How to come and see avoids the problems inherent in anti-war films
Anti-war films have always faced an uphill battle. A director can use every technique under the sun to portray the brutality of war, creating films brimming with graphic violence to really hammer home the savagery of such an event, but they still come up against the same problem: how much war does it translate to the screen? . It may be cliché, but the film is a visual medium, resulting in a format where meticulously crafted imagery and deliberate use of body language can say more than an entire monologue ever could. The movie is essentially a big celebration of movement, and therefore, it’s no surprise that it lends itself incredibly well to the action genre. Watching Keanu Reeves shoot the lobby of a hotel at The matrix or a nightclub John Wick is cinema in its purest form, an elaborate dance of tightly choreographed moves where no lines of dialogue are required, and it’s hard to imagine such sequences would have even half their impact had they been shown. in a book or piece of music instead. There’s no better action format than film, and while it’s generated decades of entertainment for global popcorn audiences, it’s proven to be a serious problem every time the filmmakers tackle the controversial subject of war.
A clear example of this can be seen in by Steven Spielberg film Saving Private Ryan. Its iconic opening, set during the assault on Omaha Beach as part of the Normandy landings, features some of cinema’s most explicit and heartbreaking imagery of war. Nothing embodies the saying that war is hell better than this, with Spielberg echoing it so much in the film’s marketing campaign. “Every war movie… is an anti-war movie,” he said Newsweek, a quote that should sum up the film, but as every artist learns, how an audience perceives their work can be very different from how it was intended. The sequence is a staple of the best action scenes of all time and was ranked by tv guide as greatest movie moment on their 2001 list. While such inclusions are hardly made in bad faith, it’s odd to see such a gruesome sequence based on a real-life tragedy make it onto a list of “greatest movie moments” alongside the Rain Dance of Sing in the rain and Humphrey Bogart say goodbye to Ingrid Bergman in casablanca.
Saving Private Ryan isn’t the only war movie to run into this problem, and it’s only the first in a long line that plagues the genre. The need to condense such horrific events into a three-act structure that fits within a standard length can make the concept of an anti-war film problematic from day one, risking turning what should be a powerful signal of alarm for humanity into a simple commercial product. Films that are too overtly anti-war have struggled to receive support from major studios, and those that do often fail to achieve their stated goals while producing something that will do well at the box office. Francois Truffautone of the leading figures of the French New Wave, once said “there is no anti-war film”, and although many filmmakers have tried to expose it, it remains the defining quote on the subject.
But if there’s a film that proves the opposite of Truffaut’s quote, it’s the 1985 film. come and see. Directed by the famous Soviet filmmaker Elem Klimovthe film depicts the occupation of Belarus by Nazi Germany in 1943 through the eyes of a young teenager called Flyora (Alexei Kravchenko) who aspires to join the Belarusian resistance movement. The film proved difficult to make, with Klimov having to fight censorship from the Soviet authorities for eight years before being allowed to make the film (he only had to understand with the title of the filma radical departure from the much bolder Kill Hitler he had originally wanted). Even then, the production was far from easy, with its lengthy filming schedule and graphic content taking its toll on everyone involved. The film received a positive response upon its premiere at the 14th Moscow International Film Festival, and over the ensuing decades it became one of the most acclaimed films of the genre, becoming the benchmark to which all films anti-war must be compared to. Quite simply, come and see is a tough movie to watch, and its refusal to back down, overwhelming as it is, makes its Hollywood equivalents look like child’s play by comparison. Almost 40 years later, it has lost none of its impact.
But how does come and see accomplish a task decades of movies have failed? The answer comes from its unwavering commitment to portraying the horror of World War II no matter what, resulting in one of the most unsettling films ever made. He excels at depicting the atrocities of war without ever falling victim to Hollywood sensationalism, with Klimov ensuring that the viewer never confuses the events on screen with just another WWII entertainment. An example of this can be seen when Flyora returns to her native village following an attack by German paratroopers at the resistance movement’s camp. Accompanied by Glasha (Olga Mironova), a young girl who worked as a nurse at the camp, they find the village deserted. Flyora seems rather casual about the whole thing, even helping herself to her mother’s still-warm kitchen, but it’s clear something is wrong. Glasha spots him first. The flies, a gentle buzz that radiates throughout the village, and which increases as the scene progresses. Eventually it becomes too much and Flyora runs out of the house, sprinting in a seemingly random direction while shouting illogical thoughts about her family hiding on a nearby island through a bog.
Glasha follows, but not before she takes a single look back at the village, and it is here that the nightmare is confirmed. The bodies of the entire population of the village are piled up against a house, piled up as if they were only animals in a slaughterhouse. The plan lasts only a few seconds, but a few seconds are enough. The film does not dwell on the violence, instead focusing on its consequences and the effect it has on its characters rather than the act itself. Letting the viewer imagine the massacre makes it a considerably more terrifying moment and demonstrates Klimov’s refusal to bend to the formula of a traditional war film. It’s a shot that will chill even the most hardened viewers and serves as the climax to a sequence that is a masterclass in filmmaking. The gradual build-up, enhanced by its fantastic sound design and minimal use of dialogue, feels more like a horror movie than anything else, an approach that guides the rest of the film.
But it’s not just a single sequence; rather, it’s something that leaves a permanent mark on both of its characters. In the next scene, Flyora tries to drown Glasha upon learning the truth and soon after tries to commit suicide out of guilt. These two events highlight the physical and mental impact of the war, and show the film’s commitment to avoiding the usual clichés of the genre. Rather than including the action purely for entertainment rather than adding to the overall story, Klimov lets the action linger long after it’s ended in a way that few movies replicate. . Flyora does not use these events as motivation to grab a gun and end the scourge of Nazism once and for all, rather he becomes the empty shell of a person whose direction in life is entirely decided by those around him. . The decision to present the story from the perspective of a 14-year-old boy may seem like a cheap trick to elicit audience sympathy, but Klimov is careful to avoid brazen attempts at sentimentality. In the final sections of the film, Flyora is hardly a character, just a passive vector to lead the audience from set to set. As the credits roll, he looks more like an old man than a teenager, and that’s only after living through the war for just a few days. God only knows what the next two years will bring.
come and see the refusal to include the usual action scenes associated with this genre goes to the heart of how it avoids the inherent problem of anti-war films. The previously mentioned village sequence circumvents this by skipping the show of gunfire and explosions to focus only on the aftermath, with other scenes using similar techniques to ensure that no second can be misinterpreted as mere entertainment. Chief among them, an extended sequence where an SS unit wreaks havoc on the innocent residents of Perekhody, feels like a deliberate attempt to avoid the quote-to-quote “happy” endings that war movies usually end with. No allied forces are riding up the hill to save the day here; instead, there’s just an unimaginable horror compounded by the length of the sequence, with Klimov forcing the viewer to watch every second of the tragedy. The masterful editing, which cuts between the scenes of violence and the shots of those who commit it (all of whom derive sickening pleasure from it), is certain to fill the audience with utter disgust. It could also be seen as a statement by Klimov, with the shots of people enjoying the violence somewhat mimicking how a typical audience would react to such a scene if featured in a more traditional film. But there’s sure to be no smiles from the audience here, with the sequence languishing in nightmare for so long you’ll be tempted to hit the stop button just to stop it. None of these scenes made it to the “greatest movie moments” list, and rightly so.
come and see is a hard movie to watch. Even for those who consider themselves jaded by cinematic violence, there is an authenticity to come and see that sets it apart from similar movies, a feeling that has only gotten worse because so much of it is based on real events. The action may lend itself beautifully to the middle of the film, but there’s an art to constructing an intricate sequence of moves that doesn’t just feel like a group of actors working on a script, with insane levels of work required to give to the public the thrills of the blockbuster. they are thirsty. But there is also an art to producing such a sequence which is the opposite of pleasure. It may seem like a wild ride, totally at odds with the concept of such a scene, but in the proper context it can have a profound effect on the viewer. come and see is a great example of this and uses the action in a way that avoids the biggest problem that all anti-war movies face. It’s one of the best films ever made. It is also the one that is very difficult to recommend. But, ultimately, it is a very important film, a visual document recounting one of the darkest periods of our history, and which all anti-war films should draw inspiration from.