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
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.
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.
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
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.