Come and See

Idi i Smotri | Russia | 1985 | Directed by Elem Klimov

Logline: In Nazi-occupied Russia peasant boy joins a group of partisan soldiers as they travel across a war-ravaged countryside. 

“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.” --- Chapter 6, The Book of Revelation (The Apocalypse of St John the Divine), The New Testament

Without a doubt the most devastating and profoundly anti-war movie ever made, Elem Klimov’s semi-autobiographical account of a teenage boy unwillingly thrust into the atrocities of war in WWII Byelorussia, fighting for a hopelessly unequipped resistance movement against the ruthless Nazi fascist forces, witnessing scenes of abject horror, as he slowly loses his innocence, inexorably loses his mind, his face that of a frightened old man, his soul a ruined sentinel. Come and See is pure nightmare poetry. 

Filmed in chronological order, Come and See (the literal Russian translation is Go and Look) follows adolescent Florya (Aleksey Kravchenko), a Belorussian villager, on a dark odyssey set in 1943. In the movie’s prologue he is fooling around with a young boy on the sand dunes, both pretending to be vigilant soldiers fending off the evil Germans. Florya uncovers a rifle amongst the military flotsam and jetsam, and this is the solid inspiration he needs to fulfil a staunch patriotic stance and join the Soviet partisan resistance. Later at his house with mother and two kid sisters the partisans arrive to collect him, much to the dismay of his mother who has already lost her husband. 

In a forest clearing Florya is integrated with the village comrades who have formed the small resistance, but his tattered boots result in him being left behind as a reserve. Disappointed Florya wanders off and meets Glasha (Olga Mironova), a pretty, slightly older girl, who appears touched, in love with a partisan commander. Florya and Glasha spend moments together, finding pockets of beauty and laughter amidst the trees and a light rain, but a sudden bombing destroys the brief tranquility, causing temporary deafness, and sends Florya and Glasha back to his family abode where true horror presents itself, and the two teenagers are forced to flee for their lives, through a hellish swamp, and into the midst of the terrorised survivors of the village. Florya’s interpersonal nightmare has only just begun… 

Klimov wrote the powerful story many years before it was made. Taking inspiration from a novel called Story of Khatyn by Ales Adamovich, combined with his own wartime experiences, witnessing the atrocities of the Nazis, Klimov and Adamovich penned a screenplay titled Kill Hitler. They were forced by authorities to drop the Hitler reference, even though the intent of the title was suggesting that one should kill a Hitler – demon - within you to prevent the worst. Taking their new title directly from The New Testament’s Book of Revelation, they fashioned an episodic journey of discovery, atrocity and genocide. The central character of Florya, who is in almost every scene, becomes a metaphorical vessel, the innocence that is blackened and defiled, left looking like a battered old man by story’s end. His character represents his entire people. 

Captured with astonishing realism (and shot in 1.33:1 ratio), yet infused with touches of the surreal, director Klimov’s statement is without a doubt the most disturbing war movie ever made. It is also one of the most beautiful, and how it balances this contrast of aesthetics is brilliant. There is a streak of absurdist humour and clever use of irony that winks slyly at the audience from time to time, with characters often talking directly to camera as they converse with each other. There is the moody ambient synthesizer score, and the amazing use of Steadicam (which much of the movie was filmed with), both of which add a curious modern sensibility, yet it doesn’t feels incongruous. Come and See is state of the art filmmaking, yet is entirely unpretentious, never once feeling contrived, or projecting a bombastic atmosphere. Many of the uniforms were original, and (much to the horror of Hollywood) real ammunition was used in some scenes!

Klimov doesn’t shy from the ghastliness of war; characters are blown to bloody bits, burnt beyond recognition, and in the movie’s most harrowing, and extended, sequence, an entire village is forced into a wooden barn and burned alive as the Nazi soldiers and officers gather around and admire their handiwork like its an amusing exhibition. Everything that happens on screen really occurred. Six-hundred-and-twenty-eight villages, with all their inhabitants, were burned to the ground. The holocaust boggles the mind, and tears at the very core of humanity. In an interview Klimov states how the memory gene of that appalling horror has been carried through the generations of Belorussians, making shooting Come and See often difficult in relation to the actors having to act in the war crimes that destroyed their people. 

WARNING! CONTAINS SPOILERS!

In a scene near movie’s end Florya is approached by a young woman in a daze whom he had left much earlier on with the other villagers (she looks so similar to Glasha that perhaps it is Florya's memory of her superimposed). The woman’s lips are torn, blood runs down her thighs. She had had managed to escape the burning barn with her baby only to be brutally gang raped and beaten terribly. To Florya (and to the audience) she represents the ruined beauty of love and life, as Glasha had told Florya of her desire to have children. The image is burnt onto the retina, just as the final moments of the movie are forever imprinted in the mind’s eye; Florya sees a framed photo of Hitler lying in a muddy puddle, after the resistance fighters have caught several Nazi officers trying to flee the scene of the barn burning. Florya takes his rifle and begins firing into the picture, and as he does so archival footage plays in reverse, regressing in time: corpses in the concentration camps Hitler congratulating a German boy, 1930s Nazi party congresses, images of Hitler's combat service in WWI, images of Hitler as a schoolboy; and finally a picture of the infant Adolf in his mother's lap … Florya stares into the face of the innocent face of the baby, gazes lost into the camera … The epilogue sees Florya catching up with his partisan comrades on their forest trek and the camera watches as they disappear into the dark of the woods.  

The performance of young Aleksey Kraychencko is nothing short of miraculous. But I tilt my helmet to Olga Mironova, and to the rest of the support cast, all of them delivering exceptional performances. Oleg Yanchenko’s stunning original music is integral to the movie’s intense atmosphere, and a few source pieces are used to superb effect; Strauss’s The Blue Danube, Wagner’s Tannhåuser overture, and finally, hauntingly, the Lacrimosa from Mozart’s Requiem. It is as if the whole of Come and See is a monumental musical work, a series of funereal movements made with images and sound; a strange analogy, I know. But after viewing Come and See one is never the same. It is a tenebrous masterpiece, a deeply-etched, expressionist tour-de-force. 

Elem Klimov never directed again. His work was done.