Elem Klimov’s “Come and See” (1985)

Since I am frequently watching films, the idea of occasionally recommending only one seems almost peculiar,  especially given how many have entranced me since the days I cut political science courses as a freshman at UCLA to spend 12 hour days in the Melnitz film archives.

But I would like to limit recommendations in this blog to a different class of film that comes along every so often. These are the “residue” films that transcend even the best of the medium and — almost always through compelling narrative and character development — leave you with a residue of sadness or nightmare or unresolved moral dillema that you couldn’t shake if you tried.  These films are emotional traps, in the best sense of the word. Sometimes for years.

I am sure many of you know the feeling. You’ll be walking along and you suddenly realise that you are still “living” in a film you saw months before.  The narrative might have had a superficial exit of sorts,  but that same exit slammed shut if you were seeking an easy psychological way out from the film’s emotional complexity or challenging moral dillemas.

The best way I know how to make this distinction is recalling the day my daughter’s hampster died. She was inconsolable, for five minutes at most, and then wanted to know if we were still going out for pizza. First the pathos and then, even more quickly, the pepperoni.

Yet in the years that followed, when the same daughter  (and all of us)  lost Michael,  a wonderful, creative and occasionally insufferable friend to HIV/AIDS, we entered a space that still surrounds us more than 15 years later. I am talking about films that do something like this.  

Thanks to my colleague Mick Hurbis Cherrier’s suggestion of one film,  I am now entering my third month stuck in a relentless nightmare of war. So let me recommend Elem Klmov’s “Come and See.” We had been arguing in the department whether, per Truffaut’s assertion,  anti-war films were impossible because of the inevitable tendency of film to aestheticize horror. 

So Mick pulled this film out of his hat, and in one viewing, Truffaut’s claim — for me at least — was demolished. 

Check it out. You’ll never be the same. This is war — relentlessly sad, horrifyingly violent, and morally confusing.  A nightmare.

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3 thoughts on “Elem Klimov’s “Come and See” (1985)

  1. Everything you’ve written about “Come and See” is true. I saw this film last August via Netflix, and it still haunts me. That may sound like a cliche, but its also true. “Come and See” is the closest that any film gets to creating both a visceral reality and a nightmare experience, and because of that it is impossible to shake. My nervous system still rattles when I think about this film – and yet, its back on my Netflix to-see list.

  2. Well, I’ve never been thanked for sending someone into a relentless nightmare before but, uh… you’re welcome – I think?

    There is so much that is remarkable about this film. I am very lucky to have never experienced war first-hand, but I grew up listening to my mother’s stories of the Japanese occupation of the Philippines when she was a teenager and I have interviewed many Vietnam vets and pored over hundreds of pages of first person accounts from soldiers and civilians of many wars. The common thread is, of course, not political, but it is simply terror. Klimov so directly communicates that surreal, altered state, when one fights to survive in a man-made universe of terror, that this film resonates far beyond it’s own historic setting; I see the Philippines, I see WWI, I see the Balkans, I see Iraq… I see war.

    COME AND SEE, for me, is also remarkable because it is a testament to the power of film as an art form. A form which can render human experience with such vivid directness and complexity that watching it can be, sobering, illuminating, life transforming and certainly in this case, almost too brutally accurate to even watch. And as you say, it’s emotional residue sticks with you, like a real event which changed you. Which is what a truthful war film should be, difficult and even embarrassing to watch, impossible to forget.

    This is heartening in a culture which consistently encourages us to think, “C’mon, don’t take it so seriously, it’s only a movie.” Audiences can sit for two hours watching the wall-to-wall torture/bloodbath of the SAW movies, while eating their popcorn, because “it’s only entertainment” as a student of mine called it “just a movie.” Perhaps we can call that the “dead hamster” factor; a tough experience – yes, but then there’s pizza to think about. “It’s only a hamster.” But I also want movies to have real power, just as I want poetry to have power, and I want music to have power and I want fiction to have power… If we lose the “residue” factor in art completely, and sometimes it feels like it’s slipping away from us, then we will have lost something very precious indeed. We will have lost the ability to express the truth and make it stick. Yes, a hamster dies on all of us from time to time, but it also occurs that dear friends pass away too soon — and the country you love rushes into another catastrophic war — and these things should change you and never quite leave you.

  3. I really do get the nightmare thing now.

    For all their horror, nightmares begin to chip away at the veneer that guards our most fundamental fears and yearnings. When my protective armor falls away and makes way for a real emotional authenticity, I feel a quickening of the heart, an excitement of sorts.

    When I was 40, I suddenly lost my very best friend – really, my brother. And the grief was unbearable. So why, I asked myself then and still ask myself, was I feeling something akin to deep satisfaction? What was this quickening of the heart?

    Now it seems so clear: So much of modern life helps us build and shape our armor, hide from our core. And armor and escape and getting away from ourselves can be one heck of a lot of fun.

    But at those moments when a film, a loss, a play, a photograph, or any work of art pierces that armor, when I suddenly discover a new place, the pain can be both profound and enlightening. On those rare occasions, I find myself thinking:

    “What do you know? I’m a human being. I am more than my armor, more than my mask, more than my veneer. I may not choose to hang around this new place too long, in fact I am getting the heck out of here as quickly as I can, but now I know it is here and I am authentic.”

    And that was the effect of “Come and See.”

    I will share that there is one other work of film that gets to the same place with almost unbearable force. In fact, one of the ten short films that make up Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Dekalog burrowed into one of my protected places so insidiously and so suddenly, that – after seeing it once — I knew I would never watch it again.

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