Saturday, May 1, 2021

Oh, the Humanity - "Come and See" may be the best war movie of all time

A Nazi storm trooper holds a gun to the head of the 13-year-old boy Flyora in Come and See, the most harrowing war movie you will ever see.  At the bottom of this post, you can watch it if you dare.

Thee Optimist has a somewhat challenging day job.

He writes books, fictional tales, and he has to deliver them in such a way that they are pleasing to mass audiences of readers.

At the same time, Thee Optimist is not very bright.  Dullard though he is, Thee Optimist very much wants to tell good stories.  

So one thing he does is he watches films that have received universal acclaim, in the hope that some small part of the genius contained therein may rub off on him.

He regularly pores over lists of the Best Movies of All Time.  One title that has been finding its way onto these lists in recent years is Come and See, a film that was made in the Soviet Union, and released in 1985.

It was largely overlooked in the West upon its release.  This is likely because the early- to mid-1980s were some of the darkest days of the Cold War.  It was recommended by various critics as a nominee for Best Foreign Language film at the Oscars, but it was snubbed by the famously snide Academy.

In numerous (and growing) quarters, it is now considered the best and most important war movie ever made.

There is no escape from the relentless horror of this movie.

It Ain't Stephen Spielberg

The thing about most war movies is there's actually something pleasant about them.

Tom Hanks and a bunch of other heroic famous guys rush the beach on D-Day, they get shot at, and a whole lot of extras get eviscerated.  

It's all very exciting, and somehow the plucky Yanks find their way, and mow down the evil Germans, and the good guys don't summarily execute anyone or commit atrocities, but they win anyway, and Matt Damon survives to grow old and build a better lightbulb, and is surrounded by his good-looking teenage granddaughters, who love him but can't possibly understand what he's weeping about.

Yeah, that isn't bad.  It's okay. 

But you see, Tom Hanks and Matt Damon (and Martin Sheen, and Charlie Sheen, and Sean Penn, and John Wayne, and whoever all else) are combatants.  They are men - strong, trained to fight, and carrying weapons.  

Come and See isn't about them. 

Come and See is about the helpless civilians in areas overrun by the enemy.  As we know (but don't often like to contemplate), the invading enemy all too often has no compunctions about committing atrocities. 

And the Nazis of World War Two were the poster children for having no compunctions about committing atrocities.  

Flyora goes from young to very, very old, in two nonstop hours of deteriorating circumstances.

A Little History is in Order

In America, we don't hear a lot about the Eastern Front in the European Theater of World War Two.  One obvious reason for this is there were few, if any, Americans on the Eastern Front.

Another, slightly less obvious reason for this is the Soviet people were the heroes of the Eastern Front, and for a long time it was more or less illegal in America to say anything remotely positive about the Soviet Union.

So here's the quick history.  In June of 1941, roughly 18 months into the war, Nazi Germany (under Adolf Hitler) suddenly invaded the Soviet Union, a country with whom they supposedly had a non-aggression pact.  The Soviet Red Army, having only recently emerged from the 19th Century, were quickly driven back, deep into Soviet territory.  

The Eastern Front became the largest, most brutal war in human history (larger in scale than the rest of World War Two combined), and one of the worst series of events that has ever occurred (the Black Death of the mid-1300s may or may not have been worse).  

The public policy of Germany at that time was known as Lebensraum, which in German means "living space."  The plan was that the "master race" Germans would seize the lands and natural resources of the Slavic "subhumans," so that ordinary Germans could spread out and have a little more elbow room.  

To make this a reality, the subhumans had to be removed from the picture.  So the Germans embarked on a program of genocide in the territories they conquered.  

To the chagrin of the Nazis, the subhumans (mostly men, but a surprising number of women as well) organized themselves into guerrilla fighting units known as Partisans.  The Soviet and other Partisans of Eastern Europe were instrumental in the Soviet Union's eventual total victory over Germany.

The problem for non-fighting civilians (such as most women, children, the infirm, and the elderly) was that as the Partisans became more effective, the Nazis unleashed ever more psychotic, insane, and viciously sadistic military units on the helpless local populations.

Deranged Waffen SS soldier explaining to gathered Slavic subhumans that they have no right to exist.

Bad.  Horribly Bad.

Come and See is the last film by the Soviet director Elem Klimov.  The title is a phrase taken from Chapter 6 of The Book of Revelation:

"I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, 'Come and see!'  And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him."

The story takes place in the Soviet republic of Belarus, which was overrun by the Nazis in 1941.  The script was co-written by Ales Adamovich, who fought as a teenage Partisan in Belarus, and who compiled a book of interviews with people who had survived the atrocities there.

In the movie, it is 1943.  A 13-year-old boy, Flyora, wants to leave his home village and join the Partisans.  To be accepted, he must bring his own rifle.  So he digs in the area around the village, looking for the hidden weapons he knows are there.

That's when we come across him.

He finds the rifle he is looking for.  His mother is resistant to him leaving, to put it mildly.  His father is gone, and she will be left alone with his two small sisters.

Against her wishes, he joins the Partisans, setting off a chain of disasters so complete that there is no relief from it.  In fact, as the movie zooms along, the situation goes from bleak, to dark, to black, to JUST SAY NO.

I'm not even going to tell you what's going on in this scene, or what happened just prior to this.  Or what happens next.

Here's the Movie

In case you want to watch it, I won't reveal any spoilers. 

Suffice to say that once you are a few minutes in, it is almost impossible to look away.  

The film is a mix of hyper-realism, with occasional surrealistic moments.  The Germans are at first an unseen presence, a sort of mysterious force approaching.  Then they begin to emerge out of the mists, like ghosts.  When you finally look upon them, you wish you hadn't. 

The film does end on what might be construed as a hopeful note - after all, in real life, the Partisans did persevere and the Red Army did eventually crush the Nazis.

However, what Come and See forces us to look at is how elemental, and not that unusual the events depicted in the movie are. 

Behavior like this is endemic to the human race.  It happens from time to time.  Groups of people become all-too-eager to see other groups of people subjugated, and then exterminated.  

The Germans did it in World War Two.  A lot.  

So did the Japanese.  A lot. 

The Turks did it to the Armenians in World War One, though they prefer not to talk about that.

The new Americans did it to the Native Americans.

The English did it to the Irish in the late 1840s and early 1850s.

The Russians did it to the Ukrainians in the 1930s.

The Khmer Rouge did it to ordinary Cambodians in the 1970s.

The Hutus did it to the Tutsis in 1994.

The fucking Bantus kill and eat Pygmies.  For real.

Eh.  It's hard to be human, once you begin to see what we really are, instead of what we pretend to be.

The best we can do in the face of this realization is try to be humble, and caring, and to treat our fellow humans with compassion, to whatever extent we can.

In the meantime, here's the movie.  It's in Belarusian, and Russian, and German, with English subtitles.  

They are going to force you to watch it on Youtube.  That's okay.  There are ads every 25 minutes or so.  They are ridiculous of course, and that could be annoying.  For me, it was a welcome break:

"Oh, right.  I don't live in Belarus in 1943.  I live in a silly modern world where clever young sharpies sell get rich quick schemes, and where it has suddenly become a thing to groom your testicles.  Whew!  Thank God."  

Words of Wisdom

I understood that this would be a very brutal film and that it was unlikely that people would be able to watch it.  I told this to my screenplay coauthor, the writer Ales Adamovich.  But he replied: "Let them not watch it, then.  This is something we must leave after us.  As evidence of war, and as a plea for peace."

- Elem Klimov

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  1. * no spoilers in this comment *
    Okay..., it took me several sittings but I just finished it. A very tough but important film to watch. Definitely captures the horrors of war minus the Hollywood touch. Much of this looks like documentary footage. Here is a quote from an interview with the director, Elem Klimov:
    "The events with the people, the peasants, actually happened as shown in the film. Come and See doesn't have any professional actors. Even the language spoken in the film is Belarusian. What was important was that all the events depicted in the film really did happen in Belarus." And as the film indicates, these kind of atrocities happened HUNDREDS of times during the war--just in Belarus.
    Thank you, Mr. Optimist, for this recommendation.
    But now I can relax and go back to watching some tripe, such as naked people eating insects.

    1. Yes. Brutal film. Definitely one to watch. I eat bugs. And I'm naked sometimes. Thanks.

      Here's a weird one. Probably not worth a whole blog post. Won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2004 Sundance Festival. Cost $7,000 to make. PRIMER.

      Two start-up tech guys try to invent a gravity-limiting machine, which they do, in fact, do. But quite by accident, it's also a time machine. Strangeness ensues.

      Only 77 minutes long, which is a steal.

      Watch PRIMER

    2. I watched Primer. My head hurts. Interesting film but SOOOooo confusing. Check out these "Movie Character Interactions" charts. Primer is on the bottom-right.

    3. Yeah, that's PRIMER, pretty much. Loop de loops. Here's a little bit of a more simplistic rendering of it. I mean, once the one guy takes his past self prisoner, it becomes clear that a quantum physics thing is happening, where a person can go into the machine, become a double in the past, then NOT go into the machine when the time comes, and both copies of himself will still exist. So this map isn't entirely accurate, but...

      Simplistic PRIMER map