04 March, 2007

Иди и смотри

My wife has been selecting films for our Blockbuster Online queue based on Russian history. See this entry for a previous film on pre-revolutionary Russia.

The most recent such film is Come and See. Unlike Rider on a Pale Horse, which is a 1990s-era production, Come and See is a production of the late Soviet era. Its theme concerns Nazi atrocities in Belorussia during World War II.

Russians have two "Patriotic Wars". Napoleon's invasion counts as The Patriotic War and Hitler's invasion counts as The Great Patriotic War. This latter is a focus of celebrations even today, and veterans of that war are viewed with respect, in much the same way that Americans refer to our World War II generation as The Great Generation.

My wife tells me that when the film was released in Russia, high schools showed the film to their students. My wife remembers being marched to the theater to watch it. Although it is a very good film, she has not been able to watch it in its entirety since then.

I can't blame her. The film is a frank, unrestrained passage through the horrors of war, shown through the eyes of a Belorussian boy who joins the partisans in order to defend his country. This accurately depicts the situation in which many residents of the western Soviet Union found themselves. The Soviet army never appears in the film, and in its absence Nazi forces roam Belorussia doing more or less what they please. They conduct war crimes off screen, but the results are displayed on screen, to great effect.

The one recurring sound is that of German war machinery; the viewer usually hears it before he sees it, and the sound is distinctly unholy. Another chilling image involves the construction of a disturbing effigy of Hitler using disturbing materials. Most effective of all is the transformation of the main character's face from that of an innocent child to that of a wrinkled old man in a preteen's body.

At one point the Nazis herd the residents of a Belorussian village into a building that looks suspiciously like a church. I say that it looks suspiciously like a church because of its peculiar architecture. However, the icons are missing, and the building is absolutely bare. It looks abandoned. This would have transpired before the Nazi invasion, as the Soviet Union was officially an atheist state, which strove to exterminate even the Russian Orthodox Church. The bare emptiness of the church emphasizes the people's sense that God has abandoned them.

Once the Germans herd the residents inside the church, they lock them there. An awful scene transpires. Between a Belorussian collaborator who taunts the villagers from a loft and the German soldiers who laugh maniacally as they proceed with a campaign of ethnic cleansing, one cannot escape the impression of witnessing an act inspired by demons.

I have read online that the inspiration for the title comes from the book of Revelation, chapter 6 verse 1, in which "the four living creatures" exclaim in turn, "Come and see!" (That would be the Russian translation; the translation in the Bible I have is, "Come forward!") Each time a creature cries out, one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse rides forth.

This never occurred to me while I was watching the film. Instead, I thought of another phrase in the Bible. At the beginning of the Gospel of John, Andrew and another of John the Baptist's disciples approach Jesus and ask, Rabbi, where are you staying? He replies, Come and see. Thus, my interpretation of the title was that to find Christ's abode, one must be pass through those places where hope has been lost, and diabolical forces mock God's creation. Think of Christ's cry from the cross, My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? The film ends with the music from Mozart's Lacrimosa, whose last words are Pie Iesu Domine, dona eis requiem (tender Lord Jesus, grant them peace), so the film contains a similar religious allusion. No one else online comments on this, however, so it is likely a personal impression only.

I wondered at one point how accurate the film's depiction was of these events. Eugenio Corti, an Italian who served in the Soviet occupation, refers to Nazi war crimes against the locals, lamenting that the locals were at first happy to be liberated from the incessant purges dictated from the highest levels of the Soviet state. Corti describes the Ukrainians and Russians whom he met as kind, hospitable, and warm to the Italians. Their relief was brief, as the Nazis quickly proved themselves even more bestial than the Communists.

Indeed, casualties in the Soviet Union amount to one-third of the total, more than any other nation. The only nation that fared worse, as a percentage of its population, was Poland, but this number includes the enormous number of Polish Jews whom the Nazis shipped off to extermination camps. No such program was put into place in the occupied territories of the Soviet Union.

I am not competent to explain why the Soviets have such an appalling death toll. However, I know that many of the veterans who are so revered today are proud of having fought on the front lines of that war. They had heard reports of horrifying Nazi atrocities in Belorussia, Ukraine, and western Russia. After the Red Army retook those lands, they beheld the evidence with their own eyes. The partisans, meanwhile, saw the entire affair even during the occupation, and the film is based on the memories of one such Belorussian partisan. It concludes with a summary of the barbarity: 682 villages throughout Belorussia were burned down, with their inhabitants locked inside the buildings. This does not consider other assorted war crimes, also depicted in the film, or the war crimes that transpired in other Soviet Republics.


Clemens said...

"Enemy at the Gates" was the usual feel good narrative arc of Western war films, but the first fifteen minutes got the message across.

Why were losses so high? Because when Hitler went into Russia the front collapsed, and something like 4 million POWs were shipped off to Germany. Most died there. Millions of other Soviets were shipped off as workers, and many of them died inside the Third Reich.

You seem to have a graphic idea of what went on in the conquered territories. That went on for several years over a vast area. At the sign of any resistance the Nazi solution was wholesale retribution on the civil population. The Nazis regarded the Slavs as subhuman and treated them as such. More millions gone.

The warfare on the Eastern Front was some of the most savage and bloody of the 20th century. The numbers involved are staggering, as were the losses. It was Soviet military doctine that the enemy be overwhelmed with numbers, and scant regard was given for the cost. Add to that the shortages of food and medical supplies, the outbreaks of disease while the army got most of the medical supplies, the huge shifts of population inside the Soveit Union, and there go more millions.

Given what the Soviets were up against, a willingness to sacrifice troops and population was their only hope, and under Stalin, they were more than willing to do it.

The Soviet war effort was, from the point of view of the people and the army, noble and necessary. There is an appallingly brutal side to it, from the West's point of view, but if they had not been willing to take those losses, Germany would have won at least a negotiated settlement, leaving most of Europe in Nazi and Fascis hands.

If you think about what the Soviet peoples accomplished and what it cost them, it is hard not to have tears in the eyes. And I am not being ironic.

jack perry said...

That went on for several years over a vast area. At the sign of any resistance the Nazi solution was wholesale retribution on the civil population. The Nazis regarded the Slavs as subhuman and treated them as such. More millions gone.

This was my impression, from Corti's books at least and even more so from the film. As one character puts it in the film, the Slavs weren't fighting for an ideology, for a country, or even for their homes. They were fighting for their very right to exist.