08 January, 2011

A Failed Essay About "Come and See"

The following is an essay (an incompletely unedited essay, I realize) on the 1985 Russian film, Come and See.

(Just skimming over it, I realize that this is a very-- VERY-- film schooly approach to film, but I'm still pretty happy with the results. It certainly is not my best essay, but I'll put it up against a thousand other joyless criticisms on film. I might be an idiot, but at least I'm an ecstatic idiot.)

(Note: I have edited nothing in this essay. It is exactly the same as it was in late 2008. It probably should be fixed, but that strikes me as unfair and vain. I'm not so good of a writer that I have gained the ability to revise my own history. The following stands as my final essay for Cinema of Fascism, Communism, and Resistance, for better or for worse.)

Atrocity Exhibition:
Come and See A Subversion of Soviet History

(I could have done much better on the title. Lord know I have. I wrote an essay on Alien that's title was a joke about ejaculation. I earned $250 with that one. Obviously, my lesson was not learned.)

Come and See is a directed by Elem Klimov and was co-written by Ales Adamovich with the director. It was released in 1985, the fortieth anniversary of the ending of World War II (for the Soviet Union, anyways) and was a time which could accurately be seen as the dusk of the Soviet Union. During this time the USSR was embroiled in a vicious and costly war in Afghanistan and it would be another four years before the Soviets conceded the war to the Afghans. Another important action during this time were Mikhail Gorbachev’s duel policies, the perestroika, which sought to reform the state-run economy, and glasnost, the policy of “openness” of both the USSR’s citizenry and government. All of these events were a part of a sea change occurring in the Soviet Union that would end with the perforation of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. Come and See was created at a time where history was visibly changing and, appropriately, it is a film that deliberately changes a vision of history. Klimov’s final film is an interpretation that radically subverts history while at the same time depicts it with atrocious realism.

The film doesn’t seem to directly or even allegorically reflect these events, but it more than likely did directly benefit from Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika. Without these moves towards reformation and openness it’s hard to imagine that a film which depicts the Great Patriotic War with so little romanticism or joy could be made. This film was made in a country where, not too long before, political dissenters can be thrown into prison and where the shelving of controversial movies was common place. In fact it’s hard to image a film that imagine that a film like this could be made anywhere.

The film’s point of view comes from that of a young, Belorussian teenager named Florian*. The narrative follows Florian as he is conscripted (or perhaps volunteers) into the Soviet partisans, who are at war with Hitler’s Germany. Over the course of the film the young Florian bares witness to the worst kinds of atrocities that World War II gave birth to. He is struck deaf temporarily, his entire family is murdered, his scavenger friends are killed one by one, he witnesses an entire village slaughtered by German soldiers, and eventually finds the walking wreckage of his friend Glasha who has been brutalized and rendered barren. Yet, the worst of all of these things comes in the last scene, where he accepts these horrors and joins into the faceless mob of Soviet partisans.

As a child, director Elem Klimov saw many of the same kind of horrors that Florian does. Klimov was born in the city Stalingrad, which was the sight of one of the longest and bloodiest battles in one of the longest and bloodiest wars in world history. Stalingrad (now Volgograd), like many Soviet cities and regions during World War II was the sight of a concerted effort by the German government to wipe out the Slavic race from the face of the earth.

(Since the interim period of my writing this essay, I've read a lot more into the Ostfront/Eastern Front/That Thing the Ruskies Did for Us. I kind of wish that guy could go back and edit this essay-- something I've refused to do here. I'd like to think it'd be a more well rounded essay, if not a better written essay, but I wish it'd just be more fun. That's my whole theory about film criticism. It should be EXCITING. It should be FUN. You should WANT TO READ THIS ESSAY. I know I don't do that with this essay. It's bean counting. It is me trying to pass a class. I'd like to think that I'm better than that, but I don't have proof. So, here I am, playing Mystery Science Theater 3000 to my own paper. Someone come and kill me, please.)

On the surface, Come and See, shares many characteristics with the Realist school of film-making. It’s Soviet characters consist only of the proletariat, the camera prefers to linger for certain scenes and moves around in long, eye-level takes instead of quick cuts. The entirety of the film also seems to have been shot on location, not in a studio, and there doesn’t seem to be any source of light present besides natural light. Many of the people that appear on screen are either amateurs (as with the case of Florian) or non-professionals (which would be a necessity for many scenes). While the film does have the appearance of a Realist film, it by no means should it be seen as a realistic film. Come and See is fraught with symbolism, montage, and clear departures from reality. The events in the film are steeped with the blood of history, but much of this particular vision comes from the mind of its director.

To view this as an entirely literal recreation of history would miss the point of the film. Even though Come and See does not flinch from the genocidal policies of the Nazi Party, it does play with the context of these events. It will show these scenes in all of their harrowing [glory], but the film often either precedes or follows these events with something that gives the scene an ironic or exaggerated slant.

This is enumerated in the first scene of the film. In this scene a middle-aged man threatens some children, who are in hiding, with a switch for digging for a rifle. The children do not respond to the man’s threats and having made no gains with the children, he departs. Immediately after he disappears, one of the kids he warned enters the scene with the same stick and starts making the same speech. The only difference is that this kid, with a voice far older than his body, is mocking the old man and his authority. The impressionist’s friend Florian laughs at the lampooning of the adult, and with it the rules and society the man is trying to impose. This scene then takes another reversal when the two children try to find a rifle so they can enter into the same world as the man they were just laughing at. This whole sequence lays out the tone for the film to follow. It introduces the film’s first contradicting images and it also introduces the film’s first satirizing of authority.

Florian’s survival is probably the most clearly ironic symbol in the entire film. The first time he comes under enemy attack he simultaneously escapes death in two ways. He escapes it once, by not being hit by the blasts of the Luftwaffe’s aerial bombardment, and he escapes it a second time, by not staying home with his mother and sisters. When Florian first joins the Soviet resistance, the conclusion his mother (and which the audience likely reaches) is that going off to war will not only kill him, but kill his family. It’s a perfectly logical conclusion to believe that fighting in a war is a higher risk job than staying at home, but death does not follow any pattern or logic in this film. In this movie death is a capricious character that can only be counted on to do the opposite of what you expect it to do. Florian goes on to defy death several more times by walking through a mine field (which kills two of his partisan partners) and avoiding machine gun fire (which kills the last of his partners as well as a cow). The teenager continues to throw himself into the line of fire time and time again and yet, he defies the odds every single time.

The last time Florian should have been done away with comes at the climax of the movie, the barn scene. When one man sticks his head out of the window he is instantly shot by a sub-machinegun, but when Florian sticks his head out, he is treated to a view of an entire army pointing their weapons at him. The Germans offer amnesty to all those inside without children, though they explicitly state that the “children have to stay.”

The occupants and the audience is unsure if this is a trick on the Nazi’s part. By all indications Florian takes them up on their offer and despite being a child (and the Germans having no real reason to spare a teenager like Florian), he is allowed to live. An entire village of innocent children and adults are put to the stake, save for the partisan Florian. His constant avoidance of death flies completely in the face of logical decision making and, even, mathematical probability. In the world of a history book, Florian would have been just another statistic.

The miraculous survival skills of Florian is foiled in the death of the German/Russian translator late in the film. Florian rarely ever actively saves himself. He only seems to avoid being killed through sheer coincidence. This isn’t true with the translator. Every time this captured soldier with a scarf sees an opportunity to distance himself from his Nazi bosses, he takes the opportunity. Of course by doing the smart and logical thing and by following orders he, in turn, damns himself. The irony is that Florian seems to drift through the movie on luck contravening bad decisions, where as the translator actually makes a solid argument for himself ends up being executed for his labors.

Even Florian’s name is completely out of place in this drama that is so full of death and despair. His name comes from the Latin word “flor,” which means flower, and his name, in full, means “flowering.” If there was a movie more diametrically opposed to flowering it would be Come and See. Again, only in a film would a child with the name of a flower bare witness to the attempted murder of an entire nation.

Another prime example of these contradictions occurs in the same sequence as the barn scene. For a few seconds, between flamethrowers firing off and children dying, Florian lays his eyes on a beautiful woman in a Mercedes eating a lobster. This brief shot isn’t supposed to literally demonstrate how luxuriously the Germans lived (in fact, the opposite was true, ineffective supply lines and the Soviet’s “scorched earth” strategy were two of the biggest reasons the Germans lost the Eastern Front), but rather it exists as a symbol of the atrocities the Nazis inflicted upon the peasantry of the Soviet Union. It also exists simply to amplify the disparity between the two side of this conflict. A dainty Aryan lady is, more or less, the exact opposite of proletariat elders and youths being burnt alive.

These contradicting and seemingly illogical images constantly reoccur in the film. These clashing images come from one of the oldest Russian film techniques and requires intention on the part of the filmmaker. These images by being placed against each other create a dialog with the audience and create an ambiguity. With a straight recital of history there wouldn’t be this same kind of leeway. Simply put, painted ladies eating lobster during a holocaust do not exist in the wild. Klimov’s film is not a recreation of history as it happened, but it is history as he wants to show it.

These juxtapositions undermine the traditional, authoritarian interpretations of history. This loose vision of 1943 forces the audience to determine where the truth lies. On the one hand it is an accepted fact that the German government was responsible for the deaths of millions of people and on the other hand, the way in which these Germans do it is so completely over the top that it would be funny in any other context.

Elem Klimov doesn’t portray these men as Germans or even as Nazis, he makes them into vampires and into frankensteins and into “cannibals” as a collaborator calls them. These men don’t just rape women, they drag them by the hair like cavemen and entire truckloads of soldiers chase after just one of them. They don’t just flood a crowd with grenades, they blow them up, set fire to them (with flamethrowers, bottles of gasoline, and pillows soaked in petrol), and they shoot them—all the while drinking, playing grab ass with each other, and putting their BMW motorcycles on autopilot.

Even those present during the carnage have a viewpoint not in keeping with reality. The German SS major, when questioned about the massacre in the barn states that “He would never hurt a fly” and that in this war “No one is responsible.” He says this even as his own men tell their captors that this “sick, old man” with a bush baby on his shoulder gave the orders to destroy the village. This major tells his partisan captors this with a straight face. He truly believes that he is innocent of these charges of murder and that he is completely uninvolved with what happened in the barn. The audience knows that he was present at the massacre and that he appeared to be the ranking officer when it burned. Yet, despite having the same set of information that he has, the major reaches a completely different conclusion from what the audience reaches (and what the partisans reach).

(Are you still reading? Good, thanks. Don't worry, there's only a bit more of torture of you. It's all grass after this. Also-- there is one thing I edited into this essay, which is the ending. The original file I had ended at the last paragraph and what I found there was completely different from the essay that got graded. There's a vain hope in me that the final version of this. . . thing is a decent paper, but that is probably just that-- as vain, decadent hope. If nothing, I'd like this to serve as an example regarding things you should not do in graded papers. You aren't dumb, whoever you are. You can do better. For me, it's been barely two years and I know I can!)

In the concluding scenes of the film Klimov states the fact that 658 Belorussian villages were destroyed by these invaders with a single title card that includes no numbers or analysis beyond those 658 villages. The purpose of this is to reassert one particular element of the story. This title card seems to say that, while much of the film came from the imagination of the film makers, the fact Soviet Russia suffered horrifically desecrated by the Nazi-led German government needs to be understood. This fact of the war should not be cast aside simply because the film played around with certain imagery. It says that if there is one thing to be believed in this movie is that this war cost a great deal of lives, though even that is left up to the audience to interpret. It gives the audience one region and one set of numbers and then it cuts them lose to research this history for themselves.

In 2001 Klimov described his film in this manner, “In Come and See, what I ended up filming was a lightened-up version of the truth. Had I included everything I know and shown the whole truth, even I could not have watched it.”*** The events in Come and See are not the reality of Belorussian in World War II, but it is a reality--a fantastic one. It is the reality that seeks to show as many atrocities as possible, while at the same time making a film that is still watchable. The primary means of making the movie palatable and creatively interpreting reality is by the use of contrapuntal images. What Come and See leaves the audience with is not history as told in an encyclopedia. Come and See is an atrocity exhibition, it is a universal history of human suffering that goes well beyond WWII. If Klimov had stuck to a strict, objective history of German war crimes, it wouldn't have the same impact or the same relevance.

(Jeepers H. Crackers, who the hell ends a paper with the word "relevance?" It's like ending sexual intercourse with fucking an ice chest. It's stupid, it's pointless, and I'm surprised that I recieved as got of a grade as I did. If I had the time or amibition, I'd petiton my professor to give me a lower grade.)

*As I think about this essay two years after I wrote it, I realized another irony: Florian is an incredibly Teutonic-- if not, at least, a classical, heroic-- name. It adds to the sort of fucked up, toss away irony that this movie is full of. I guess this all sort of adds to my general theory that Klimov is kind of fucking with us in a high-art sort of way.

**I kind of want to slap myself two years ago. It isn't necessary, but it might prevent me from becoming myself.

***Even tipsy, I realize that not having a CITATION PAGE is incredibly tacky. My professor Dr. Jerry Mosier called me on it at the time and he's absoluetly right. I've always written with my gut and added citations later (because I had to). I don't think that's a terrible way to write a piece of criticism, but living off of it-- as I am doing here-- makes me look like a tacky fucker-- which I am.