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Come and See: Orphans of the Storm

<em>Come and See: </em>Orphans of the Storm

Come and See (1985) is one of those films whose authority is established from its opening moments. Out in the open air, an elderly peasant dressed in a soft-peaked beret is volleying a mixture of threats and imprecations into some bracken-strewn sand dunes: Whoever is hiding in there (we gather they are kids: “little brats,” “stinking bastards”) had better come out! After a few more insults, the man mounts his cart and, with a flick of the whip, prepares to move off.

Meanwhile, from behind the dunes, a diminutive figure has advanced into the open, mocking, in a deep, gruff voice, the old peasant’s tirade, while making sure to keep a safe distance. “Gutless rat, Pioneer brat”—the imitation taunts emanating from the youngster’s throat are given an extra twist of mockery by being phrased in rhyme. He has a companion, too, a little older than he, who from the cover of a neighboring sand dune is clearly enjoying the show, rocking with silent laughter. Who are these boys, we ask ourselves, and what exactly is happening here? Their identity and purpose are presently revealed to us after the peasant’s departure, as they scrabble in the sandy soil for abandoned weapons. Yes, they are local children, somewhere in the Soviet Union during the Second World War, and the weapons, if found, will serve to ease their entry into the society of anti-German partisans—that must be why the peasant (fearful of reprisals against his village) was so angry at them. The whole scene—I have only described half of it—has an immediacy that grabs the viewer by the throat. We grasp that this is a film that means business.

The force of this sequence derives partly from its bold use of close-up. The film actually starts with a close-up—the back of the peasant’s head—and this is surely unusual (most filmmakers would be inclined to start with a more general establishing shot). The image of the younger child walking toward us, mouthing his deep-throated curses, delivers a sinister frisson that is nothing but disorienting. In fact, he is walking toward his friend, but it seems to be us he is addressing so impudently; and this frontality of gaze, pinning us down with its candor, returns at different times over the course of the film—we might even say it constitutes the film’s stylistic signature, along with director Elem Klimov’s amazing use of Steadicam. Thus, in the forest, the boy Flyora (Alexei Kravchenko)—the laughing child from the opening scene—and the girl Glasha (Olga Mironova) stare at each other in rapture, their mutual curiosity communicated through a series of striking matching close-ups. Here, at this early stage of the drama, the different pairs of eyes addressing us are vivid with feeling and youthfulness. Later, close-ups of the boy and the girl will only show numbness, revenge, or despair—eyes that have all but ceased to see, in response to enveloping horrors.

Yet before we return to these horrors—we will get to them soon enough—we ought to pause on this lyrical forest interlude. The girl, we can see, is a few years older than the boy. Flyora himself we take to be thirteen or fourteen. Obviously, it is his rapture that is key in this scene: Glasha herself is still in love with a departed partisan leader. But she is young enough, and generous enough—and maybe just innocent enough—to look the boy in the eyes and merrily like what she sees there. Readers will remember that their idyll is interrupted at this moment by a furious bombardment from the air: whole sections of the forest are uprooted around them, and they barely escape with their lives. In the dazed aftermath, Flyora builds the girl a little fern and pine shelter, and snuggles down beside her. A crane that seems to have stepped out of a book of fairy stories pokes its inquisitive beak into their improvised shelter and surveys them. Later that afternoon, in the pouring rain, Glasha performs a dance on an upturned suitcase that Flyora will remember to the end of his days. He—and she—will never again experience such unmediated delight in life. Though they are destined to be parted from each other after extraordinary trials and exertions, their singular fate is sealed in that moment: from now on, they belong to each other.

“Klimov seems to have been intent on attaching a level of physical realism to the story at hand that had seldom been attempted before, even in the harsh annals of Soviet cinema.”

“Sequence after sequence—Klimov was a master of sequences—becomes indelibly etched into the viewer’s memory.”

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