Suffer the Little Children
Jeff Reichert on Come and See
The scariest, and in some ways most instructive, thing Iâ€™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 towâ€”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 thingsâ€”that the tickets sheâ€™d handed me were indeed for the longest film playing that summer day at Northfield, New Jerseyâ€™s Tilton Six, Saving Private Ryan, and that sheâ€™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. (Iâ€™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 wasnâ€™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 Idle conjecture shot through with limp sociocultural analysis finds the boy several years later withdrawn, intently sharpening a hunting knife in a room bedecked with System of a Down and Korn posters while his shy, bookish sister loses herself in the next room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 novelsâ€”something like Pride and Prejudice perhaps. Inflated daydreams of someone with an overactive imagination, for sure (I donâ€™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 Noeâ€™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 Breillatâ€™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 weâ€™re examining in this issue. Itâ€™s in that respect, in that sequence, and to a lesser extent the filmâ€™s concluding battle, where Saving Private Ryan is most vital. Sounds and images overwhelm completely, leaving spectators frozen in what Iâ€™ll assume to be one of the most realistic facsimiles of combat ever committed to screen (though, as with a roller coaster, itâ€™s the initial rush of the unknown that creates the greatest effectâ€”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 Spielbergâ€™s unique powers of realization. â€śEarn this,â€ť Tom Hanksâ€™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 Klimovâ€™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 â€śagedâ€ť 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 Spielbergâ€™s vision), even as it fully subverts and negates the â€śgloryâ€ť of Russiaâ€™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. Itâ€™s not long before his visions of carefree adventure are shattered by Luftwaffe bombings rendered in all their immense physicality by Klimovâ€™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 targetingâ€”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 girlâ€™s rain-soaked dance the next day is the filmâ€™s only true, if somewhat hysterical, moment of levity. Itâ€™s not long, however, before German paratroopers descend and the pair flees for the safety of the village Flor recently left.
â€śA safe place,â€ť 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 villageâ€™s ultimate tragedyâ€”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. Itâ€™s around this point that Florâ€™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 Florâ€™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 townâ€™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 thatâ€™s impossible to shake, even now as I write this from the comfort of my officeâ€”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 failureâ€”no heroes here. And poor Flor, hungry for revenge still hasnâ€™t fired his gunâ€”the weapon he was so excited to pull from a WWI sandpit that heâ€™s cared for throughout the film, even sparing bandages to wrap its broken stock. All thatâ€™s left is for him to expurgate his rage on an inanimate targetâ€”a framed portrait of Hitler left in the mud. This senseless violence conjures Klimovâ€™s wildest formal tacticâ€”a sequence of archival footage that rewinds the Nazi regime backwards from the war to a photo of Hitler as childâ€”is interwoven with Florâ€™s face contorted into the only expression it now knows beyond shock: rage. Klimov reminds us, even in the face of his and Florâ€™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 Florâ€™s face bears the weight of his fathersâ€™ sins. And worst of all, this is â€śvictoryâ€ť 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 charactersâ€™ in the film, or those children at the Tilton Six, I know that Iâ€™m kidding myself. Iâ€™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 theyâ€™d been older, more able to comprehend Spielbergâ€™s narrative mechanisms, they might have found small comfort in the â€śsuccessâ€ť of the mission. Klimovâ€™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 Florâ€™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 protagonistâ€™s peaceful death rather than the unhappy life weâ€™re forced to anticipate, viewers have encountered a rarity in cinema. When that same film leaves us confronted with the universal complicity inherent in warâ€”the way its shocks and jolts and horrors leave seeds behind to sprout in the youngâ€”weâ€™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 becomeâ€”a lesson in collateral damage well-learned from tearing those tickets long ago, and in a different, no less visceral form through Klimovâ€™s film years later.