Creatures in Shards: Elem Klimov’s ‘Come and See’

On July 30, 2017 by admin



“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.”

~ The Book of Revelation, New Testament.



To Dig

We dig.  In times of our stolen and mauled childhood, we begin to dig deeper into the earth—seeking meaning and refuge in buried rifles and grenades, toys to our existence.  Seeking meaning where there are none. So does Florya, the young/old boy who takes us through a creaturely journey during an extraordinary time in Belarusian history—its encounter with the advancing German military in 1943, during what the Soviets call ‘The Great Patriotic War’(WWII). “Playing a game? Digging? Well, go on digging you little bastards,” an old man shouts at two boys right at the outset of the film. And we keep on doing just that—digging underneath our layers of sanity, even as we travel with a humanity that is stripped off all its veneer.

No battle scenes, no feats of heroism or sacrifice; nor any unfolding love story in times of war distract us. It is an unalloyed realism of life, one that only war can spawn, scene after scene. In fact, the sting of realism veers off to hyper-real forms. It is this borderline that tantalizes the spectators . The verisimilitude of being engulfed in an apocalyptic mayhem is brutally interrupted constantly with baroque, expressionistic interventions throughout the narrative. Very early in the film, Florya tramples on a nest full of eggs, some of which are half-born chicks. This happens unintentionally but the tone is set. The important point is that Klimov never makes history and politics irrelevant by atomizing them into horror (what Susan Sontag had said of Arbus and Herzog).  Instead, the camera takes on a huge moral responsibility in depicting what order human beings can  both endure and inflict simultaneously—Klimov is not a bored anthropologist seeking fascination in the novelty of horror.

The screen pulsates in Come and See. All the time. Like Terrence Malick, but in a much too sharp a fashion, Klimov twists and unfurls the landscape in light, colour and other non-human variables such that the multiple sites of slaughter, genocide and betrayal that mark the countryside turn the visceral into normal.  The here-and-now cannot satisfy the journey. So we elongate space and duration that we might receive some kind of metaphysical clarity. But the prolonged gaze in the direction of our metaphysical quest is not one of mystical unity but an obtuse one, whose real focus is to show how history turns expressionistic within our viscera.For example, in a remarkable series of shots, a cow is guided across to what seems to be open, unguarded terrain. And a firefight breaks out. The cow stands untouched by the furious engagement, until suddenly struck by a barrage of tracer bullets.  Finally its eyes rapidly shift and dilate before death—an indelible set of images that carve remarkable audio-visual statements. In fact, animals are a key motif in the film—constantly placed alongside humans in uncomprehending naivete. The camera lingers on these animals during violent incursions. Unseen birds chirp and a low-frequency whir follows us often. Florya and Glasha hide up following the attack in the fir forest and a stork wanders about and peers in at them in their cavern. The same stork appears twice, almost unnoticed, at the edge of the well and in its dark, perfectly still surface we see Florya’s face reflected, until it is ominously extirpated by the impact of a drop of water. Much later, the German commander fondles his pet marmoset while his men prepare to torch the church in a scene where the graphic impact is again lengthened and made hyper-real. Once the massacre gets under way the marmoset is spared the spectacle when a German helmet is placed over it. The pat by a loving owner’s hand on the helmet completes this fleeting but all too persuasive image.

Much of the notorious massacre scene goes un-scored, the sounds of villagers in disarray, barking dogs, sudden gunfire, and Nazi laughter take over.Often images speak for themselves, and sometimes silence stings us with its eloquence. In an early scene of a German bombing raid, Florya temporarily goes deaf. The audio takes his subjective point of view, and wehear the same deafening ring. This shattering ring is thereafter brought back at strategic moments. At other times, a cacophonous fusion of beastly noises, droning hums, occasional excerpts of classical music, and of course, the expected terrifying sounds of war follow us. In the film’s final scene fittingly we hear: the Lacrimosa from Mozart’s Requiem.

Nothing is a tableaux though—sonic or visual. Klimov is not documenting war. Rather digging is a relentless motif, which keeps taking us beneath the surface: into another real. At one point as he breaks blindly through the crowd of keening and wailing peasant women, Florya comes upon the old man whom he and the other boys had tormented on the beach only days before. Near death, the man is a mass of charred flesh: “I was set on fire,” he gasps. “I warned you not to dig. I begged them to kill me. They laughed. I said not to dig.” No, violence is not gratuitous at all.  It happens. Because historical events make it happen. Simone Weil had said of life’s nameless horrors,  that “we have to accept the fact that they exist simply because they do exist.”

Klimov bridges distance with an identification that is deeply uncomfortable, for it opens one to the pain of the other.And in rare moments the reckless vitality of youth seems to be impervious to horror: like the scene where Glasha dances happily on a log for her new companion in her clinging rain-soaked bottle green dress in the backdrop of the verdant forest. The scene assumes a visionary dimension—forged through the play of light, sound and visual effects. Or when Florya, obliged to strip and climb into the cooking pot at the camp to scrub it with fir fronds is approached by Glasha who holds a posy of simple woodland flowers. She laughs and casts the flowers over him, as if he is being anointed. In the midst of creaturely joy we sense a strange foreboding.Klimov’s meticulous use of graphic symbolism steadily soarsto fever pitch in theclimax where a backward-moving collage attempts to collapse Hitler’s biography and the war that determines Florya’s survival. We are suddenly brought into documentary history so that we realize to what extent history’s machinations might affect each individual life which in turn, stands for the cultural story of a whole community.


To Live

The war in the East had scant rules of engagement. In his magisterial study, Russia at War, Alexander Werth cites two well-known locations of German atrocities in France and Czechoslovakia, “in the Soviet Union, not one Oradour, or one Lidice, but hundreds” of villages where men, women, and children were exterminated.” Local investigations conducted in liberated territories in the Soviet Union produced invaluable material that documented this specific violence against the civilians, while also providing documentation about mass shootings of Jew. In this context, Come and See is Elem Klimov’s attempt to cinematically give life to his own war-time experiences as a child escaping the Battle of Stalingrad, in the company of his mother and younger brother, by raft across the Volga; while the 60 mile long city burned to the ground behind them. And parts of Volga too were in flames with oil slick and debris all around. Klimov later reminisced: “Had I included everything I knew, and shown the whole truth, even I could not have watched it.”

Was the war a larger than life epic or an extraordinary human tragedy for the Soviets?  Come and See is based on Ales Adamovich’s Story of Khatyn which is anyway grim in its sociologically realist overtones. The cultural climate in which the film was made—in 1985, just before Gorbachev’s glasnost days, must be seen within the context of the evolution of the war films in Soviet Russia—from the extraordinary scale of propaganda during the Stalin era, to the antiwar, inward-looking works of the Khrushchev Thaw and then again subdued productions of the Brezhnev times. Only one film can compete though with Klimov’s visionary masterpiece: Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood (1962). Come and See is a visionary response to Tarkovsky’s early attempt and, on a broader level, to Soviet war films in general. While Ivan’s Childhood is psychologically a subtler work, Klimov’s aim has been to bring enacted history into the realms of excruciating, expressionistic poesy.


Right from the 1920s overwrought propaganda films dominated the scene in Soviet Russia, most notably in Mikhail Chiaureli’s The Fall of Berlin and in some of Sergei Eisenstein films. Soviet war cinema took a turn for the more abstract and less grandiloquent during the Khrushchev-initiated Thaw of cultural and artistic restrictions. Denise Youngblood tells us that filmmakers of this second period “traded public issues for personal themes and made a series of ‘quiet’ war films,” instigating a drastic turn from the grandiose tales so favored by Stalin. The enduring classics among the war films of this period are The Cranes Are Flying, The Fate of a Man and Ballad of a Soldier. These films, for which Ivan’s Childhood marked the end of an era, “stressed the psychological impact of the war on individuals.” Since Ivan’s Childhood stressed on the inner trajectory of its protagonist, there are no German or Russian children—apart from Ivan himself—actually present. Instead, they exist within Ivan’s fantasy, and the viewer hears them just as clearly as Ivan does in his own mind. Vida Johnson and Graham Petrie’s suggest that Tarkovsky’s use of “subjective soundtrack and camerawork…conveys [Ivan’s] fear and confusion.”  Klimov, on the other hand, uses the subjective lens to influence the empathetic physical perceptions of the viewer, creating a deep and shocking impact. As Youngblood writes, Klimov simultaneously “mimics” and contrasts Tarkovsky’s style in more ways than with this juxtaposition of perspectives.

Brezhnev’s “stagnation” (zastoi) of eighteen years made it difficult for Soviet filmmakers to make daring experiments about thei rexperience in World War II. The cautious among them focused on lavish costume epics, such as Sergei Bondarchuk’sWar and Peace (1966) and socialist fables like Vladimir Menshov’s Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears (1979). In 1971, Aleksei German made Trial on the Road, which focused on war collaborators and was banned, languishing until its release in 1986. The zastoi does, however, have the distinction of giving birth to the most grandiose Soviet World War II movie, the loud and pompous five-part epic Liberation (1972).Given this situation, the Ukrainian director Larisa Shepitko’s 1976 film The Ascent was a remarkable production. Arguably the most important Soviet war film of the 1970s and certainly the most brutal, it was her last completed film before her death at the age of forty in an auto accident. An uncompromising look at wartime collaboration and betrayal, it was based on Vasil Bykov’s short story “Sotnikov,” which had already been criticized as too gloomy and hopeless. According to Youngblood, “No other Soviet war film, not even Ivan’s Childhood, confronted human frailty in wartime so relentlessly.” The Ascent stands as a monument to her courage and perseverance as a filmmaker.


Come and See has to be placed in this context. It was commissioned as part of the commemoration for the fortieth anniversary of the end of the war in 1985 and won first prize that year at the Moscow International Film Festival. At the end of the film, Florya runs up the hill to join the partisan line—now as a prematurely aged boy, broken but carrying on with whatever is left of life. As they enter the birch forest in the final scene, a title informs us: “628 Belorussian villages were destroyed, along with all their inhabitants.” The final shot is of the partisans, backs to the camera, as they disappear into the heart of the dark forest.

In 1986, Elem Klimov led the “restructuring” of the Cinematographers’ Union. Both he and Adamovich enjoyed considerable political clout in the cultural arena during the Mikhail Gorbachev era. Some filmmakers turned to penetrative explorations of the Stalin era and scathing denunciations of contemporary social decay from the late 1980s to the early 1990s. By the time of the fiftieth anniversary celebrations in 1995, the cheering had ceased. The once-mighty Soviet film industry had collapsed along with the Soviet Union. There was no important fiftieth anniversary film.By stripping the war of the bombast of official history, by confronting its many paradoxes with unflinching honesty, these moviemakers succeeded where historians had not (and indeed could not, given the strictures of the Soviet historical profession). Working with images rather than words, these directors were able to subvert censorship, thereby functioning as the historians of their generation.


Link to the film (with English subtitles):


Works Cited

Come and See. Dir. Elem Klimov.

Goodman, Walter. “Film: ‘Come and See’ From Soviet.” Rev. of Come and SeeNew York Times 6 Feb. 1987. Web.

Stone, Will. “Come and See, An Epic of Derangement.” 3 A.M. Magazine. Web.

Johnson, Vida T. and Graham Petrie. “Beginnings: The Steamroller and the Violin & Ivan’s Childhood.” The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1994. 63–78. Print.

Michaels, Lloyd. “Come and See (1985): Klimov’s Intimate Epic.” Quarterly Review of Film and Video 25.3 (2008): 212–18. Print.

Petric, Vlada. “Tarkovsky’s Dream Imagery.” Film Quarterly 43.2 (1989): 28-34. Print.

Wrathall, John. “Excursion to Hell.” Sight and Sound Feb. 2004: 28–30. Wilson Web. Web. 18 Nov. 2010.

Youngblood, Denise. “Post-Stalinist Cinema and the Myth of World War II.” World War II: Film and History. Ed. John Whiteclay Chambers. New York: Oxford UP, 1997. 85–95. Print.

—. “A War Remembered: Soviet Films of the Great Patriotic War.” The American Historical Review 106.3 (2001): 64 pars. Web. 3 Nov. 2010.

Menashe, Louis. “Patriotic Gauze, Patriotic Gore: Russians at War Author(s).”  Cinéaste, Vol. 29, No. 3. Summer (2004). 26-29. Print.

Stolov, Iurii. “Coming out of the Margins: Belarusan Cinema in the 1990s.” Canadian Slavonic Papers / Revue Canadienne des Slavistes, Vol. 42, No. 1/2.(2000). 7-23. Print.

Carleton, Gregory.” Victory in Death: Annihilation Narratives in Russia Today.”  History and Memory, Vol. 22, No. 1 (Spring/Summer 2010). 135-168. Print.

Berkhoff,  Karel C., ‘”Total Annihilation of the Jewish Population’: The Holocaust in the Soviet Media, 1941-1945,” Kritika , 10.1 (2009): 61-105. Print.

Shneer, David. Through Soviet Jewish Eyes: Photography, War and the Holocaust. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2011. Print.


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