That German Chancellor Angela Merkel was invited to the 75th Anniversary of D-Day but not Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to have surprised more people in the American corporate media than in Russia. For many people in the west, the belated Anglo American invasion of France in the Summer of 1944 is the central event of World War II. Wasn’t it where Tom Hanks and Matt Damon single-handedly defeated the Nazis? Most people in Russia and Eastern Europe, however, will, quite correctly, argue that the Normandy, while admittedly a logistical marvel, was a fairly minor battle, even by American standards. On June 6th, 1944, British, American, Canadian and French troops suffered fewer casualties than Union Army suffered at the Battle of Gettysburg. The Russian Foreign Ministry may be trolling, but they understand the history of the Second World War far better than most Americans.
Sarcasm aside, it’s not a good thing that the United States and Russia can’t quite put aside their differences long enough to celebrate the fact that they once came together to end fascism in Europe. From 1941 to 1945, the Democratic Party under Franklin Roosevelt correctly sent massive amounts of Lend Lease Aid to the Communist Party under Joseph Stalin. In 2014, the Democratic Party under Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and Nancy Pelosi enabled a Nazi coup in Ukraine, and, ever since 2016, liberal Democrats have been blaming Russia for every evil in American history up to an including the fundamentally undemocratic nature of the Electoral College. Next thing you know they’ll be blaming Putin for slavery and native American genocide. Make no mistake, if the human race is to survive if we are to confront the issues of global warming and environmental devastation, Russia, China and the United States not only have to tolerate one another. They have to actively cooperate. Is it really worth risking our extinction just because the rotten Clinton family was kept from establishing a political dynasty?
The travesty that was the 75th Anniversary of D-Day of course has been long in coming, at least since 1984 when the loathsome Ronald Reagan and his even more loathsome speechwriter Peggy Noonan managed to coopt the war against fascism for the Cold War in their bombastic, ahistorical The Boys of Pointe du Hoc speech. Reagan would show his true, brown, fascist colors only a year later when he attempted to follow it up with another speech portraying the Waffen SS as “victims” of Nazism. He faced a backlash but little or no real consequences. Try to imagine if Jeremy Corbyn were to say something to the effect that “the soldiers of the Waffen SS were victims, just as surely as the victims in the concentration camps.” If Reagan got away with it, it’s mostly because the Second World War, as a big a stimulus as it was to the American economy — it’s what finally puled us out of the Great Depression – was not a central event in the history of the United States, let alone an existential threat. Americans, therefore, tend to be clueless about what really happened in Europe between 1939 and 1945. Russians don’t have that luxury.
While there have been a number of good American films about the Second World War, the excellent HBO miniseries Band of Brothers as well as the brutally cynical Attack by John Aldrich both come to mind, there has never been anything remotely like Elem Klimov’s acclaimed 1985 film about Hitler’s genocide in Byelorussia, Come and See. American War films tend to be about, well, war. Band of Brothers was all about the differences between Richard Winters, a gifted, effective infantry commander and Herbert Sobel, an ineffective martinet and petty tyrant. Attack portrayed the southern “good old boy” corruption of the American officer corps. Come and See, however, is not about war, but about genocide, an attempt to recreate what it felt like to be a member of a doomed race marked off for destruction by a superior power. Americans could, and certainly should, make a film like Come and See, only with European Americans standing in for the Nazis and Native Americans standing in for their victims, but of course we won’t. We’re not that honest or introspective. Then again, any American could just watch Come and See. Indeed, Come and See, with its surrealistic, hallucinatory, almost ahistorical portrayal of human evil, is as much about the concept of genocide itself as it is about the particular genocide against Slavs and Eastern European Jews under Adolf Hitler. It could just as easily be about the Belgian genocide in the Congo in the late 1890s or Japanese war crimes in Nanking in the 1930s as it is about the destruction of a village in Byelorussia in 1943.
Come and See opens with Flyora, a teenage boy, digging up a rifle on the outskirts of his village. Like any boy approaching manhood, he dreams of military glory fighting against the occupiers of his homeland. After he’s recruited by a partisan group, his mother, quite accurately, predicts that if he joins the resistance, the Germans will slaughter the whole family. Spoiler, they do, but what the film makes clear that even if he didn’t join the resistance the Germans were going to kill them all anyway. Jews who joined the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising actually had a higher rate of survival than Jews who didn’t. You can’t bargain with a genocidal occupier. While in the partisan camp, Flyora, who’s not a natural soldier, is left behind during an attack. He’s a bit too young to risk. Instead he’s put on guard duty, where he meets an extraordinarily pretty girl about his own age named Glasha, but there’s little or no romance between the two. Indeed, while Glasha expresses a desire to one day live in peace and have children and a family, she and Flyora are no longer genuinely human. Instead, they’re basically two ants fleeing from an anthill that has been destroyed. Indeed, Klimov portrays, not a disciplined army, not a well organized band of conspirators and partisans, but a terrified group of human animals running around in a panic, herded inexorably towards their very violent and brutal end.
In the penultimate act of Come and See we are witness to the long, drawn out, and almost unbearable mass murder of Flyora’s village by the German occupiers. The Germans, who come off like demonic buffoons — the first time as tragedy and the second time as genocide — ride into town and herd the entire population into a barn. We all know exactly what’s going to happen from the moment the soldiers shut the doors on the townspeople, but that doesn’t prepare us for the sheer brutality of the process when it finally begins. Throughout the film Klimov has systematically worked to disorient our senses, locking us into the perspective of the not only young and inexperienced but quite frankly dim Flyora, shutting us inside his disorganized, badly disciplined thought processes as surely as the Waffen SS has locked the entire population of a Byelorussian village inside of a barn.
Astonishingly, Flyora survives, and if he does so, it’s probably out of the sheer perversity of the Germans more than anything else. After he jumps out of one of the barn windows, he’s collared by 5 big German troopers, who hold him down and put a pistol to his head, but they have no intention of killing him. Instead, they frame themselves for the only crime they didn’t commit that day, the murder of the young Russian partisan. One of the Germans grabs a camera and snaps a photo in what will certainly appear to anybody who looks at the photo years down the road as a coldblooded execution. Instead, they let him go. They’re more interested in gang raping a terrified village girl than they are in administering the coup de grace to Flyora. History, Klimov seems to be telling us, is even stranger and more perverse than even the photographic evidence is telling us. Ultimately, photographing or documenting a genocide is probably impossible. Photographs of the Dachau and Buchenwald can be used to prosecute war crimes at Nuremburg, but they can never really tell us what it was like to be one of the victims. The best an artist can hope to achieve is to make us think about it.