50 years, 50 films: Come and See (1985)
For 1985, we consider the greatest war film ever made.
We’ve tried to stay away from vaulting hyperbole in our travels through the last 50 years. But let’s try running this one up the flagpole: Elem Klimov’s Come and See is the best war film ever made. (We are putting documentaries, such as Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, also released that year, in a separate category.) Obviously, Come and See is not in direct competition with larky pictures such as The Great Escape and Where Eagles Dare. This is a very different entity. Set largely in Belorussia during the second World War, the film doesn’t worry much about plot. People do brave things, but nobody emerges as a hero. The picture is, rather, a sort of cinematic torture chamber that presses its young hero through every terror war can provide. He ploughs through acres of filthy swamp. He passes heaps of naked, desecrated bodies. Permanently in a state of wide-eyed shock, he is rendered deaf by artillery fire. It is sobering to remember that, if accounts of the war in the East are to be credited, the film doesn’t deal much in exaggeration. Come and See. This is what it was like.
Even as late as 1985, the average western consumer of popular culture would have seen little of this on screen before. To that point, we were still being fed the lie that the war was won by the brash Americans and the plucky British with a little help from a few other kind people. Bizarrely, the Eastern Front was presented as little more than a sideshow. Little wonder many Russians were a little sore about how that story was told. Everyone should now know that the Eastern Front was infinitely bloodier, much more brutal and laden with many more unimaginable atrocities. (Oddly, western media depicted the first World War as a horror show from the moment it ended. The succeeding conflict was easier to characterise as a theatre for heroes.)
Come and See is one of those rare films that shoulders virtually no conspicuous influences. Only the most dedicated western cineastes had knowledge of any previous Klimov release. He made a very impressive film about Rasputin called Agony. His 1983 film Farewell struggled to achieve screenings overseas. We’d seen the horror of war as glamorous freak-out in Apocalypse Now. Decades earlier, All Quiet on the Western Front had got to the personal tragedies. But no previous picture had used Total Cinema to convey the wretchedness of conflict with such unhinged enthusiasm.
For those reasons Come and See struck viewers with a quite unprecedented force. It was hard to believe such a thing could exist. Contemporaneous reviews, quite reasonably, argued that the film offered none of the guilty thrills that we had come to expect from war movies. That’s true enough. But there is something undeniably energising about the sheer vehemence of the audio-visual compositions. Be clear, this is not some cluttered exercise in grubby neo-realism. Each scene is as carefully composed as the sorry images in a contemporary Steve McQueen picture or the slow unfoldings in Andrei Tarkovsky film. Klimov even allows a degree of editorialising in the late scene where young Flyora — played brilliantly by Aleksei Kravchenko — discharges his hitherto unused rifle at a picture of Hitler. Rarely has something so studied dealt in such raw power.
In an ideal world, Klimov would have gone on to achieve many more masterpieces. But, though he lived until 2003, Come and See turned out to be his last completed feature. “I’ve lost interest in making films. Everything that was possible I felt I had already done,” he later said. It seemed as if capitalism did for him. Still, he did direct the best war film ever made.
For 1985, we also considered Ran, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Back to the Future, Brazil. Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters and — as referenced above — the essential, awful Shoah.