BFI Screen Epiphanies – Come & See (1985)
здравствуйте comrades. For my second free BFI screening of the year a number of strategies struck me on how to open a review. First of all the distinct lack of Russian cinema I’ve managed to cover over the years sprang shamefully to mind, I mean apart from a couple of stabs at Tarkovsky it’s not exactly been Kino-film 101 around here, right? Soviet film figures such as Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Dovshenko and Vertov are powerful dormant bears of film culture, ushering in and developing critical cinematic syntax such as montage and shot to shot relations, while more recently figures such as Alexander Sokurov have prowled the world stage, regarded by many as among the greatest living filmmakers. Then of course I thought about the Second World War film, a genre which broadly speaking has been treated cinematically as an action filled romp, of boys own adventure and glorious men-on-a-mission movies, until the likes of The Thin Red Line and Saving Private Ryan detonated a new assault of blood and entrail drenched realism, illuminating the full horror and sacrifice that such inhuman conflicts ignited across both the European and Pacific theatres. But then after last Thursdays horrific events here in the UK there really was only place to begin discussion of Elem Klimov notorious 1985 film Come And See, and that is the harrowing tableau of a human face frozen in absolute horror, all reason and sanity obliterated by the sights and atrocities it has witnessed, a scene akin to both the peasant boy Flyora witness to the brutal blitzkrieg Barbarossa campaign and my reaction to the results pouring in from the constituencies across the country.
The film is frequently cited in the same breadth as Passolini’s Salo, Haneke’s The Seventh Continent or Zukawski’s Possession as among the most harrowing art-house of the period, rest assured it’s a tough watch both sonically and psychologically, with some brutal imagery which fully unleashes the four horsemen of the apocalypse which are referenced in the films biblically plundered title ‘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 films stomach churning center-piece is the 45 minute obliteration of a Belarus village by a division of Wehrmacht psychopaths. It’s an unendurable, extended assault of forlorn screaming, of barking dogs, of indiscriminate explosions and gunfire, as the frenzied occupants of the doomed hamlet are corralled in the village church and burned alive – men, women, children, infants. Klimov frames this almost as some horrifically distorted bacchanal, with the Nazi’s (and let’s never forgot their sympathizers and accomplices) bawdily drinking, singing, dancing and carousing as they indiscriminately slaughter entire generations of families, with the lucky ones succumbing swiftly to the cleansing fire – you really don’t wish to know what happens to the survivors.
I suppose I should explain the ‘Epiphanies’ sobriquet, as this is a series of screenings that the BFI host for artists or scholars as works that they champion as having changed their artistic lives. This was the choice of theatre director Katie Mitchell who was interviewed prior to the screening, and no I’d never heard of her either as I’m such a pathetic philistine. In terms of technique Klimov was also a decade ahead of his peers on the other side of the Iron Curtain, as he assaults the viewer with a trident of techniques that firmly situate us in the disintegrating headspace of poor, orphaned Flyora. In one sequence empathic identification is forged when a barrage of artillery deafens our protagonist, causing the soundtrack itself to warp to garbled and discordant tones for the next twenty minutes of screen time – Spielberg truncated and ‘homaged’ that ideal at 0:42 here. The film is also notable for a generous disbursement of Steadicam use. After Kubrick’s profile raising deployment of the method in The Shining five years before it still hadn’t quite infiltrated the industry as a popular filming method, so Klimov’s ordering his camera to prowl POV style through the nightmare gets us directly into his Floyra’s headspace, where a minefield, an enemy or atrocity could be lurking around the next corner. This fluidity is punctuated with severe close-ups of grimy, trembling, tear streaked faces, the literal face of war with humanity ebbing away as the horror warps into a numbing spectacle of grotesque mangled bodies, indescribable cruelty, the relentless laceration of metal into soft flesh and bone. Finally, in a quite brilliant touch which is all the more pertinent now the film frequently cuts to Flyora’s terrified glances to the omnipresent Luftwaffe spotter planes circling the battlefields, providing a constant drone as literal agents of death that scuttle across the smoky graveyard smeared sky. If I was being a little bit flippant I’d liken the overall effect to Hieronymus Bosch crushed in the tank tracks of Sven Hassel, a constant assault of misery and mayhem on all fronts of cinematic representation – Come And See being an invitation to voyeuristic evisceration.
Elem Klimov never made enough film, and although it’s romantic to think that this was due to him having nothing left to say following this ultimate statement on warfare in cinema I think it was more to do with tussles with the Soviet Goskino film-board, whom of course sanctioned or suppressed material at the whim of the prevailing political winds. They loathed the film for its ‘dirty aesthetics’, yet despite the challenge it found its way to the international festival circuit, and curiously managed a staggering 30 million admissions in Russian territory alone. As for the screening itself, well, I’m sorry to say this was one of the poorest experiences I’ve endured at the BFI. They did announce that the 35mm print they had acquired had been tested and found to be of such despicably poor quality that they had to make alternate arrangements, cannily securing the Super VHS master loops from Channel 4’s transmission of the film in the 1990’s. This quality was fine for the first twenty or so minutes, then some interference became apparent from the source master and the digital projection which resulted in blocky glitches populating the screen like a ‘snowstorm’ aerial failure. A very apologetic curate came out and explained the issue and that they would continue the projection so I stuck around – it was physically still watchable just immensely distracting – figuring that once they changed tapes the problem could be rectified and thus my patience was rewarded. Still, at the end of the day this was free to members so I can’t complain too much, and the glitches only blighted about 30 minutes of the two and a half hour film. For sheer metaphysical horror of what we deluded creatures feel justified to inflict upon each other in the name of nationalism, of prestige or of power or pride Come And See is an equal to Apocalypse Now, a harrowing vision of hell literally let loose upon the Earth, all encapsulated by Flyora’s shattered, weeping face as witness for us all;