High Lonesome

When Mr. Chow finally decides to leave Hong Kong, the camera finds him in his office and the image almost freezes on a gesture. Similarly, the narrative itself disintegrates into a remarkable series of vignettes—a scene predicated on a phone call placed to Singapore, a fleeting glimpse through a Hong Kong tenement door. The coda—set, with wild extravagance, in the jungle city of Angkor—is almost too lovely. The monumental merges with the ephemeral, as the stately camera tracks through the empty ruins of someone else's eternity.

Come and See, the last and most notable film made by the former Soviet director Elem Klimov, is another fusion of popular and vanguard styles, albeit put to more civic-minded use. Klimov takes as his subject one of the most atrocious episodes in the short, convulsive history of the Soviet Union—the 1942 German invasion of what is now Belarus.

Ritual in transfigured time: In the Mood for Love’s Leung and Cheung.
photo: USA Films
Ritual in transfigured time: In the Mood for Love’s Leung and Cheung.


In the Mood for Love
Written and directed by Wong Kar-wai
A USA release
Opens February 2

Come and See
Directed by Elem Klimov
Written by Klimov and Ales Adamovich
A Kino release
Walter Reade
February 2 through 8

A glasnost movie with a script that had to wait some eight years for approval, Come and See was finally produced to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Soviet victory in the Great Patriotic War and was consequently rewarded with first prize at the 1985 Moscow Film Festival. Klimov, who as a result was briefly elevated to a leading role in the film industry, had revitalized the most sacred of Soviet genres—in part by making a movie that could be readily understood as a warning against the nuclear apocalypse then threatened by our beloved President Reagan, in part by employing the formalist brio and innocent child's-eye view of carnage used by Klimov's contemporary and erstwhile classmate Andrei Tarkovsky in My Name Is Ivan.

A 12-year-old boy (Alexei Kravchenko) leaves his hysterical peasant mother to join the partisans in the forest—or, rather, to enter into their hallucination. It is as though they are making a partisan movie—listening to period songs and engaging in surreal clowning. Herons stroll through the mossy woods. Rainbows arc between the trees. The boy, whose wizened monkey face ages visibly over the course of the movie, comes across a beautiful young girl, alternately witchy and playful. But nature is a charnel house as well as a cathedral. When the German bombs fall, the children huddle together for warmth, then, full of foreboding, return to his mother's empty cabin—where flies buzz around the still warm soup—to find that something truly terrible has indeed happened. At this point, phantasmagoria is grounded in appalling reality. The children flee through the swamp, neck-deep in muck, to hear the last words of a flayed corpse; the boy, perhaps mad, is sent on an expedition to search for food in the fog-shrouded landscape, treacherously illuminated by German flares.

Directed for baroque intensity, Come and See is a robust art film with aspirations to the visionary—not so much graphic as leisurely literal-minded in its representation of mass murder. (The movie has been compared both to Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan, and it would not be surprising to learn that Steven Spielberg had screened it before making either of these.) The film's central atrocity is a barbaric circus of blaring music and barking dogs in which a squadron of drunken German soldiers round up and parade the peasants to their fiery doom. A final title informs that this is one of 628 Byelorussian villages massacred and burned during the war.

The bit of actual death-camp corpse footage that Klimov uses is doubly disturbing in that it retrospectively diminishes the care with which he orchestrates the town's destruction. For the most part, he prefers to show the Gorgon as reflected in Perseus's shield. There are few images more indelible than the sight of young Alexei Kravchenko's fear-petrified expression. By some accounts the boy was hypnotized for the movie's final scenes—most viewers will be as well.

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