A few months ago I watched The Ascent – an exceptional Soviet film about Russian partisan forces in World War Two. It was an incredibly moving film that had an almost mystical feel to it. I mention this for two reasons, firstly Come and See was directed by the husband of Larisa Sheptiko (the director of The Ascent), which makes for an interesting comparison. Secondly, where The Ascent went for a quiet tension, Come and See is an undeniable hellscape of Nazi war crimes.
During the entire two and a half hours of Come and See we view the merciless annihilation of rural Belarus through the eyes of a 14 year old boy. It cannot be understated just what an amazing performance is given by young Aleksei Kravchenko. His expressions of distress and terror are beyond what you would expect from a child actor… which is why you can see this boy physically age as the film progresses to the point that, when he went back to school, he had started to go grey.
In the same way that it is difficult to overstate the excellence of Kravchenko’s performance, so too it is difficult to overstate how harrowing this is for a World War Two film. What makes it all the worse is knowing that not only did these village massacres occur in Belarus (with one scene showing an entire village being shepherded into a church, before being set on fire), but just how many of these massacres actually occurred.
What’s impressive about all this tension and horror is that you rarely see someone actually being killed. We see the aftermath, but pretty much all the violence (other than punching and kicking) happens off screen. It goes that show that, as long as you are skilled enough to create the right atmosphere, you can mine enough tension from dread.
When I look back on Darkest Hour in comparison to a movie like Come and See – there really is no contest when it comes to the better World War Two film. I know that there is a world of difference between the type of film, but there is a central issue with how both countries choose to deal with the subject matter. For the most part, it is probably better if films set in this era is best left to the continent.