. . . but a Whimper
Michael Koresky on Testament
“I’ll take you to a safe place,” promises Flor. The teenager, deserted by an ill-prepared defense army of Byelorussian peasants resisting imminent German occupation, holds and consoles the abandoned young blonde woman, Glasha. They are stranded in a thick forest draped with floating debris from Nazi air bombings. Flor assures her that he will bring her to his home, the small cottage of his childhood, a secure refuge from the growing atrocities outside its boundaries. Surely, his mother and brother and sisters will welcome them with open arms. Upon returning, Flor finds the house empty, a pot of soup still warm on the stove. The eerie vacancy leads Flor to believe that his family has abruptly relocated to a small island across the pond. As he dashes out, guiding Glasha to where he hopes to find them, the girl glances behind her. In a distanced, fleeting, nearly subconscious shot, we see that Flor’s backyard is littered with naked dead bodies, hacked into pieces and dumped into piles. Flor has not seen it, but his home has become a slaughterhouse.
This devastating sequence, from Elem Klimov’s 1985 Come and See, is the ominous moan that gradually turns into a 140-minute piercing wail, a cumulative image of war so horrific and complete that it leaves the viewer with a ringing in the ear and a numbness in the heart. As a vision of the all-consuming evil of the Third Reich’s ultimate objectives, it is unsurpassed, yet as the previously noted sequence suggests, it doesn’t present an overview of WWII so much as bring the horror right into the home, perverting the notion of refuge by dissolving the line between battleground and domicile. If the representation of wartime horror in Come and See is nauseating, even unimaginable to the contemporary American viewer, it is because we still see the strict demarcation between the family space and the area of combat. It’s “Over There!” as George M. Cohan got the country to chant, and we’ll send the boys to do the dirty work. The best we can do is keep the house tidy and have dinner waiting for when Johnny comes marching home.
The one American film I’m aware of with an emotional impact comparable to that of Come and See, Lynne Littman’s Testament (1983) witnesses, with a relentless, unflinching pain that can only be called bold, precisely this dissolution of wartime boundaries. Though it received a best actress Oscar nomination upon its release, it has been forgotten over the years, probably due to self-denial on the part of those who viewed it. Just as people want to deny that the events depicted could ever conceivably happen, viewers try to forget that they’ve ever seen it, resulting in an out-of-print relic collecting dust on video store shelves across the country. Released two years prior to Klimov’s film, Testament acknowledges with efficacy the ultimate price of warfare in a post-nuclear age and features a delicate, terrifying screenplay by John Sacret Young, who went on to write the made-for-cable Thanks of a Grateful Nation, which depicted the post-traumatic suffering of those inflicted with “Gulf War Syndrome.” Littman’s approach is sincere and astonishingly human; her unblinking camera, with restrained help from DP Steven Poster (Donnie Darko), focuses on one single family during the period of nuclear fallout. Though narratively straightforward and never more ambitious than its intimacy warrants, it feels like a revelation to this day. For generations reared on Dr. Strangelove’s acerbic satire and On the Beach’s detached cynicism, the film is an emotional wake-up call. For those brainwashed by the Hollywood histrionics of doomsday spectacles like Independence Day and The Sum of All Fears, the film is a slap in the face. Testament feels unlike any other film because it lays out its scenario in very simple terms: this is the end of the world as we really know it, but would not dare to admit.
The most violent war film and it takes place on one suburban California street, within the walls of one two-car-garage house? For viewers used to separating over there from here, and for whom the notion of nuclear detonation is literally unthinkable, what sequence could be more indelible, more violent, than that in which all hell breaks loose? We see no mushroom cloud, no brave citizens running in panic. The day is simply trudging along, like any other: Carol (Jane Alexander) is working on the upcoming school play, listening to Dad’s phone message that he won’t be home in time for dinner, preteens Brad and Mary are attempting to fix the TV antenna, classical music skips on the turntable, five-year-old Scottie watches Sesame Street. The program is suddenly interrupted by a news report: in that monotone deadpan that only news anchor automatons can muster in times of crisis, it is revealed that there have been nuclear explosions all along the East Coast and in New York. In the most shiver-inducing moment, the presidential seal appears on the screen. “Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States...” and the power zaps out, never to return. The loss of electricity has deemed the “leader of the free world” ineffectual; he could be dead or alive, it is no matter. There is no order from this point forward, no governing principles besides whatever individual moral values remains intact. The living room momentarily fills with a silent burst of glowing amber, followed by nothing. And Dad never comes home.
It isn’t revealed how many atomic bombs were dropped, where they were targeted, or most importantly, where they came from. Littman abstracts the details so that there is no remaining notion of nuclear “conflict.” Though the film is undoubtedly a product of widespread Cold War paranoia, the film distances itself enough to objectify its horrors. This is a world with nuclear capability; the compulsion to assign blame simply dissipates once the full implications are revealed. In Testament, the dropping of the “big one” doesn’t disrupt the great world order, it becomes a lamentation for the disintegrating, perhaps nearly extinct, family unit. In her depiction of the slow process of the subsequent radiation of nuclear aftermath, Littman dares to go all the way—her film valiantly flies in the face of movie convention. As viewers we are conditioned to expect certain things to remain unrepresented, for particular images and subjects to be withheld. Certainly we cannot simply sit and watch these kids—our children, our neighbors, our students—wither away. Littman tells us that all we can do is watch, helplessly, instructively.
Testament grows on the viewer like a cancer. Every step towards a workable solution for survival is coupled with a mounting anxiety and recognition of the inevitably of death. At first the small community of Hamlin tries to band together, to reassure one another that they can overcome this obstacle; town meetings are held in church, neighbors invite each other over for moral support. Yet the small truths of a post-apocalyptic existence seep through the cracks, the matter-of-fact utterances pierce like daggers, turning the everyday into a disorienting paranoia: “Mommy, this milk tastes funny,” implores Scottie; “My baby threw up my milk,” pleads the new mother from next door. Nothing is as it once was, and the survivors cling to remnants from their past. In an impromptu mother-and-son living room dance to an old recording of “All My Loving,” The Beatles cease to be merely traces of a bygone era—they are the voices of ghosts from a lost civilization. And when the long-delayed kindergarten production of The Pied Piper of Hamlin is finally peformed for the community (it is noted, in passing, that the little girl who had been narrating at an earlier rehearsal is “out sick,” and the likely euphemism hits like a thunderbolt), the audience is left in tears. Littman even manages to beat Atom Egoyan to the punch by a good fifteen years: the “Pied Piper” fairy tale is put to equally queasy allegorical use here as in The Sweet Hereafter. Scottie, dressed as the piper, addresses the audience—literally, the town of Hamlin—with foreboding nonchalance, “The children are not dead. They are waiting until the world deserves them.”
Since the ever-shifting administration rhetoric currently is “War as Liberation,” it is unlikely that there will be another film like Testament made in this country for quite some time. 9/11 hasn’t forced the majority of Americans to understand the meaning of loss; it has simply reinforced diseased ideologies and false pride. Testament dares to make Americans merely human, the only heroics on display are Carol’s maternal instincts to at least let her children’s deaths be peaceful. Much like in Come and See, as Flor’s backyard was transformed into a depository for his family’s decaying flesh, Carol must bury her own children, wrapped in their bed sheets, behind their home. The graveyards in Hamlin have become too crowded, as the citizenry, mostly children, have succumbed to radiation poisoning. In the deathly quiet middle of one night, Carol carries little Scottie into the bathroom, his expression vacant and eerily pliant, a five-year-old who has accepted death. Carol fills the sink with warm water and places her son in the makeshift bath, caressing and consoling him. When she lifts him from the sink, the water has turned brownish red. As he cuddles his teddy bear, she rocks him to sleep. On film, death has never seemed more intimate, a tragedy of universal dimensions localized in one rocking chair, accompanied by a simple lullaby.
Directly after this horrific serenity, Littman fades back in to frenetic movement. Carol searches wildly for her son’s teddy bear so that it can be buried with him. Scottie’s body, which now lies next to a freshly dug grave in the backyard, will get a proper burial, unlike Flor’s family. Klimov surveyed the destruction and pillaging of several Byelorussian Jewish villages, while Littman transforms American suburbia into a comparable wasteland. In both films, every house becomes a crypt, every word an epitaph. The genocidal atrocities begin and end in the home. Littman, a prior documentary filmmaker who has gone on to direct mostly for TV, has created the singular American work—taciturn, insinuating, courageous—that compares with the desolate post-Hiroshima laments of Imamura and Kurosawa. While Japanese films like Black Rain and Rhapsody in August excavate the past to depict the lingering pain of their people, Littman acknowledges that our story is one yet to be written. Testament manages to unite in grief the victims of a world that doesn’t yet deserve them.