Friday, February 21, 2020

Elem Klimov’s Come and See

During the Glasnost era, Soviet director Elem Klimov personally supervised the release of scores of previously banned films. Technically, he was a Communist Party member, but he was always out of step with Party orthodoxy. His anti-war masterwork was about as far as a film can get from Socialist Realism, but its hyper-reality is arguably the best cinematic recreation of what it is like to experience war first-hand. Viewers can witness the terrible sound and fury of Klimov’s vision in all its brutal power when the freshly restored Come and See opens today at Film Forum.

Much to his mother’s alarm, her teenaged son Flyora has volunteered for the Soviet partisans. This appears to be an official Red Army-affiliated company of partisans, which probably makes matters worse. Of course, when they come to collect her boy, they also plunder the family farm. Maybe it is just as well Flyora does not impress the legendary commander Kosach, who holds him back from combat. However, he orders the boy to surrender his sturdy boots to a salty old comrade.

Unfortunately, Flyora will find himself in the thick of war when the National Socialists over-run the Soviet Socialists’ defenses. Soon, he is navigating a hellscape of artillery bombardments and war crimes. The lad latches onto several companions in order to survive, which he does, but that is often not true for those around him.

Frankly, it takes a bit of time to unlock because the naïve Flyora we meet in early scenes seems so willfully blind to everything we can see around him. However, his slow transformation is a harrowing spectacle to behold. First-time actor Alexei Kravchenko (now an established veteran) appears to genuinely age thirty years during the course of the film. From a callow child, he evolves into a creature in and of war.

Come and See is also an overwhelming achievement on a technical level. Klimov and cinematographer Alexei Rodionov employ long, complex Steadicam tracking shots that are clearly a forerunner to Mendes’ 1917. Yet, it is the disorienting maelstrom of sound effects that really instill the sensation of being in the middle of a war zone.

There have definitely been considerably more heroic depictions of the Red Army in Soviet and Russian cinema. Take it from someone who has seen a lot of them. Nevertheless, they cannot compare to the scale and uncompromisingly visceral recreation of National Socialist war crimes committed in Belarus, which dominate the third act of the film. In this respect, Come and See compares quite directly with films like Schindler’s List, which it predates by almost eight years.

This is an overwhelming film that is best viewed on a big screen, despite square Academy aspect ratio. The tracer bullets practically strafe the audience and the rumbling and keening noises get under your skin. It is a masterwork, by any standard. Very highly recommended, Come and See opens today (2/21) in New York, at Film Forum.