The Greatest War film of them all, Elem Klimov’s Come and See

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And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see.
And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.

Book of Revelations, 6:7-8

In a film that borrows its title from the words spoken by the beasts of the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse in the Bible’s Book of Revelations, it’d be interesting to note that as the phrase is continually uttered by the beasts (I count no less than four times, once each time one the Horseman open a seal) it’s meant to coerce anyone of shaky faith into belief by the threat of plagues and Armageddon that are surely to come. But, just as each (potential) action implies an opposite (potential) action, there is the promise that if these riders are avoided, or not followed, that a paradise for eternity awaits. One not of the flesh or air, but of the afterlife, a reality in need of a tremendous leap. The ‘come and see’ adage as much a fearful warning as a hopeful promise.

But that reading implies what’s to come, and while as a title to a film you’d be about to see that seems fitting (this reading prompts visions of red velvet curtains being drawn as we’re led into the horror show theater, think Dario Argento’s intro in Deep Red), the title here implies to current events (to the films World War II setting) and probably what always has happened and always will happen (especially during war). That’s the scary connection to the Book of Revelations; a book prophesying the coming end, here is read as implying it has come and our contemporary post life is akin to nomadic forsaken souls wondering an earth with only sinners. Put differently, the Book of Revelations is pure fantasy, or at the very least, something that is promised to come just don’t hold your breath, while here is an accounting of events born from actual historical truth. If we are only continually reminded of these horrors, perhaps we’d be struck into action to insure they never happen again. The meek shall inherit the earth that same book says elsewhere, but then who wants to be born and come of age in a burned out husk? Come and See accounts for two choices and they aren’t heaven or hell, but only a life of agony, or death. A title that is an urging to watch this collectively and strike to see this never happens again.

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Come and See, Elem Klimov’s 1985 anti-war masterpiece, is the journey of one young Belarusian boy Flyora’s (played with a remarkable authenticity by non-professional Aleksei Kravchenko) descent through hell. Hell is in the form of the coming Nazi blitzkrieg who, as it approaches prompts small villages in the Eastern Slavic nations to rise up in response by forming bands of willing fighters, fighters of seemingly any age. Flyora is seen early digging in an area of soft earth where he knows armaments to be buried, knowing that if he shows up when the band in passing through that his chances of going off to war are virtually sealed if he has his own weapon. Flyora wants to play war as all boys do, but then what those experience in this war isn’t merely a game for children playing in the fields.

As his mother hysterically cries opposition in the next scene we understand that yes, Flyora’s rifle has won him a spot to go off and fight. After a joyous posing of pictures in the woods the army leaves for the front lines, leaving Flyora behind to guard the ‘post’. Here, in a state of sadness for not being able to fulfill what he wanted, he meets the beautiful girl Glafira (played with a joyous energy by Olga Mironova who, in these opening passages, is virtually an island in this regard in the film) who he survives a bomb raid alongside, before they eventually decide to return to the village. When they arrive they quickly discover that everyone is gone, and as Flyora’s madness grows (aided by several moments of deafness brought on by the bomb raid) he leads Glafira out back towards the woods promising he knows where everyone has hidden. Glafira fears everyone has been massacred, a suspicion confirmed when the handheld camera follows her wandering eyes to behind a shed (where we glimpse a pile of naked dead bodies) as Flyora pulls her by the hand. Eventually we do meet villagers from another town, who recount the horrors their town (and Flyora’s native one) have encountered at the hands of the Nazis (it’s a passage made all the more memorable when several older men build a mocking Hitler statue from sticks, a dead Nazi Officer uniform and a skull fashioned with a nose made from mud). From this point the madness is near nonstop to the films conclusion, a feat unto itself, as at this point we’re just nearing halfway.

Flyora then wanders about in search of food with several other marauding soldiers, where we experience our first real encounters with visible Nazis. After an overhead gunfight (where a cow is shot down) Flyora eventually meets a farmer who attempts to hide any visible sign that Flyora’s been playing soldier before bringing him to his home where Nazis are rounding up citizens and sending offenders off to camps. This fear—of concentration or labor camp—never seems wholly real, as what happens from here to the films conclusion, the death camp is a traveling circus, the Germans haven’t the time to export people home to them, so they just makeshift them in barricaded barns and sheds. Flyora escapes one such barn out of pure luck, only to have the almost equally painful task of having to watch the building set ablaze and hear the swirling terror of dozens of villagers burned alive. As the circus leaves town, and at this point that is what it’s become; the Nazis are boisterous and celebratory—complete with champagne drinking—in their murderous debauchery, gaining more and more glee with each new atrocity. But the circus comes to an offscreen end, running into the band of soldiers Flyora had previously joined via a wooded ambush. Those not initially murdered are sequestered under a bridge where an informal, makeshift war crimes tribunal is had resulting in all their deaths. From here the films wheezes to an elegiac end; again in the woods, again traipsing virtually single file awaiting the next horrific battle or rain from bombers above. Flyora we assume will fight now, as this is no longer a child in sight or emotional disposition.

Everywhere are we reminded of the sensory experience at play here. The title beckons the most basic one to cinema—sight—but elsewhere events are always handled in a way to prompt us (and the characters) at a connection to the material through a very tangible sensory sensation. Some are obvious and highly conceptual within the cinematic experience; when Flyora first experiences war via a raining down of bombs, his hearing is impaired by the blasts and the audio channel is muffled and piercing to mimic the acute tinnitus one would hear (Spielberg nicked this wholesale in his storming of Normandy sequence that opens Saving Private Ryan). Later, we watch as rainfall falls upon the characters offering something akin to spiritual catharsis (see above image), to sight being continually manipulated elevating our sense of experience. Sometimes we see the horrors with picturesque clarity, other times the world itself seems at war with its inhabitants; water has an virtual impenetrable brown skin, wildlife is both highly hostile and yet very vulnerable to our destruction (Flyora at one point carelessly tramples a birds nest in the woods). War, it would seem is both a state and an experience.

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Stoke-on-Trent’s late 70’s band Discharge spawned not only their landmark debut Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing in 1982 but also seem to have unearthed several sub-genres of music in the process as well. Their masterful release had as much to do with blowing up thrash metal, black metal and grindcore as anyone, or anything, else. In 1982 no one seemed this musically intense, this crushingly pummeling, as Discharge did. Songs aren’t melodic excursions of beauty, but rather quick furious blasts, barely giving the listener enough space to consider the chanted politic rhetoric being overloaded onto them. It’s a bit like some of Come and See now that I think of it. In the purely musical channel Klimov employs deeply mournful death fugues over and over to evoke an atmosphere to coincide with the horrific imagery (Mozart’s death Requiem is the most predominant in use here, specifically the Lacrimosa at the film’s close) and while those music cues are starkly different than Discharge’s sonic assault, Klimov also builds within the sonic channel by heightening everything else expressionistically; dogs yelp, bark and howl as artillery rattles and explodes. Death (or more broadly ‘War’) is an endless moan of fevered pitch, sounds upon sounds which, when accompanied to the orchestral choices, builds a cacophony of layered unending terror. Discharge builds a very much similar identity with a simple rock template of bass, guitar and drums, everything working in unison to create a distinct mood. Their instrumentation, when coupled with the horrific lyrical imagery, then appears a much more applicable comparison to Klimov’s work appearing just three years later.

Come and See is a very difficult film to watch, but I’d argue it’s an even more painful film to listen to. Discharge’s catalog prompts the exact same sort of reaction; their collective imagery (stage poses, dress, album and flyer artwork) is violently antagonistic, but no visual can prepare an audience for the explosion exhibited on Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing. The most telling reason I’d linked the two is that Discharge’s music chiefly pours over their dread at potential coming armageddon, born from decades of escalation between Cold War Super Powers (though the Soviet Union was near bankruptcy at the time—unknown to most—their diminished status gave many reason to believe that they also had nothing to lose and that the threats of yesteryear were set to become the reality of the present day). Come and See is the beginning of that conflict—World War II, as seen in the film, especially the toll unleashed on the Soviet Union, was what led to the USA and USSR becoming the worlds potential deciding factors. It’s that contemporary reality that I found myself thinking was most on Klimov’s mind when he released the film, not coincidentally, in 1985. Klimov lived through these events (a childhood he later described as if he’d “been in hell” and “had he included everything I knew and shown the whole truth, even I could not have watched it”) and saw them potentially happening again; the film is as much a historical document as a cautionary symbolic contemporary one. Much of his events are shown with enough visual ambiguity that they’d just as easily been transcribing a nuclear fallout; when we see Flyora at the end, dust covered and ravaged, the immediate effect is to make him appear suddenly wrinkled and in advanced old age. It’s wonderful visual storytelling; in an instant we get wordless unmistakable meaning, but within a comparison to Discharge and the symbolism of Cold War hysteria, we can just as easily see this same dust as one of nuclear ash, the dust from the instantaneous disintegration of millions from a rain of nuclear weapon stockpiles. It’s easy for a cinephile to recall the similar imagery that opens Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour and that seems unmistakable, but those ashes melt away in a slow dissolve to the naked sweat of lovers while these appear to be permanently affixed to those they adorn forever aging them before their time.

Discharges’ debut also eventually gets to commenting on the destruction of war as effecting the youth most severely (again, like Come and See. In fact the films most grisly scene also affects those attached to children too; as Belarusian’s are rounded up to be put into a barn to be incinerated by Nazis, the Nazis let ‘those without children’ leave, later explaining that children [and those with children] need to die so that legacies cannot be built upon). The tragic nature is both the loss of innocence present in Come and See and the helplessness so apparent in youth (and war often affects the elderly in much the same way); plus the intensity with which Discharge deliver the track (for clarity sake, I’m speaking about ‘Q: And Children? A: And Children’) we understand that that idea is also that war doesn’t discriminate who it ravages. The ‘gentlemanly’ notions of ‘no women or children’ of muskets and canon warfare are as outdated as the duel. Here, to quote a funny film I like (Fear of a Black Hat), you merely “point and spray the area”, or in the case of nuclear war, open the hatch and send a region back to the stone age and mark it unlivable for centuries. The performance matches the concept: the song rolls in to repetitive onslaught, before about fifty seconds, where it whirls and screeches out a firebomb of a guitar solo. A solo that you can almost hear the crackling of forest fires and the bursting out of windows due to the extreme heat oxygen removal. By the time the song winds down (it runs a scant one-minute-forty-seven seconds) and the next track looks over its destruction—the aptly titled ‘The Blood Runs Red’— it pours out, trading the burning intensity for a voluminous pummeling noise. It’s like the blood from millions of bodies is as thick and lurching over everything as lava.

Though worlds apart, Discharge’s debut and Klimov’s masterpiece perform a wonderful simultaneous juxtaposition; each embedded with its own scary promise, each executed with originality in an era where commentary against the Cold War demagoguery was often relegated unfairly to the fringes (Come and See, you’ll remember sat in production limbo for years, before Soviet financing came through to push the film out to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Allied victory in World War II, which could point to the film being produced—in the mind of the state, not the filmmaker, as Klimov champions the East Slavic ethnicities more than anything throughout [and mourns their loss], which provides sharp contrast to any lobs of a pro-USSR commentary in the film—as a useful tool of Cold War propaganda). Both remain as vital as the day they were preformed, and that they both titled in a way referencing sensory experience (or lack thereof) is all the more perfect.

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Discussions on the use of the Steadicam, Garrett Brown’s 1975 invention that allowed cinematographers to carry handheld cameras within a bracing apparatus to reduce bounce and execute smooth shots previously impossible, have historically been centered on one or two American masters. You can’t think of Brown’s work with Stanley Kubrick without hailing it as a pinnacle of the innovation, and that’s true, The Shining’s visual construction largely relies on the confusing nature of following our characters amidst the labyrinth of mazes and corridors. Brown’s execution of those long flowing tracking shots, aided by his Steadicam, have long stamped their influence on generations of filmmakers. Then there’s Martin Scorsese’s signature uninterrupted shots in Goodfellas, also owing their technique to what the Steadicam could afford the filmmaker. From their influence, every subsequent generation is seen as aping either of them (or both); when Paul Thomas Anderson, for example, does a long uninterrupted shot behind William H. Macy in Boogie Nights, in most people eyes he’s merely ‘doing the Goodfellas thing’ rather then following a character for a specific aesthetic purpose to provide commentary within that scene and how it fits to the larger plot dynamics at play in the film.

But, for some reason I’ve long held Eastern Europe as a great realizer of the Streadicam; often thinking about it over the previously mentioned American masters. This is probably because the chief examples to me from this region (Zulawski’s 1981 masterwork Possession [shot by the esteemed Bruno Nuytten], Gerald Kargl’s 1983 shocker Angst [shot in hypnotic flowing passages by Zbigniew Rybczynski], and Come and See) all feature shots pulling us into the action, often evaporating any audience realization of the master technique being employed. Now this isn’t a knock on Kubrick or Scorsese, both my examples by them are meant to be noticed and call attention to themselves; the claustrophobia of The Shining is made that much more terrifying if we are alienated from our protagonists (and them from us). We’ll feel as alone and helpless as them as we slowly become more and more lost amongst the maze that is the framework of the Overlook Hotel. It’s vital for the technique to disappear in Angst though, as we’re being led into a terrorizing fit of madness by a deranged murderer, the Steadicam offering an elegant presentation for the clarity of the destruction, each moment drawing us into a world of otherwise ‘normal’ reality. Possession, similarly, has a roving camera, the Steadicam offering Zuwlaski a multitude of smooth tracking shots that he wouldn’t have been able to manage in tight spaces prior (plus he’s able to convey an eery, eccentric mood with it too, essential in a film of that type; one moment is how he rocks the camera along with a rocking chair sitting Sam Neill. It instantly articulates his growing unstable nature). Zulawskit trades consistency of execution (by ‘consistency’ I mean that Kubrick employs the Steadicam consistently in much the same manner throughout The Shining; from behind a character, roughly ten feet back, always about adult waist level from the ground) for the consistency of inconsistency; he creates a style by experimenting and listening to what each individual scene dictates. We understand that by dissecting the use in scene to scene we can unlock potentially difficult plot nuance.

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Klimov’s handling of the Steadicam (along with cinematographer Alexei Rodionovin) in Come and See employs some combination of all of the above, and as such must be looked at as on the short list for great cinematic technical achievement in area. Additional weight is added to the film by these striking passages, aided even moreso via a thick fog draping over many of our environments, further removing our characters (and we as the audience) from their world, limiting their ability to navigate the suddenly hellacious events. Anything can enter, from anywhere, and we can plainly see how quickly it can maim, kill or rape. The long Steadicam shots perfectly state these constant shifts between almost tranquil quiet and manic terror—my favorite, an extended long sequence where we tail a pair of German soldiers on motorcycle builds from single shot of them racing into the mist to finally a clearing, coupled with the camera elevating slightly via a sweeping Steadicam crane shot, opens us up to a small village infested with a whole battalion of Nazis. The Nazis, via Klimov’s wonderful execution here, arrive both singularly and as a tidal wave; like a murderous blob, large enough to engulf whole villages (during the Nazi’s reign of terror through the Belarus area at least 5,295 settlements were completely destroyed with many of them seeing their entire population annihilated on the spot) but minute enough to squeeze and ooze through the tiniest of spaces. With such unforced aesthetic, Klimov is able to effectively state the stealth like nature of the blitzkrieg, while also never losing site of its size and power. By the films conclusion we feel that the Nazis, and really any destructive force like war, is as much in the singular man, and in the shared collectivity of a mass. It’s a useful articulation of an important point: we must look to ourselves singularly in stopping this, we aren’t absolved by admonishing guilt to hierarchies like chains of command or the unlawful nature of wartime. When we can tie cinematic grammar, handled with a mix this poetic and streamlined, to such acute purposefulness we see just how much we’re in the presence of a master; not a word or a cut, or since it’s the topic at hand, a camera move is wasted during Come and See’s 142 minute runtime and yet each moment exists infinitely outside itself forever.

A cut reveals a wonderful juxtaposition; one Soviet man can't see from his left eye, while a German has problems with his right. Together, it would seem they can see correctly. If only they'd work together.

A cut reveals a wonderful juxtaposition; one Soviet man can’t see from his left eye, while a German has problems with his right. Together, it would seem they can see correctly. If only they’d work together.

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Klimov chooses to close his film with a sequence that is equal parts cerebral and highly emotional. After a litany of photographic images play in a montage style, we are struck with the unfurling of history, as much moving forward as we clearly move back. It’s an attempt to play with the faceless, unending stamping out we’ve witnessed over the previous two hours, but then Hitler, as a boy, comes recognizably into view. Flyora raises his gun as if to fulfill the (now famous) historical paradox of going back into history and killing Adolf Hitler as a boy, therefor forever altering the cataclysmic events that saw the rise of Nazi Germany and the eventual killing of nearly 75 million people—20 million plus from Allied and Axis military forces and 40 plus million civilians from Allied and Axis territories—in World War II. The ‘Hitler Paradox’, as it’s become known, has become one of mostly ethical practice, asking could you kill a child you know to be the eventual tyrant that brought on so many other deaths? Is it ethical to do so?

As a paradox it’s one routed in the larger Grandfather Paradox, a proposed science fiction idea that theorizes a time traveler going back in time to kill his grandfather before he ever meets his wife, the time travelers’ grandmother. The unfolding chain of events would then argue that if these two never met and procreated that the time traveller is never born and is thus, unable to travel in time and kill his grandfather in the first place. This would then mean that the time travel could never do this and would be born, and thus creates some sort of circular time loop of doing and undoing, or never doing and never, well, ‘looping’ for lack of a better term. In this particular idea, if Hitler is killed at the end, then the events of the film (and we must take it further to the actual real events as the film is attempting to depict true events, albeit in a highly symbolic way) would never therefor happen and the killer (the time traveller, in this case Flyora is the one firing the shot at young Hitler) would never need to murder the, at that time, innocent child. It’s a circular thing that Klimov seems to get, and he therefor can’t bring himself to fire one last shot once the image of baby Hitler is presented; we could imagine the bullet in another parallel universe traveling endlessly in a void, never hitting a mark, never becoming unstuck in time. We mourn the impossibility of this idea, the certainty of our devastating history, a history we all know too well. It’s a perfect culmination to where we, and I in this essay, started, the title an implication that this is not a promise, but a cold, stark reality.

This most recent viewing I loved taking this perverse idea of the Grandfather Paradox further—the story is nothing but a sad elegy on youth being stamped out as a sensibility and an actual life, but what also of the potential monsters killed? If we can evoke the ‘Hitler Paradox’ after a story like this could there be a leap that says, perhaps, that a few potential monsters were among the 75 million dead? Is there any possibility of a silver-lining in all this devastating destruction and mindless killing?

But no, we’re stopped in our tracts from this sort of perversity because the film is nothing but a testament to the innocence of all youth, and the abruptness with which evil removes it; these are no potential young Hitlers in these piles at the end of the film, nor are their young Hitlers trudging through marshes and having hatred and suffering transform them from idyllic youth to genocidal heathens. No, this remains what it is, the greatest fictional cinematic anti-war statement we’ve had and we properly mourn each and every death. Art of this quality stands in opposition to those ideologies, and events that create the monsters. Not the other way around.

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A montage displaying how we physically watch Flyora age throughout the film.

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This piece was written for Wonders in the Dark’s films about Childhood countdown currently running. Come and See placed at #74.

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