Emotions and reactions to films about war

My first experience with a film depicting war (not counting Star Wars) was Mel’s Gibson’s 2000 film, The Patriot.  Before seeing The Patriot, I had not really been into films about or depicting war because I believed at the time that I could not stomach the violence and senseless killings of civilians.  Some people can watch a war film with a cold sense of detachment, while others (like me at first) can only watch for a few minutes before becoming disturbed by the content of the film.  After seeing The Patriot, a couple times and watching other films like Saving Private Ryan and Glory, I realized that I could watch war films without it troubling me too much.

Why does the idea of films depicting or describing war bother us so much emotionally? Is it because it reminds us of our capacity to commit cruel acts, especially on women and children?  Is it because of our fear of dying?  Is it because of our unwillingness to face the past?  Who knows?  All we do know is that sometimes films about or depicting war disturbs us emotionally.  This reaction that we sometimes feel about war and films is natural and sometimes we like to forget about all the wars we fought or the atrocities committed during these wars, but sadly if we did that, we would be forgetting our history and as George Santayana famously once said,“Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

One of the best films that depict the horrors of war in such a emotionally powerful way and illustrates the point of why we should never forget about history is Elem Klimov’s 1985 film, Come and SeeCome and See is about a boy named Florian (Florya) who witnesses the killing of civilians (including his mother and sister, though he does not see this particular action) before and after joining the Partisans (a group of Soviets who use guerrilla warfare to resist the Nazi occupation of the Soviet Union). In Come and See, as we watch the horror unfold, we see Florian age before our eyes because of the atrocities he observes and experiences.  In the beginning, we the audience see Florian wanting to fight for his homeland and is eager to leave his home to accomplish his goal.

At first everything appears to be going well for Florian, he meets up with the partisans and even earns the respect and friendship of an older girl named Glasha.  However, as the film progresses, Florian’s life begins to become nightmarish as he is subjugated to atrocities committed by the Nazis.  In one particular instance in the film, Florian and a group of villagers are all rounded up and locked in a church.  Only, those without children or able bodied are allowed to leave the church.  Florian escapes but witnesses the Nazis setting the church on fire with the villagers in it.  A mother tries to escape with her baby, but the Nazis grab her baby and throw it back into the church; she is later taken and is violated by the Nazi soldiers.  It is this atrocity and other dangerous and violent experiences that aged Florian greatly during the course of the film.

Another aspect of the film that is emotional and powerful is the use of real footage that shows Hitler’s rise to power and the crimes against humanity shown in a reverse montage of time after Florian finds an image of Hitler in a puddle.  He shoots at the picture while the reverse montage happens on screen, only stopping when an image of Hitler as a baby appears. When I first saw these images it made me depressed because if Hitler really had been killed earlier in his life, the Holocaust and perhaps World War II would never had happened.  The use of the reverse montage by Klimov reminds us of the atrocities Hitler inflicted on the world and that no matter what we do or wish; these horrible atrocities will forever remain in the human psyche.

Perhaps the most revealing aspect of Klimov’s film is the title itself.  The title for the film Come and See according to Roger Ebert comes from the Book of Revelation (Chapter 6), which states, “And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, ‘Come and see.’ 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.” As one can see, the passage from the Book of Revelation, fits the title perfectly for the film because the film is about human suffering and death.  Basically, Florian’s experiences in the film can be described as hell, which some have argued is the very definition of war.

Watching Come and See is hard to do, but it should be done because we should not forget what we humans have done to each other.  Seeing Florian change from a fourteen old boy in the film with the effective use of makeup to an older person is really disturbing and emotional for the audience.  In fact it is hard, but the point Klimov is trying to make about this film is that real people like Florian have experienced situations similar or worse than him and that we should remember events like these depicted in the film, so that we can learn from this and history does not repeat itself.  In the end, Come and See is probably one of the hardest films I ever watched and the experience did shake me little, but watching has allowed me to gain a better appreciation of life and how lucky I am in life.  After watching this film, you may too.


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