Sunday, March 31, 2013

Come and See

With a title like that, Come and See (1985) seems to be inviting its audience to witness firsthand, from the ground level, the German invasion of the Soviet Union in World War II. It has the hallmarks of a war movie, but the end result feels less like a war movie and more like a depiction of the apocalypse. In fact, according to the Internet Movie Database, the title itself comes from the Book Revelations in the Bible:

"And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see. And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth."

That passage refers to one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse and what will be brought about upon the world with his arrival, but that description could also be used to describe what occurs in Come and See. Over the course of the film, we witness the misery suffering of the people of Belorussia as the Nazi war machine overtakes the land, massacre the inhabitants, and leave only destitution and despair for those who survive. It tempting to portray war as an epic, titanic struggle between good and evil with a sense of adventure and action, but to really be caught up in conflict is to be engulfed in unending hardship and pain.

After finding a buried rifle, young Florya (Aleksey Kravchenko) leaves his home, including his mother and younger sisters, to join the partisans who are resisting the German occupation of Belarussia in 1943. That's the beginning of his odyssey through the war zone as he is left behind by his unit (and forced to trade boots with an older fighter); meets up with Glasha (Olga Mironova), a girl about his age; finds himself in the middle of a paratrooper attack; tries to return to his family; ends up with some refugees, and is trapped in a village when the Germans take it over.

With a plot summary like that, Come and See could have been presented as a coming-of-age story about who boy who learns to be a hero and a man, but this is not a movie about heroics, patriotism, or honor and dignity in the face of the horrors of war and human cruelty. Women and children are rounded up to be executed, a woman is thrown into the back of a truck to be gang-raped, and in one agonizingly long sequence, an entire village is herded into a church that is then set on fire. Unlike other movies, like say Schindler's List which showed the human spirit surviving in the face of indescribable evil, Come and See offers no hope, no growth, and no relief from the atrocities and conflict it depicts. It is one of the bleakest, most depressing, and harrowing movies I've ever encountered. It's not meant to be watched but experienced.

Come and See is built on the texture of the human face. There are numerous closeups of the characters that depict just how terrified, confused, exhausted, and dirty they are. Director Elem Klimov utilizes a number of unbroken, extended takes, effectively trapping the viewer with the characters. Florya, essentially a well-meaning innocent at the onset, bears witness to numerous acts of evil and cruelty, and the experience emotionally and mentally breaks him, and we see this on his face but especially in his eyes. By the end, though he survives, he looks like a completely different person, his spirit and humanity effectively destroyed.

There's a contradiction at the heart of Come and See. One one hand, it's a very grim and gritty motion picture; at times, it feels like a documentary. Filmed on location, very little about it suggests a crisp, professional aesthetic, but it also feels hallucinatory and surreal at other times. The closest point of comparison I can think of is Apocalypse Now;  you're so buried in the chaos and reality, the bizarreness feels real. To watch this movie is to view a time when it seemed like the world really was ending.

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