred and distorted German martial music plays incoherently in the background. This is the first taste of the countless episodes where a sense of indefinable derangement fuses the film. The same plane appears again throughout Florya’s journey, a familiar omnipotent spectre haunting the foraging civilians, who, like unearthed insects scurry about a wilderness trying to survive. Klimov uses the drone of the plane as soundtrack in certain places, one suddenly notices it creeping in at times of elevating tension and impending peril. Animals also make uncanny appearances in the film and Klimov’s camera lingers on them before and after violent incursions, for example when Florya and Glasha hide up following the attack in the fir forest, a stork wanders about and peers in at them in their makeshift bivouac. The Stork had a walk on prior to this and appears again almost unnoticed at the edge of the well in whose dark perfectly still surface we see Florya’s face reflected, until it is ominously obliterated by the impact of a drop of water. In a later scene, the German commander fondles his pet marmoset while his men prepare to torch the church. Once the massacre gets under way the animal is spared the spectacle when a German helmet is placed over it. The pat by a loving owner’s hand on the helmet completes this fleeting but all too persuasive image. The presence of a cow in one of the most dramatic scenes again shows that animals dumbly wandering into or being lead too close to the darker side of the human condition only deepen the resonance of its destructive capacity.

Though intimately concerned with atrocity, Come and See also contains scenes of rare tenderness and beauty, whose enigmatic quality has been somewhat obscured by the more obvious primary carnage. The scene already cited of Florya and Glasha in their fir forest hideaway immediately cuts to the rapturous episode of these momentary babes in the wood deliriously shaking the trunks of sunlit trees to make rain fall, so they can refresh themselves. Florya lashes his bare chest vigorously with foliage to enliven his flesh, recalling Max Von Sydow’s character in Bergman’s The Virgin Spring. Glasha dances happily on a log for her new companion. In her clinging rain-soaked bottle green dress she blooms with the reckless vitality of youth and seems in that instant impervious to horror. Here in the bucolic forest glade that has somehow repulsed the earlier intrusion of bombs, something is forged through light, sound and visual effects resulting in an emotively engaged visionary force which defies rationality. Another moving moment easily overlooked comes earlier in the film when Florya, obliged to strip and climb into the cooking pot at the camp to scrub it with fir fronds is approached by Glasha who holds a posy of simple woodland flowers. The naked boy, trapped in his lowly position crouches embarrassed, helpless. She laughs and casts the flowers over him. Klimov rests his lens a while on the child Florya pathetically anointed with blooms like some sacrificial lamb seasoned for the inferno to come.

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One of the most notorious scenes in the film concerns the return of Florya and Glasha to the boy’s now ominously deserted village in expectation of a warm homecoming. As the two sit in the rustic kitchen sipping soup that was still simmering on the hob and strangely plagued by flies, an unsettling whining sound begins to invade and the sense of all not being well despite Florya’s protestations becomes intolerable. Glasha suddenly vomits, the boy stands abruptly and we see a shot of primitive rag dolls lying pathetically abandoned on the floor. Here, what could be a clumsy death symbolism is perfectly handled by Klimov. As Florya runs off shouting that he knows where they are hiding, Glasha follows him, but as they pass the back of the house, she looks behind and to her horror ‘sees’ the truth behind the villagers disappearance and the fate of Florya’s family. Klimov permits us a brief bearably distant shot of half-stripped bodies heaped against the cabin wall, but as Glasha is running, her words almost incoherent with shock, we see through her eyes, this unevenness creating an effect even more bludgeoning. We too have ‘seen’ but Florya racing on ahead has not because he did not happen to turn around. As Glasha catches up with him, breathless with her terrible secret there is no time to dispense it as they are now wading waist deep across a mud-encrusted bog to an island refuge. Klimov gives the viewer no time to take in the scale of the previous scene. The epic struggle through the clinging mud and slime is relentless; the camera lingers on their agonised mud streaked faces, the futility of their effort known in advance. Florya uses the rifle rendered useless by the swamp waters to carve his way through, this weapon which he has never fired and will only fire at the close of the film into an image not a living person. Once on the island an enraged Florya learns the fate of his family from Glasha and appears to suffer a complete mental breakdown. As he is nursed by Glasha amongst the throng of zombie-like peasant survivors, his face palpably changes from one of ‘health’ to ‘sickness’, leaving him irrevocably scarred with the staring eyed, ravaged look of the permanently-alerted imbecile.

Another scene liable to infect the imagination comes when Florya joins other partisan remnants to search for food and a cow is herded across a pasture in the moonlight. Suddenly a flare mounts the sky and a fierce fire fight breaks out around them. Real bullets were used in such scenes for authenticity and the images of tracer rounds shooting across the sky is both beautiful and cataclysmic. The scene is lent a further surreal quality by the presence of the cow, which stands nonchalantly grazing amidst the mayhem. Then the cow is inevitably struck along with Florya’s companion. Now the boy is alone for the first time. As the firing subsides he sleeps, the cow’s bloated belly his pillow. When morning comes we have another element which encourages a sense of disorientation and mounting insecurity, fog. After desultory attempts to shift the cow or hack off a haunch for the meat, unproductive actions providing further metaphors for his impotence, Florya wanders about the field unknowingly into the commencement of the final German assault on the still sleeping village of Perekhody. Naturally one tends to focus on the actual church burning scenes themselves, the inconceivable violence and insanity of that twisted carnival, but it is in the build up where Klimov’s sensitive handling is most apparent. As Florya is hurried away by a farmer and quickly awarded a new identity as his nephew, natural precautions which we will find out are utterly futile, the German units calmly and systematically launch their dawn assault on the village. Rarely can a sense of the helplessness of a community, one of hundreds that shared the same fate, been more chillingly illustrated as through Klimov’s approach. Seen from the rear, a lone motorcycle with sidecar weaves along the unmade road in a dense brownish fog, sprawled upon it lies the bullet sewn corpse of a man who carries a placard in his stiffened hands stating ‘I insulted a German soldier’. From the nearby fields trucks unload the obscure shapes of soldiers. They peel off symmetrically from the fog bound vehicle in a silence loaded with menacing intent. Then, as Florya races about the shacks and outhouses like a cornered rat, they close in across the folds, their gradual appearance through the fog all the more intimidating. As the sun rises and the fog clears, the whole body of German troops arrives in the village heading for the main square where the forlorn wooden church at its centre is soon surrounded.

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There then follows another brief, seemingly innocuous scene whose significance could be lost in the gathering storm. The detail in the early arrival of the German soldiers almost exudes a documentary quality. The village elder and certain families are gathered in one of the houses along with a terrified Florya. The table is set and laid with food in preparation. In steps a weary dust-caked German officer, who after a rapid survey of the situation, meets the wary elder with a falsely pleasant and most chilling exchange of ‘Sprechen Sie Deutsch?’ The villager smiles hopefully as the SS man sits himself down at the table to dine. The peasants close in to fuss over him. He is the new master, this much they know. They think if they treat him well they will be safe. That was the old way, how it used to be done, but little do they realise this modern ideological predator will not let life carry on as before but has a different purpose in mind, for he is a hygienist, an exterminator, who, after he has had his fill will offer perhaps a curt nod in appreciation at the repast, then prepare to systematically butcher the whole family who have served him his refreshment. Klimov manages to capture this monstrous reality in one simple domestic scene. Other soldiers then appear, they look for partisans under the table, make jokes, one smashes a window, the tension rises. Then, the whole pace changes and another shift occurs in the dramatic energy which Klimov employs so effectively throughout the film. Now the people are herded towards the square by a motley crew of SS and local fascist militia. Demented music from loud speakers plays along as the violence issues forth. People are summoned with ridiculous promises that they will be travelling to Germany, ‘A civilised country.’ A metallic voice reminds with grotesque irony ‘Don’t forget your toothbrush!’ Gradually the people are in position to be forced with rifle butts into the crude wooden church so exposed in the middle of the square, somehow already signalling the inferno it will become. The bestial scene inside the packed church is one of unimaginable terror and pandemonium. Kravchenko recalled later that it was the moment when he felt he might finally lose himself to madness. This scene has echoes of a similar one in Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, when barbarian hordes sack a church, massacring the innocents inside. But here the action is far more ferocious and the violence systematic, a psychotic free for all, yet still based on an orchestrated but by now well-thumbed process. By an absurd chance of fate, Florya manages to escape via a window and is cast down alongside the baying soldiers as they casually toss hand grenades into the church and then torch it, incinerating the mass of people inside. As if this were not enough, the depraved rabble then commence to hose the building with bullets. As the flames devour the structure they clap as if at a variety performance and the schnapps is handed round, a job well done, another day’s labour completed. Souvenir snapshots are taken, one with a pistol next to the head of the devastated figure of Florya and then the entourage leave after burning anything left standing with flamethrowers. Here it must be said Klimov uses fire to great effect, determined to show the inferno as it must have been, not just a few tongues of polite flame licking around the eaves, but great gobbets of petroleum from flamethrowers spilling over the dusty tracks, the farmsteads casting a glow somehow reminiscent of the hellish backdrops to Brueghel’s painting The Triumph of Death. The killers departing with their plunder cringe past walls of flame behind which nothing could survive. Florya, ignored even by the executioners, has survived in the physical sense, but that is all. The final scene when in cold fury he shoots Hitler’s portrait back to his childhood via manic newsreel footage in reverse, seems a statement of release, the estranged moment when there is no other answer than to fire at will himself. But symbolically he still stops short of shooting the last bullet into the image of Hitler as a babe in his mothers arms. In this moment of wavering he retains his humanity, even if to have shot the child would be to prevent all he and his community has endured. The film closes with Florya rejoining his partisan unit which marches purposefully into the forest to the strains of Mozart’s Requiem. Here, one witnesses yet another inspired directorial moment when Klimov’s camera, which seems like us, to be struggling to keep up with the marching men, suddenly darts off into the dense fir trees to capture them in a flanking movement.

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After the considerable personal ordeal of bringing Come and See to fruition, Elem Klimov proved unable to see another film through to completion. The unpredicted success of Come and See around the world brought him renewed respect, American money and the prospect of further challenging projects. A number of these were at various stages of development in the years immediately after Come and See. A version of the Bulgakov novel The Master and Margharita seemed an ideal prospect, whilst another strong contender was a version of Dostoyevsky’s The Devils. But ultimately nothing came of these plans, in large part due to the paralysing internal politics within the Russian film industry, but also because essentially Klimov sensed he had delivered in as uncompromising a fashion as possible those emotional states he had wished to give full expression to. Klimov, by his own admission in an interview shortly before his death, confessed now he had ‘seen’, he had said all he wished to say.

 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Will Stone, born 1966, is a poet living in Suffolk. In November 2008 his first collection Glaciation, published by Salt, won the international Glen Dimplex Award for poetry. His published translations include To The Silenced – selected poems of Georg Trakl (Arc Publications, 2005). Arc will also publish two further collections of translations of long neglected Belgian poets Emile Verhaeren and Georges Rodenbach in 2010. A first English translation of Stefan Zweig’s travel writings will also appear in 2010 from Hesperus Press.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, February 4th, 2010.