Original release: September 25th, 1985
Running time: 146 minutes
Country of origin: Soviet Union
Original language: Russian, German, Belarusian
Director: Elem Klimov
Writers: Ales Adamovich, Elem Klimov
Cast: Aleksei Kravchenko, Olga Mironova
Criticism is infuriating, maybe not drunken ramblings about why the Stones are better than the Beatles, or the benefits of a false 9, I mean premeditated (relatively) well-constructed criticism…the stuff of this site for example. It is after all just opinion, hopefully well informed opinion, but nevertheless opinion. You could spend a 1000 words extolling the film that changed your life in all its glory, just for someone to turn around and go ‘nah…it’s rubbish’, and that’s that, it’s their opinion too and no matter how wrong you think they are, how dismissive and ignorant, they are as entitled to it as you are, and that’s a tragedy….but a necessary one, the ability for someone to sum up all you find pure and beautiful in world to a curt shrug. We’re left to the mercy of the gods of subjection.
So it got me thinking. Is there an example of the creative arts that is beyond criticism? No matter what you think of it, whether you love it or hate it, see it this way or that, it always remains the same. You can hate it but not say it is bad, love it but not truly know it, interpret it as such but there is always an element of totality that is beyond you, something that cannot be interpreted or verbalised…like trying to explain who the ‘you’ in you is and how it came into being.
The irony of the two examples I have so far come up with is that even the idea of un-criticisable art is subjective…and still the infuriation grows. But before I think myself into a Kafkaesque corner I give you for your rumination, firstly Van Morrison’s otherworld on record Astral Weeks (I highly recommend Lester Bangs masterful review of it, to better explore the subject than I ever could) and secondly Come & See….now watch me as I fail to explain why I think this is.
Instead of attempting perfection, as most filmmakers instinctually try and do, the most beautiful shot, the most natural performance, the most gripping narrative, Elem Klimov created hell, not a depiction of hell but actually hell. A summation of all war films, all horrors, all grisly fables. Put it next to Shoah rather than Saving Private Ryan. I’ll warn you now you won’t enjoy watching it, and when something isn’t there to entertain, not even in the most primitive of senses, like Samuel Beckett’s Trilogy or a Swans record, then we struggle to render it with normal critical powers.
Well then, has it achieved its goals as a film? What are its goals? To disorientate the viewer? To bludgeon them with horrors and godless carnage? Well then yes, even those who hated the film can’t help but admit that. Perhaps it is goalless? A possibility with something as relentlessly nihilistic as this (until maybe that final abstract glimmer of hope, flashing image by image to Hitler’s youth, which signifies at least the possibility of redemption and change in human nature). If any film seeks to have no meaning as its meaning then this is it, so any meaning you give it is so transparently your own (some hope to fill the void) that the film staunchly remains untouched by what you think of it. It is pointless reviewing the film in terms of ‘stars’, 1 star, 5 stars, they’d mean the same thing, they’d mean nothing.
So on first viewing as the credits rolled up I thought to myself, ‘I wonder if Eli Roth has seen this’. Torture porn has bombarded us with hacked up limbs, castration, prolonged rape and agony and mouths sewn to arseholes (the perfect torture porn metaphor) and I wondered whether Roth or any of his cohorts had sat through Come & See, would they would have felt a slight twinge of embarrassment that all their efforts to disturb, upset and sicken had been outdone by the face of Aleksei Kravchenko. How they made this young man’s face age and contort as he makes his way across the limbo-like landscape of Soviet Belorussia in 1943 where he’s deserted by and eventually returns to a unit of partisans, is open to debate. Is it make-up, an incredible act of physical performance or the fact that rumour has it the director fired live machine gun rounds over the protagonists head during a stunning night time gun battle on the steppe?
Whatever the case, we watch his hair turn white and his face warp and wither from the terror of all he witnesses, it is the hell of the film in concentrated form, the humanity of the boy dissolving from his features and we must be aware by simply looking at him that rarely has there been a better cinematic representation of war and the spiritual trauma it inflicts upon humanity.
As a depiction of a human hell Klimov’s is the finest, not just in a war film but even in other genres adept at manifesting our worst fears, such as horror or science fiction, and it does so without utilising the sledge hammer methods of certain filmmakers. It is the subtle touches that present Come & See’s patiently escalated nightmare to us; villagers’ bodies piled up against the wall of a house, a mass of grieving women, a twisted effigy of Hitler, a tortuous journey across a swamp. Even the film’s main set-piece, the slaughter of an entire village by goading, laughing Nazis is shown relatively bloodlessly. It’s a method that allows us to pay attention to the images and sounds of human suffering and terror (including one of the most truly horrific offers of mercy possible) and not be distracted by the gleefulness of graphic images, of violence as spectacle.
But much to our distress, Klimov doesn’t stop with the film’s images. A third of the way through the film a bomb explodes near Kravchenko. From then on we share not only the hallucinatory effect of conflict upon the man’s mind but the damage inflicted upon his hearing. The film’s sound fades in and out, nauseating high pitch squeals swell and ebb away, masking dialogue, creating an auditory hell to accompany the visual one. Never has the film viewer been placed so internally within the machinations of war as they are in Come & See.
Lester Bangs would review an album by allowing it to saturate into his life, for weeks he would play it constantly, while he ate, while he slept, while he drank and ranted, while he prognosticated, defecated and masturbated, in search of that inner life, that angle no one else has grasped, the light and the soul of the thing. I can barely bring myself to watch Come & See a second time.
Klimov refused to make another film after this, make of that what you will.
Ben has been in love with cinema from a young age having been introduced to the classic cinema of Capra and Hitchcock by his father and the ‘other’ classic cinema of Carpenter and Cronenberg by Alex Cox late night on Channel 4.
In 2009 with formal training that equated to watching Mean Streets a lot, he co-founded Anti/Type Films. Since then he has written, produced and directed more than a dozen short films and documentaries, as well as writing and performing several scores. It means he gets to travel, which he likes.