Trawl any list of ‘Best WWII Movies’ and you’ll find everything from Award Winning masterpieces like Schindler’s List and The Pianist, to old school epics such as The Bridge Over The River Kwai and The Great Escape, and even notable modern movies including Dunkirk, Son Of Saul, and Black Book. Come And See is not one you often see included (if it is, it’s probably number 1), despite its near universal acclaim and almost every review calling it one of the best War movies ever. On the surface, it seems the primary reason is that it is a Russian movie which received little exposure in the West but in today’s world of instant easy access you can find the uncut film for free on YouTube. While the film shares similarities with many of the films above, it should be viewed as a standalone, because I’m not sure there is really anything like it out there.
In Come And See, we follow a young boy in Belarus during the Nazi invasion. The film opens with him and another child playing at war on a desolate endless beach. Flyora finds a rifle buried in the sand, and this discovery seems to be the final key in his decision to join the local partisan resistance group. His family do not want him to leave but when the army comes knocking at his door, he joins them on the march and soon finds himself task with menial jobs. He isn’t impressed, but he isn’t great at the work. The partisans decide to leave him behind and he heads home depressed, meeting a young nurse on the way. This kicks off a chain of events leading to increasingly grim encounters and discoveries as the we witness the true horrors of war through the eyes and mind of a child whose limited faculties are shell shocked beyond salvation.
There is an episodic quality to Come And See which made it feel to me like a series of shorts. This does little to temper the unrelenting nightmare of what is shown but to me it mimics the newsreel ending – these are snapshots of moments of war. They are simultaneously irrelevant and all important – moments that could be happening to anyone because they were happening to everyone, moments of increasing savagery with survival dependent on increasing reliance on the whims of fate. There is also an initially perplexing dreamlike quality, with long shots which seem to dwell on nothing only for some semblance of an answer to come a few scenes later. There is an ambiguous beauty with the destruction of the countryside acting as a metaphor and twin to the destruction of the self. Cliches are turned inside out and war is shown with no hint of glory – it is nothing more than pointless ugly death, hysterical, monstrous, and beyond understanding. There is a scene where Flyora forces himself through a muddy marsh, struggling to keep afloat as the stink drags him down – your typical movie would see the protagonist coming out the other side stronger and metaphorically ready to stare down any challenge with renewed hope. This is not your typical movie, and there is no hope to be found.
And yet, I had my problems with it. The film contains far too many close up facial shots and moments of uncomfortable laughter or grimacing which tread the line between unintentionally humourous and unwatchable, to plain annoying, to recalling Lynch. These tend to go hand in hand with unconvincing performances leaving the viewer unsure if the acting is too real or merely atrocious. As a seasoned viewer of foreign cinema I have encountered my fair share of films with similar moments and actors, but an audience too used to the gloss and budget of Hollywood will likely switch off. By the end, these early moments do feel more intentional and you will be more forgiving, and they contribute to the hallucinatory quality. Special mention must go to the editing and sound departments, as they too work off each other to make this clanging, scattershot din, with ringing sounds to echo the post-explosion numbness and off screen mumbles, laughs, and screams enforcing an all-encompassing maelstrom. Much of the violence happens off-screen or just in the background, with characters regrettably looking over their shoulders like Orpheus to catch a horror which will forever haunt them, or with the aftermath of events being stumbled upon by chance.
Come And See is not an easy watch. At times it made me wish I was watching Son Of Saul instead, and at others I couldn’t look away. While I’m not sure a cleaner look, a bigger budget, or more professional performers would have made the film better, I think those improvements would help the film reach a wider and more accommodating audience. Taken as it is, it remains as stark and harrowing a depiction of human evil as you’ll ever find, merging real life events with sequences and stylistic choices which disorient and serve to make you more than a mere observer, but feel and taste the disgust and revulsion we all should feel. I can’t say that it is one of my favourite war films, but it’s certainly unique, people more knowledgeable than me have proclaimed it a masterpiece, and given that it’s easily available to watch online it should be considered a must see.
What did you think of Come And See? Let us know in the comments!