Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, an ever-expanding monolith of celluloid currently comprised of 354 films. With 269 under his belt and less than 100 films left to go, Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response. This week, he takes on Elem Klimov’s Come and See.
This week we have a Soviet drama, and I can guarantee that you have not seen many movies more horrific than Come and See, not only because of the blood and massive killings that you’ll see here, but, more than anything, because you’ll be devastated at the thought that this level of shameless violence took place in what is now Belarus. This is the greatest war movie you’ve probably never heard about, the Apocalypse Now of global cinema, though this film makes Apocalypse Now appear lightweight. Byelorussia, as it was once called, was one of the 15 constituent republics of the Soviet Union, and one occupied by Nazi Germany during World War II. Through the perspective of a young boy, this movie is hard look at what took place during this occupation.
- Director: Elem Klimov
- Writer: Ales Adamovich, Elem Klimov
- Cast: Aleksey Kravchenko, Olga Mironova
Come and See takes its title from an oft-repeated line in the Book Of Revelation, referring to the oncoming apocalypse. Byelorussia is on guard and completely focused on resisting the Nazi invasion. Florya (Aleksey Kravchenko) is just a kid, and what is left of his innocence is about to be blown out of sight. There is no driving narrative, only incidents. Florya runs around in the fields, digging for rifles left behind, and on finding one, a group of soldiers passing through his home snatch him up, despite his mother’s pleas. Florya appears happy to go with them. The film has a complete mastery of steadicam and handheld camera work, injecting these scenes with a documentary feel to them.
Florya is ordered to labor within the camp and soon after he is left behind, and this is were my interest in the film escalated. Lost in the forest, Florya runs into a girl, Glasha (Olga Mironova), who has also been abandoned. Glasha is a bit creepy, at one point stepping close to the camera looking haunted. Suddenly, the forest is bombarded and German parachutists appear. Heavy gunfire ensues and Florya goes back to his house only to discover that no one is there. There’s a buzzing noise throughout as flies have taken over the house, and Glasha is near vomiting. At this point Florya refuses to believe that his family has been killed, but when they walk back outside, they find a stack of dead bodies and it is here that Florya starts going mad. From what I gather, no professional actors were used, which makes his performance all that much more indelible.
At this point in the film, the tone of horror and desperation has been established. the film immerses in the story of this kid, displaced by war and forced to search for his family and survive. But we never hear anything said about defending communism or the motherland. Florya finds a camp of villagers who have fled the Nazi’s and a marching succession of images that include men being burned alive, cows being shot to death, and surreal imagery where people are dressed as skeletons.
When the Germans arrive, they surround a wooden barn that has been filled with innocent villagers. Amidst the shrieks of people struggling desperately to escape, Germans throw grenades into the barn and set it on fire. Then the soldiers open fire at the barn with their guns while applauding, taking photographs, and laughing as festive music plays in the background. Bodies are dragged around and the terrified look on the Florya’s face is beyond words. This is a scene I will never forget. The last hour of Come and See is nothing less than masterful. Events unravel without much dialogue, unfolding as if you were an actual onlooker, powerless, frozen, and terrified at the sight of utter chaos and inhumanity. Making matters worse, this actually happened. A title card finally tells us 628 Byelorussian villages were burnt to the ground with all their inhabitants.
Beyond the witnessed atrocities of this film, the ending carries its tragedy further. Florya’s fate remains unknown. Can a kid exposed to such devastation move on? Director Elem Klimov was forced to flee his home with his mother under heavy shelling as a child. Going into the production of this film, Klimov had recently lost his wife to a car accident, and that the deep sense of loss felt by Florya gains much from Klimov’s own loss. After Come and See, Klimov refused to direct again, feeling that he couldn’t surpass what he had achieved.
Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:
I agree when you say that “this is one of the most devastating films ever about anything, and in it, the survivors must envy the dead”. The film shows how horrifying war was and is; Come and See is powerful in its ability to simply stand back and regard. And I love where you question whether audiences need to feel catharsis upon witnessing a film of such devastation and hopelessness: “Is it true that audiences demand some kind of release or catharsis? That we cannot accept a film that leaves us with no hope? That we struggle to find uplift in the mire of malevolence? There’s a curious scene here in a wood, the sun falling down through the leaves, when the soundtrack, which has been grim and mournful, suddenly breaks free into Mozart. And what does this signify? A fantasy, I believe, and not Florya’s, who has probably never heard such music. The Mozart descends into the film like a deus ex machina, to lift us from its despair. We can accept it if we want, but it changes nothing. It is like an ironic taunt.”
Good, Bad or Great Movie: GREAT
Do you like Come and See ? Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?
Next week’s review: Easy Rider