Come and See (Иди и смотри)

This is one of those movies one only need see once, and the imprint is forever made. There is so much in the film, based on eyewitness experiences of the Byelorussian genocide during World War II, that one cannot approach it with a brief summary.

It’s not easy writing about this imposing film. It’s not something as simple as Saving Private Ryan or Apocalypse Now. It’s much, much more. Saving Private Ryan was pretty much soldiers storming Normandy and making their way into France to hold a bridge against all odds with a cameo by Ted Danson. Personally, I found the premise of the film insulting, as it basically created a situation in which the lives of one group of soldiers were considered to be worth less than the lives of the one Private Ryan. It’s one of the reasons why I cringe at the prospect of seeing another Spielberg movie. He’s got his moments, but his films overall leave me feeling manipulated.

Apocalypse Now is another overrated film. Better to see the documentary of how it was made… but the soundtrack in the main film makes no sense at all. The thick synthesizers sound more appropriate for a cartoon. Martin Sheen works out all right as the Marlowe figure, but Coppola should have gotten Klaus Kinski to be Kurtz. He should have also gotten Werner Herzog to direct. The fact that I can address both Apocalypse Now and Saving Private Ryan is testament to their accessibility and to the difficulty in confronting Come and See.

I cannot be dismissive of Come and See. I cannot find the adjectives to address it. It is more than a tale of a young man that joins partisans: in its two hours, it stands in stern judgment of offensive war and those who advocate it. It does not allow excuses, nor does it permit the so-called Nuremberg Defense: “We were only following orders.” The Russian auxiliaries, the SS, the regular Wehrmacht, all of the Nazi thrust to wipe out the Russians are there, and all are guilty. There are no beautiful cameo actors to stride across stolen scenes. It is as if the Russians rose from the earth and the Germans emerged from the mist to battle for their lives, and we are there to see it. There are no fancy special effects: the bullets are real, the bombs are real, and the toll on the actors is real.

The film was shot in chronological order, so one watches the aging effects of the war on the film’s main actor. When he appears greyed, shattered, wrinkled, and broken at the end, we do not see a Hollywood makeup job. We see an actor that lived as his character did for nine months – starving, marching, harrowed by the sights around him.

Much of the dialogue in the film is delivered head-on from actors confronting the camera, looking directly into our souls. The music aids the psychological heaviness and impact. The film is so involving, we don’t have time to think “my, what lovely cinematography!” It’s every bit as involving and demanding as Das Boot, but with the added burden of being a documentation of genocide.

Come and See is a film that demands to be seen and then reflected on. It is not entertainment. It is a conduit for pondering, questioning, and a search for answers.

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