Tuesday, August 15, 2006
Come and See
Someone once told me, and I found it true, that you don’t really know what love is until you have children. Similarly I don’t think I ever really hated the fascists until I saw “Come and See”.
Last night we showed this Russian war film at our regular socialist film night in Swindon, there were 15 people there including officials from the T&G and GMB, and members of the Unison branch committee. The 1985 movie follows a young and simple peasant boy through leaving his family to join the red army partisans, separated from them he passes through the circles of hell, as he experiences and witnesses the bestial degeneracy of the Nazi occupiers.
The film has been described as a Russian “Apocalypse Now”, but that is a lazy comparison. The surrealism of “Apocalypse Now” was quite studied and literary, whereas the dream like quality of “Come and See” derives only from the difficulty we have of believing what we are seeing. In any event the narrative structure of portraying war as a charnel house run by madmen, and viewed through the eyes of a simpleton witness owes nothing to Hollywood, and was first used in European literature in the 17th Century in Grimmelhausen’s deeply disturbing “Der Abenteuerliche Simplicissimus Teutsch“ (rarely read in English, but well worth it, usually translated as “Simplex Simplicissimus”) and his slightly later “Ausführliche und wunderseltzame Lebensbeschreibung der Ertzbetrügerin und Landstörtzerin Courasche“ (Mother Courage).
Normally war films, even those that portray atrocities, present them in such a familiar format, that we are habituated to war, and blase to the violence. To a certain degree this was even true of “Shindler’s List”, where the conventionality of the story and the Hollywood sentimentality stood as a barrier from the audience really being traumatised. The remarkable achievement of Elem Klimov’s film is that there is no sentiment, indeed there is hardly any character development, we do not identify with the simple boy because we are manipulated to thinking he is like us, but only because he is a human being.
We all know that the Nazis burned whole villages, women and children in barns, over 600 massacres in Belarus alone, but only in this film are you in the barn. We all know that the Nazi Einsatzgruppen were cruel murderers, but in this film we see (all too believably) both the Bacchanalian sensuality of the carnage, but also the detachment that it was only a job, and one they believed ideologically necessary.
But neither is the film inaccessible or boring. It has a slow start, but the tempo accelerates throughout the film, and it is thoroughly spellbinding.
To return once more to the “Apocalypse Now” comparison, in that film (following the theme in Conrad’s book) the Kurtz character finds the horror of what he is capable of by leaving civilisation behind. This is a fundamentally racist account of colonialism, whereas in “Come and See”, as the Einstazgruppe rounds up the families and children for slaughter, they are playing a propaganda recording to the Russians that they will be transported to Germany, which is a civilised country where everyone has a toothbrush. The barbarism of war is a barbarism not derived from our primitive past, but the dark underside of our own society.
Today the killing fields are not in Belarus but in Iraq and Lebanon. Neither the Americans nor the Israelis are politically comparable to Hitler's Nazis, but war has its own logic.