To call Elem Klimov’s final film Come and See one of the finest of war films would not be enough in order to describe what the experience of watching it would feel like. There has never been a more raw, more horrifying depiction of pure evil onscreen, one that ever made you feel like you were a part of everything that unfolded as the war kept going. Make no mistake, this is not an easy film to watch, but you’ll never come out from watching Come and See feeling like you’re the same person again – if anything it stays with you the moment it finishes, and provides one of the most visceral of any cinematic experiences that you can imagine.
Set in Belarusia during World War II, Come and See tells the story of a teenaged boy named Flyora (Alexei Kravchenko), who discovers a rifle after digging it up despite being advised against doing so to avoid attracting the attention of German soldiers. Soon afterwards, he is conscripted to join the Belarusian resistance movement against his family’s wishes, which only results in an incredibly traumatizing experience for the young boy. Yet the more we come to witness the war from his own eyes, gone is the feeling of heroism that was often touted as a result of most media turning the fantasy of becoming a “war hero” into the hellish landscape it really is.
It would be worth noting that Elem Klimov was the widowed husband of Larisa Shepitko, whose two feature films Wings and The Ascent have also provided incredibly visceral portrayals of the events that took place on the battlefield. Many traces of Shepitko’s influence can be found in how Klimov creates the sense of immediacy coming forth in Come and See, whether it be through the hyper-realistic or even surreal imagery—creating a more hallucinatory, traumatized point of view of the events as they unfold during the war, experienced by a young boy. It helps to create a more horrifying picture of what unfolds, but you also never feel like you can come out the same person after experiencing the horrors of what went on at the battlefields.
Klimov isn’t setting to tell a story of what happens while at war, but as time goes by and Flyora’s view of the world he once knew is completely shaken up, Come and See slowly becomes all the more disorienting. As the most horrible sights slowly build up, from Flyora’s return to his home village to the destruction of a church topped with the screaming of children and women who have been led to their deaths, what hope one would imagine from the concept of being a hero of the war is immediately shattered, even leaving you thinking that these horrible acts of pure evil are still committed today—maybe not nearly as well-known but to see the distinct lack of humanity on display only makes you feel queasy, and best captures what Klimov has been best at.
Most of this is accomplished through a completely subjective point of view, as highlighted by its cinematography. There has never been quite a technical accomplishment much like Come and See, if one were to talk about the erratic camera movements as they capture what it felt like to see these horrible sights first hand but also the sound design, as highlighted in the burning of the church, and most importantly, the way in which Klimov challenges the nationalistic notion of coming back as a “war hero.” Even if it were up to one person to put an end to all these horrible acts of violence, they still remain ingrained in one’s head especially as someone who participated in these acts, and they will forever remain a burden to one’s mind.
It is no understatement to say that Come and See is a difficult film to come back to, but what best captures the power of what turned to be Elem Kimov’s final film is best described by how taxing an experience this was for the Soviet filmmaker. But as daunting as it may be to even approach Come and See after as much as one viewing, it only feels every bit as urgent within the coming years as it did upon its release. Gone is the fleeting optimism of the romanticized ideals of being a hero of war in Elem Klimov’s film, but the thought that humanity was ever capable of committing such horrible acts against one another. To that point, we ask ourselves what is gained from fighting a pointless war? The feeling of coming out from Come and See is similar to that of experiencing the apocalypse, and somehow surviving, with the guilt riding down your back of the unlucky ones who died before yourself.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Janus Films.
Directed by Elem Klimov
Screenplay by Elem Klimov, Ales Adamovich, from the novel I Am from the Fiery Village by Adamovich, Janka Bryl, Vladimir Kolesnik
Starring Alexei Kravchenko, Olga Mironova
Release Date: July 9, 1985
Running Time: 142 minutes