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10 Reasons Why “Come and See” Is The Best War Movie Ever Made

05 September 2014 | Features, Reviews | by Jason Turer

come and see

Released in 1985 to critical acclaim, Elem Klimov’s “Come and See” is not an underrated film – those who see it are quick to recognize its excellence. It is, however, a criminally underseen one, most likely because of where and when it was made (more on that later).

Additionally, it has no big stars or familiar faces to speak of, and no sweeping score characteristic of your typical Hollywood spectacle. It is long, but not prohibitively so (at 142 minutes, it’s certainly shorter than other respected films in the genre, and even many of today’s blockbusters). It’s an undeniably well-made movie, featuring unmistakably high production values, but not a particularly beautiful one (not that it was trying to be).

The plot is simple: In 1943, a young teenage boy in the Socialist Soviet Republic of Byelorussia (modern-day Belarus) sets out to join the partisans in the fight against the Nazis during the occupation. His harrowing but sadly all-too plausible experiences make up the rest of the film, resulting in one of the most shocking and powerful chronicles of war and its effects in all of cinema.

Relentlessly grim, deeply disturbing, and made unquestionably more dread-inducing by the fact that almost everything depicted really happened (and then some), it is a depressing but necessary reminder of one of the darkest chapters in human history. That it also manages to be both poetic and realistic is a supreme accomplishment on the part of the director.

Not all movies are meant to be enjoyable, and some fall more obviously into the category of art than entertainment. Though no one could possible describe the experience of watching “Come and See” as a fun time, the film is nonetheless a masterpiece, worthy of consideration as not just the best war movie ever made, but also one of the greatest films ever made PERIOD. The following are just ten of the reasons why its legacy should be so honored:

 

1. A Sympathetic Protagonist

come and see child

One of the major keys to the film’s success is its main character. The entire story is told from the perspective of Florya, an idealistic peasant eager to join the resistance. Played by newcomer Aleksei Kravchenko, who was only fourteen when the film was made, Florya becomes the surrogate witness through which the audience experiences the brutality of war.

By casting such a young actor, Klimov sets up one of the basic themes of the film: the death of innocence. While hardly a unique message for a war movie, the striking and totally believable transformation Florya undergoes over the course of the film is haunting and unforgettable. We watch as the boy literally ages before our eyes, gaining wrinkles and losing hair color as he faces one trauma after another.

It’s impossible to be unaffected by watching the ongoing emotional scarring of a person, especially one so young, and Kravchenko lives up the task by delivering a completely convincing performance. By the film’s end, he’s been rendered nearly mute by all he’s seen – a reaction that audiences will easily understand, if not briefly share.

 

2. Surrealism

The stylistic choices Klimov makes here separates the film from any other in the genre, none more so than his use of surrealism. The opening scene finds Florya and another boy digging in a sandy field. The reason isn’t immediately clear, though we soon find out they’re looking for rifles accompanying the bodies of soldiers buried in shallow graves. The strangeness of the scene establishes the consistently ominous and nightmarish tone that Klimov maintains for the duration of the film. The effect is extremely unsettling.

Though there are multiple examples of unexpected and upsetting details throughout, such as the moment early on when Florya unintentionally tramples on a nest full of bird eggs, the most jarring surrealistic moments are reserved for the film’s most horrifying sequence, in which an entire village is massacred by the Nazis. Amidst the chaos, an SS officer is seen playing with his pet loris (a rare and exotic primate).

A beautiful German woman listens to opera music and eats lobster in her car while the village burns around her (perhaps a visual mockery of supposed Aryan “civility”). It’s the bizarre touches like these that help burn the scene into our memory, as if showing just general mayhem would be too basic. What Klimov is after is something more impressionistic, punctuating the atrocities with images so weird and inexplicable that they almost come off as obscene, given their context.

Furthering that point, after herding the villagers into a wooden church and setting it on fire with grenades and flamethrowers, the Nazis indiscriminately open fire on the building, an action that’s not just overkill, but unnecessary to the point of absurdity. The spontaneous self-congratulatory applause they give themselves is the chilling topper to the carnage.

Though the film stays inherently committed to its realistic portrayal of the war, the occasional artistic flourishes Klimov includes work without robbing the film of its verisimilitude. Still, the frequency of these odd occurrences make it seem as though Klimov decided to shoot his war movie as if it were a horror movie, which brings us to the next point…

 

3. Music and Sound Design

If the strong imagery is the most memorable aspect of this movie, then its soundtrack comes in at a close second. Instead of a traditional score, a cacophonous mix of animal noises, droning hums, occasional excerpts of classical music, and of course, the expected terrible sounds of war are used.

This unorthodox approach succeeds magnificently in emphasizing the intensity onscreen, such as in the practically unbearable scene in which Florya and a young girl he’s befriended named Glasha wade across a quicksand-like bog in their search for fellow survivors.

Filmed in long takes that look as uncomfortable to have filmed as they are to watch, the audio in the scene consists mostly of unseen bird chirps and a low-frequency whir. The sudden appearance of waltz-like classical music creates a juxtaposition that puts the scene somewhere on the border between satirical and tragic.

Much of the infamous massacre scene goes un-scored, the sounds of screaming villagers, barking dogs, gunfire, and Nazi laughter being more than sufficient to supplement the visuals. Klimov knows well when to let the images speak for themselves, and also when silence is appropriate. In an early scene of a German bombing raid, Florya temporarily goes deaf. The audio takes his subjective point of view, resulting in us hearing the same ringing noise (the same technique was used years later in “Saving Private Ryan”).

Finally, the film’s last scene fittingly uses one of the saddest and most mournful pieces of music ever written: the Lacrimosa from Mozart’s Requiem. The piece has been used in countless other movies and TV shows, but Klimov absolutely earns the right to employ it here, given all that’s preceded it.

 

4. Realism

come and see importance

Despite the use of surrealism, the film as a whole remains thoroughly grounded in reality. Much of the realism is due to specific decisions made by the director, some of which sound questionable at best in retrospect.

In addition to filming on location in Belarus, in chronological order, and with dialogue spoken in authentic Belarusian, Russian, and German, live ammunition was used in several scenes instead of blanks, sometimes missing the actors by mere inches. Many of the uniforms seen in the film are not costumes, but genuine originals from the war itself. Most impressively, no professional trained actors were used, making the compelling performances and Klimov’s directing of them all the more praiseworthy.

By keeping the action restricted to Florya’s point of view, Klimov gives us a child soldier’s eye view of the destruction, with no flashbacks or outside cutaways to offer relief. And even though elements such as subjective sound and non-diegetic music are utilized, the uncompromising you-are-there feel of the film is never abandoned.

 

5. Historical Importance

come-and-see

If nothing else, “Come and See” offers a sobering history lesson, illuminating one of the lesser known episodes of World War II: the Nazi occupation of Belarus. While most films about the Nazi treatment of civilians understandably focus on what they did to the Jews – the minority that was indisputably singled out to receive the worst of the Nazi’s policies, culminating in the genocidal slaughter that was the Holocaust – there were many other religious, ethnic, and regional groups that were also selected for extermination.

In a 1986 interview, Klimov stated that the film was intended to be anti-war and anti-fascist, but not anti-German. That said, the movie’s narrow focus on the plainly despicable actions undertaken by the Nazis in the BSSR leaves little room for debate that, though the film aims to illustrate the horrors of war in general and fascism in particular, its main target is quite specific. The original title was “Kill Hitler,” and its change was thankfully the only one Klimov had to make from his vision.

From the opening scene, the film announces without ambiguity the nature and identity of the enemy. As the boys dig for weapons, they spot a German plane. The unmistakable voice of Adolf Hitler then fills the soundtrack, transitioning into the infamous first verse of the Deutschlandlied (the national anthem of the Third Reich) as the opening credits begin.

Later, Florya’s displaced fellow villagers, perhaps seeking a tangible object on which they can unload their collective outrage, construct a grotesque effigy of the Nazi leader. And of course, there’s the use of Nazi footage in the brilliant climax of the film (to be discussed later).

Unlike in some other war movies, the enemy is far from faceless here – the notorious massacre scene at the end of the film features plenty of German dialogue and swastikas galore. By being explicit about who the film is about, Klimov is better able to make his point about war in general (as any true artist knows, tragedy is almost always more moving when it focuses on the small to make a point about the large, rather than trying to be too thorough and comprehensive).

And just to make sure there’s no doubt about why this particular army of murderous soldiers commits the actions it does in the film (as if it could hypothetically be some hideous anomaly), the Obersturmführer bluntly evokes Nazi ideology (even after being captured, no less), confidently stating that the Byelorussian partisans are members of an inferior race that has no right to exist. This important bit of dialogue proves that his and his men’s actions directly stem from official orders.

Some may wonder if it’s really necessary to continue making films showing just how bad the Nazis were, while others may take offense at the very question. A more intriguing thought would be whether or not the film would still be great if it weren’t based on true events, though reality may render this a moot point.

Of course, it would still indeed be exceptional, but probably not as disquieting, most likely. That it’s unabashedly political and anti-Nazi is of course not controversial, as the text and images at the end of the film give us a stark reminder of why films like this need to be made.

 

 

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  • Aaron Dean

    The fact that more people have not seen this makes me want to not live in this world any longer. To even put things like Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan – even Platoon, and Full Metal Jacket – next this work is to insult the loss of life it depicts.

    • Gabriel Stan

      Platoon and Full Metalk Jacket are masterpieces, you twat !

      • Aaron Dean

        I didn’t say they weren’t… but they aren’t this film, and they don’t compare.

        • Gabriel Stan

          You compare apples with oranges.

          • José Abel Salazar Lizárraga

            No, he is comparing the Tree of Life with beautiful apples and oranges. That’s it.

          • Gabriel Stan

            Just because this movie has weird frames and weird acting it doesn’t make it a good war movie. It’s just a propaganda/art movie done by the Soviets. Paint Nazies as animals and Russians as angels. A good war movie with a strong message would be All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) or The Thin Red Line (1998).

          • José Abel Salazar Lizárraga

            Weird for you. Klimov never made a movie after this. And if it was propaganda shame on him as an artist. No, the Nazis weren’t animals, they were just human beings, that’s all. I don’t think Russians are depicted as angels here. Not for me.

          • Ernesto Perez

            you just went full retard.

          • Gabriel Stan

            *Says the pseudo-intellectual*

          • Susan McCormick

            The Thin Red Line sucked.

          • Gabriel Stan

            Well done, you cunt ! You made a logic and well constructed argument.

          • Ales

            I would argue that this film isn’t just some blunt piece of soviet propaganda.Why? Because it hasn’t been approved by the the party for 7 years before it has finally been made in 1985 and at one point its production has been halted. After the end of the WWII Ales Adamovich (the scenarist) and another prominent belarusian writer made a tour of the republic in order to gather a collection of village stories about Belarus during german occupation which later was published as book “I come from the burning village”, much of what is seen in the movie comes from those first hand experiences of peasants. Of course it is worth mentioning that what NKVD or some partisans did to the villages that were on German side was equally horrible.

            During the war Belarus was divided in 3 parts, one part had at one point a Belarusian nationalistic governement under supervision of Wilhem Kube, the middle under German military control and the far east under soviet. And as far as history is concerned the part under German military control was as brutal as the film shows. For example, did you know that in Nawahrudak out of 10 000 jews who lived there only 550 survived nazi’s occupation? Surely you know that nazi’s viewed slavic as an inferior race. So you can imagine how the belarusians were treated during the war, most of which were peasants in 1940’s BSSR. Some village were burnt two or three times, 209 of 270 belarusin cities were anihilated and as it shows in the credits of the film 600 were annihilated with all the villagers…

            Now Platoon and Full Metal Jacket ARE masterpieces! But what makes Come and See particular is the fact that Klimov and Adamovich had personal experience with the subject matter. For example, Klimov as a kid was leaving Stalingrad with his mother at night while the whole city was in roaring fire. Also one interesting point is that the main actor almost went insane after the barn scene. And during that scene, Klimov would in between the takes read parts of “I come from the burning village”.

    • Susan McCormick

      This movie is probably the best war movie period.

  • Bob Bobbs

    Well-written review of a great film.

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  • Noah Garner

    this and apocalypse now are definitely the best

  • Nejc Kovač

    AGREE!!! GREAT MOVIE!

  • Miguel Valdez-Lopez

    Nice review.

  • Atul Mongia

    Personally, I agree it is the best war film ever made.

  • kaj

    It´s an important movie, one movie that in my opinion also should get the same notice is director Francesco Rosi and the movie Many Wars ago….

  • El Mariachi

    This is a great movie no doubt.
    But when making a list and ranking, I doubt we can declare a particular movie as the greatest. Because it’s almost an objective thing. Personally, I feel “Hotaru No Haka” aka Graves of the fireflies is a movie that not just shows the horror of war but also the aftermath and how it affects the average person.

    The article is very well written and is engaging much. I hope more people watch “Come and See”.

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  • Maximo Cunillera

    Great movie, but its difficult to choose just one film on any genre

  • JPVan

    I think this movie is overrated and always cringe when I see “the best” or “the greatest” in any headline. To each his own and there are several Russian produced WWII films I preferred while my favorite Russian Front movie was Cross of Iron.

  • Fredrik Johansen

    Is is available on Bluray or HD-streaming anywhere?

  • Miltos Ieremiadis

    i think what u really ment is “the best anti-war movie”…well i ll watch it definitely but my humble opinion is that “ivan’s childhood” is the one…again i repeat my personal humble opinion

  • Gabriel Stan

    *says the cunt who didn’t even brought an argument to this discussion.*

  • Gabriel Stan

    Making a propaganda film isn’t art, retard ! It’s propaganda !

    • Sorin Camner

      Dragul meu. Spune asta si despre Potemkin!