Come and See, 1985, 142 mins, Blu-Ray
Where to start? I honestly don’t think I’ve seen anything like this film before, anything quite so exhausting, emotionally and intellectually. Some films are more akin to experiences than the usual narrative dramas that films usually are, and I think few films fit the description more than Elem Klimov’s stark and horrifying Come and See, a war film set during the German invasion of Byelorussia in 1943. Although even describing Come and See as a war film feels rather wide of the mark. Calling it a ‘war film’ feels almost an insult considering the gung-ho heroics depicted in so many war films before and since. Its true that one could perhaps better consider Come and See more of a horror film, depicting a young man’s descent into nightmare, a journey into darkness far more disturbing than that of Apocalypse Now, which is possibly the nearest film analogue to Klimov’s film that I can think of. Both films set the proposition that no-one in civilised times and environments can ever understand what war is, the sheer madness and brutality, and obscenity of it.
As I write this, of course, the Russian invasion of Ukraine continues, and civilians are dying, cities being flattened, over a million refugees fleeing to the West: the whole thing feels like an exercise in inhumanity, evil and hate that is impossible to comprehend. That its something happening in Europe, for the first time since the Second World War, events so close geographically to those that happened and are recreated in Come and See… well, I’m way out of my league here. Watching Come and See during this of all weeks feels like watching celluloid blurring with reality, the images of this Criterion Blu-ray echoed by those images of the news bulletins which, frankly, I’ve started avoiding. One can only stand so much.
What is the old adage, to be living in interesting times?
I find it difficult to recommend Come and See, especially now. It is possibly the very best war movie ever made, and also one of the best horror films ever made. Hell, it may be one of the very best films ever made. But entertaining it isn’t. This film has teeth. And frankly, considering how it mirrors real-world events in the news right now…. its either a sobering lesson or a depressing reminder that we, as a species, as a collective humanity, just cannot escape the baser, animal instincts within us. It seems we cannot leave nation-states and racial differences behind, the dogma of ‘us’ and ‘them’ proves impossible to escape.
So its 1943, in Byelorussia, and two children are playing, digging in the sandy ruins of old battles (presumably those of The Great War)- young Florya (Aleksey Kravchenko) finally discovers what he’s looking for- an old rifle, which he needs in order to join up with the Partisan fighters, against his desperate mother’s wishes. His mother knows what’s coming, but of course thirteen year-old Florya has no idea. Once enlisted with the resistance fighters Florya becomes gradually pulled into a series of bizarre, increasingly nightmarish experiences that we can, alarmingly, visibly see transform his young innocent face into a mask of horror and trauma. He literally ages before our eyes: Kravchenko’s performance, if one can call it that, is quite possibly the finest child performance ever. Klimov repeatedly uses the cinematic device of characters starring back at the camera, their gaze peering back into our own, and the gradual disintegration of Florya’s personality and psyche is writ large in every frame, confronting us. Early in the film, Florya meets a girl, Glasha (Olga Mironova), and the two become split off from the partisan forces and enjoy an interlude of childish innocence which feels incongruous and almost awkward in the film, but which serves as a constant reminder of childhoods end when the events of the war overwhelm them. As the film nears its climax and we see it reflecting upon what becomes of Florya and Glasha’s faces, we remember those earlier moments and it only intensifies the horror of childhood innocence transformed into something terrifying.
Come and See concludes with an astonishing sequence of real-world images, newsreel footage and photographs, flashing by blistering quickly, in reverse, as if our protagonist’s gunshots are rewinding history, wiping out the decades of evils of the world, until, resting upon one image, one has to wonder if the question is, how much evil and harm can be done by one individual, how one person can scar the world. We are living in a world in which borders are rendered increasingly meaningless by technology and yet we are given a sudden reminder of the power of the individual, for good or ill, and that we must not forget the lessons of History, for fear of repeating it.
Or at least, that’s what I’ve initially taken out of it, other than a contempt for the inhumanity of man, but I may be rather wide of the mark, and individuals may differ. But its undoubtedly an astonishing piece of Pure Cinema, something not to be simply watched, but experienced.