The Most Disturbing Movie I’ve Ever Seen Isn’t A Horror Film
‘And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and See.’
Pumpkin spice lattes; amber leaves rustling and crunching; long coats and fluffy jumpers; brisk chills into longer nights and distant dawns; piles of horror movies for hunkered-down, dimly-lit nights-in with hushed gasps and hysteric shrieks: the spooky season is here.
In your perusal for a hit of the horrific and macabre, the internet will reveal catalogues of ‘best ever’, ‘scariest’ and ‘most disturbing’ lists. For the tough-stomached and stronger-willed out there, what I present to you isn’t technically a horror at all – but it may as well be, given it’s one of the most traumatic, no-less essential works of cinema you’ll ever experience.
Two Belarusian boys play in the sand, mimicking their armed, adult counterparts, digging for guns to pilfer so they can join the Soviet forces against the inhumane Nazi invaders during World War II. A curmudgeon grumbles in the distance, the kind of guy who’d burst your ball, warning them to stay away.
His well-intentioned moans fall on apathetic ears. The joy of their discovery is punctuated by the sonic whirring of a recon plane; a watchful eye soaring across the sky like a hawk over a field of mice. Such juvenile jollity is the scarcest of gifts from the outset of 1985’s Come and See, a Soviet anti-war film and the final picture from Elem Klimov.
War is two-fold by nature: appalling in reality; enthralling in entertainment. They’re often personal still, from the non-stop tracking of 1917′s soldiers, to Pvt. Pyle being psychologically maimed in Full Metal Jacket, to Willem Dafoe’s inimitable, flailed death in Platoon, but the genre doesn’t really step beyond suspense and viscera in its horrors. Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter are such rarities.
Even then, the former has napalm-scented spectacle in spades, while the latter’s knuckle-whitening scenes cast a long shadow over a more introspective look at the effects of war, not the war itself. The same cannot be said of Come and See, which views the brutalities of the Reich and ungodly landscape of war through the eyes Flyora (Aleksei Kravchenko), a young teenager conscripted into the partisan fight.
Employing natural light, ambient music and centred, direct-to-camera close-ups, every scene feels inescapable, like you’re being confronted with past atrocities without the subjective lens of ‘boom!’ and ‘pow!’ Hollywood direction. There’s no heroic charges, no slow-mo action shots, no valiant victory; even in its surrealism, there’s deep misery.
There’s a stringency to authenticity here that feels lost or even outrageous today; a bombing scene in the forest is so realistic, they may as well have rented a B52; grotesque images of butchered bodies and burnt corpses blend with real-life imagery of famished, tortured Belarusians and other victims; and even the portrayal of German forces, in their vile laughter and history of violence, doesn’t feel vilified – it’s more a portrait of war’s inhumanity, not just one Nazi’s.
In one standout scene, Flyora embarks across the countryside at night with a cow. In an instant, the twilight becomes a nightmare of bullets and peril – but the cow, steadfast and upright, isn’t even scratched. It seems to be a rare moment of reprieve, until a fresh hail of red tracers soar across the sky and hit the cow, killing it.
What you see is the actual death of an animal; its shifting, dilating eyes; its agonised groans. Death can be romanticised in fiction, but there’s no stronger counter to the poeticism behind raging against the dying of the light than an innocent animal caught in the crosshairs of something so senseless, watching the world around it flicker and fade to black.
The movie’s name isn’t a mere choice, stemming from chapter six of the Book of Revelation: ‘And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the Earth.’
The film took eight years to even be made, with Klimov fighting censorship from the Soviet authorities. It took nine months to shoot, carried out chronologically and putting the young actor, almost completely inexperienced, through ‘debilitating fatigue and hunger’, and some of the most gruelling conditions one could experience on a set.
Klimov was inspired after reading accounts of the genocide carried out against Belarusians – admittedly a segment of history not oft-taught in the west. One man had recalled his whole village being herded into a church to be burned alive by the Nazis (more specifically, the Dirlewanger Brigade).
However, just before the torches and explosives were lit, one officer gave an unimaginable offer: ‘Whoever has no children can leave.’ The man left his wife and kids behind, but in another village, nobody escaped a cruel fate; the adults were massacred by flames in a barn, while the children were ripped apart by dogs.
Klimov rightly recognised how little this was known to the world, and decided to make a movie based on the tragedy – make no mistake, the above account is somewhat directly adapted, and it’s a physical, sickening experience to endure as much as it’s an emotional one. As Roger Ebert wrote in his original review, it’s ‘one of the most devastating films ever about anything, and in it, the survivors must envy the dead’.
‘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 co-author, the writer Ales Adamovich,’ the director once said.
His co-writer 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.’
Come and See is available to watch on YouTube, and to buy on Blu-ray and DVD.
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