Forever War

By Lee Hill

come-and-see-elem-klimov.jpgCome and See, 1985

In the memoir Jarhead by Anthony Swafford, and the underrated film version by Sam Mendes, the ineffectuality of many anti-war films is demonstrated by the bloodthirsty enthusiasm with which critically acclaimed work as Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket is greeted by US troops relaxing at base. Far from forcing the young soldiers to question their likely march into death or being crippled for life for a dubious higher ideal, the films are reduced to reinforcing the hyper-machismo instilled by their marine training. No Brechtian moment of truth emerges for the soldiers other than a need to keep fear at bay through frat-house camaraderie.

Artists have always had to face the reality that their works will be misunderstood by audiences. Poor JD Salinger has had Catcher In The Rye taken up as a kind of assassin’s bible. Scorsese and Kubrick have seen their critiques of societal and individual violence, Taxi Driver and A Clockwork Orange, appreciated for all the wrong reasons. For the filmmaker trying to depict modern warfare, the challenge becomes how to avoid recreating violence in a way that cannot possibly titillate or excite. Alas film audiences can be terribly literal at times when reading scenes of sniper fire, explosions or even torture. Such images have become so common in narrative film that the end result, to use a memorable line by Sean Penn about American cinema, “is more impressive than expressive.”

Elem Klimov’s 1985 film Come and See strives to transcend this problem. Although the film is set during the German occupation of Belarus in 1943 when Nazi storm-troopers committed terrible atrocities against the rural population and Russian partisans occasionally exacted cruel revenge in response, there is a rare immediacy to Klimov’s film that takes it beyond being a mere account of a tragic episode in Russia’s past. As I write this, the US has commenced a counter-insurgency in Pakistan against the Taliban using Special Forces and Vladimir Putin remains unapologetic about his recent peacekeeping mission in Georgia. Regardless of the justifications for these military actions, there is one thing you can always be sure of – soldiers and civilians are likely to suffer and die random and pointless deaths.

come-and-see-elem-klimov-4.jpgCome and See, 1985

Although the Second World War has long be seen as a noble period of self-sacrifice, heroism and endurance in the national mythology of Russia (as well as Britain and America), even a cursory examination of the historical record will throw up examples of actions by all sides that only the most deluded would describe as ennobling. Klimov wants us to understand than when wars begin, the normal rules of peacetime civility quickly collapse and one could also argue that the very laws of nature are turned upside down.

Any preconceptions that war spares the innocent are shattered in the surreal opening of Come and See, where a younger boy goads an older, the film’s central protagonist Floria, to find a cache of guns buried in the sand. After some struggle, Floria finds a rifle amongst half-submerged artillery and brings his find back home. There he listens stoically to the pleas of his mother not to join the partisans at the front. The pleas seem beside the point since he is dragged off to an encampment of partisans – a ragged band of the young, healthy, old, sick, maimed, male, female, et al – anyone who can be sufficiently press ganged into service. The charismatic leader of the partisans decides to leave Floria behind when the troops march off to battle match to the young boy’s disappointment. He returns to his house to find his mother and younger sisters gone and believes they have fled to safety as the Germans move further into Belarus.

During a brief idyll, where Floria wanders through the forest, he meets up with Glasha, a young woman barely older than Floria, who was also abandoned by the partisan leader, with whom she may or may not have had an affair with. Despite the lack of food and damp, they manage to keep each other amused and even temporarily oblivious to the war. The war returns when the two young drifters are almost killed in an aerial bombing by the Luftwaffe.

come-and-see-elem-klimov-2.jpgCome and See, 1985

From this idyllic passage, the mood darkens. Glasha and Floria become increasingly shell shocked as they encounter survivors of the war – starved, terrified women, children and men too weak or old to put up much resistance. The village that Floria once called home becomes the centre of a harrowing sequence in which the Germans force the survivors into the largest building and set fire to it. Floria escapes somehow and even manages to avoid being shot at gunpoint by a sadistic group of soldiers. That survival comes at a high price when Floria meets another group of partisans, who capture the commanders responsible for the village atrocity and exact their revenge.

The reason I have detailed Come and See is that much of these sequences, on the surface, differ little from many accounts of innocents caught up in a mad war. Yet what Klimov does with these incidents is extraordinary and I could not help thinking of how much this single films’ power is echoed or imitated in films as varied as Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, Gapsar Noé’s Irréversible or Roman Polanski’s The Pianist. I would not at all be surprised to discover that Kubrick had watched this film several times when preparing his aborted Holocaust film, Wartime Lies. I am not entirely sure what gives this film its near transcendent ability to shake up a viewer’s complacency. Is the presence of a peerless performance by the young boy playing Floria, who rumour has it was hypnotised through much of the film? Is it the virtuoso, but never superfluous use of the steadicam? Is it the locations which look as if they have changed little in centuries?

come-and-see-elem-klimov-3.jpgCome and See, 1985 

The clue lies, for me at least, in the film’s title. Come and See says Klimov. Because when war starts there is little one can do to put the genie back in the bottle. If you are lucky, you will be one of those who can sit down, turn on the film at home or watch it in a cinema and experience some of the most intense scenes of warfare committed to celluloid. If you aren’t so lucky and it is easy to forget how many of the world’s innocents are caught up in war zones whether they are Georgia, Burma, Afghanistan, or Iraq, then mere survival becomes a dubious gift of knowing and loss.

Come and See was Klimov’s last film as a director. It was made in the wake of his wife’s untimely death in a car crash. His previous films had achieved a mix of critical success, but were not seen widely outside of the former USSR or confined to the festival circuit. By contrast, Come and See, lined with a genuine sense of pain and rage at the cruelty of man and the world in general, has continued to resonate around the world with audiences, critics and other filmmakers. Klimov retired from film after several subsequent projects including an adaptation of The Master and the Margarita failed to achieve fruition. To say Come and See is a film that lives on is of course the worst kind of clichéd praise. What it does to do with unwavering power is remind us that as human beings we have yet to understand why life is sacred while our timeless addiction to war remains a trait that sadly shows little signs of being cured.

Lee Hill is the author of A Grand Guy: The Art and Life of Terry Southern.