Suffer the Little Children
Jeff Reichert on Come and See
The scariest, and in some ways most instructive, thing I’ve experienced in a movie theater actually took place not in a darkened screening room but in a sunlit lobby where I was working as an usher. An obviously harried mother walked to the ticket booth with two children in tow—a boy of around ten and a slightly younger girl clutching a blanket. She asked the ticket seller what the longest film we had playing was and paid for a few admissions. Tickets outstretched in one hand, kids lagging behind and clutching the other, she strode over to where I stood. I took them and immediately noticed two things—that the tickets she’d handed me were indeed for the longest film playing that summer day at Northfield, New Jersey’s Tilton Six, Saving Private Ryan, and that she’d only purchased two. As I began to tear, the mother asked me if she might be able to walk her children to the theater and make sure they were safely seated. I paused, looked at her, and told her I was unsure that leaving her children alone in such an immensely violent film was a good idea. (I’d seen it a few days prior, opening night if I remember correctly, and was still struggling to reckon with the shock of its kinetic opening segment.) She paused as well, returned my look, and coolly informed me that I had no right to tell her how to raise her children. I tore the tickets, pointed them towards the theater, and they were gone.
I wasn’t around three hours later when the film finished to see how the kids held up, but I often wonder how they fared that day, and afterwards. Should I have stopped them? Did they ever step foot in another movie theater? Idle conjecture shot through with limp sociocultural analysis finds the boy several years later withdrawn, intently sharpening a hunting knife in a room bedecked with System of a Down and Korn posters while his shy, bookish sister loses herself in the next room over in the more idyllic worlds of her favorite novels—something like Pride and Prejudice perhaps. Inflated daydreams of someone with an overactive imagination, for sure (I don’t place much stock in theories that suggest violent art precipitates violent actions), but no one as of yet has come up with a method to quantify how much shock and violence will push a specific person at a specific time past the point of overload. How does one make it through a war (or a realistic representation of one) and return to some semblance of normalcy while a close comrade might be shattered forever? How much worse is the effect of violent imagery on the very young as opposed to teens or seniors? And how do some folks manage to shrug off even the most horrific of scenes? At what point does a visceral experience enter the realm of psychology, or is it even possible to separate the two? Arachnophobia may be a camp classic for some, but it instilled me with the titular fear. And a tremendously brutal film like Gaspar Noe’s I Stand Alone left me dazed, and strangely hungry for McDonalds (another kind of shock?), but I can just as easily understand the impulse to run from the theater and vomit all over the lobby floor (as happened to someone after a Denver screening of Breillat’s Fat Girl). Twentynine Palms had me close to tears, but I know folks it bores completely. The ability to shock on various levels, is an obviously powerful tool, and if a filmmaker could somehow consistently find their way to that magic point for a mass of viewers, their work would approach a particularly dangerous and effective space.
The first 45 minutes of Saving Private Ryan certainly come within reach of the kind of swooning, disorienting, violent excess that one might imagine as a precursor for the post-traumatic effects we’re examining in this issue. It’s in that respect, in that sequence, and to a lesser extent the film’s concluding battle, where Saving Private Ryan is most vital. Sounds and images overwhelm completely, leaving spectators frozen in what I’ll assume to be one of the most realistic facsimiles of combat ever committed to screen (though, as with a roller coaster, it’s the initial rush of the unknown that creates the greatest effect—further viewings of it found the shock dampened in the face of critical analysis). That the rest of the film drowns in the suggestion of possible range of moralities born through combat blunts the force Spielberg’s unique powers of realization. “Earn this,” Tom Hanks’s character gasps to Matt Damon immediately before the infamous morph effect, suggesting somehow that within war there are victories and defeats instead of merely utter, catastrophic failure. I like better the open-ended angst of Russian filmmaker Elem Klimov’s 1985 Come and See, which conjures a similarly hypnotic and droning space of battle in effort to leave viewers with a sense of scarred futility. Both films find youthful characters “aged” by war, but the visions they provide of the aftermath of those trials, and the lessons (l)earned stand in stark contrast.
Come and See was commissioned as propaganda, and succeeds as such (the Nazis are even more dehumanized than in Spielberg’s vision), even as it fully subverts and negates the “glory” of Russia’s triumph. Klimov focuses on the Nazi atrocities in Byelorussia during WWII as seen through the eyes of Flor (Aleksei Kravchenko), a young peasant barely in his teens who eagerly leaves home to join the Russian resistance. It’s not long before his visions of carefree adventure are shattered by Luftwaffe bombings rendered in all their immense physicality by Klimov’s camera and sound design, towering pillars of dirt erupt with each impact, trees are felled and eardrums shattered. All the while one wonders what exactly the bombers are targeting—the camp in the forest is small and ramshackle, not to mention empty during the raid, tons of ordinance seem expended to pointlessly spite nature alone. Abruptly the bombing ends, and a sense of eerie normalcy seeps back in. Flor and his companion, the peasant girl Glasha (Olga Miranova) are left shell-shocked by the raid, but recover quickly, the girl’s rain-soaked dance the next day is the film’s only true, if somewhat hysterical, moment of levity. It’s not long, however, before German paratroopers descend and the pair flees for the safety of the village Flor recently left.
“A safe place,” Flor calls it, only the village is deserted save for flies buzzing around rotting food. A pile of naked corpses behind a hut that only Glasha witnesses provides evidence of the village’s ultimate tragedy—Flor may not turn to look, but he realizes it in his bones well before he drags Glasha through a brackish muck towards a new haven, this time an island, nearly drowning himself and the girl in the process. It’s around this point that Flor’s face begins to freeze into a deadened, wide-eyed mask from which it never fully recovers. That mask is our avatar through the rest of Come and See. A later, more direct, encounter with comparable horrors cements Flor’s trauma, and accelerates his premature aging. On a run for supplies to feed refugees from his village, the boy escapes a paradoxically beautiful nighttime strafing, and finds shelter in another small village. The Nazis arrive, and quickly, mechanistically, herd the inhabitants into the town’s church. Once the doors are sealed the building is set aflame. Flor is one of only a few allowed to escape and witness the slaughter, and the Nazi celebration. The whole sequence is presented as a cacophony of images and sounds that’s impossible to shake, even now as I write this from the comfort of my office—it plays out like a confused jumble of cars, gloves, hats, fire, smiling faces, screams, and dirt. An image of Flor, head held at gunpoint for a smiling Nazi photo opportunity, stuns further. An exaggeration perhaps? Somehow, one doubts this dreadful tableau even touches the tip of the horrors committed in Byelorussia, and elsewhere, and by both sides. In this sequence Klimov stakes out a claim as the paragon of the cinema of nausea.
After the fire, another off-screen battle finds the Russian resistance victorious. Nazis and Russian collaborators who participated in the slaughter are rounded up as the makeshift band of fighters argues their fate. The men are doused with gasoline, fire is brought, but before the burning can begin, other soldiers object to that cruelty and gun down the lot of them. Vengeance complete, the troops move on. I suppose one could read into this gesture some kind of compassion, but the dead remain dead, and that men were brought so close to the brink on all sides represents, again, nothing but failure—no heroes here. And poor Flor, hungry for revenge still hasn’t fired his gun—the weapon he was so excited to pull from a WWI sandpit that he’s cared for throughout the film, even sparing bandages to wrap its broken stock. All that’s left is for him to expurgate his rage on an inanimate target—a framed portrait of Hitler left in the mud. This senseless violence conjures Klimov’s wildest formal tactic—a sequence of archival footage that rewinds the Nazi regime backwards from the war to a photo of Hitler as child—is interwoven with Flor’s face contorted into the only expression it now knows beyond shock: rage. Klimov reminds us, even in the face of his and Flor’s anger, that once the man who wrought so much suffering was a plump cherub, like we all were, and as Flor was not long before. Yet Flor’s face bears the weight of his fathers’ sins. And worst of all, this is “victory” for Klimov, a small skirmish won, and a deadened boy pointlessly firing bullets into a photograph, thoroughly upending the teleology of the bulk of war cinema.
I watched Come and See for the first time at the pristine environs of the Walter Reade Theatre, and though I imagine my shock to be like the characters’ in the film, or those children at the Tilton Six, I know that I’m kidding myself. I’d wager those two children watching Saving Private Ryan might have been stunned witless for a brief period of time, but the late afternoon sun may well have burnt most of the trauma away after a few hours. If they’d been older, more able to comprehend Spielberg’s narrative mechanisms, they might have found small comfort in the “success” of the mission. Klimov’s conclusion finds his young solider, fully desensitized, running along with his troop through the forest to an unknown destination creating a conclusion far from heroic, or even elegiac. One battle is over but many lie ahead, and Flor’s fate is far from certain. How will he live the rest of his life? Will he ever find the peace of his youth, the excitement of finding his rifle, or the joy of his sojourn in the forest with Glasha? Or will his body end up lifeless in a pile with the psyche gone long before it? When a war film leaves us wishing for the protagonist’s peaceful death rather than the unhappy life we’re forced to anticipate, viewers have encountered a rarity in cinema. When that same film leaves us confronted with the universal complicity inherent in war—the way its shocks and jolts and horrors leave seeds behind to sprout in the young—we’ve encountered a uniquely unpleasant, and simultaneously exhilarating experience. However, if, on that summer day in New Jersey, that mother had handed me two tickets for Come and See, rather than Saving Private Ryan, I like to think I would have fought harder to shield them from it. Who knows what that experience might force them to become—a lesson in collateral damage well-learned from tearing those tickets long ago, and in a different, no less visceral form through Klimov’s film years later.