Come and See: Orphans of the Storm
Review by Mark Le Fanu june 30, 2020
Come and See (1985) is one of those films whose authority is established from its opening moments. Out in the open air, an elderly peasant dressed in a soft-peaked beret is volleying a mixture of threats and imprecations into some bracken-strewn sand dunes: Whoever is hiding in there (we gather they are kids: “little brats,” “stinking bastards”) had better come out! After a few more insults, the man mounts his cart and, with a flick of the whip, prepares to move off.
Meanwhile, from behind the dunes, a diminutive figure has advanced into the open, mocking, in a deep, gruff voice, the old peasant’s tirade, while making sure to keep a safe distance. “Gutless rat, Pioneer brat”—the imitation taunts emanating from the youngster’s throat are given an extra twist of mockery by being phrased in rhyme. He has a companion, too, a little older than he, who from the cover of a neighboring sand dune is clearly enjoying the show, rocking with silent laughter. Who are these boys, we ask ourselves, and what exactly is happening here? Their identity and purpose are presently revealed to us after the peasant’s departure, as they scrabble in the sandy soil for abandoned weapons. Yes, they are local children, somewhere in the Soviet Union during the Second World War, and the weapons, if found, will serve to ease their entry into the society of anti-German partisans—that must be why the peasant (fearful of reprisals against his village) was so angry at them. The whole scene—I have only described half of it—has an immediacy that grabs the viewer by the throat. We grasp that this is a film that means business.
The force of this sequence derives partly from its bold use of close-up. The film actually starts with a close-up—the back of the peasant’s head—and this is surely unusual (most filmmakers would be inclined to start with a more general establishing shot). The image of the younger child walking toward us, mouthing his deep-throated curses, delivers a sinister frisson that is nothing but disorienting. In fact, he is walking toward his friend, but it seems to be us he is addressing so impudently; and this frontality of gaze, pinning us down with its candor, returns at different times over the course of the film—we might even say it constitutes the film’s stylistic signature, along with director Elem Klimov’s amazing use of Steadicam. Thus, in the forest, the boy Flyora (Alexei Kravchenko)—the laughing child from the opening scene—and the girl Glasha (Olga Mironova) stare at each other in rapture, their mutual curiosity communicated through a series of striking matching close-ups. Here, at this early stage of the drama, the different pairs of eyes addressing us are vivid with feeling and youthfulness. Later, close-ups of the boy and the girl will only show numbness, revenge, or despair—eyes that have all but ceased to see, in response to enveloping horrors.
Yet before we return to these horrors—we will get to them soon enough—we ought to pause on this lyrical forest interlude. The girl, we can see, is a few years older than the boy. Flyora himself we take to be thirteen or fourteen. Obviously, it is his rapture that is key in this scene: Glasha herself is still in love with a departed partisan leader. But she is young enough, and generous enough—and maybe just innocent enough—to look the boy in the eyes and merrily like what she sees there. Readers will remember that their idyll is interrupted at this moment by a furious bombardment from the air: whole sections of the forest are uprooted around them, and they barely escape with their lives. In the dazed aftermath, Flyora builds the girl a little fern and pine shelter, and snuggles down beside her. A crane that seems to have stepped out of a book of fairy stories pokes its inquisitive beak into their improvised shelter and surveys them. Later that afternoon, in the pouring rain, Glasha performs a dance on an upturned suitcase that Flyora will remember to the end of his days. He—and she—will never again experience such unmediated delight in life. Though they are destined to be parted from each other after extraordinary trials and exertions, their singular fate is sealed in that moment: from now on, they belong to each other.
The presence of what one might call the pure flame of love in the midst of unimaginable brutality is one of the great characteristics of Soviet war movies, differentiating such films from their Hollywood contemporaries, which tended to be more single-mindedly dedicated to masculine solidarity and action. A deep and savage regret for the human partings caused by warfare is a vital ingredient—perhaps the vital ingredient—of such masterpieces of the genre as Yuli Raizman’s Mashenka (1942), Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes Are Flying (1957), Sergei Bondarchuk’s Fate of a Man (1959), and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood (1962). Flyora and Glasha are destined to lose each other too. They are only children—orphans of the storm—but what they are about to go through should never be experienced by any human being. How can such horrors happen? the viewer asks himself. (Of course we know that they do.) Klimov seems to have been intent on attaching a level of physical realism to the story at hand that had seldom been attempted before, even in the harsh annals of Soviet cinema (one remembers the children hurled to their deaths by the Teutonic knights in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1938 film Alexander Nevsky). The physical trials the actors must have been put through in order to achieve such verisimilitude almost don’t bear thinking about.
Take the sequence, for example, in which Glasha follows Flyora neck-deep into the swamp as the pair of them struggle to reach safety after fleeing from Flyora’s stricken village (only Glasha has glimpsed the mountains of bodies the Germans have left behind in the lee of an outlying barn). Into the glutinous mud they plunge without hesitation. On film shoots, precautions are taken to make sure that nobody is injured, let alone threatened with drowning. All the same, there must be a limit, in conditions like these, to what can be foreseen and protected against, and Klimov seems to have come pretty close to breaching it. Whatever happened (or didn’t happen) in the performance of this astonishing scene, the physical bravery of the actors can only induce awe. And there are several other scenes in the movie that give rise to similar reflections.
Alexei Kravchenko went on in subsequent years to have a distinguished career in cinema and television. He can be seen in a recent interview for Russian television, available on YouTube, looking back on his experiences of making this film. He speaks warmly and wisely of his relationship with Klimov—just as Klimov, in another interview, speaks warmly of him. When a child decides to put his full trust in a director, as evidently happened here, there’s almost nothing that can’t be asked for—or delivered. Klimov’s only fear—and I think it was a genuine fear—was that what he was asking for in this case might send the boy mad. (Perhaps a similar fear afflicted him about the experiences he was putting Olga Mironova through at the same time; alas, we hear nothing further about her in either of the interviews just cited. After this one role, the young woman in question, with her striking blue eyes and lovely, winning smile, disappears from the annals of film history.) To a startling extent, the film is the record of the successive woes that are etched on the faces of these children, as the steps of their journey wrench them from the familiarity of home and take them further and further into the deep heart of darkness.
Elem Germanovich Klimov (born 1933, a year after Tarkovsky) was one of that group of extremely talented directors—Marlen Khutsiev, Gleb Panfilov, Andrei Konchalovsky, and Alexei German are others—who started making films in the period of relative liberalization known as the thaw, when it became possible for the first time to question out loud some of the political pieties that had hitherto obtained under monolithic state communism. Yet the cultural freedoms on offer during this period (roughly from 1956 to the middle of the 1960s) were always provisional, and liable to be withdrawn at any moment. Though Klimov rose to a position of power and influence in the wake of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms (in 1986, he was appointed head of the USSR’s Filmmakers’ Union), there is something melancholy and incomplete—something tragic even—about his career taken as a whole. In essence, there were only three films of stature, and one of these, Farewell (1983), belongs equally, perhaps, in the filmography of his wife, Larisa Shepitko, whose project it had originally been, before she was killed in a car crash.
Like all Soviet directors of the epoch, and perhaps even more than most, Klimov had had to endure a fair amount of waiting: fourteen years in total (as he ruefully observed) in the case of his first major film, Agony, a huge fresco portraying prerevolutionary Russian politics at the height of the influence of Rasputin. The period of purgatory here was divided up into eight years spent in gaining permission to shoot the movie (whose noncommunist and even anticommunist subject matter was officially deemed to be inflammatory), plus a further six years before it was finally allowed to be shown within the Soviet Union, in 1981.
Though he couldn’t have been aware of it at the time, Come and See was to function as his monument and epitaph. Klimov lived until 2003, but this is the last film he put his hand to. And it seems to have emerged in a very personal way. He himself had been a witness as a child, in 1942, to the catastrophic destruction of Stalingrad, a turning point in the Second World War. He later spoke of escaping the city in a barge together with his family, and witnessing the entire Volga River—nearly a mile in breadth—engulfed in flames that had been caused by the emptying of an oil depot blown up by the Germans. One could say he knew firsthand the meaning and the “look” of apocalypse: it had been seared into his soul at a very young age. And he knew who had caused it, too, as all Soviets did, and as all in the region continue to do. The unforgettably barbaric facts regarding the territory where the film takes place are given in a title card toward the end: In what the Soviets called Belorussia, on the westernmost (or nearest-to-Germany) reaches of the Nazi advance, two million people—one in four members of the population—perished. Six hundred twenty-eight villages were deliberately razed to the ground, their inhabitants massacred. Everything that is seen in Come and See is based on events, therefore, that really happened. The book of wartime memories that formed the groundwork out of which the movie came—Out of the Fire, cowritten by an ex-partisan named Ales Adamovich, who also collaborated with Klimov on the film’s script—was treated before and throughout the filming, said the director, as a “sacred text” or “touchstone.” The experiences recounted there tied up with experiences that he himself, along with his family and his loved ones, had tragically had firsthand knowledge of.
Yet in just this grim insistence on authenticity lay the seeds of subsequent controversy. The extended and, at times, almost unwatchable sequence of the massacre of the villagers herded into the burning meeting hall that concludes the movie (along with its aftermath, the revenge of the partisans on the battalion that perpetrated the deed) is based on events that took place in the village of Khatyn on March 22, 1943. A memorial park commemorating the incident was erected in 1969 and has subsequently become one of the most visited spots in the country now known as Belarus. One could say that the village of Khatyn (called Perekhody in the movie) stands as a symbol for all the other Belorussian villages that were brutally razed to the ground—sometimes indeed more than once—in the three years of Nazi occupation.
Khatyn, of course, is homonymous with the much more famous Katyn, the forest where the Soviets themselves had murdered up to twenty-two thousand captured Polish army officers during April and May of 1940. The responsibility for this terrible crime—a product of the dismemberment of Poland by Germany and by the Soviet Union in the wake of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact—had still, at the time of the making of Come and See, not been officially owned up to by the Soviet authorities; and it’s possible indeed to see permission to make the film in the first place as a tactical move in the Soviets’ ongoing propaganda war with the West, as indeed many did upon its release. The Polish Katyn would not thereby be denied outright, but it would be relativized—“You talk of your Katyn, but we have a Khatyn as well!”—put into the wider context of the endemic terrorism that shadows pretty much every war.
So the film is nationalistic, in complicated ways, including the way it needed to pay attention to regional susceptibilities within the Soviet Union itself. The Nazi collaborators persecuting the Belorussians in Come and See are identified as neighboring Ukrainians. Historically, it was the Ukrainian Auxiliary Police (under German command) who made up the bulk of Schutzmannschaft Battalion 118, the body of men that was responsible for carrying out the massacre at Khatyn. The legal prosecution of individuals responsible for giving orders on that fateful day was still a live issue when the movie was being put into production. Indeed the film itself (widely viewed in Russia: twenty-nine million cinema tickets were sold) may have played a part in further prosecutions. The surviving Ukrainian chief of staff of Battalion 118, a man named Hryhoriy Vasiura (who had been awarded a Veteran of Labor medal as recently as 1984 for his work in charge of a collective farm near Kiev), was put on trial for the crime in 1986, a year after the film was released, and executed just a year after that.
How much one needs to know about the political background of individual movies is always a contentious issue. To what extent does the “agenda” of a film like Come and See matter, beyond its obvious primary agenda as a protest against the barbarity of warfare? The writer of the present essay remembers being taken aside and rebuked by a senior official at a reception at the Soviet embassy in London, when the film first came out, for mentioning in an article I had written about the movie that the Russians themselves, within living memory, had done (and were continuing to do) some pretty vile things in Afghanistan. I stood my ground then. But this wouldn’t be the first time that a propaganda movie (if that’s what this is) was also a cinematic masterpiece: Soviet cinema is full of such examples, from Eisenstein onward. For that, surely, is where any responsible account of Come and See needs to stake its final claim: the film is a masterpiece, after all, both in the quality of its imagination, and the magisterial way that it is structured. Though definitely on the long side (142 minutes), it drives forward swiftly and relentlessly toward its terrible, inevitable conclusion. On the way, sequence after sequence—Klimov was a master of sequences—becomes indelibly etched into the viewer’s memory.
Who can forget the scene, early on in the film, in which, prior to being press-ganged by the partisans, Flyora spends a few last innocent moments in the family home in the company of his mother and tiny twin sisters (never to be seen again)? The two partisans who have come to collect the boy (one of them an enormous giant of a man) bring with them an atmosphere of sinister and mocking foreboding. Or there is that other fine sequence, much later on, when Flyora and an older companion kidnap a cow, and come under sustained fatal fire from a barrage of lethal German tracer bullets. A whole long sequence after that shows Flyora lost in the mist, temporarily rescued by a farmer (who tells him to pretend to be his grandson)—before finding himself slowly absorbed into the chaos of villagers uncertain of what to do, or where to flee, in the face of the oncoming Germans.
The film ends with a beautiful sequence of the partisans marching off into the winter forest, while on the soundtrack we hear an extract from Mozart’s sublime Requiem. Just prior to this, Klimov takes leave of us with a virtuoso newsreel montage (he had specialized in these since his time working on Mikhail Romm’s 1974 documentary And Still I Believe; they also turn up powerfully at intervals in Agony)—only here, in Come and See, the chronology of the newsreel is made to go backward. Flyora, who has just witnessed in close-up the act of revenge carried out by his partisan comrades on the captured German officers, raises his rifle and repeatedly fires it into a framed photographic portrait of the Führer that is lying abandoned beside him in a puddle. As the boy’s anger-fueled fusillade continues, real-life footage of the German leader flashes up on the screen showing speeches, parades, and blitzkriegs, before moving back to Hitler’s youthful activism in Munich, and finally to the days of his childhood.
It is an extraordinary coup for the film (and for Klimov as an artist) that the image on which this sequence ends, the one surviving photograph of Hitler as a toddler sitting upright on his mother’s knee, should bear precisely the same fixed, unearthly stare—the same physiognomy almost—as Flyora himself, his would-be “assassin.” The film’s working title, before it turned into the biblical exhortation Come and See, was Kill Hitler. Klimov was always careful to explain in interviews that this was not to be taken in its literal meaning but rather as referring to a sort of universal moral imperative: “Kill the Hitler that lurks potentially in all of us!” The action of Flyora discharging multiple rounds of his rifle into the abject abandoned photograph acts as a kind of catharsis, and at the same time a whisper to us that this is not a mere vulgar revenge drama. On the contrary, the meaning encapsulated here is central to Klimov’s humane vision, and as good a reason as any why it is appropriate to speak of Come and See as being one of the finest and most thoughtful war films ever made.