What’s neither black nor white but red all over? Well of course if you’re a friend of the Self-Styled Siren, you know it’s the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics…. as she’s co-hosting an amazing TCM series “Shadows of Russia” and easing her way into a well-deserved position as the Scarlet Empress of the cine-blogosphere, and it couldn’t happen to a nicer lady…
Still. Rather than go and see, I stayed home… and I saw COME AND SEE (1985) directed by the Gunter Grass of Belarusse SSR, The Bolshevik Bosch, Elim Klimov.
I mention Bosch and brilliantly allude to THE TIN DRUM because what this Soviet horrorshow is all about is the kind of “Scream” moment which Francis Ford Coppola was getting at with his script for PATTON and then couldn’t quite “nail” by the end of APOCALYPSE NOW. i.e. the devastated landscape with the traumatized man-child, his hands clasped to the sides of his face, eyes bugged wide, mouth choked in a mute scream, wandering through and witnessing surreal horrors everywhere he doth turn. I don’t think it’s ever been more poetically done.
Coppola’s problem is that you probably have to be from an invaded country to convey this vivid a sense of mind-warping trauma, at least if you want to snap a complacent viewing audience out of the stupor and give them a whiff of true prolonged terror. As Americans, we can understand that Germans pillaged and burned 628 Belarusse villages to the ground, slaughtered millions of Russian men, women and children, and did far worse to any remotely attractive young woman who caught their eye–but we can’t really grasp it in “real” time without a movie like this to guide us. SEE’s brilliance lies in showing the invading Germans in gigantic chaotic crowd scenes without benefit of emotional short-cut music cues. The Germans are herding and torching and bullying as they travel from town to town like a drunken band of marauding circus folk.
The amazing performance by Olga Mironova as a madonna/whore split personality is alone enough to catapult COME AND SEE into the pantheon of all-time greats. And not a drop of easy sentimentality or preaching, just a savvy truly artistic appreciation for how war turns existence into a literal living nightmare, with all splits between awake and dreaming, interior and exterior, home and abroad, life and death, good and evil, mended into one twirling mad carnival of chaos, starvation and violence… enough to make Von Trier’s ANTICHRIST look like a summer picnic.
Hitchcock’s TORN CURTAIN (1966) explores similar avenues of “strange love” in its tale of defection along the capitalist-communist divide: Julie Andrews’ presence (as British secretary/mistress) in the defecting American physicist Paul Newman plans creates a hassle, as she doesn’t know he’s really a spy. She thinks he’s defecting mainly to get away from her, and myopic as she is, that’s probably partially true (her brand of clingy insecurity is always a self-fulfilling prophecy). But Newman’s real mission is to steal anti-missile formula from an old man at an East Berlin school blackboard, and Andrews is just in the way.
leaves Andrews in bed so he can go buy a book!), pictures and theory–they don’t always know when it’s time to put the chalk down and start blasting.
Wayne and Leigh / Andrews and Newman each end their films together, celebrating the symbolic end to the Cold War of nations and of genders; the understanding–as between two professional wrestlers–that the fight’s the thing, not the victory. Peace is nothing but stasis, the collapse of conflict between the real and the imaginary/symbolic. Real holocaust and slaughter will never end as long as people believe images and language more than the tactile real of other people–living, breathing soul-organisms–right in front of them. In this sense then, the defector from the US can be read as someone who rejects capitalism’s seduction, who wants to live in a world free of TV commercials.
Thus when our wandering boy in COME AND SEE finally shoots his rifle, it’s at a picture of Hitler. As he empties his cartridge he sees the whole life and effect of Hitler run on a reverse newsreel before his/our eyes Buildings rise up from ashes, Stukas and Messerschmidts fly backwards, sucking up explosions and leaving the landscape orderly, and Hitler finally winds up a boy on his mother’s knee with his innocent face a clear mirror of our shell-shocked Soviet Candide.
If we judge Mother Russia harshly for her drabness, then, perhaps it’s only because we Americans are such suckers for the sweet oblivion eye candy that we refuse to see the trouble it’s caused the world. American soldiers and actual victims of 9/11 aside, the average American hawk’s rage and violent fury is often inspired solely by rhetoric, rumor and pictures on a screen, while their enemies have often experienced these atrocities in real time, with no sponsor breaks. As COME AND SEE so eloquently reveals, when it comes to real-life violence, all logic, sense and meaning ceases, like time approaching a black hole… the closer you get to it, the more perspective, morality, empathy, persona and conscience warp into an apocalyptic spiral of commie red.