Given I referenced Come and See in my last film review it makes sense to make it the subject of this next one.
When I heard that this film was the late J. G. Ballard’s favourite war film I knew I had to see it. Ballard has long been my favourite author and I knew that his recommendation would mean that this film would be something special… I wasn’t disappointed, but I wasn’t expecting such a powerful visceral gut- punch reaction to a film like the one I got from Come and See….
The film opens with a young Byelorussian boy recovering a rifle from the site of an earlier battle, so he can take it to join the local Partisans who have a base in the forest. Leaving against his parents’ wishes he makes contact with the Partisans and their solemn but charismatic leader.
His age prevents them from taking him seriously as a fighter and much to his evident disappointment they decline to take him with them when they go on their next mission. As he is left alone in the camp he makes friends with a girl, also left behind, who is a few years older than him. They play in the forest, children having space within a respite from the horrors of the war to act as children.
This is cut short by the bombing of the camp by the Germans. With several near misses the boy is left disorientated and with a permanent ringing in his ears that renders the audio slightly garbled as the film is told from his perspective.
Making his way back to his village he arrives just as an SS unit is conducting a reprisal/ massacre of the village. For the next half hour or so the boy wanders through the scenes of near unimaginable horror as the SS men go about the atrocities that so characterised their behaviour throughout the war. Given that very little dialogue is said directly to camera and so no subtitles are present, and the audio is still distorted as a result of the effect of the bombing on the boy the part of the film has a hideous, near surreal tableaux that is more horrific than anything Bosch has come up with for the events and action perpetrated by the SS men and their locally raised auxiliaries are wholly representative of the reality of the time.
The senior SS Officer during the massacre is shown with a pet monkey, this is a very clear nod towards the SS men being from the infamous Dirlewanger Brigade led by Oskar Dirlewanger; it is with out hyperbole that he can be described as once of the nastiest and most abhorrent men in WW2. biography book link
The Partisans do return and ambush the SS men as they are leaving the destroyed village and take the boy with them, the boy is forever scarred and broken by what he has seen happen to himself, the young girl and the whole village. Finding a portrait of Hitler, the young boy shoots in repeatedly, the film at this point showing a montage of photos of Hitler’s life in reverse ending with him as a baby…
… the film concludes with the young boy, hardened and no doubt embittered as a fully-fledged Partisan.
Come and See is a difficult watch, it is hard to say you ‘enjoy’ the film in the same way you’d enjoy a normal film, but such is its power and vision you can’t help but engage with it on a deeper level. Well shot it draws you in to those terrible days and makes you confront the reality of it. A reality that is today being lost by it fading from living memory as people die, anodyne history books that fail to do justice to their subject matter and worst of all those deniers who try to say it never happened. It really deserves a wide audience in my opinion.