Directed by: Elem Klimov.
Written by: Elem Klimov & Ales Adamovich based on stories by Ales Adamovich.
Starring: Aleksey Kravchenko (Florya Gaishun), Olga Mironova (Glasha), Liubomiras Lauciavicius (Kosach).
You are not likely to find many bleaker films than Elem Klimov’s Come and See. Made in Russia in 1985, the film looks at the atrocities committed on the Russian people by the Nazis during WWII – all through the eyes of boy on the cusp of being a teenager. He wants to run off and join the partisans fighting for his country – but needs a gun before he can do so. So he digs around, finds some dead bodies and a gun and then heads off to fight. His mother doesn’t want him to – she says that by him abandoning them, he is essentially dooming his whole family – including his twin sisters. He joins anyway. But on their first mission he is left behind – and wandering out in the wilderness he meets a girl only slightly older than he is. The two bond and horse around – and then head back to his family farm to check on his family. She sees something he doesn’t – and it’s just the first in a string of horrible images that the audience is forced to endure in the movie. The climax will get even worse as the Germans lock pretty much an entire town in a barn – and tell those without children that they can come out. When children try to escape, they are caught and literally thrown back inside. Eventually the Germans will set fire to the barn, and Klimov watches for minutes on end as the horror plays out.
When the movie starts out, Florya (Aleksey Kravchenko) is a wide-eyed, naïve innocent. He seems younger than he is, and some have even suggested he is in some way mentally handicapped, although I don’t think that’s the case. He has a vision in his head of being a romantic fighter for his country – and it’s a vision that seems to be shared by many of the older soldiers he takes his place alongside. We don’t really see them do much fighting – but they certainly act the part of brave fighters.
By the end of the movie, Florya has aged visibly. In the closing scenes he can do little but look on in stunned disbelief at the atrocities he sees. Some have suggested that the young actor was hypnotized for these scenes to get the right look of numb shock on his face. No matter how they got that look, it is one of the most haunting faces I have ever seen in a movie.
The film was made to commemorate the 40th Anniversary of Russia’s glorious victory over the Germans – although apparently Klimov had tried for years to get the screenplay approved by Russian authorities. There’s little doubt why that took so long – there is nothing glorious about Come and See – nothing to really get viewers into the patriotic fever that the authorities would have wanted. Instead, this is a film about man’s inhumanity to man – and the horrible cost of war. We learn at the end that what happened in this movie happened in more than 600 Byelorussian villages during the war. It makes little sense that a character like Florya would survive everything he sees – but it was based on co-writer Ales Adamovich’s own experiences.
The film has been compared to Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List – and the comparison is apt, as both films don’t look away from the horrors of the war. Spielberg’s film provides viewers with hope however – and a decent character in Oskar Schindler who was able to save some Jews lives, even if he failed to save more. Come and See offers no hope, no escape, no release. It is a powerful film in every way imaginable – and an unforgettable one.