Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Come and See (Idi i smotri)

Elem Klimov and his wife Larisa Shepitko

COME AND SEE (Idi i smotri)                        A-                   
Russia  (140 mi)  1985  d:  Elem Klimov

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.

Revelations 7-8

Both physically attractive and both filmmakers, Klimov and Larisa Shepitko were married shortly after film school where each were hailed as major new talents.  But after the post-Stalinist cultural thaw came to an end in the late 60’s, they found it increasingly difficult to find work, where there was a greater duration between films, which came under increasing scrutiny, with multiple demands for cuts and outright censorship.  When Shepitko’s film The Ascent (Voskhozhdeniye) (1976) won the Golden Bear 1st Prize and the FIPRESCI Prize at the Berlin Film Festival, she was on the verge of international recognition and acclaim, but unfortunately was killed in a car accident in 1979 while working on her next film (which Klimov completed), an exclamation point symbolizing the end of a remarkable generation of Soviet filmmakers.  Like Tarkovsky and Sergei Parajanov before him, Klimov was forced to leave the Soviet Union, spending more time battling the Soviet film authorities than making films, eventually driven away out of frustration, never making another film after COME AND SEE, which won the Moscow Festival Gold Prize Award in 1985.

Like The Ascent (Voskhozhdeniye), this is a painful and haunting film set during the 3-year Nazi occupation of Belarus in 1943, generally regarded as the most graphically realistic war film ever, bar none, especially vivid in depicting the atrocities of war, notable for its searing poetic intensity, which opens with an old man’s mystical declaration of impending doom, followed by a brief interlude of innocence between a young 12-year old boy and a young girl, Florya and Glasha (Aleksey Kravchenko and Olga Mironova), but after a glimpse of a German bomber flying overhead, something like an angel of death, bombs drop, the earth explodes, the young boy temporarily loses his hearing and then bears witness to the horrors of war, joining the partisan resistance movement against the Nazi’s.  Adapting a screenplay by Ales Adamovich, the film plays out like a road movie taking us through the gates of Hell, given an autobiographical sense of immediacy and authenticity, where we witness the destruction of innocence by the devastation of war.

Initially the Nazi’s are nowhere to be seen, but their presence can be felt everywhere in the frequent eruptions of gunfire and in the death and destruction left in their wake.  Much of the imagery feels dreamlike or like nightmarish hallucinations, such as the slowly evolving scene where he and the girl fight their way through a muddy swamp that nearly engulfs them, the initial horror of seeing herded, starving people, his neighbors, with nowhere to go, seen almost as corpses or ghosts in a fog, as he wanders through the countryside in search of food, finding a cow, but the animal is shot and killed in the crossfire of stray bullets that appear as laser beams across an open field.  He discovers one house with all the neighboring people huddled inside, a shockingly dreadful scene of terror made even more horrible by the arrival of the Nazi’s who round up all the people in the countryside, herd them into a church, lock them inside, and then burn them alive while they feast and get drunk, even take photographs, like it’s a fully entertaining and festive occasion, the season of the sadists.  This film was produced to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Russian triumph over the Nazi’s, but in 1943 as the Nazi’s retreated from Ukraine and Belarus, they applied a scorched earth policy, burning 628 Belarussian villages to the ground, slaughtering all the inhabitants, literally trying to wipe these Russian people off the face of the earth, where it was impossible to view this film in 2001 and not think of the recent Serbian excursion into Kosovo.  Despite all efforts to teach and remember and learn, history repeats itself.     

A film of utter horror and confusion, the last hour of the film is truly mesmerizing and is a great cinematic exhibition, but there are also excessively agonizing moments where the director over accentuates the anguish and despair, including lingering shots of corpses in death camps and large, expressionist facial close-ups, where both Florya and Glasha’s childlike faces have evolved into grimy portraits revealing the shocking aftereffects of war, becoming brutalized masks of horror.  The images are powerful enough, but the silent over-acting depicting traumatizing moments of horror and grief only exaggerates the painstaking authenticity displayed in the earlier build up of the film.  While graphically intense, it lacks the inner psychological complexity of his wife’s film The Ascent (Voskhozhdeniye), which examines not just the visualized outer horrors, but Shepitko uses equally searing images to reflect the insanity within.  Compare the faces of children in the two films, where Klimov dramatically shows the exterior tears and horror, while Shepitko on the other hand goes for that haunted, ghost-like look, finding poetry in the faces of the walking dead, contrasting those about to die with those forced to bear witness, where an underlying hatred seems to be spawning in the next generation.  The ending of The Ascent (Voskhozhdeniye), which doesn’t spare the lives of children, is literally unbearable, and is a beautiful companion to this film, which feels more like an apocalyptic wrath of God where the beasts of the earth are unleashed.   


  1. There is a truly weird sense about the visuals in this remarkable film. Undeniably, it often feels clumsy (somehow underlined by its 1:1,37 presentation); however, this clumsiness also feeds the emotional power of the images with a certain sense of urge. As a result, the film feels unique. Interestingly, the title actually reads "go and look". I fully understand what you mean by "over-acting", but I still think young Kravchenko is extraordinary: I would call it "expressionism". This is a great "series", by the way.

  2. Thanks for your views Anton. The cinematographer Aleksei Rodonov worked with Klimov in his earlier film Farewell, an elegy to a lost Russia that is also a haunting farewell to his wife, and later became the cinematographer for British director Sally Potter in Orlando and Yes, where his skills are particularly evident in the latter.

    The apocalyptic images in Come and See are meant to be overwhelming, and in this he succeeds brilliantly, but Klimov (in my view) has a tendency to dwell on pathos exactly when he is expressing his most searing visual images, something his wife, for instance, would likely never stand for. I would agree in the movie's unique power, otherwise expertly directed, where few films leave audiences so overwhelmed by the utter devastation of human loss, beautifully rendered with such poetic intensity.