"And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the fourth beast say, Come and see."
Countless films have attempted to document the horrors of war by going for unflinching realism, trying to convince the viewer they're right there in the action, that this is what war is like but you could argue none of them come close to Elem Klimov's nightmarish masterpiece Come and See. The story of Florya (Alexsey Kravchenko) a young Russian boy who joins the army hoping to fight the German paratroopers dropped on Belorussia in World War II, this is the loss of innocence depicted as the end of the world. Merely saying it turns out war isn't quite like he expected doesn't remotely do the film justice - there's hardly any gore and indeed almost no graphic violence in a sense, but the unrelenting nihilism and mood of creeping dread make Come and See easily one of the most horrifying films ever released, the kind of relentless assault on the psyche that makes most torture porn seem laughable in comparison.
Klimov pulls no punches almost right from the start - when the Soviet troops march through Florya's village, rousting able-bodied men for service, it's made perfectly clear the boy is too young to have any idea what's really going on. The look of hopeless grief on his mother's face at the boy's pathetic attempts to convince the recruiting officers he deserves to sign up, or his childlike rapport with his two small sisters are terrible enough before a single shot's been fired in anger. None of this is sugar-coated in the slightest; Florya is patently an idiot, unable to understand there's every chance he's headed to his doom and the men chivvying him along think the best they'll get out of the boy is he'll manage to stop a bullet.
The Soviet irregulars hunting Nazis through the forest are a hapless band of grim, soulless career military, peasant troops, hideously mutilated walking wounded, comic relief and camp followers. Florya befriends Glasha (Olga Mironova), a pitifully young girl almost as naïve as he is, warming the commander's bed in the vain hope his promises to look after her once the war's over will actually amount to anything. Glasha's sexuality is one more thing Florya is too young to properly process - she doesn't know the consequences of flaunting it and he doesn't fully understand why she's doing it. Their tentative rapport is heartbreaking, foreshadowing the idea people refuse to believe what they're seeing in the middle of wartime - where Glasha mistakenly takes Florya's fragile bravado as further proof she can make men do what she wants, and he sees her beauty as a suggestion maybe being a soldier isn't that bad after all.
Then everything goes to hell. German artillery pounds their camp - reeling from the onslaught, the children stumble away into the woods. Klimov rams home that the two of them are lost, afraid and powerless to do anything, at which point it starts becoming increasingly obvious Florya simply can't accept what's happened. The horror comes from the knowledge the young boy's going steadily more and more insane, and the way this realisation carries an almost physical weight - from the moment Florya insists they return to his village, as if this is going to magically turn back the clock, to the point they blunder into the enemy's hands, forced to witness (or suffer) all manner of atrocities. Much of Come and See was based on real historical accounts of the destruction the Nazi invasion inflicted, and the tone never lightens unless it's for some moment of gallows humour or surreal absurdity.
And yet Klimov never explicitly shows half as much as you expect. There are corpses, gunshots and blood, but never front and centre and sometimes not even that. One of the most terrifying sequences in the film centres around Florya acting as if everything's perfectly normal in the ghastly aftermath of another killing. Yet Klimov only shows what Florya is letting himself see and at the same time, he shows us Glasha panicking, wondering why on earth Florya isn't screaming in horror. Even an ambiguous attempt to explain it feels like a spoiler - few other films can make you feel as shaken, as empty as the slow realisation that yes, that thing on screen is what you think it is, not what Florya is telling himself.
Come and See isn't flawless - the final sequence is undeniably powerful, but arguably interprets Florya's need to make everything not have happened a little too literally. The low budget threatens to break the spell every now and then, and some of the German soldiers occasionally come across as somewhat caricatured, especially when Klimov paints the invaders as a carnival of the bizarre. But overall it's a towering achievement that has to rank as one of the most nerve-shredding portrayals of armed conflict ever put to film. Come and See is a relentless parade of individual moments that leave you numbed to the core, almost as empty as the characters themselves. Apocrypha has it that Klimov wanted to hypnotise Alexsey Kravchenko to spare him the effect of what he had to sit through, but it didn't take - true or not, the final shot of his terrified face, old before its time, is flat-out one of the greatest moments in cinematic history. (You heard me.)
Under no circumstances could you possibly recommend Come and See, but at the same time pretty much every cinephile ought to see it - though the majority probably won't want to see it more than once. Klimov's film deserves to be ranked alongside pretty much any pillar of the genre you can think of, and arguably outclasses most of them. Shatteringly powerful, remorselessly bleak, it may be consciously stylised and lack the documentary cachet, the dissection of machismo or the geopolitical analysis of modern war stories, but in a purely emotional sense this could be the most 'realistic' of all of them. If you have the stomach for it, you need to watch this film, simple as that. Want to know what war is really like? Come and See.
(Come and See screens on Sunday 11th September as part of the 17th L'Etrange Film Festival at the Forum des Images in Paris, run from 2nd-11th September 2011. This showing is part of the festival's Carte Blanche programme, films specially selected by the festival's guests. Come and See was chosen by Julien Temple, the director famous for the Sex Pistols documentary The Filth and the Fury.)
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