Come and See (Idi i smotri) – Art 5/5 Ent 4/5 Worth 6/5
Released on the 40 year anniversary of the USSR’s defeat of Nazi Germany to a massive domestic audience, Elem Klimov’s Idi i smotri is the greatest war movie you’ve probably never heard about. Set during the resistance to the German occupation in the Byelarussian marshes, well behind the front lines of Barbarossa, the movie follows the boy Florya and various people he meets as they slog through the worst excesses of the war. Against the wishes of his mother, Florya joins the partisans, who trick the Nazi-collaborating villagers by dressing as Germans to arrest him. Because his young age makes him relatively worthless to the partisans, they tell him to protect the base and tend to the guns, where his anxiousness for combat is humiliated by the distracting girl smitten with him. Trying to find his own way into the war, he soon gets his wishes exactly, to his soul-emptying regret.
Being struck by a German Einsatzgruppen anti-partisan brigade, Florya narrowly escapes being first burned alive in a church with the rest of the villagers, and then shot in the head by posing Nazis treating him like a trophy, a specimen of the conquered race. After the partisans later capture some of the Germans and one of their officers makes a distraught plea for forgiveness, an Aryan true believer barks him down and tells the partisans they’re an inferior people who deserve to be slaughtered, the children most of all, because “it starts in them”. The film then begins flashing backwards in time with documentary footage of the Nazis and Hitler’s rise, with Florya shooting his rifle at each stage of the Third Reich adn Hitler symbolized by a still photo, but he refrains finally from shooting at a still of an infant Hitler. In all the cruelty and lust for vengeance in Florya’s muddy, bloody face, he can’t bring himself to lose faith in the essential goodness of humanity, even baby Hitler, despite what the captured Nazi had to say.
While Come and See is a tremendous war film, it’s a traditionally avant garde art film first, in its design and outlook. Stalled in the bureaucratic nightmare of Soviet arts ministries for 8 whole years before it saw mass distribution, the film is granted some leeway in psychologically ambiguous surrealism. From sinister usage of Nazi-favored German operatic songs, the moaning Nazi spy planes and the documentary ending tracing the flowering of evil dictator and his racist warmongering state, the audience is left in awe of a complex abstraction that doesn’t seek to blame but to redeem even the most evil of men. The universalism of the message probably eventually overtook the Soviet censors, but the essentialist argument in Come and See, that points to the good in humanity despite the horrors of the apocalyptic war, is not necessarily only a communist argument.
In the vain melodrama of Anglo culture, Johnny Cash quotes from the Book of Revelation in the song “The Man Comes Around”, which is played in the opening credits for 2004′s Dawn of the Dead re-make, a film with allegorical roots about a zombie apocalypse symbolizing our brain-dead motivation to go to the mall. The mystique of the horror genre leaves us somewhat fulfilled in a fun, gruesome, skin-crawling experience, and our payment feels genuinely worth the exchange as we return home to our drab materialistic lives. When Elem Klimov’s Come and See quotes the same passage from Revelation in its title …
“And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see. And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.”
… it isn’t referring to a self-serving cultural critique about mall culture making us into drones, it’s referring to the most ghastly mechanical genocide in the history of mankind to date: the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, which left upwards of 26 million very real Soviet citizens dead. They were not left to roam malls as an indictment of soccer moms, but to roam in hell as an indictment of human cruelty.
After watching this, you will truly never see war movies the same again. The West had it relatively fine in World War 2, but to describe what happened on the Eastern Front in WW2 in Biblical terms, as far as that works as a mode of expression for the artist, is truly fitting. Gruesome rape, institutionalized extra-judicial murder, forced slavery, wide-spread industrial theft and looting were not the exception, but the rule, by both sides. Come and See depicts this hellscape vividly, and you can judge for yourself whether Dawn of the Dead is the real “horror” movie or not.