Framing the Unframeable
Graham Fuller on Come and See

In Come and See, Elem Klimov’s shattering 1985 film about the Nazi genocide in Byelorussia, the Russian director and his Byelorussian cowriter, author Ales Adamovich, sought to memorialize the 72 adults and 75 children massacred in Khatyn, near Minsk, on March 22, 1943. Six witnesses survived; the film’s end title announces that 628 Bylelorussian villages were thus burned with their inhabitants.

At the film’s 43-minute point, the fourteen-year-old protagonist, Flyora (Aleksei Kravchenko), brings his new friend Glasha (Olga Mironova) to the eerily quiet village where he lives with his mother and small twin sisters. He finds a warm stew on the stove in his deserted house and he and Glasha sit down to eat it at the living-room table, despite a preponderance of flies. When Glasha ponders the dolls discarded on the floor, she vomits—having intuited the girls and their mother have been killed. Before she can explain, Flyora darts from the house. After looking around the yard and into the bottom of a well, he hurtles down a track to find his family, entering the film’s deep space.

As Glasha runs after him, she glances back and sees a pile of corpses strewn beside a building. She catches up with Flyora (as yet ignorant of his mother and sisters’ fates), stumbles, and looks back twice more. Since the viewer is spared a second sight of the carnage, the emphasis is placed on Glasha’s shock. The effect of the frightened teenagers’ flight and the sudden motion, combined with the unfamiliar sensation produced in the viewer by having to process simultaneously events that are being quickly drawn apart, is bewildering. “Disorientation through depth” might have been Klimov’s watchword while he worked on what proved to be his swansong.

Before analyzing how Klimov precisely manipulated screen space in Come and See, one is bound to observe that genocide constitutes the ultimate desecration of lived space. Since the committing of atrocities is rarely recorded and documentaries seldom show those that are—no one in his or her right mind would want to see them—it follows that fictional cinema’s representation of genocidal acts carries the ultimate burden of representation.

The act of framing and filling the field of vision in films depicting racist torture and slaughter is fraught with risk. Nothing occupying or entering that frame, or even perceptible beyond it, should be allowed to exploit, delimit, trivialize, prettify, or in any way tamper with the truthful depiction of such irreducible horrors and brutality. Atom Egoyan’s 2002 Ararat grapples with this issue by showing the inherent ethical and aesthetic problems faced by an on-screen director trying to re-create scenes from the 1915 Armenian death marches: mediation-by-film usually widens the gap between the reality of genocide and the full comprehension of its horror; Come and See closes it.

Most directors who recreate crimes against humanity understandably opt for stylization (as in the cases of In the Land of Blood and Honey and City of Life and Death) or soften them (as in the TV movie Escape from Sobibor, Life Is Beautiful, and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas). The integrity of screen space is not necessarily violated by stylization, of course, though romanticized images of persecution or atrocities are insupportable, as with the red-coated girl running through the Krakow ghetto as the Jews are rounded up in the black-and-white Schindler’s List or the “beautifully” arranged frozen corpses in the death camp scene in Shutter Island. There are exceptions. Because it enhances Joseph Conrad’s notion of “The horror! The horror!” the foreboding sequence showing Captain Willard’s arrival at Kurtz’s Cambodian compound in Apocalypse Now doesn’t betray its subject matter. Vittorio Storaro, filming in the 2.35:1 (technically 2.39) ratio, utilizes the full width and depth of the extensive frame, its peripheral edges charged with unseen dangers for Willard and the two surviving PBR crewmen, as his camera winds through the desecrated temple where the heads and corpses of Vietcong captives have been placed, like casually distributed ornaments, to warn interlopers that Kurtz has broken with civilization.

One of this chilling sequence’s antecedents was Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s The Triumph of Death. Completed some six years before the Eighty Years War erupted in 1568, Brueghel’s allegorical oil painting warned the Dutch (not that many of them were likely to see it) of the coming cataclysm. In contrast to the widescreen hell-on-earth imagined by Coppola, Brueghel’s populous canvas, the 1.38 aspect ratio of which augurs the 1.37 Academy ratio, compacts its numerous vignettes—dreadful tumults; elongated skeletons conducting executions; a king, a cardinal, nobles, and peasants falling under the yoke—into a mere 2,948 square inches (roughly the size of a 78” TV screen). Had the Dutch master of spatial arrangement and color worked in 2.35 on a painting the size of, say, the massive IMAX screens at the Loews Lincoln Square in Manhattan or the California Science Center in L.A., he would have created a Triumph probably too overwhelming for the average Renaissance art patron to contemplate.

Come and See, shot in 1.37:1, holds out that threat to moviegoers. A film of shifting perspectives, it primarily owes its power to Flyora’s dominant viewpoint, which cements the audience’s identification with him. A would-be partisan fighter, prevented from accompanying his unit when it marches to war, he is nevertheless exposed to a catalogue of atrocities so traumatizing that he ends up looking closer to 50. What separates Klimov’s film from other child’s-eye views of war—including Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood, to which it is a partial response—is its transcending of the confining properties of its frame.

Klimov had been dissatisfied with his 1975 film Agony (Agoniya). Sumptuously photographed by Leonid Kalashnikov, it brought an ironic grandeur to its analysis of Rasputin’s contribution to the Romanovs’ downfall, but the 2.35:1 widescreen images were awkwardly integrated with newsreel footage contextualizing the approaching storm. Klimov would improve on this by incorporating, in Come and See, backwards-played footage of the Nazis that reverses the rise of Hitler all the way back to a photograph of him as a child. Additionally, his handling of the Academy ratio’s spatial qualities was more assured than his handling of those afforded by 2.35.

Unlike Cinemascope and other widescreen formats, the Academy ratio’s squareness can give the impression of concentrating the compositional elements in the frame while accentuating depth of field. As director Kelly Reichardt would also demonstrate with Meek’s Cutoff, her 2010 revisionist pioneer Western that captures the vastness of the Oregon desert, boxiness is no barrier to presenting wide vistas since this can be accomplished by using long shots—as Klimov does when showing men in a foraging party (one of them carrying a scarecrow-like effigy of Hitler) crossing a sloping field under enemy fire.

The prime visual strategy used by Klimov and cinematographer Alexei Rodionov creates an illusion of third-dimensionality. The film’s mise-en-scène is dependent less on lateral movement (via panning shots, of which there’s no shortage) than on movement into and away from deep space (via forward and backward tracking, Steadicam, and handheld shots). As the camera advances and recedes, as people, animals, and vehicles proceed backwards and forwards over floors, roads, dirt, and grass, the unseen space fronting the onscreen action becomes an integral part of the film’s milieu. Whereas 3D movies invade the space in front of the screen by seeming to project flying objects into the audience, Come and See calls into being whoever or whatever is situated before the foreground—and therefore imperceptible to the viewer—by having characters who are photographed in full-face close-ups gaze at those elements.

Most of these close-ups are of Flyora and Glasha. The two bond after they’re left behind by the partisan unit and moments before a Luftwaffe bombing raid. Often, when looking at each other or reacting with horror to a terrible find, the two teenagers break the fourth wall by seeming to make eye contact with the viewer, who is invited to share in their despair or, in Flyora’s case, guilt for having left his mother and sisters vulnerable to attack when he left home to join the partisans (Come and See suggests the influence of John Ford’s 1956 The Searchers). The imaginary third-dimensional space conjured by the mise-en-scène thus acts as a conduit between fictional characters and modern audiences for channeling the experience of witnessing unspeakable crimes.

The close-ups of Flyora and Glasha—sometimes filmed from below as they look down on an atrocity, such as the seared upper torso of Flyora’s dying uncle—often border on the hyperreal. Again, it’s a matter of depth. Because of the out-of-focus backgrounds their faces appear to thrust slightly forward as they stare into space (in both the physical and meditative senses), at each other, or someone or something else offscreen, The backgrounds are also suggestive of halos or nimbuses, indicating Klimov was inspired by the martyred saints in Russian Icon paintings. This is evident in the close-up of the agonized Flyora realizing that his mother and small twin sisters have been shot. Having been absent from most of the film’s second half, the Glasha who re-materializes near the end as a bloodied, near-catatonic rape victim—as emotionally disassociated from her surroundings as she is physically separate from the glowing landscape behind her—would have been a subject fit for the medieval icon painter Andrei Rublev.

Another aspect of Klimov and Rodionov’s strategy was their moving of the camera to follow the character who is being photographed at any given moment until he or she is at the center of the frame, or near enough to it. This centripetal focalizing intensifies the viewer’s emotional identification with the character in question. Flyora and his neighbor Roubej—survivors of a four-strong foraging party from their village—chance upon a farmhouse. The weaving camera follows the poor farmer when he emerges from his house, passes a shed, and goes to relieve himself in the mud. Holding him at gunpoint, Roubej makes the farmer, a German collaborator, roll in manure and orders him to lead his cow into a field. Roubej and Flyora then seize the beast and send the farmer back to his house. In keeping the farmer mostly center frame as he moves into deep space, Klimov enables the viewer to empathize with his plight, if not sympathize with him. Shortly afterwards, Roubej and the cow are killed by tracer fire, its caroming yellow streaks reiterating the illusion of three-dimensionality—and plunging the viewer into the nightmare of being shot by enemy or friendly fire on open land.

As hallucinatory as Apocalypse Now (if less self-consciously mythical), Come and See plumbs the abyss when a drunken Einsatzkommando unit annihilates a village on which Flyora has stumbled. For this stomach-churning set piece, Klimov temporarily relinquished the medium/deep-space formula to create a maelstrom comprised of vignettes, redolent of those in the foreground of “The Triumph of Death,” in which S.S. men, criminals in Nazi uniforms, and Ukrainian collaborators menace and humiliate the Slavs, herd them into a church, along with an elderly Jewish man, and torch it with Molotov cocktails and flame-throwers. This time, three-dimensionality is maintained not through depth perception but by the movement of the camera as it roves through the pullulating chaos.

The spatially unorthodox toing-and-froing is restored immediately afterward. A Nazi motorcyclist on a final recce rides back into the village and gives the prostrate Flyora a parting kick; the main body of the murderous battalion heads in the opposite direction, leaving a bedridden old woman to die in the road and hoisting a girl into an army truck so she can be gang-raped. Having witnessed the slaughter, Flyora returns to the center of the frame and goes to retrieve the rifle he had hidden in a hayfield, but the integrity of screen space is destabilized by a climactic surge of non-naturalism. The mutilated Glasha who approaches Flyora out of nowhere is seemingly a figment of his imagination. He appears to have imposed onto her his visions of the gang-rape victim (also blonde-haired) and a beautiful Nazi collaborator, raped by the partisans, whom he’d found dying minutes before. In his fury, he shoots at a framed photo of the Führer, releasing the montage of reverse Nazi newsreels and photographs, including Holocaust images at which he also fires, though he cannot find it in himself to shoot at an infant Hitler. Flyora’s futile attempt to efface the past as he imagines time receding coincides with his coming of age; the backwards-forwards visual aesthetic that three-dimensionalizes the film’s space is therefore reflected in its hero’s psychological trajectory.

Before he runs after the partisans to join their ranks in the closing scene, he breaks conclusively into meta-space, weeping from the pity of war via a final close-up wherein his expression acknowledges his powerlessness, but also says, “J’accuse!” Hopefully, the screen has become a mirror for Come and See’s audience.

Come and See played Sunday, March 8, 2015 at the Museum of the Moving Image as part of See it Big! High and Wide, a series co-programmed by Reverse Shot and Museum of the Moving Image.