6. Imagery of War – Knowing What To Show And What Not To Show
The film is unique in not containing the traditional war movie tropes viewers are accustomed to seeing. The film has no battle scenes, no feats of heroism or self-sacrifice, no sentimentality or trite love story. Florya does befriend Glasha early in the film, but after he leaves her behind with the other survivors of his village, we never see what becomes of her.
Only later in the film do we see a young woman markedly similar to her in appearance, the blood streaming down her thighs implying a gang rape (mercifully off-screen), perhaps hinting at Glasha’s fate.
When dealing with such repulsive material, it could be easy to fall into the trap of exploitation. Luckily, Klimov has good instincts, imbuing the film with an undercurrent of horror while neither overdoing the onscreen violence nor sugarcoating it. It is indeed a violent film, without question, but the bloodshed is neither graphically portrayed nor gratuitous.
In the climactic scene in which the population of an entire village is burned alive, the conflagration is only shown from the outside – hearing everything is more than enough to turn our stomachs. There’s nothing shown here that would have made the MPAA question whether the film deserved anything more than an R rating (it is, for the record, not rated), as Klimov uses relative restraint, objectively speaking.
Witnessing the war firsthand as a child, he once said, “As a young boy, I had been in hell… Had I included everything I knew and shown the whole truth, even I could not have watched it.”
Instead, he uses the technique of visual synecdoche, composing potent tableaus to represent the broad scope of Nazi sadism and ruthlessness. Rather than show gruesome scenes of physical torture or executions framed in bloody close-ups, Klimov instead gives us moments like the one in which the Nazis save an elderly woman from the blaze, joking that she’ll be a breeder for future generations.
In another, a Nazi officer holds a pistol to Florya’s head in mock execution merely for the purpose of staging a commemorative photograph (the gut-wrenching image was used as one version of the film’s poster and video cover).
Long takes are used throughout the appalling sequence, and the score is kept to a minimum. And yet, despite the ugliness of everything onscreen, the film isn’t necessarily an over-two-hour slog through the worst of humanity – a scene early on in which Glasha dances in a sunstorm offers a brief respite. It’s a necessary instance of levity that makes the later scenes all the more frightful by contrast.
7. Self-Assured and Masterful Directing
If it’s not already apparent by now, Elem Klimov’s directing is largely the reason why the film succeeds as well as it does. It’s honestly hard to find a single flaw in it. From the skillful use of music, sound, and color, to the hyper-realistic sets, costumes, performances, to the fluid but not showy cinematography that makes heavy use of the Steadicam, virtually every choice made seems like the correct one. It is also worth mentioning here the contributions of Ales Adamovich, the co-writer.
The film is mostly inspired by his experiences during the war, as he was the same age as Florya and fought with the partisans when the Nazis occupied his country of the Byelorussian SSR. Together with Klimov’s own recollections, the two create a startling portrait of the war from the perspective of the Soviet partisans.
It is significant and worth nothing that not only was this great war movie made outside of Hollywood, but that the filmmakers behind it were themselves victims of the tragedy it depicts (Oliver Stone would make “Platoon,” his similarly personal Oscar-winning film, just a year later). “Come and See” is less well known than many other war films, of course, because it was made in the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
But was it propaganda? As explained earlier, it’s certainly anti-fascist (again, little controversy there), but that it was ultimately allowed to film, without censorship (aside from he simple title change), in order to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Soviet victory is quite telling. Yes, the partisans eventually do triumph, but at what cost? No one viewing the film could mistake it for glorifying the realities of warfare. Brutal as it is, nothing shown is really that exaggerated, unfortunately.
The film was, at least, a box office success in the USSR, though Klimov never made another. Claiming that he’d already done everything he thought possible, he made no more films in the eighteen years between the release of “Come and See” and his death in 2003. If that doesn’t say something about his confidence in the film’s power, what does?
8. A Fitting Title
It may seem relatively inconsequential, but titles matter (anyone who thinks otherwise may want to consider the disappointing box office performance of the “everything-was-great-but-the-title” case of “The Shawshank Redemption”). With this film’s moniker, nothing could have described its content better. For those not too familiar with the New Testament, the title refers to the sixth chapter of the Book of Revelation. In it, John is invited to look upon the desolation wrought by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse:
“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.”
If there were ever a war movie that depicted manmade hell-on-earth, this one is it. Referencing the final apocalyptic book of the New Testament in pop culture is nothing new, of course – after all, Francis Ford Coppola used the title “Apocalypse Now” for his Vietnam War epic, and Johnny Cash literally speaks the above verse in his song, “The Man Comes Around.” Few, however, will quarrel with the application of those menacing ancient words here.
9. Powerful and Complex Themes
When making a movie about such a tough real life subject, it’s important to have something unique to say. The message here is not so simple as debunking the notion that fighting in a war could be fun, which was likely much more commonly believed in the days before the ubiquity of mass media.
While the movie does begin with Florya excitedly volunteering to join the partisans, he realizes well before the midpoint of the film that his spirited optimism was horribly misguided. The film, of course, does not end there, its remainder giving us a searing account of war essentially from a child’s perspective. Florya never ends up killing anyone, but rather, becomes a helpless victim and witness to the savage assault on his homeland.
In addition to topics like the chaos of war and the loss of innocence, the issues of vengeance and justice are clearly of deep concern for Klimov. Following the fiery village massacre, Florya returns to find that the partisans have managed to capture some of the Germans and their Byelorussian collaborators.
There’s a short debate about what to do with the prisoners, and they’re eventually doused with petrol in preparation for some eye-for-an-eye-style punishment. Before they can be set aflame, however, the partisans with rifles shoot the bound men to death. While even the staunchest death penalty opponents will find it hard to be upset by this swift execution of confessed war criminals, the quiet aftermath gives us pause.
Justice is served, but is there any satisfaction? The damage has already been done, and the response of the villagers, while certainly understandable, makes one wonder, not just about what becoming an executioner does to a person, but about the place of justice in a world that seems utterly bereft of the concept of good and evil anymore.
10. The Climax and Ending
Even given the high quality of everything that’s come before it, the most indelible and inventive sequence in “Come and See” is the one Klimov saves for last. Following the execution of the captured Germans and their collaborators, Florya finds a framed portrait of Adolf Hitler in a mud puddle. Using his rifle for the first time in the film, he begins to shoot it, each squeeze of the trigger intercut with archival footage, moving backwards and in reverse chronology.
Real video recordings of emaciated concentration camp victims give way to the last documented footage of Hitler at the Führerbunker, to images of aerial bombardment, Nazi rallies, and eventually, still photos of Hitler as a young man, a child, and finally, a baby. The real life context provides a kinetic gut punch to the audience (as if it could forget that these events really happened), as actually seeing the horrible visuals makes it all hit home in a way that no recreation, no matter how accurate, truly could.
Like the scene with the Hitler effigy and the unused title, this scene again reminds us just how crucial the identities of the villains in this film are to the story Klimov is trying to tell. This is not only a film about war, but one specifically about the evils of Hitler and National Socialism.
A single title card at the end simply states: “The Nazis burned 628 Byelorussian villages to the ground with all their inhabitants.” That an exact figure can be tied to the butchery makes it even more unimaginable. If there were anything that could convince us that the film wasn’t just an exercise in nihilism, it’s this breathtaking fact. Knowing that the realistic but fictional village massacre scene represents a mere fraction of what actually occurred is almost beyond comprehension.
But back to the “rewinding history” montage. When the footage reaches its final image – the first known photo taken of Hitler as a baby, Florya finds himself unable to fire. The reasons are open to interpretation, though perhaps it’s the simple reminder that the man whose name is now used as basically a shorthand for evil was just that – a man, one who didn’t emerge from another universe or dimension, but who came into the world in the same unremarkable way as the rest of us.
Florya, now looking like he’s at least ten years older, stares into space as the strains of Mozart’s Requiem begin. Another boy, not so different-looking than how Florya appeared at the film’s beginning, goes off to accompany the partisans as they head out. The ending is not just a downer, but one that implies that the cycle of shattered innocence will begin again anew.
The knowledge that the Nazis are ultimately defeated gives us little comfort given what we’ve been through, which is what watching the film feels like – an ordeal. The ending is suitably harsh, though the fact that Florya doesn’t die, but survives as an eyewitness can perhaps provide some comfort. Clearly he’ll never be the same, but then again, neither will we.
The camera looks up from the marching soldiers to the trees to the sky, as if questioning the nature or even the very existence of God… and then the movie’s over. No end credits. If such a finale doesn’t leave you in either tears or stunned silence, nothing will. It’s the right ending for this story, a monumental cinematic testament to the all-encompassing awfulness of war and man’s capacity for cruelty.
Yes, there are witnesses and survivors and the bad guys are beaten for now, but the note the film ends on could never rightfully be called hopeful. Like a figurative sledgehammer to the psyche, the impact of this bleak work of art is both devastating and hauntingly beautiful. You’ll leave the theater feeling drained, but definitely grateful for having had this singular viewing experience.
Author Bio: Jason Turer received his B.A. from Cornell University with a double major in Film and English, and currently works in television production in Brooklyn. He has too many favorite films to list here, but some of his favorite directors include Kubrick, Cronenberg, Hitchcock, and Lynch.