Significance of Elem Klimov’s “Come and See” (1985)

Come and See How Russian Cinema Changed

For nearly seventy years after the Revolution, the apparatus of the Soviet state rigidly controlled the content and aesthetics of Russian film output. Although the doctrine of “Socialist Realism” called for the “concrete representation of reality”, filmmakers understood that their work had to depict critical components of the inevitable victory of communism.[i] Overt controls were most stringent regarding films that depicted the response of Russian society to “the Great Patriotic War” and the struggle against Nazi invaders. To receive official approval, directors were required to incorporate a number of heroic tropes and state myths. Consequently, both original and adapted films faced multiple constraints. Elem Klimov’s 1985 film Come and See rejected these artificial limitations, adapting an actual story of wartime atrocity into a brutally realistic portrayal of Russian experience. The film subsequently became the object of significant scholarly attention.

Both Tsarist and Soviet governments used cinema to manipulate patriotic passions for political ends. For example, Stalin opportunistically resurrected pre-Soviet heroes when Nazi Germany launched Operation Barbarossa against the Motherland in 1941. Cinema was a primary tool of agitprop, so film became an essential part of mobilizing nationalistic fervor. Consequently, when the USSR was threatened by external forces, Sergei Eisenstein made Alexander Nevsky a symbol for defending the Motherland against Teutonic invaders, with the hero proclaiming “He who comes to us with a sword shall perish by the sword.”[ii] Nevertheless, once the Nazi threat was defeated, Soviet institutions restricted the content of war films, stifling creativity and dulling realistic portrayals of citizens in crisis. War mythologizing “became a massive state enterprise” to buttress the failing state.[iii]

The manipulation of war memories can indeed mold individual attitudes. Russian psychologist Rauf Garagozov investigated “patterns of collective memory” by which personal memories and perspectives are replaced by a more encompassing set of beliefs and perceptions. In the case of the war years and their Stalinist-Brezhnevian aftermath, Garagozov identified the Russian collective “narrative template” as “Triumph over alien forces.”[iv] Importantly, this template was not “inborn,” but was constructed by consciously revising history to fit a set of official standards. For the Party, cinema was a primary vehicle of political instruction. Lenin himself declared “Cinema is for us the most important of the arts.”[v] Accordingly, films about the Great Patriotic War became the critical “template” for manipulating public support for the Party and the State.

During the early years of WWII, defeats of the Red Army made it difficult to portray the military in a positive light. Of necessity, attention shifted to the actions of presumably heroic partisans. After the war, Stalin himself became the hero of war films, acclaimed as the sole architect of victory. Stalin’s success is illustrated by a 2003 survey which revealed that a majority of Russian citizens agreed that he “did more good than bad, despite his liquidation of millions of his countrymen.”[vi] Although similar apologist sentiments existed in 1985, a loosening of state controls created an opportunity for change.[vii] Consequently, Klimov’s film became the first to shatter tradition when it ignored the required tropes and disputed the Stalin myth by making him irrelevant.

When Stalin died in 1953 and was denounced by Khrushchev, artistic constraints experienced a brief “Thaw.” Films shifted to more intimate portrayals of individuals, and to themes of a desire for universal peace, such as depicted in The Cranes are Flying (Kalatozov, 1957). This award-winning film was marked by overt sentimentality, and by characters that poked cautious fun at Party officials. It incorporated New Wave cinematic techniques such as jump cuts and long, hand-held tracking shots. Nevertheless, Cranes still retained expected elements, such as dedication to the Motherland and a desire for world peace. Come and See would jettison these sentiments completely.

Scholar Louis Menashe describes the post-war period as one in which “the Soviet film industry…zigged and zagged with the appropriate turns in Party-State policies.”[viii] War films were expected to show partisans and soldiers fighting courageously. Germans were beasts. Soldiers never disserted, but happily died for country and leader. Indeed, mothers encouraged their children to volunteer. War film was converted into propaganda to lionize Stalin and celebrate the victory of the proletariat over Western fascism. Depictions were so overblown that in his famous 1956 denunciation of Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev protested “…only Stalin acts…where is [everyone else]…There is nothing about them in the film…Stalin acts for everybody.”[ix] Khrushchev’s speech sent shock waves through Soviet society. One secretary of the Central Committee recalled “The auditorium was as silent as a tomb. I myself…was crushed.”[x]

The state’s program of manipulating public opinion was successful. Russian citizens learned to maintain mutually contradictory beliefs about their war experience.[xi] A 2003 survey revealed that individual “personal memories” accurately recalled failures of public morale, poor military performance, and weak political leadership, but “collective memory” reaffirmed themes of resilience, heroism, and Stalin-led victory.

Khrushchev’s fall in 1964 brought an end to the “Thaw”, and was followed by aesthetic “stagnation” under his successors. During this period directors shifted the emphasis of war film toward a quest for peace rather than a thirst for revenge. Ordinary people became the focus of action and themes often centered on the home front rather than the battlefront. Nevertheless, many unrealistic tropes remained. Films continued to be restricted by ideological imperatives. They could not be “too pacifist”, nor could soldiers run from battle.[xii] This period produced films such as Ozerov’s cliché-ridden Liberation series (1971), which featured noble sacrifice, Stalin-as-savior, and U.S.-British conspiracies against the USSR.

Film scholar Denise Youngblood notes that during the “Thaw”, war films “never varied from a pattern established during [the period] of cultural reawakening.”[xiii] Yet during the nearly two decades of Brezhnevian “stagnation”, Soviet filmmakers were once again expected to produce films within carefully-controlled parameters. Despite this, some directors continued to push the limits of official restrictions.[xiv] Youngblood nevertheless argues that even Come and See retains many thematic and stylistic features of earlier films, such as its “cartoonish caricatures of German soldiers.” She assesses the film “too clichéd, too bombastic, too melodramatic.”[xv]

Twenty-first century scholars identify elements of subversion in certain of the war films produced during the stagnation. Most agree that “By resisting official history, these filmmakers were indirectly questioning the authority of the state.”[xvi] Nevertheless, the scholars reviewed in this study, all of whom wrote after the release of Come and See, focus almost exclusively on conflicts between screenplays and official Soviet constraints on content and portrayal.  Only a few attempt to dissect the attitudes of the directors regarding the war itself.

The central character of Come and See is Flor, the 14-year-old boy who represents the Russian people. He joins the partisans, loses his family to the Nazis, and then witnesses first-hand the annihilation of an entire peasant village. At the end-credits he disappears into the Russian forest with the partisans. Nothing in the film takes place outside Flor’s immediate experience. We see all the action through his eyes. But is he fully innocent of his own village’s destruction? A dying villager appears to blame him, saying “I told you not to get the gun.” Is Flor willingly complicit; can we read his survival as a form of collaboration? At one point Flor sleeps on the carcass of a dying cow whose eyes roll helplessly in their sockets. Like Flor himself, the bewildered cow takes in everything, but comprehends nothing but the terror.

If there is any trace of political ideology in the film, it comes from a young German lieutenant, facing execution by the partisans. He proclaims the Nazi line: “Your nation has no right to exist…Some nations must be exterminated.” In contrast, Klimov paints his Russian characters as devoid of ideology. In the famous closing scene, Flor shoots a photograph of Hitler, symbolically forcing the Fuehrer back in time to his infancy by way of documentary montage, but finally the boy can shoot no more. Critics and scholars typically interpret this as a sign of Flor’s moral superiority. Unlike the Nazis, he cannot kill a child.[xvii] But perhaps a nihilistic interpretation is intended. Further violence will accomplish nothing. If Flor has learned anything, it is that neither ideology nor patriotism have meaning in the face of unremitting cruelty and death. “The individual instinct for survival is a stronger motive than patriotism.”[xviii] There are no heroes. There is only the fight to live. There is no “Good War.”

Elem Klimov released Come and See in the closing days of the Brezhnev stagnation, breaking weary conventions with a film that depicted war and human suffering in an unprecedented fashion. Come and See was the antithesis of a Great Patriotic War celebration. The screenplay was written by Klimov and Ales Adamovich, both of whom experienced the war as young men. Klimov’s departure from previous standards was so revolutionary that he was convinced state agencies would prevent his film from ever being released.[xix] The film has no heroes. Mothers beg their children not to enlist, even as press-gangs scour the villages for “volunteers.” It is 1943 and the Nazis are falling back, but they can still massacre an entire village without any intervention by the rag-tag partisans. Indeed, the villagers are murdered as a reprisal for partisan activity.  Given these dramatic departures from standard Soviet film doctrine, it is surprising that the screenplay received funding from Goskino, the State Committee for Cinematography. Scholar Lloyd Michaels suggests that this reflects “the gradual easing of censorship that heralded the coming of Glasnost.”[xx]

Socialist Realism led to the expectation that war films would include stock characters such as “the party leader, the simple person, and the enemy.”[xxi] Klimov avoided these expectations. His film includes no Party representative, and his characters are not at all simple. Other requirements of Socialist Realism, such as the triumph of Revolutionary Peace, legitimization of the Revolution, and dialectical montage, are likewise evaded. There are no obvious stock characters in Come and See. Instead, the film mixes hideous realism with moments of lyricism. Violence is arbitrary. People survive by accident rather than valor. When it comes, violence is quick, brutal, and senseless. Yet in the midst of chaos, Klimov inserts reveries in which the protagonist momentarily lifts his battered spirit out of the war. In these instances, Klimov presents a sort of strange double-vision that creates stillness in the midst of chaos. This effect is achieved only rarely by auteurs such as Terrence Malik, in films such as The Thin Red Line (1998). But unlike Malik’s philosophical reflections, the purpose of these interludes appears to be to accentuate the violence of the rest of the film. Due to the political dangers of misinterpretation, “poetic realism” was rarely employed within the confining doctrine of Socialist Realism.

Klimov also employs sound to reveal Flor’s emotional state. Realistic diegetic sounds are often mixed with discordant non-diegetic music and animal voices to convey feelings of recall or confusion. In one memorable sequence, an explosion deafens Flor. For minutes thereafter he hears only faintly, while ringing and remembered animal sounds tumble in his brain. Such subjective effects have few precedents in Soviet film.

Klimov’s film arrived in time for the fortieth victory anniversary of the Great Patriotic War. Come and See was named the best film at the 1985 Moscow Film Festival. Film scholar Lloyd Michaels declared it an “intimate epic” and Denise Youngblood proclaimed it “Artistically speaking, the only important anniversary film… [a bridge] between the grand and the intimate views of the war.”[xxii] Youngblood has written about the film on multiple occasions. She declares it “the apogee of a three-decades-long Soviet tradition of subversive films about World War II,” and has noted a number of ways in which the film subverts Soviet expectations: children do not respect their elders, Flor’s mother becomes hysterical at his departure, and the partisans pillage the villagers.[xxiii]

Scholars and critics make extravagant claims for the film. Aleksandr Shpagin judged Come and See “…the apogee of war as religion.”[xxiv] He is most certainly wrong. To interpret war as religion, it must be imbued with mystical qualities and heroic – if not superhuman – characters. Indeed, Soviet war films of the 1940s through 1960s did just this. Self-sacrifice and fevered patriotism ennobled its participants and legitimized the Soviet experiment. Come and See is the antithesis of these goals.

Nicholas Galichenko suggests that Come and See is in some ways the most patriotic film of the Soviet War Film tradition. He praises it as a “…more than a realistic film. It is a patriotic, holy shrine.”[xxv] Why would another academic acknowledge a film as hyper-realistic, and then endorse it in religious terms? Two interpretations are suggested, both suitable in the context of the film’s 1985 pre-Glasnost release date. Galichenko may intend to emphasize the Russian peoples’ resiliency, as typified by Flor’s dogged survival. Survival in the face of horrific oppression may indeed qualify as spiritual. It is equally possible that he means to emphasize the film’s success as a film. That is, to recognize that Klimov bravely abandoned the artificial constraints of earlier times; making a film so ruthlessly realistic that its very challenge to the State becomes an act of patriotism. Klimov pointed at this in a 1986 press interview with Pravda, when he enthusiastically predicted that the new model for Russian film would “bar the path to the screen to hacks, timesavers, and wheeler-dealers…and open a wide road to talented people.” He was certain that Russian audiences, conditioned by “bad mass culture”, would have to be re-educated in order to appreciate “genuine art. We have to enlighten them and make them want to think.”[xxvi] Indeed, Klimov’s determination to revitalize Russian film is noted by Tony Shaw: “The Union of Filmmakers…began to take a leading role in perestroika under the leadership of Elem Klimov.”[xxvii] Critic Yuri Gladilshchikov makes a similar point, noting that, under Klimov’s leadership, “the union saw its task as freeing the cinema from the dictat of functionaries and from lying. Down with the State Cinematography Committee!”[xxviii]

British scholar David Gillespie says Klimov offered “an invitation to the audience to witness an unflinching and relentless trawl through the Nazi atrocities in occupied Belorussia…Flor is no ‘son of the regiment’, but rather a survivor and an eyewitness…” Gillespie notes that the Nazis are depicted in absolute terms as “merciless and barbaric,” and he credits the success of the most chilling scenes to Klimov’s “attention to minute detail”, as in the often-noted scene where a Nazi rapist pauses to have a comrade light his cigarette.[xxix] Similarly, Russian scholar Oleg Sulkin refers to Come and See as “an apotheosis of hatred for the Germans fascists, where they are portrayed as insatiable, gleeful ghouls…”[xxx] These comments imply that the film is not “realistic”, in the sense that it threatens to make caricatures of the Nazis. But Come and See is about personal memory. The extermination of an entire village, seen through the eyes of a terrified boy, burns these images into the mind. Such a boy would see Nazis as unqualified monsters.

While most scholarly attention has been focused on the meaning of Come and See as a late challenge to Goskino codes, none of the sources surveyed for this essay directly address the concept of intertextuality. State controls created a pervasive architecture which conditioned both audiences and auteurs. Consequently, a variety of textual sources needed to be incorporated into this film. The skeleton was Ales Adamovich’s semi-biographical memoir, simply transposed from his home village of Khatyn to a fictitious village.[xxxi] Khatyn was the subject of several Russian studies, and had been turned into a national memorial.[xxxii] Klimov grafted his own memories of wartime suffering onto this mix of sources, then passed the screenplay through the collective memory of wartime survivors who, now in middle age, were finally taking control of the state’s aesthetic apparatus. So while most screen adaptations need only deal with a single narrative source, Come and See had to deal with the screenwriter’s original memoir, official histories, and the personal experiences of millions. Perhaps the only way to achieve this was by rejecting political models and going directly to human experience, as concretized in a naïve, traumatized youth.

The repeated, ominous presence of a Luftwaffe reconnaissance plane reinforces the idea that evil cannot be escaped, a concept borrowed from traditional Russian nihilism. This cinematic motif of observation is further amplified by induced introspection. For example, an early scene in which Flor proudly poses for a photograph with his fellow partisans is mirrored by a later photograph of a terror-stricken Flor posed with Einsatzgruppen murderers. Scholars such as Lloyd Michaels note the “self-reflexive function” of these two scenes, but this is simply the most obvious metaphor.[xxxiii] In the broader context of Come and See, Klimov is insisting that his audience ponder the contrast in war depiction between Stalinist mythologizing and Glasnost realism. The contrasting photographs remind us that all films are exercises in representation. Similarly, the frequency with which Flor stares directly into the camera extends the “invitation” effect noted by some scholars to a broader demand that audiences contemplate the liberating absence of state controls. The final low-angle image of Flor as he “shoots” Hitler is likewise an invitation to “come and see” the reality of human evil. “Flor stares not at the bullet-ridden image of Hitler, but at us.”[xxxiv]

Recurring close-ups also reveal the steady erosion of innocence in Flor’s ravaged face. Nearly all scholars comment on this “aging” technique.[xxxv] None, however, speculate on the secondary implication of aging. By 1985, Klimov has jettisoned the prior constraints of Goskino codes. His vision has matured and become fully realized. The Soviet years have traumatized and “aged” the film industry. Likewise, although Michaels and others note Klimov’s use of “idyllic interludes” to “intensify the ultimate tragedy,” they fail to observe that the very use of “poetic realism” techniques emphasizes an evolution to a more unrestricted examination of human behavior.[xxxvi] Klimov’s film is not just about the survival of the Russian people. It also speaks to the survival of aesthetic impulse and artistic honesty in Russian cinema.

Klimov assumed leadership of the Soviet Filmmaker’s Union in 1986. With like-minded reformers in Goskino, he worked to release dozens of films previously withheld for violations of political correctness.[xxxvii] Consequently, we might interpret his decision to make no further films as a sign that, between Come and See and his reform of the Russian film industry, he had accomplished his political objective – to replace the hypocrisies and mythologies of the Soviet age with honest appraisals of human experience.

What does Come and See tell us about the time in which it was produced? The film arrived on the screen during the last gasp of the old regime. Artistic constraints were weakening, but they had exerted sufficient authority to delay production for years. Consequently, the pervasive pessimism of the film captures Klimov’s impatience with the remaining impediments to artistic expression. It may even be, as Youngblood suggests, that the film “easily may be seen as a cinematic reflection of the Soviet publics’ morale…”[xxxviii]

More than any other film, the content of Come and See annihilated the official myths of WWII. It introduced a more honest view of the conflict. Russians were not chiefly motivated by heroic support of the Motherland, Klimov insisted. Stalin was not a genius. Instead, individuals simply struggled to survive. Yes, they fought to “triumph over alien forces,” but for themselves, not for Stalin or for Bolshevism. By its very release, the film exemplified triumph over a different “alien force.” Come and See signaled the liberation of Russian artistic expression from artificial constraint.

[i] Kenez. P. 143.

[ii] Menashe, Louis. P. 27.

[iii] Youngblood, “Apocalyptic Visions.” P. 23.

[iv] Garagozov. Pp. 34 – 46.

[v] Youngblood, “A War Remembered.” P. 840.

[vi] Garagozov. Pp. 19 – 20.

[vii] Beumers. P. 189. Beumers specifically mentions Klimov in a chapter entitled “The First Signs of Change, 1983-86.”

[viii] Menasche, Louis. P. 28.

[ix] Menasche, Louis. P. 29.

[x] Garagazov, P. 28.

[xi] Garagazov, Pp. 19 – 27.

[xii] Menasche, Louis. P. 30.

[xiii] Youngblood, P-S Cinema. P. 1.

[xiv] Youngblood, P-S Cinema. P.2.

[xv] Youngblood, P-S Cinema. P. 3.

[xvi] Youngblood, “A War Remembered.” P. 840.

[xvii] For examples of this common conclusion, see Youngblood, “A War Remembered.” P. 854.

[xviii] Michaels. P. 213.

[xix] Faraday. P. 129.

[xx] Michaels. P. 213.

[xxi] Kenez. P. 144.

[xxii] Michaels. P. 212; Youngblood, Russian War Films. P. 193.

[xxiii] Youngblood, Russian War Films. P. 194.

[xxiv] Shpagin. P. 88.

[xxv] Galichenko. P. 78.

[xxvi] Faraday. Pp. 127 – 128.

[xxvii] Shaw. P. 59.

[xxviii] Yuri Gladilshchikov, quoted in Faraday. P. 125.

[xxix] Gillespie. Pp. 140 – 141.

[xxx] Sulkin, Oleg, in Norris and Torlone. P. 118.

[xxxi] Adamovich.

[xxxii] In book and memorial form, Khatyn served as an agitprop vehicle. “[At Khatyn visitors] can see…how the Soviet people love their Socialist Motherland…everything that the Great October [Revolution] has given them…it is a living school of patriotic upbringing…” Shamiakina, P. 114.

[xxxiii] Michaels. P. 214.

[xxxiv] Michaels. P. 218.

[xxxv] See for example Youngblood, “Post-Soviet Cinema.” P. 3.

[xxxvi] Michaels. P. 214.

[xxxvii] See for example Michaels. P. 217.

[xxxviii] Youngblood, P-S Cinema. P. 5.