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 naïve 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.