Friday, April 27, 2018

Come and See (1985)

Idi i smotri, USSR, 142 minutes
Director: Elem Klimov
Writers: Ales Adamovich, Elem Klimov
Photography: Aleksei Rodionov
Music: Oleg Yanchenko
Editor: Valeriya Belova
Cast: Aleksey Kravchenko, Olga Mironova, Liubomiras Laucevicius, Vladas Bagdonas, Viktor Lorents

There are at least two ways to approach this monumental World War II movie. First, in terms of ranking greatest war movies—my first sense was that goes by acclamation to Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion, but on the big list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? I'm seeing the following movies ahead of the Renoir. They may not all exactly be war movies but close enough: Seven Samurai, Apocalypse Now, Battleship Potemkin, Andrei Rublev, Casablanca, Lawrence of Arabia, and Blade Runner. Come and See may be closer to being a greatest World War II movie, but I'd still give The Human Condition the edge there, if only by imposing size.

A second way to look at Come and See is in terms of the pornography of hating Nazis, a theme I look forward to seeing revitalized in coming months and years. I'm sure it's just me but I find it hard to believe any "very fine people" are Nazis. Nazis, by definition, are the bad guys. That's how I was raised. If we need reminders about that, here's a good place to look. Come and See is a serious movie, one of the most serious movies I know. In the US we have spent the better part of a century looking at scenes, sanitized and otherwise, from the Pacific theater of WWII or the western front in Europe. Come and See is about the Russian front and it is not sanitized. The movie's country of origin is given as Soviet Russia, but it is set specifically in Belarus, which borders Russia, Ukraine, and Poland. Come and See details the campaign of terror waged by German armed forces as they swept east, torching hundreds of villages and killing most of the people who lived in them. And when I say it details this campaign, I mean that it is detailed.

The horrors are there even though we don't see the swastika or any German soldiers until about the last hour of a fairly long movie. Instead, the point of view is an adolescent Belarussian boy no older than 14. Florya (Aleksey Kravchenko) is, of course, thrilled by the drama and violence of the war. In the opening scenes he's seen digging through corpses of soldiers on a beach, scavenging for items of value (including gold fillings in teeth). The biggest prize is a gun, and when Florya finally manages to wrench a fine rifle out of the sandy muck of a shallow grave he is ready to enlist. A heartbreaking scene follows where Florya is shown proudly posing in a uniform with his rifle. Soldiers are there to collect him while his mother pleads with them to leave him with her.

Normally I have become resistant to the constant ratatat of Taste of Cinema listicles on Facebook, but a recent one grabbed me, particularly when I saw it featured the face of Kravchenko: "The 25 Greatest Child Performances in Cinema History." This list happens to be chronological rather than ranked so it doesn't really mean anything that Kravchenko made #13. Born in 1969, he was about 15 when Come and See was made. He's certainly memorable but it's not a conventional kind of performance—reminiscent perhaps most of Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc. He gets a lot of close-ups, and his face is memorably expressive of fear and trauma. He sees terrible things—I know because I saw them too, with him. The concussion of exploding ordnance has affected his hearing and the sound in the movie can bewilderingly cut in and out. What is most remarkable about Kravchenko is how he ages. The time occupied by the movie is less than a year but Florya already looks like an old man at the end of it. This is partly Kravchenko's face, partly his performance, partly the direction by Elem Klimov, and maybe (possibly) more than anything the makeup job. It's not any the less remarkable—it's one of the film's most powerful and disturbing elements. I just felt like quibbling with Taste of Cinema.

Come and See takes full advantage of a steadicam to bring home the immediacy of the action. This movie is swift and bold and often shocking with a zooming fluid movement. It shows amazing things. By circumstances, Florya returns to his village in a matter of days. Everyone is gone and he panics and rushes into a boggy swamp trying to find them—an unforgettable boggy swamp of muck and filth that is the image of being unable to run in dreams. At another point, there is a brilliant and hallucinatory firefight, which kills the cow that Florya is shown in the picture above sleeping against, refusing to believe it has died. An entire village was constructed for the movie and then burnt to the ground—you can't make big fires look like that without actually having big fires.

As for the pornography of hating Nazis, I really don't think much compares with the last hour of Come and See, which effectively shows the German military operation of liquidating a village from start to finish. It takes most of a day and it is full of heartrending and horrific cruelty and depredations. It rivals anything short of Spielberg's Normandy Beach for the feel of wartime veracity—arguably it betters the Spielberg scene, showing the dramas and pathos of civilians haplessly swept up in war.

In fact, the fog of war going down is probably the best single feature of Come and See. It shows the swift deaths, the confusion and dislocations, brutality, sudden shocking sights (a pile of nude corpses behind a house), the sheer randomness and terms of survival. The only thing the characters in this movie know, much like the viewer, is that they are in a war zone. And in a war zone, bizarrely, anything can happen—unbearably tender moments and lots of horror. Come and See also offers the veneer of being historically accurate, which is somehow a little comforting here (you know, "based on real events"). In my case, however, I think it helped that I knew so little about Nazi warfare on the Russian front—ultimately it pumped up the shock value.

Thought experiment: Is Come and See antiwar? My inclination is to believe any movie telling the truth about war is antiwar. And it feels to me like Come and See tells the truth about war. Also Nazis.

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