Come And See

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!

USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage

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This should have been called USS Indianapolis: Men Of Cloneage, amirite! Coz they all look the same! Seriously, some of the flaws of this movie could have been avoided if they had simply cast some actors with more distinct faces. Throughout the movie I couldn’t tell who was who, which one wanted to marry the blonde, which one was the thief, which one just got eaten etc. In all seriousness, this is a powerful story, one of my favourite true stories of all time actually, and it deserves to be told well. Unfortunately this film doesn’t deliver – its low budget is very noticeable and negative, the performances are forgettable, and too much of the movie is spent attempting to introduce the characters so that we are invested and affected by what comes later – though these early scenes are horribly and confusingly edited in such a way that it simply becomes frustrating and we lose interest. I found myself sadly thinking, just get to the sharks already.

A bit of a personal backstory. When I was young, one of my favourite books was Maneaters by Rupert Matthews. It’s a collection of true stories based on horrific encounters between people and animals – bear and tiger attacks, snakes, sharks etc. One of the stories was about the USS Indianapolis, and that story makes up the bulk of this film. In 1945, the US Military has crafted a couple of atomic bombs and would like nothing more than to drop them on Japan. The A-Team were several decades away, so they decided to send some of the bomb parts via battleship to The Philippines – a mission so secret only the top brass knew about it. The unlucky ship going on this mission was the ship of the title, knowingly being sent into enemy territory without an escort to defend them from submarine attacks which they could not foresee or withstand. They successfully completed their mission, but on the return journey the Indianapolis was spotted by a Japanese sub who torpedoed the hell out of it. Within minutes the ship was in the water. I can’t recall the numbers, but there were over 1100 men on board, and around 900 went into the water. Stranded, cold, and bleeding, with barely any life rafts and thousands of miles of ocean all around them, things were looking bleak. And then the sharks came. And came. And came.

If you don’t think you know the story, you’ve probably heard it famously delivered by Quint in Jaws, thanks to John Milius, Robert Shaw, and Howard Sackler. Yes, Quint tells Brody and Hooper about where one of his scars came from – after he went into the ocean when the Japanese struck. It’s one of the most famous moments in Jaws, chillingly delivered. One of the first stories I ever wrote featured a character haunted by his involvement and memories of the event. I saw Mission Of The Shark when I was young – a TV movie starring Richard Thomas and Stacey Keach, also based on the event and it was then that I learned about the court case aftermath and the dubious plots. Maneaters you see, only focused on the immediate human event – one man’s recollections of what is was like to be trapped, surrounded, and feeling hope ebb away. It’s then that I thought ‘why doesn’t someone famous and powerful actually make a good movie about this?’ When I first heard about Men Of Courage I hoped that movie had finally come, but as reports about the movie, then previews, then reviews came, my hope ebbed too.

The second half of the film is considerably stronger than the first. I was worried it was going to go downhill due to horrible shark effects, but in most cases the sharks are very good. Am I right in saying some were real too? There were some moments which appeared to be ridiculous and not how sharks would actually behave, but on the whole it was fine. The problem is that this section of the movie felt too short. It was low on tension, there wasn’t much emotion, and by that point I didn’t care about most of the characters or differentiate between them. The movie is basically in three large parts, or five smaller chapters – Meeting the team, the mission, the sharks, the court case, the end. I appreciate the attempts to introduce the characters, but as mentioned it simply doesn’t work. Cage’s Captain is really the only character we care for as he is the focal point throughout the five chapters. Cage’s performance is either restrained or flat – it essentially could have been anyone. I appreciate that when making a film like this, you can’t possibly focus on everyone, but you can give us a subset of characters and get us emotionally invested from the outset – make them likable, or real at the very least. Make them stand out, with their own lives, past, fears, and flaws. I’m repeating myself, but the film tries and fails.

To its credit, the film does also show things from the opposing side. We meet several of the Japanese crew and see them as humans forced into a position no-one would ever want to be in. The film neither shies away from pointing the finger of blame squarely at those who actually were to blame. Even though the film essentially ends on a downer, we get some real life footage of the rescue and brief moments from the remaining survivors and other archive footage to re-iterate the courage of those involved. A little over 300 men survived the ordeal.

There was one fantastic moment late in the shark section where the music swells and the camera swings around some of the survivors in long shots to give an eagle eye view of the vastness of their struggle – we see some in rafts, some dead and floating away, some exhausted and gripping on to what they can, and some simply drifting among the ever present shark fins, past caring that they could be the next to succumb. That’s what I want to see – the real struggle, the real pain, and by virtue of surviving, the real courage.

Let us know in the comments what you thought of USS Indianapolis: Men Of Courage. Did you enjoy it more than you expected to, or was it another poor attempt at telling a tragic tale?

Escape From Sobibor

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A gripping tale of captivity during the Holocaust which tows the line subtly between being engaging and off-putting, and sees a stellar cast highlighting the plight of hundreds of innocents waiting to die.

As the title suggests, the film is based in the Sobibor death camp during World War II, and is based on true events. In 1943, another train packed with Jews from around Poland arrives at Sobibor, and they are divided into groups for immediate processing – if you’ve watched any Holocaust movies or read about the death camps before you will be familiar with these scenes. Tricked into believing that it is a temporary work camp, those with a particular skill such as tailors or goldsmiths are sent to one side, everyone else is sent to the gas chambers. The survivors are put to work and are subject to random beatings, punishment, and live in terrible conditions. Yet still there is hope, as some of those survivors begin to plot any sort of uprising or escape. It is clear that the survivors are treated as little more than temporary slaves and that once they have outlived their usefulness, they will be executed. Alan Arkin stars as the leader of the revolt, conspiring with an intelligent and strong new arrival – Rutger Hauer’s veteran soldier.

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The plan is risky and based on blind hope, but the best they could have possibly hoped for. The camp isn’t huge and there are not very many actual Nazi’s present. The prisoners hope that if they can trap and kill the Nazi officers, that the Ukranian prison guards will not care enough and simply allow the prisoners to leave. For this to work though, everyone has to be on board and some prisoners will take convincing. There are plenty of shocking events and emotional moments without sentiment – the realization of what the chimneys represent, one young boy trying to run out of his queue leading to the gas chamber, the inevitable conclusion to the story of a mother and her baby who had been hiding, and the result of a previous attempted escape as each escapee is forced to choose someone to be shot with them.

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As mentioned, the cast here are very good, dealing with some of the most horrible things anyone has had to endure let alone imagine. Many of the faces you won’t recognise, a few you will, but their deeds will stay with you. These sorts of films have more impact when they don’t contain a bunch of stars, just great actors with memorable faces who are capable of generating empathy. The film is not bloody, nor does it need to be. The writing is fine, based on recollections of genuine conversations, and the direction is solid. As we watch the prisoners running for their lives at the end, as we watch some get mowed down by bullets, run free, or head into a minefield, it is all the more heartbreaking knowing that these events happened and that history has a habit of repeating itself. Where there are humans, there is hope and despair, good and evil in varying degrees – when will we tip the balance so far to the good side that evil will finally slip off and drown?

Let us know in the comments what you thought of Escape From Sobibor and what other Prison Camp movies have made an impact on you.

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Sophie Scholl – The Final Days

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For every tale of horror from WWII there’s an opposing tale of heroism; unfortunately, most of the tales are intertwined so that there is rarely heroism without horror. Sophie Scholl is yet another figure who I never heard about in school, a student revolutionary in the midst of one of the most unimaginable regimes in history, rebelling against a force which threatened to envelop the world. A stark tale of triumph and of trying, of struggling with little hope for victory, of driving for change against a tottering wall.

It would be very easy to make a very different type of film in our modern world of SJWs and general activism. Thankfully the filmmakers do not go down that route and instead portray the true events of the story in as genuine a way as possible, free from 21st Century opinion or hindsight. Sophie Scholl was the daughter of an anti-Nazi, liberal politician – herself becoming part of the White Rose resistance group. The film starts with Sophie at University in the middle of WWII, where she and her group have been making anti-Nazi leaflets and mailing them around Munich. Having made too many copies, Sophie’s brother Hans suggests that they distribute the remainder around the University. This is an incredibly risky move given that the Nazi’s control the University and if seen with the material the group could be arrested as dissidents. Being young and fearless and filled with passion, the group proceeds with the plan. In a tense scene, Sophie makes the fatal decision to scatter a large pile of the leaflets from the top floor of the University so that they fall to the ground for everyone to see.

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The rest of the film involves the interrogation and sham trial which Sophie and her friends are forced to go through. Accused with and eventually charged with treason, there was always only one way this story was going to end. Personally I knew nothing of this story and was hoping it would end differently. There are a few tense moments where it looks like Sophie might get away – she has a convincing alibi during her interrogation by Robert Mohr -only to be grabbed at the last minute. Mohr at least seems to sympathize with her position and doesn’t come across on screen as the monster you would have expected. But whether bound by law or position or belief, he cannot protect her and once sent to trial there is no escape. Scholl and her partners recognise the trial for what it is, and instead use it as a chance to point fingers at her accusers, namely the notorious Nazi Judge Roland Freisler, and remind them that Germany is losing the war. Although they offer rousing speeches, defences, and accusations which echo through time, it is not enough to save their lives.

This is an engaging film, though some may find it difficult to watch given that is based on true events. Julie Jentsch, so good in The Edukators, is again very strong here, and the cast all perform admirably. Obviously we know who won the war, and we are shown in the closing moments of the movie that the Allies received a copy of Sophie’s leaflet, made millions of copies, and dropped them from planes over Germany in one of the war’s greatest trolls. Although this looks and feels like a TV movie, it deserves the wider audience films such as Downfall and Black Book have received, and even though it was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 78th Academy Awards, it isn’t a film I ever see people talking about.

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Let us know in the comments if you have seen Sophie Scholl – The Final Days, and what you made of it. How does it rank along with other WWII, non-battle focused films you have seen?

Perlasca: The Courage of A Just Man

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*Note – originally written on Amazon based on a free copy by Amazon

Like most other reviewers have commented here, I had never heard of Perlasca, though was always aware that there were likely very many unsung heroes during the war who did whatever they could to save lives and help in the struggle against the Nazis. The obvious comparisons with this show, and with the story, are with Schindler’s List, and I was worried that this would be a low-budget affair with too many cheap similarities. Thankfully, within the opening moments of the movie (split into two parts for Italian television) it is clear that a lot of money, effort, dedication, and love were put into making this. We get an action packed, tense opening to set the scene and introduce a few of the main characters and Morricone’s tragic, soaring score sets a high standard for miniseries/tv movies to follow. To summarise the story briefly will not do it any justice, but for those looking for such things this is the story of a man who, thanks to his past and position, struggles to save the lives of as many persecuted Jews as possible whilst simultaneously trying to get out of occupied Hungary and back home to his wife. Using his greatest powers – confidence, intrigue, persuasion, powerful allies, and of course great doses of fortune, he masterminds the saving of many lives.

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The man himself

Everything about this production has a quality sheen to it, from the large cast who are, without exception, brilliant – to the sets, costumes, and directing. While there is humour and action in small doses, it is the heart-wrenching set pieces and the stand-offs Perlasca has with a variety of opponents which set this work aside from others as truly great. There are moments here which will fulfill any nail-biting, edge-of-seat requirements you may have, and at times the emotion, whilst never melodramatic or over played, is overwhelming. I should mention that I don’t think I recognised any of the cast members from anything else, but special praise goes to the lead- Luca Zingaretti as Perlasca. Those moments where he trades mind-game blows with those in the Nazi ranks only work because of his performance – in a lesser actors shoes we would neither be convinced that his actions would be taken seriously or that he was doing them not for selfish reasons. In spite of the emotional weight on his shoulders, he rarely allows himself to succumb to his emotions, and we can see him holding back at every turn, as an outburst would mean certain death. At times it does feel like his lucky streak is too unbelievable, but this is of course countered by the fact that everyone around him is dying, some of his attempts at rescue are futile, and we never see his ultimate goal – getting home. Special praise should also go to Gyorgy Cserhalmi as the charming, soulless Captain Bleiber and Amanda Sandrelli as Magda.

This is gripping viewing throughout, and feels like an ‘easier’ watch than Schindler’s List though I haven’t quite worked out why I feel this way. Perhaps the main characters are more likable, perhaps we have less of a focus on the Nazis, I’m not sure. Even though the content is similar, and both have horrific visuals, Schindler’s List is a colder film. I would advise anyone with an interest in WWII or war movies in general to give this a go, but of course be warned that there are plenty of scenes that will haunt you once seen, and while not graphic in any way, many may find them too upsetting.

What is your favourite WWII movie, or which film dealing with the Holocaust have you found the most powerful? Let us know in the comments!