It doesn’t matter how jaded you are, Come and See will fuck you up. You might laugh at Requiem for a Dream, yawn at Martyrs, and think a double feature of The Men Behind the Sun and A Serbian Film is a fine Friday evening’s entertainment, but still – Come and see will leave you a complete wreck. It’s the single most harrowing, depressing, god-is-dead-and-we-are-in-hell war movie ever made. Watching it on DVD will make you suicidal. On the big screen? You’ll probably exit the cinema and immediately go lie down in traffic. We’ll find out at the end of the month, when the Russian Resurrection Film Festival presents special screenings of this landmark portrait of horror and misery in Sydney and Brisbane. Yay!
In 1977, Russian director Elem Klimov apparently took Truffaut’s axiom that there’s no such thing as an anti-war film to heart, and set about crafting what was ostensibly a movie. to commemorate the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany. “I had been reading and rereading the book I Am from the Burning Village, which consisted of the first-hand accounts of people who miraculously survived the horrors of the fascist genocide in Belorussia. Many of them were still alive then, and Belorussians managed to record some of their memories onto film. And I decided to make a film about this tragedy. I perfectly understood that the film would end up a harsh one.”
That’s something of an understatement. Released in 1985, come and See follows a young boy (Aleksei Kravchenko) who joins the Soviet resistance following the Nazi invasion of Belorussia. What follows then is… difficult. The film was shot in chronological order over the course of nine months and Kravchenko, then a 14 year old non-professional actor, was essentially put through sheer hell in the name of realism, including having live ammo fired at him to elicit an accurate response. Later he recalled undergoing “…the most debilitating fatigue and hunger. I kept a most severe diet, and after the filming was over I returned to school not only thin, but grey-haired.”
The film effectively wrecked its director, cast and crew. Klimov never made another movie, saying “I lost interest in making films… everything that was possible I felt I had already done.” (for his part, Kravchenko returned to acting over a decade later after a stint in the Navy, and recently appeared in this weirdness). While Western films such as Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, The Thin Red Line, and Saving Private Ryan have been lauded for their “war is hell” philosophical postures, Come and See has remained fairly obscure in the anglophone world, simply because it’s just such a tough watch; Spielberg, Kubrick and company may want to expose the horrors of armed conflict, but they still largely cleave to traditional narrative forms. Come and See does not, refusing easy catharsis and instead immersing us in a hostile universe that is both hallucinatory and harsh, where the most appalling atrocities are every day occurrences.
It honestly defies description, but now Sydney and Brisbane audiences can, er, come and see Come and See for themselves. The film screens at Event Cinemas George Street and Brisbane Myer Centre on Sunday, July 29, at 3pm. The brave can book their tickets here.