Come and See

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Thu Feb 8 09:21:16 MST 2001

Appearing in a new print at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater, Elem
Klimov's 1985 "Come and See" defies all of the conventions of Socialist
Realism, even though it dramatizes events that are the favorite of
directors working in this genre: Nazi invasion and partisan resistance.
Perhaps the best description of this westward looking, almost experimental
film is that it anticipates a break with socialism, while genuflecting in
the direction of some of the core beliefs of the modern Soviet state. It is
a very real sense Gorbachev era film-making.

"Come and See" is the story of 13 year old Florian (Alexei Kravchenko), a
teen-aged boy who leaves his Byelorussia farming village to join the
partisans in 1943. However, this is not a film about heroic resistance.
Florian's story is one of abject failure and loss. Although he lugs around
a rifle that he reclaimed from beneath a sand dune--the scene of a previous
battle--he never fires it. This is not a standard war movie at all. It is
instead focused on the hellish existence of civilian bystanders, who seem
hardly aware of the class issues defining the war. They are simple peasants
who long for nothing except the daily routines of raising food and
families, starting with Florian's mother who curses him for leaving the
village. She regards the partisan officers there to gather up the young
Florian as unwelcome outsiders.

Florian's odyssey provides the point-of-view for a hallucinatory,
Guernica-like vision of the horrors of war. Through his eyes, we see scene
after scene of indescribable horror. However, Elem Klimov is canny enough
to make sure that each of these scenes is cinematically gripping. He
appears less interested in rousing peoples' anger at the causes of war, or
the evil that was fascism, and more interested in pushing the envelope of
cinematographic technique.

For example, after the partisan camp is destroyed by German bombers,
Florian and a young woman seek refuge in the forest. He constructs a
lean-to out of branches and they lie in each other's arms while a crane
stands outside peering in at them. At that point, we lose track of the
danger that surrounds them and are instead captivated by the rustic beauty.
The next morning they shake some trees and water showers down from the
branches over their semi-clad bodies.

Eventually Florian returns to his village, only to discover that the Nazis
have killed his family and many others who lie in a pile near an abandoned
building. He joins the survivors who are huddled on a nearby island in need
of food and shelter. Some of the men are busy constructing a scarecrow-like
effigy of Hitler made with tree branches and a human skull.

The villagers send these men and Florian on an expedition to bring back
food. They inexplicably carry the effigy above them, looking for all the
world like medieval crusaders in some Ingemar Bergman film. Florian, who is
the sole survivor of the mission, finds himself walking across an open
pasture in the middle of the night with his spoils: a cow seized from a
Nazi collaborator. At that point, a flare ascends into the starlit sky and
German tracer bullets etch a blazing trail over his head. Some of the
bullets strike the cow, which careens to the ground. The camera then closes
in on the dying animal's eye.

It is such images that provide the substance of the film, rather than any
dramatic development in the conventional sense. In fact by having a 13 year
old embody the point of view, it enhances the anti-dramatic character of
"Come and See". Not only is the main character too immature to understand
the full dimensions of the hell around him, he has even become deaf and
mute temporarily as the result of the Nazi aerial bombing of the partisan
camp. Thus he can not even verbalize what it means to be caught up in such
a horrible fate. Like the boy Oskar in Gunter Grass's "Tin Drum", Florian
is a passive receptor of the horrors of WWII rather than a conscious agent
fighting to end it.

One might surmise that Klimov had been strongly influenced by Paolo and
Vittorio Taviani's 1981 "Night of the Shooting Stars" which was also a
highly aesthetized treatment of the conflict between fascists and peasants.

Told through the eyes of a small girl who records the events surrounding
the evacuation of her village, the coming of the Americans and the fight
between the peasants and the fascists, the Italian film overlays
surrealistic imagery on top of socially aware neorealist traditions. One
battle scene, for example, depicts partisans as Greek warriors, while the
fascist who threatens her falls dead, impaled by their spears.

In the climactic scene of "Come and See", a village Florian has found
refuge in is overrun by Nazis, who systematically rape, pillage and murder.
Despite their palpably evil character, Klimov seeks opportunities to make
the scene cinematically riveting. The Nazi commander, for example, strokes
a pet marmoset lovingly in his arms. A driverless motorcycle bearing the
body of a dead partisan rides around in an aimless circle. When the Nazis
fling molotov cocktails at a barn filled with screaming villagers, we are
captivated by the rhythms of their motions as if we were watching German
discus throwers in Leni Riefenstahl's "Triumph of the Will".

Although the film ends on a conventional note, with partisans exacting
justice from the Nazi murderers, one can only feel that Klimov sought to
make an entirely different kind of film. He was at the end of the tether of
what official Soviet film culture and censors would allow.

In fact, according to the NY Times:

"In 1986, a year after 'Come and See' was released, Mr. Klimov was elected
first secretary of the Soviet Filmmakers' Union in a rowdy congress that
threw out the old guard for a younger, democratically elected contingent,
most of whom had had problems with state censors; the filmmakers were in
the vanguard of Mikhail S. Gorbachev's perestroika. Mr. Klimov held the
post for two years and afterward began work on a film (never made) based on
'The Master and Margarita,' Mikhail Bulgakov's fantastical satire of life
in Stalinist Russia."

Not only was Klimov a prominent activist in the film industry, he lent his
voice to the growing movement against socialism itself, launched in the
name of 'glasnost'. When Yeltsin confronted Gorbachev, Klimov signed a
statement along with other leading Soviet intellectuals putting pressure on
Gorbachev to relent to the "democratic" forces overtaking Russia.

In a 1991 interview with the LA Times, Klimov described his hopes for the
Soviet film industry:

"You have to understand what it was like before. The (film industry) was
owned by the state. All the films were made with state money.

"The only producer we had was the state, and the state was in charge of
producing censorship and deciding who will direct what movie. There was a
lot of pressure. That is the main thing that we managed to bring down. We
managed to get rid of censorship."

Not only did the perestroika activists get rid of censorship, they got rid
of the Soviet film industry in the process of getting rid of the Soviet
Union itself. Today, Russian film makers do not have to worry about "big
brother". The Hollywood juggernaut has removed that worry permanently and
replaced it with the calming influence of Eddie Murphy comedies and Arnold
Schwarzenegger shoot-em-ups.

When the credits begin rolling at the end of "Come and See", a graphic
informs us that 628 Byelorussian villages were burned to the ground during
the Nazi invasion. Today, the citizens of Belarus earn on average less than
$250 per year and 70 percent of the prostitutes in Western Europe come from
places like Belarus and adjoining Ukraine. If and when a tidal wave of
opposition to such latter day misery comes to such former Soviet republics,
perhaps the inspiration will come from the 'socialist realist' traditions
that Klimov found so confining. After all, capitalism has a tendency to
create its own grave-diggers generation after generation.

Louis Proyect
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