Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Feb 20, 2020 8:36 pm 
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Feb, 21, 2020 /Film Forum, Mar. 6, 2020 Roxie SF


A vision of evil

Elem Klimov (1933-2003) lived through the Battle of Stalingrad as a child being evacuated on a makeshift raft across the Volga in October 1942 with his mother and baby brother. Looking back he saw the whole long city and the river itself all ablaze while they were being bombed. He carried the memory of this experience, this terrifying vision, this "hell," he has called it, through all his life. His hallucinogenic Come and See (a reference to the Book of Revelations, "And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see. . .") follows a boy callled Flyora Gaishun (Aleksey Kravchenko) scavenging during the war who finds an old rifle and joins the Partisans, then is trapped into witnessing at close range the horrific German massacre of a Belarusan town. Over 600 of such towns were burnt to the ground and all their inhabitants slaughtered thus. With this classic film Klimov insures that these events are engraved on our memory too.

The structure bears comparison with The Painted Bird, the new Czech film in black and white based on Jerzy Kosiński's 1965 novel, which comes out in the US in April. But this film is more disturbing and angrier. At times while watching I almost thought I was going mad. The powerful, confident mix of hyperrealism and surrealism made me start to believe I was reliving my own recurrent nightmare, gradually realizing I did see this film before and forgot all but the most horrible long central sequence, which in time brought all the rest back. The memory is so intense it begins seem one's own. This is one good reason why J.D. Ballard called Come and See "one of the greatest war films ever made."

The Painted Bird in a horrible way - the book itself curiously diverting but not quite convincing - is rather pretty, and this, of course, undercuts its value as an anti-war film. I still want to rewatch Bernhard Wicki's 1959 The Bridge, a German anti-war film - in black and white like The Painted Bird - that had a powerful effect on me when I was young and impressionable. I'm past it now - almost, but not quite. Klimov's ability to recreate the worst horrors of war on a vivid, palpable scale still has the power to horrify and awe me. I wonder if Wicki's does.

Come and See, in color but in stark 1.37:1 Academy ratio, moves at its own inexorable pace, and is divided into a few increasingly vivid, disturbing, and lengthy sequences. Klimov creates his own special theatrical, Beckettian graveyard humor in the film's introductory scenes, in which two boys growl with comic menace while digging in the dirt for bodies and valuables. The film starts thus slowly and a little mysteriously, stagy but also quite scary and mad. The influence of Eisenstein and other classic Russian silent films is strongly felt, the sense of the power of the face, of approaching each character full-frontal with a dramatic pause.

Then there is the longer dreamlike encounter of Florya and Glasha (Olga Mironova). They are like a childlike man and woman, a dream couple. He has just been nominally excused by the Partisans, who make him give his good boots to an old man with broken ones, and with the war all around them, this idyll of the boy and pretty girl seems like an obvious escape - into each other. Is she even real?

Now there is strafing by German paratroopers and dive bombers that makes Flor deaf (the sound design making us deaf too, so we hear our own deafness )

The steps that follow are simple and masterful. Flor takes Glasha to his family. The house lies open, welcoming, only they aren't at home. Only a row of rag dolls on the floor remains. We guess what this means. Glasha knows what's happened, but Flor is in denial. Claiming they have escaped to an island across a bog, he takes her through a swamp, a nightmarish, endless-seeming struggle heightened by intense sound design that makes you feel your head is coming off. He tells her he is leading her to where his family is, and all will be well.

But as they head to the swamp, we briefly glimpse piles of naked bodies far off to the right, which she sees but he ignores. We see them. It's one of the most shocking throwaway shots in cinema. He continues on, knowing now, gradually at least, that his many family members must all be dead. Now he comes to another village and is made a part of it, taught by a friendly villager to pretend he belongs to one of their families and take on the name of a missing member, as if that will save him; as if being part of the village will be safe as the Germans come.

This remarkable sequence of systematic massacre, the climax of the film, is first chilling, then horrific, as the Germans treat the Belarusan townspeople much as the Nazis treated the Jews they sent off to the camps, gathering them, giving the lulling instructions, and telling them they are going on a journey to Germany. Actually they are going nowhere, only herded into a large wooden building, locked in, and massacred systematically, then for fun, as masses of German soldiers and some Russians gather around and watch, firing into the burning structure from which we hear screams.

Flor is herded into the big open wood structure too, among the townspeople. This herding crush is participatory for us - again - nightmarishly slow and nightmarishly inescapable - because Flor is in the middle of it, his young, wide-eyed face beaming out in mute terror. (Klimov's handling of large scale crowd scenes is as intense and powerful now as his intimate moments have been earlier.)

But Flor is to be one of this terrible war's miraculous, if not happy, survivors. He climbs out of a window, and while he is captured and teased and photographed with a pistol to his head by gleeful Nazis, he survives. Only he has aged terribly. He was a 14-year-old boy, raw and and ruddy. Now he appears gray-haired. His brow is full of wrinkles, and his eyes are the eyes of the shell-shocked. He is The Boy Who Has Seen Too Much. There is a long and complex aftermath staged at the scene of the massacre that I leave viewers to discover for themselves. And then, as Flor escapes from the flaming town, he meets up again with Glasha, even more damaged than he, blood streaming down her legs, feebly blowing a whistle that dangles from her bloody mouth.

"Estimates of total civilian dead in the Soviet Union in the war range from seven million (Encyclopædia Britannica) to seventeen million (Richard Overy)" - Wikipedia, "The Eastern Front."

According to Wikipedia, "Come and See," the screenplay was written by Klimov and Ales Adamovich based on the 1978 book I Am from the Fiery Village (original title: Я из огненной деревни, Ya iz ognennoj Derevni, 1977) by Adamovich, Janka Bryl, and Vladimir Kolesnik. The film was made in the Soviet Union, with a score of "rhythmically amorphous" music by Oleg Yanchenko, cinematography by Aleksei Rodionov, and editing by Valeriya Belova. Its release in full was delayed by censors for eight years, but when it came out it was a box office hit, selling 28 million tickets in the Sovieet Union alone. Recognition continues into the 21st century. It's in some form available streaming, but I strongly urge you to see it now on the big screen.

Come and See / Ідзі і глядзі, Idzi i hlyadzi, 142 mins., In Belorussian, Russian, and German with English subtitles, a Janus films re-release. Originally debuted at Moscow 1985, receiving the Golden Prize and FIPRESCI Award The 2k restoration overseen by Karen Shakhnazarov was awarded Best Restored Film at Venice 2017. US theatrical release of the restoration by Janus Films begins at Film Forum, New York Friday, February 21 – Tuesday, March 3, 2020. Roxie Theater, San Francisco from March 6. Janus is releasing it in DCP, Blu-ray and DVD.


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