Some of the very best films I've ever seen are so powerful and so emotional that I really don't want to see them again. Come and See is one of those. It's a Soviet-era Belorussian movie from 1985, set in the Second World War. It would be wrong to describe it as a war film, though. It's a coming of age film, centred around a 12-year old boy, Florya, who joins the partisans.
Most reviewers describe it as a brutal film. I didn't see it that way. I found it harrowing. It wasn't a film about the horrors of war. It was a film about what happens if you live in a world where life is cheap and meaningless, and where everyone around you has resorted to savagery and barbarism. In contrast to films such as Saving Private Ryan, Born on the Fourth of July, Platoon, or Full Metal Jacket, there is very little voyeuristic or explicit carnage. The violence mostly happens off camera. We're more interested in the after-effects than the actual events. The one scene where we do actually see something happen, where a detachment of SS Einsatztruppe destroy a village, is quite horrific. Not because of what happens to the villagers, but because of the casual, unconcerned looks on the faces of the Germans looking on.
It's a stunning film, in every sense of the word. It leaves you numb, shell-shocked, and reeling. And it's excellently made in every department. Top marks have to go to the young Aleksei Kravchenko. His performance is simply astonishing. Director Elem Klimov made life hell for his cast to get them to give of their best. They shot for nine months in the swamps and forests, dragging the cast and crew through mud and rain, and for added realism he used live ammunition.
The photography is reminiscent of Werner Herzog's psychological work, such as Aguirre and Woyzeck. There are lots of long, slow, static, silent shots, where the story is told with facial expressions or simple head movements. At times, as I often find with Herzog, I found it almost painfully slow, but editing it faster would have lost the intensity required to immerse you in Florya's world. This is particularly the case after the first battle scene, where the sound work is probably some of the best on film. After an artillery attack, Florya is deafened, and all we hear for the next few scenes is the ringing in his ears and some muffled voices. The sense of isolation - another hallmark of much of Herzog's work - is quite eerie, and as Florya's hearing is slowly restored, we find ourselves drawn back into a macabre world that is somehow changed.
I can't say I enjoyed the film. As with much Russian cinema (more accurately, Soviet cinema), it was bleak, raw, and uncomfortable. It's what Russians do best - just read most of the great Russian literature from the early 19th century onwards; it's either light comedy or depressing as hell. Their operas fit into the same pattern. (Please, Lord, let me never sit through another performance of Boris Godunov.)
But Come and See isn't a film you watch to enjoy. Like Sophie's Choice or Christiane F, this is a film you watch to see the world through the eyes of another. Afterwards you feel relief that you don't live like that, and determination that you will do anything you can to prevent such a world happening again. See it, and feel how powerful film can be.