A Disturbing Anti-War Mix of Hyperrealism and Chaos
”In Nazism, we have a phenomenon which seems scarcely capable of subjection to rational analysis. Under a leader who talked in apocalyptic tones of world power or destruction and a regime founded on an utterly repulsive ideology of race-hatred […] of a nature and scale as to defy imagination […] the explanatory powers of the historian seem puny indeed” (Ian Kershaw, Popular Opinion and Political Dissent in the Third Reich: Bavaria 1933-1945, pp. 3-4).
Come and See, a 1985 Soviet anti-war film directed by Elem Klimov, defies every law of logic. It may be described as a perfect example of absurdity, irrationality, and chaos blended with poetical existentialism. The following text is an attempt to describe how the trauma of war is depicted on the big screen making it all the more relevant in our times of extremes.
The film touches on the Nazi German occupation of Belarus and the annihilation of 628 villages with its inhabitants under the eye of General Sturmbannführer’s commander, as well as the Belarusian Partisans’ resistance. The story is told through the eyes of Flyora, a Belarusian peasant boy, ”a kind, harmless boy” as his mother says, that experiences the trauma and atrocities of the Nazis and falls prey to their sadistic instincts since he joined the war. The extreme close-ups of him staring into the camera is a recurring and highly relatable motif throughout the film that communicates the angst of war in an almost disturbing and disorienting fashion.
Hyperrealism is intense. However, it is not that kind of absurd hyperrealism that avant-garde films of the 1920s portray; in Come and See, we are talking about the sort of hyperrealism which, mixed with the right amounts of realism and first-person narration, takes you right into the field, filling you with the same anxiety the actors must have felt. It is worth mentioning, here, that actors, especially the young protagonist Aleksei Yevgenyevich Kravchenko, had to go through support training so that they were not hugely affected by the extreme violence of the film. The majority of the cast were non-professionals, a fact that adds to the blunt realism of the film.
Despite the mad, foggy scenes of war, the blown-up barns, the gang rapes, the dragging and shouting, the potential for humanity and empathy is highlighted, alleviating the pain of the war as a result. When Flyora steals a horse and its owner finds out yet decides to help him hide his identity when SS troops arrive, when Flyora and the young nurse, Glasha, bond beautifully, dance and play in the woods whilst being exhausted from the hide-and-seek with the enemy, when an old woman, who is captured resting on her bed, is dragged out and placed in the middle of a dusty road while everything around her is in flames, but she still decides to smile, I, as a viewer, felt hope. It sometimes occurred to me, though, that everyday conversations felt as if they were part of an embedded director’s cut. It might as well be that the eye is made so accustomed to the overall acts of violence, that the simplest everyday scenes, movements, and orders seemed unreal, out of context, or slightly comical at times.
The music choices, ranging from traditional grim music such as Lidia Ruslanova’s Kto Ego Znaet and Mozart’s Lacrimosa before the camera tilts into the sky and the ending credits appear, are interestingly fusing the general theme of revolution with the need, as viewers, to be lifted up from despair and onto higher forms of art and consciousness.
Come and See is generally a film I would recommend to those who are interested in actively seeing a war theme unfolding in a rather artistic and pioneering way, combining elements of hyperrealism, poetry, high art, and bluntness, all at the same time.
The film is available on YouTube.