The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Come and See

A movie can try all it wants, but I don't think any one film can truly show the horror, brutality and downright viciousness of war. Some obviously are better than others, like Saving Private Ryan showing the sheer terror of combat or Army of Shadows illustrating the day-to-day fears and lives of the resistance fighters. One that mixes both and does it well is a Russian film, 1985's Come and See

It's 1943 in Belorussia, 14-year old Flor (Aleksey Kravchenko) wants nothing more than to join the Russian partisans fighting the invading German forces. Among the battle carnage, he finds a serviceable rifle and leaves home -- and his mother and two little sisters -- and joins with the local partisans. As the newbie in the group, he's quickly left behind when the group leaves their forest camp to attack a nearby German force. He's thrust into a war alone that is nothing like he imagined. The glory and honor of fighting for one's country? Flor is focused solely on surviving, navigating through a maze of everything hellish that war can throw his way.

A Russian-made WWII film isn't exactly in my wheelhouse when it comes to new films so when I stumbled across it on Netflix, I was more than a little curious. From director Elem Klimov, 'Come and See' is one of the most realistic, intensely uncomfortable movies I've ever sat through. It isn't a movie to be enjoyed or be entertained with. I think you're just supposed to watch it, forming your own emotions and opinions in the process. Watching Flor's journey across a war-torn countryside is like a trip through hell itself, maybe some sort of purgatory. The story is episodic, but it has the feel of a documentary with us as a viewer the fly on the wall of this WWII-situation. This is war at its most basic, most simple. There's no heroes or glory, just survivors.

What will set this apart from almost every other war movie ever made is Klimov's camera work. It doesn't feel like a polished studio production. Instead, there is a quasi-amateur, rogue director feel to it. There isn't much in the way of editing, long, uninterrupted takes dominating the 142-minute long movie. Klimov's camera is down on the ground in the mud with Flor and the partisans. It is right there alongside them and not from above or a long shot from a distance. Some of the scenes are truly remarkable to watch. The camera follows the action without any cuts, following Flor as he runs across the country with other fighters, following a German motorcycle as it enters a Belorussian town, following a small army of partisans marching through the dense forest. It's easy to take for granted these shots, but their scale is truly impressive considering how much work had to go into choreographing them.

With a Russian movie from the 1980s, there is one problem. Only three members of the cast are even listed with their characters' names. Kravchenko as Flor delivers a very real, very human performance. Klimov clearly fell in love with the 15-year old actor's face, using countless extreme close-ups of his face, an very expressive face at that. There's almost too many shots, Flor crying, Flor stunned, Flor confused. They almost look like a silent movie star. No words, just emotions, but the close-ups do get a little repetitious. In her only film ever, Olga Mironova plays Pascha, a teenage girl who Flor meets at the partisan camp and joins him as he travels following a German artillery barrage. Liubomiras Lauciavicius plays Kosach, the steely-faced partisan leader. Another key character, Flor's partisan companion through the middle portion of the movie, isn't listed in the cast.

Now while I can appreciate the intent of the movie, I can't tout it as the classic that many claim it to be. At almost two and a half hours, it is long, and those uninterrupted takes following the "action" gets tedious quickly. A plot synopsis could be written very quickly because the episodic storytelling only has three or four main set pieces. They're impressive -- no doubt about that -- but that only goes so far. I wanted to speed the movie up a bit as Flor's descent into madness becomes clearer and clearer. I hate using this as a reason because it sounds like a cop-out, but this is one slow-moving movie.

That said, there are moments here that won't be easily forgotten. Flor and Pascha crawl and drag themselves through a bog of the thickest, nastiest mud I've ever seen. A quick, startling shot from Pascha's POV shows the aftermath of a massacre at Flor's village. The German artillery barrage of the partisans' camp made me feel like ducking for cover, and Flor's terrifying night alongside a dead cow as German machine guns fire overhead (Klimov actually fired live bullets over his head) is unsettling to say the least. The most moving scene and one of the most gut-wrenching I've ever seen is a German death squad's attack on a Belorussian village Flor has stumbled into. It is a long, drawn out sequence as the Germans pick the village and the people apart slowly, herding the villagers into a church before throwing grenades in, lighting the place on fire with kerosene and then torching it with flamethrowers. The Germans meanwhile empty their guns into the building, laughing maniacally the whole time. An incredible sequence to say the least.

The ending too is more artsy but equally effective. Flor shoots a poster of Hitler half-buried in the mud as a montage of sequences run backwards across the screen. Basically, it's how WWII, Hitler and his rise to power came to be -- paratroopers jumping back into their planes, buildings falling up instead of down -- going back to 1933 and startlingly enough, back to a final shot of Adolf Hitler as an infant. What's the message? Could the lunacy and horror of WWII been avoided or changed? No, it happened, and nothing can be changed. But it doesn't help it all make any sense as millions of lives -- soldiers and civilians alike -- were lost. A flawed almost-classic, but one that needs to be experienced, whether you love or hate it.

Come and See <---trailer (1985): ***/****

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