Friday, March 9, 2007

Come and See

Khatyn [1972]
Written by Ales Adamovich
Translated by Glenys Kozlov, Frances Longman, and Sharon McKee

Come and See [1985]
Written by Ales Adamovich and Elem Klimov
Directed by Elem Klimov

Flyora Gaishun is a blind college instructor. He sits on a bus with his wife, Glasha, and his son. Florya was a Belorussian partisan in World War II; he and the other surviving members of his unit are going to view the memorial in Khatyn (which is real and accurately described). On the ride out he remembers his days as a partisan, of the horrors he beheld. Interspersed with his war memories are scraps of conversation with his friend Boris Boky. The two discuss man and what is to be done with him. Boris, who was not in the war, argues that man is hopeless, that it's just a matter of time before another Hitler rises upon the tide of blood. Flyora, a veteran, argues for humanity. The My Lai massacre serves as a talking point.

Khatyn author Adamovich was himself a Belorussian partisan. While the novel is not strictly autobiographical, Adamovich's experiences give it the ring of authenticity. As the Nazis advanced through Belarus they systematically massacred entire villages and burned them to the ground. Often they would collect the townsfolk into a single building and set it on fire. One quarter of the population of Belarus was dead after World War II. Adamovich describes in detail the extermination of the village of Perekhod. At the height of horror of his description, he begins quoting testimony of Belorussian citizens who escaped the Nazis. The first quotation comes from the only survivor of the city of Khatyn. The survivors' accounts are followed by Nazi documentation of the massacres.

This is not light or easy reading. The text is dense and specific. There are few breaks in the narrative. There are no chapters, so the reader must stop in between paragraphs. While we know that Flyora, Glasha, Kosach, and others will survive (they're all on the bus and this is no Twilight Zone), there is a momentum to the work that compels further reading.

Klimov's film, its name taken from The Revelation of Saint John, is a masterpiece of cinema. The bus trip to Khatyn and the interludes with Boky are stripped away, leaving only the story of Flyora's education in dehumanization. It is one thing to read about a barn full of screaming, burning people. It is something entirely else to see it on screen. While bits and pieces of the novel are tinkered with for film, the major events are left in tact. Watching Flyora and Glasha fleeing though the marshes, wading armpit deep in primordial slime, gives the viewer the tactile point of reference unavailable to a reader. Aleksei Kravachenko stars as Flyora. As he travels through the war, we are often given close ups of his face. His expressions as he evolves from naive boy to hardened soldier are perfect. They transcend acting (and bypass melodrama altogether). It's chilling (for lack of better words, and there are no better words...this is a strictly moving pictorial phenomenon).

Klimov's use of borderline surreal imagery is perhaps best compared to Coppola's in Apocalypse Now. But while the American film is finally engulfed by the psychedelic madness of its final Kurtz sequence, Come and See never loses it believability. At worst it can be attacked for its occasional "artiness." (But doing so only makes the critic look like an ass.)

Opinons are divided on the film's penultimate scene. Flyora comes upon a portrait of "Hitler the Liberator." He shoots it. After each shot, we see war footage run backwards: We see concentration camps liberated and Pearl Harbor bombed; we see Paris fall and Hitler's willful Triumph. Then we loose sight of WWII. Weimar is marred by riots. Those crowds scurry exactly like the men hurtling out of WWI trenches. Finally we are faced by a portrait of Adolf Hitler as a baby. Flyora stops shooting.

What does it mean? It's an extremely visually satisfying sequence, but I'm buggered to pin an absolute meaning on it. There is quite a bit of footage/information that Flyora wouldn't have access to/understanding of, so the sequence is probably not meant as a literal visual transcription of a specific thought process. The best explanation I've come across is that Flyora is attempting to purge history. He is shooting everything that leads to his present experienced (using Blake's definition of the word "experience") situation. Finally, he is given the option of shooting the infant Hitler. Here he stops; he cannot kill a child, and thus he retains his humanity.

Adamovich is definitely a humanist. His work is not meant solely to depress or enrage us. Ture, we must never forget the horrors of our past, and we must be on constant guard against forces that would create new horrors (the latter point is emphasized in the novel by the Boky discussions). But in so doing we must live on as humans ourselves.

I would like to close this essay with a quotation from the novel, one which underscores the above interpretation. I'm not easily given in to sentiment, but this passage really took ahold of me. I now leave it to you:

"Never cease your efforts, even when it seems that all possibilities have been exhausted and the battle is finally lost; that has always been the rule of military commanders. But then it was only the fate of someone's authority, or even a state that was at stake. Today, it is the destiny of man on the planet for eternity. In a direct and not philosophical sense, it is a question of 'To be or not to be?' Too much is at stake and, no matter what the situation, man does not have the right to say: 'Enough! It's hopeless!'"

1 comment:

Scott H. said...

Excellent entry. I've just written a - far less in-depth - post on Come and See; glad to see I'm not the only one in the blogosphere urging others to see it.