Classic Film Club: 'Come and See'
Each week Tom Huddleston watches a classic film he's never seen before. The rules are simple: each film must be considered a masterpiece and each must be completely new to him. This week: Elem Klimov's 'Come and See' (1985)
The history behind the film is almost as tragic and compelling as the images onscreen: Klimov (whose first name, incidentally, is a composite of Engels, Lenin and Marx) was raised in Stalingrad, and forced to flee with his mother across the Volga under heavy shelling. The horrors he witnessed informed the film but, as Klimov said later, ‘Had I shown the whole truth, even I could not have watched it.’ The other major event that affected production was the death of Klimov’s wife, fellow filmmaker and love of his life Larissa Shepitko in a car accident shortly before shooting began. Her loss pervades every frame of the resulting film.
‘Come and See’ (the title comes from the 'Book of Revelations', as John is invited to witness the coming apocalypse) takes place in Belorussia in 1943, as Russian partisans take up arms against invading Nazi forces. Prepubescent Florya digs a rifle out of the sand and keenly signs up to fight, over the protestations of his widowed mother. But when his unit is ordered out on manoeuvres, Florya is left in the forest to fend for himself. Up to this point ‘Come and See’ has been a reasonably straightforward war picture; a little grittier than most, perhaps, and with an odd sense of humour, but not conspicuously challenging.
Then an artillery barrage shatters Florya’s eardrums, and the film changes abruptly. The ensuing sequence, as the boy and his newfound friend Glascha attempt to survive in the wilderness, has something of Malick about it: a dreamlike intensity heightened by the ocean-bottom remoteness of the sound design, the verdant glistening of the surrounding forest, and the youthful exuberance of the two leads, momentarily content in their isolation. It’s as though the film itself is taking a long, slow breath, before the final plunge into an inescapable nightmare.
From here on, the narrative is little more than a catalogue of mounting insanity and degradation, as Florya abandons Glascha with a group of refugees and travels out into the wider world to find that everything has changed; the beast is loose. Klimov confronts horror with an unflinching directness, his camera often taking the place of his characters, most often Florya. The film’s final act contains some of the most graphic, demented images ever committed to celluloid, a Biblical massacre of innocents.
But if the power of ‘Come and See’ was confined to graphic depictions of horror and death, it would be more exhausting than devastating, a test of audience endurance rather than the overpowering sensory experience that it undoubtedly is. Perhaps it’s the paternal sympathy Klimov feels towards his shattered hero, or the graceful solemnity of his images, but there’s a hideous beauty here amidst the suffering. A sense of wonder infuses the film, partly at the sheer extent of human brutality, but also at the sudden, unexpected loveliness of inherently terrible images: tracer fire in the night sky, soldiers hunting in the mist, a packed village hall on fire.
‘Come and See’ is a hard film to criticise. It achieves precisely what it intends: to honestly illustrate, within the confines of a 142-minute narrative film, the devastation that war, and in this case genocide, wreaks upon a helpless populace. There are flaws. There’s little for the characters to do but run, hide and die: only Florya is ever given the chance to adequately express himself, and this is confined within the first act. Klimov’s celebrated technique of ageing the boy’s face over the course of the film – from fresh-faced child to haggard geriatric – sounds unconvincing on paper, but in the context of the film, where Florya’s face can be little more than an expressionless mask of bewilderment, the makeup lends an insight into his fractured mindset that dialogue never could.
Author: Tom Hudddleston
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