Elem Klimov’s 1985 pernicious masterpiece Come and See leaves viewers in a state of abject horror. The film depicts the atrocities commited by the Nazi regime in Byelorussia during the Second World War, following Florya on his path from innocence to experience. The cow is introduced to us halfway through the narrative working as an agent of corruption. Klimov creates a dichotomy of meaning through the cow, contrasting its value for himself and Florya. Florya and his uncle Roubej force a farmer into letting them steal his heifer. The village from which they came are starving, and the cow can provide them with sustenance. Thus, the cow acts as a beacon of hope. However, they transport the cow through Nazi occupied land, and Roubej is killed in the crossfire. As Florya begs him to awaken, the cow continues to graze, unaware of the threat of death. Here, the cow is represented as innately oblivious and innocent, performing as a paradigm for the spoiling of innocence through acts of violence. This is understood in the importance Florya places on the cow. He depends on the cow, and is traumatised by its death. However, Klimov treats the cow as expendable, and uses it for an artistic purpose, destroying it once it has served this. The corruption of the animals through the filmic lens is shocking, consequently acting as a representative of the ravages of war.
Before its brutal death, the cow remains unperturbed by its surroundings. The cow is reflective of Florya’s childlike innocence. Her artistic purpose is death, and even in her understanding as an artistic conception of hope, Florya intends on killing her. This idea of ‘hope’ of death relates to a wider contextual purpose. As a species we have become so naturalised to systematic murder for personal and industrial gain. The killing of a cow for food purposes, represents the non-tragedy of large scale massacre. Throughout, the film exercises the idea that under war, children are stripped of their innocence, and through the eyes of Flyora, we see how a militaristic regime brutalises innocence to a point of trauma through violence.
The cow is then killed by a Nazi brigade, shocking both Florya and the viewer. Klimov actually killed the cow in this scene. Thus, we can attempt to understand the film’s ethics through Klimov forcing the viewer to confront real death, and in turn make the viewer morally decide whether the cow is to be profoundly valued (something that Florya watches, but not Klimov). Further, begging the question of how the viewer understands animal representation. We can analyse the extended close ups of the cows eyes as she dies, forcing the viewer to confront the exploitation of life and death in the film. The viewer experiences each moment with Florya, and the death of the cow can be understood as a self-reflexive action. The shot of the cows eye flickering as she dies, its grotesque convulsing with the stark contrast between the black and white within the cinematography, creates a dialogue between the exploitation of animalistic violence from Florya and Klimov’s perspectives. We know that death is inevitable and the frenzied eye of the cow shows the idea of life clinging onto nothing in the face of inevitable death. Critic Lloyd Michaels concludes that this scene is ‘Summoning us to ‘Come and See’’1, explicit violence against nature. This horrific act however draws on the essence of war – within itself it is a violence against nature. We as the viewer, become complicit in these violent acts against nature, and much like Florya have no capacity to change the series of events that we witness. Yet we are asked to understand our complicity through the voyeuristic and consumerist nature of our perception of animals, and that despite our outrage at on screen representations of violence against animals, we do nothing to change it in actuality.
- Michaels, Lloyd. ‘Come and See (1985): Klimov’s Intimate Epic’. Quarterly Review of Film and Video. 25.3(2008). 212-18.