“And when he (the Lamb of God) 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 the sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.” Revelation 6:7-8 (KJV)
Although some may dismiss these verses as improperly applied words never directly referenced in the film, I have to believe Elem Klimov had them in mind when he directed Come and See (1985), one of the most devastating works of art I’ve ever experienced in any format. To watch it, you might want to take a day off from work and have your favorite comedy or comfort movie nearby for afterwards. I’m totally serious. Yet anyone undertaking the film will soon realize that all the Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, or works from any other comedy masters will never erase the power of this film. Unless you do not possess a heart, Come and See will leave you shattered.
The time is 1943. Hitler’s forces are invading the Soviet Republic of Byelorussia (now known as Belarus, a sovereign independent country), a land that lost nearly a third of its population in WWII. Nearly all of the film is seen from the point of view of a boy named Florya (Aleksey Kravchenko), who can’t wait to join the Soviet resistance against the Nazis. In doing so, he will be abandoning his mother and two young twin sisters. (His father’s whereabouts are never mentioned.) When two older resistance soldiers come to take Florya to join them, the boy’s mind is filled with dreams of heroic adventures, protecting his family and homeland from the invading reprobates.
In no time at all, Florya is completely taken in by the resistance fighters, eager to serve with them in any capacity, but things don’t work out so well. He is first ordered to give his boots to another soldier, then to remain behind to guard the camp while the remaining soldiers march off to the conflict. His instructions are to shoot anyone who doesn’t know the password, but one night a soldier approaches from a distance and Florya lowers his rifle. The soldier scolds Florya for allowing him to enter without the password. “But I recognized you,” Florya responds. Recognition plays a key role in Come and See with this scene preparing us – and Florya – for some terrifying moments to come.
Florya soon meets Glasha (Olga Mironova), a girl who’s probably his own age, but perhaps a bit older. Both are young and idealistic with hopes and dreams of the future, things that we suspect will never come to pass. When Florya takes Glasha to his village home, he’s confused to find it unoccupied. In one of the few times we’re not in Florya’s point of view, we see what Glasha sees and Florya doesn’t: everyone in his village, including his family, has been butchered.
From this relatively early point in the film, the horrors of war are clearly in place. Yet while Come and See certainly includes violence, its carnage doesn’t come from graphic special effects, but rather from the accumulation of evil and how it pummels its characters (and us) emotionally. In his review of the film, Roger Ebert comments, “I have rarely seen a film more ruthless in its depiction of human evil.”
The film’s most unforgettable scene involves the capture of a large group of local citizens by the Nazis. As soon as they lock the villagers inside an empty barn, we know the Nazis are going to burn it down with the villagers trapped inside. We also know that the screams and cries from inside the barn will be either unheard or laughed at by the Nazis. It is the indifference to evil as much as the evil itself that haunts us. Florya manages to escape, not because he’s the film’s protagonist, but because he owns no power and is considered no threat. Yet later in the film, in attempting to justify their actions, one of the Nazi officers says that children must be eliminated, otherwise they will one day rise up to challenge them. (I don’t like to bring current politics into my reviews of older films, but I couldn’t help thinking of the justified protests of young students in response to so many school shootings. Even the Nazis understood young people’s unquenchable resistance to injustice.)
Like Florya, some of the villagers are allowed to live. In another harrowing scene, we see a girl (who may be Glasha) pushed onto the back of a moving truck carrying German soldiers. The girl is fighting with everything she has to escape, but there are too many people on the ground pushing her from behind and too many in the truck gleefully pulling her in. I won’t even allow my mind to think what will happen to her once she’s pulled inside that truck.
In the space of only two days, Florya’s appearance changes from that of a teenager to a man in middle age. Some things are simply too horrifying to see, whether they unfold in two days or two generations. Without giving away spoilers, Florya does recognize the enemy near the end of the film and both he and Klimov give us something totally unexpected. I’m not sure this scene completely works. It could inspire hope or it could be just as cruel as what has come before, but there’s no disputing its power.
When we watch war movies like Dunkirk, Saving Private Ryan, Platoon, and many others, we’re aware that they’re scripted. Don’t get me wrong, those are all fine films, and although they’re all different from one another, we understand that they’re scripted stories. Come and See doesn’t feel scripted. It feels like we’re watching something horrific unfolding, if not in real time, then much like a documentary or news footage. In many scenes, we are observers of a nightmare as the action plays out through a wide camera lens, thankful that close-ups are (usually) not a part of the hellish experience. Several long takes go on well beyond the level of our comfort zones, outlasting the normal end of the scene. That’s what war does.
After a career as a film director that began in 1959, Elem Klimov never directed another film after Come and See. He stated in 2000, “I’ve lost interest in making films. Everything that was possible I felt I had already done.” I’ve seen some pretty horrific war movies but I’ve never experienced emotional devastation quite like what I felt watching Come and See. I don’t say this about many films, but it is clearly a masterpiece. I doubt I’ll ever forget it. Come and See is currently playing on FilmStruck.
Photos: DVD Beaver, Existentialism is a Film, Head’s Film and Book Review