There is no anniversary, no convenient reason as far as I can see to start harping on about Elem Klimov’s 1985 film Come and See, the terminus of World War II movies.
Nothing convenient no, but perhaps it will prove worthwhile.
Come and See follows Fliora, a boy of 13 who joins the Byelorussian resistance. He’s naive, he plods up to their filthy forest camp wearing his best suit which probably was fitted for a buck that was two feet taller and two stone heavier.
The naivety is short lived and before long, he’s seen enough to shove his head into the carpet of bog, a dumb suicide attempt befitting the dumb 13 year old. His face is almost unrecognisable from that kid in the big suit, it’s been ravaged by war.
At that point, the tone of the film has been set. Good is out the window, so is dignity and crucially, so is hope. Come and See snarls at those mainstays of World War II movies, all the ‘classics’. Son of Saul comes close, it’s a great film but seems heavily indebted to the Klimov classic.
The others are great too, but they miss the point. In Saving Private Ryan you have the nobility of the American troops, men who take pity on defenceless Nazis. Then in Downfall you are so callously manipulated into warm feelings towards Hitler. In Schindler’s List we weep with joy as Neeson does his bit to save a few Jews from the camp ravages. You really need look no further than the title of Life is Beautiful, wrong.
Come and See gets it right because the director doesn’t treat you like a fool. No, Klimov shoves in no forced pathos nor does he make heroes out of the suffering Byelorussians. They often seem like scumbags in fact; at one point they dress up a skeleton as a Nazi and joke about it having syphillis and no penis, then one by one, spit on him.
The film makes no turn into the pornographic either. The first true glimpse you get at the horror of this genocide which took place in Belarus is just that, a glimpse. A handheld camera pans behind a barn just for a second. You don’t see much, no closeup of a guy with his guts hanging out screaming ‘Mama’, just a naked pile of pink. A village of people lying there dead, one of 628 Byelorussian villages which the Nazis swept through.
Not everything gets this flippant, rushed treatment. Near the end of the film, Fliora stands in a daze as Gyasha, his pal from the start of the film limps towards him. We saw her flung into a truck full of pissed drunk Nazis earlier. She’s a mess, raped bloody. And this time Klimov lingers on the shot; the spent, hollow Gyasha and the latest iteration of Fliora’s face, it’s terrifying at this point, a cross between Hellraiser and Solomon from Gummo.
It is brilliant, subversive filmmaking at its root. Throughout Come and See, Klimov veers from the moments of wide perspective, to that of Fliora’s alone. The result for me and I reckon for anyone who watches this damned thing is absolute terror, because everything we’ve come to expect from World War II films is tossed aside.
We’re conditioned to expect a closeup on that pile of Byelorussian bodies, it seems almost a wasted opportunity on Klimov’s part to stir up some tears in his audience. But we are denied, because of the reality of the situation, this film is not about that pile of bodies, its about the 628 piles and more. To focus on those few is to trivialise the actual extent of the Nazi plague. Wide perspective.
It shifts then to just Fliora’s perspective, as he faces the ravaged young woman, Gyasha. We see what he sees, a girl who he was partners with, he promised her his help but he failed and now she stands before him, absolutely ruined. But he is too, it seeps into us. All of it.
The horror we feel does not just emanate from that awful image of Gyasha. It emanates from carefully planted seeds, from the sequence of her dancing gaily in the forest, from the whites of her eyes as she looks upon the dead, from Fliora’s failed promise to her, from the gradual depreciation of his pretty, young face, from everything he has witnessed in the last 40 minutes, from the whole experience of this film.
That alone makes this a great movie, and makes Klimov a great director. He understands the subtleties of the human condition and applied that level of subtlety to Come and See. But greatness in this sense is not what the film has and will be judged by.
Come and See will be regarded as the ultimate World War II film, perhaps the ultimate film period, because of its ability to stand alone without the typical nonsense which surrounds them. All you need to know to be affected by the movie is onscreen, in that poor face of Fliora and in every galling act of degradation and committed by the Nazis. Nothing is forced, nothing is hidden for the sake of a good clean ending.
A good clean ending would suggest that there’s hope for us yet which is not for anyone to decide, that push for perfection in society, for an ultimate goal is precisely what leads to your disasters, holocaust and genocide. Chancers and bullies with their own prejudices boot their way into power on promises that a society-wide greatness is within our reach. The last century is testament to the depths people will descend to in the pursuit of that goal, remember it was not merely the century of the Holocaust, it was the century of genocide.
There can be no doubt then, Come and See is a classic, I will never forget it so long as my mind remains sound. I cannot tell whether recommending it is of any use though, you probably won’t enjoy it. And I’ll never forget it in the same way as I’ll never forget the time my cat pulled the spine out of a dead crow. I do feel enlightened, more driven to abandon any vague prejudices I have when I watch it, to be better so it’s definitely worthwhile. But it can’t be good for the soul, it just can’t.