Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Come and See (USSR, 1985)

A friend once asked me what I thought was the greatest horror film ever made. I said Come and See, and I was totally serious. There must have been wars less harrowing to fight in than this, perhaps the greatest of all war movies, is to watch. The blurb on its DVD cover describes Come and See as a forefather of Saving Private Ryan, now routinely touted as the best modern war film. The comparison is to Come and See’s discredit. If Ryan were a 20-minute short and ended with its magnificent shot of bloodied waves washing back onto Normandy Beach, it would be a masterpiece: up to that moment it is incomparable, after it, it is merely an intelligent action movie. Come and See, in contrast, achieves onscreen what Guernica achieves on canvas.

We follow Florya (15-year-old Alexei Kravchenko), a na├»ve Belarussian teenager, as he joins a company of partisans fighting the Nazi invasion and comes to witness, endure or escape a stream of obscene, but increasingly mundane, violence that ages him physically and distorts him psychologically. The brilliance of the film is that, as an audience, we are not permitted to just be passive witnesses to this violence. A dozen ingenious devices – exemplified by the moment Florya is deafened by a German air raid and the film’s sound cuts out so that we hear what he hears – pull us into the mayhem and ensure that, just as living it traumatises the characters, watching it traumatises us.

Although Come and See's isn’t a true story, and no part of it is an attempt to recreate actual events, the film is anchored in the real-life experiences of those who made it. Elim Klimov, who directed and co-wrote the film, was forced to flee the battle of Stalingrad as a child, while Ales Adamovich, with whom he wrote the script, fought, like Florya, as a teenage partisan.

While this tell-it-like-it-was honesty accounts for much of the film’s terrific resonance it also prevents it from becoming a one-dimensional procession of war-is-hell overkill. Joy and desire are to be found among the horror – heightened to an insane, end-of-the-world intensity by the likelihood of imminent annihilation – and one of the film’s unforgettable images is of Glasha, the beautiful girl who becomes Florya’s companion, dancing wildly in the rain. This simple, unexpected scene is one of cinema’s purest expressions of the basic joy of being alive. Its inclusion is inspired, and does much to make Glasha’s eventual (off-screen) fate as excruciating in its way as the celebrated barn scene.

Come and See isn’t a film it’s easy to watch over and over, but then it isn’t a film you need to watch over and over; if I never saw it again I couldn’t forget a frame of it.

Some of you asked why I chose the title ‘A Petrified Fountain’. It’s taken from a Jean Cocteau quote: ‘A film is a petrified fountain of thought’. It's a bit pretentious but – considering the other options I came up with were ‘These Films Are Wonderful’ and ‘Watch These Movies Or I'll Sit On Your Head’ – I think I made the right choice.


Anonymous said...

You have made me want to watch it, you know, except for that fact that I wouldn't be able to without being scarred and terrified for life. But I mean, if I could watch it without those things happening, then I would :p xxxxxx

Anonymous said...

I really like Saving Private Ryan, so if this is better I will have to watch it (at some point!)

Scott Jordan Harris said...

Thanks for the comments you two. Much appreciated. :)

Fabulouso - that's the problem with praising a film as horrifying as Come and See: chances are you'll put more people off than you'll actually encourage to see it. But at least anyone who does watch it after reading this will know what they're getting into.

Peeka - I'm a big fan of Saving Private Ryan too, and will probably give it's own entry of undiluted praise. But, brilliant as it is, it's not on Come and See's level. Imagine if the abrasive intensity of Ryan's first 20 minutes had been maintained for the entire film, and you'll have an idea of the experience of watching Come and See. The first time I saw it I physically shook.

Anonymous said...

Well done, Scott! :)

I have to say that this blog is very well written indeed and is only one of two blogs I follow because of poor concentration due to ME.

As others have said here, I want to seek out these films after reading your reviews – and I often dislike film reviews and perhaps some reviewers! :)

Now all I have to do is find the energy to watch a film... Oh dear... Energy?! Energy?! Where are you? It's on holiday – sorry. ;)

Keep this up as and when you can. :)

Scott Jordan Harris said...

Thank-you very much Carl. It's wonderful that I've found a regular reader, and even better to learn that the blogs read easily.