Drive-ins. Today Google’s opening page honors Drive-in’s 79th anniversary with a bubble-gum pink ‘Admit One’ ticket see-sawing in front of a sign that reads oogle. Last night by coincidence, I saw one of the most unforgettable films of my viewing life.
The power of film! I am still reeling from an unconventional movie made in 1985 called “Come and See.” Not since my younger brother and teenage me saw Jaws at a Galveston drive-in (double-billed with Capone) and next day had to build courage to step into the Gulf, has a film disturbed me so.
I gave the film a chance because 1) It was on the AFI top 250 list and I never heard of it, 2) The filmmaker tells the story of a young boy. Ever since Mark Twain and Harper Lee, I’m a fan of stories told from a child’s point of view about adult experiences. Come and See is a startling tell.
After a vile runt of a boy shouts invectives to his tall likable friend, the camera rolls with two excited Russian boys as they search for a forgotten battlefield. They pull up war gear and rifles deep from the sands of an overrun Russian position of the unstoppable German invasion of 1941. The runt dons found Nazi battle gear, imitating a meanness that he believes will suit the German occupiers he later meets. The eldest boy carries home a Russian rifle to join the Partisans. He charms away his little twin sisters and anxious mother to run off a meet them. The Partisans reject the hopeful lad along with their favorite pretty girl mascot. Sending the innocents home from their forest camp, the Partisans head for the front. The boy and girl share disappointment of their rejection. The next day, left alone, they enjoy an idyllic time until the look to the sky. Strange parachutes open, the SS descend, and the boy and girl face their helpless fate together.
At first it is uncomfortable to see actors and actresses emote deadpan, full frame, directly into the lens. But the director does not want you to be comfortable with the subject – and focuses us on this – one extermination of over six hundred villages in Belorussia. The focal length is short, making the actress cross-eyed, adding a sense of idiocy to her naivety of the world.
You can forgive the film for some too-long takes because the pacing sets you up for a final thirty minute run which is perhaps the most breathtaking, non-stop war scene ever filmed. The uniforms and obscure gear are entirely authentic of 1943. Some of the scenes are genius – a flash that we see with the girl that would mean everything to the boy as they are fleeing. After some courage, she utters the image in short words. The rolling camera has more juice than the napalm & helicopter Ride-of-the-Valkyries vertical assault in Apocalypse Now!, or the terror of the Omaha Beach landing in Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers. The camera rolls and floats with the endless victory of cruelty, shear madness, and horror that a few actors actually experienced in the invasion of their homeland in World War Two.
There are few predictable moments. Sometimes you get stuck in a scene with a Quentin Tarantino cruelty we must endure. At other moments there is a Fellini-esque vitality of raw moments that I have never seen in a Hollywood depiction of war. There is no stand-out villain Nazi like Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds, the entire mixed-German platoon wheels an invisible zeal of distinct beer house characters – except they are dead sober, being at war for years. The film is a marvelous intertwining of direction (Elem Klimov), writing (Ales Adamovich), and cinematography (Alexei Rodionov). The actors may have been over their heads, for how can a boy credibly act, react, and emote such witness. The unsettling soundtrack and original music complete the film’s psychological pacing. I admire a film shown from a young boy’s point of view that avoids the easy way out of first person narrative overdubs. Raw images, raw acting all the way. This is a cinema experience no US teenager will ever experience from a car seat. And that is unfortunate, not because this is one of the early heroic uses of a steadicam when they weighed 100 pounds, but because you walk away feeling in your gut the horror of something that really happened to us, the human race.