LIST CANDIDATE: COME AND SEE (1985)

Idi i Smotri

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Elem Klimov

FEATURING: Aleksey Kravechenko, Olga Mironova, Liubomiras Lauciavicius, Jüri Lumiste

PLOT: A teenage boy loses his innocence when he joins partisans fighting against the Nazis in 1943 Belarus.

Still from Come and See
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Although in a number of ways Come and See is a conventional war movie, its unremitting bleakness, violent interruptions, and dream-like passages make it transcend the mold.

COMMENTS: The difficulty in writing about this movie is apparent from the title. The sights and sounds of Come and See carry the movie, and much of the narrative is embedded in the grimy and beautiful imagery. Although the string of events is fairly straightforward, our sense of time is thrown to the wind. Everything happens over the course of a few days, but the young protagonist, at the same time, ages decades from his experiences. I have not seen a  more harrowing war movie, nor would I really care to.

Come and See tells the story of a young man who is eager to join the local partisans who are charged with causing havoc with the occupying German forces. The opening shot is of the back of an older man’s head as he looks over a sandy field. “Hey, are you crazy?” he asks an unseen character, “What do you think you’re doing? Playing a game?” Soon after issuing some nebulous warnings, we find the man’s son, Florya, with a friend. They are looking for a rifle, as that is the requirement to join the partisans. They scour filled-in trenches, hoping to find a ticket into the group. An odd shot shows young Florya seemingly making love to the ground, his arms buried deep. He makes a climatic grunt and rises, holding in his hands a muck coated SVT-40 rifle. In this quasi-sexual act, he takes his first step in becoming a man.

Much to his mother’s distress, the partisans take him in. Thus begins a recurring series of close-up faces. Time and again, Klimov relies on the actors’ faces to convey the mood of the scene; sometimes full of wonder, sometimes eager, often tragic. He juxtaposes the mother’s anguished face at the news of her son’s enlistment with the happy grin of the boy who finally feels he has grown up. He meets with the partisans and seems to be accepted, even posing in a large group photo of the squad, taken by an enthusiastic Soviet sporting a jokey Hitler-mustache.

Shortly thereafter, when he is left behind by the militia, he cannot control his tears, until he finds Glasha, a girl around his age. Together they have an innocent encounter, set in a lush wet forest. This invocation of Eden is quickly cut off by a warplane. Bombs soon drop, along with paratroopers. Eden is destroyed—to be found again in a dreamlike sequence that starts off the next morning.

After that point, Come and See allows the viewer no hope of beauty. A splinter militia group takes in Florya after he discovers his home abandoned, with most of the town’s citizens murdered and stacked behind a barn. Florya’s father appears again, now dying, his body covered with burns from having been set on fire, begging for death from the Nazis. “Didn’t I tell you not to dig?”, he intones, before passing away.

The main set piece of the movie is an extended scene involving the work of an Einsatzkommando unit. Their task, which they take on both drunkenly and effectively, is to wipe out the villages they pass during the German retreat. Up-tempo military music blares, people scream, drunk soldiers who can barely stand fire machine-gun rounds. Florya barely escapes a wooden church the people have been corralled into, and is grabbed by the officers to pose in a second photograph, an image that quite succinctly expresses the tenor of Come and See.

In this horrific jumble of cruelty are many surreal moments. A cattle theft is shown from the view point of one of the partisans. A Nazi midget acts as both jester and mascot for the SS troupe. They toy with him cruelly in one scene as it looks as if they are locking him into the wooden church, only to let him out last minute. The Sturmbannführer ostensibly in charge of the operation keeps a pet monkey on his shoulder, and protects it from the ambient chaos by resting an SS helmet over it. An attractive (presumably) German woman decked out in leather SS gear sucks on the claws of a crayfish; later she is found mutilated in a motorcycle crash. A young Russian woman (possibly Glasha from before) emerges from the back of a German truck, having been raped into a bloody, trance-like state, echoing the words of their former conversation, “…to love… to have babies…” A speech by the captured Obersturmführer sums up the German position: “Your nation doesn’t deserve to exist. Inferior races spread Communist infection. Your kind must be exterminated. And we shall carry out that mission. If not today, then tomorrow.”

The film’s finale is where things get blown out of reality. Now that partisans have regrouped, they call out for the “new kid” to come along—directed not to Florya, but a new, younger recruit. Florya lingers by a puddle with a framed portrait of Hitler, and for the first time fires his gun. Between shots, historical footage, starting with concentration camp liberation reels, plays in reverse. With each shot, Hitler’s empire gets weaker, recedes, and time leaps backwards. Florya fires and fires, back through Nazism’s rise, back through Hitler’s time in the Great War, back through photos of the future dictator as a child. When we finally see a picture of Hitler as a baby, Florya’s face once again fills the screen;  he cannot fire any more. With this gesture, he clings to the last of his humanity. Shouldering his rifle, he hurries to go off with the Partisans.

Klimov’s film defies description. The movie’s reality is worse than all the terribleness you may imagine. Come and See could reasonably claim to be the most harrowing recorded nightmares on the fringes of Russian cinema.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Klimov proves a master of a sort of unreal realism that seeks to get at events terrible beyond comprehension.”–Walter Goodman, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

One thought on “LIST CANDIDATE: COME AND SEE (1985)”

  1. Hey, my recommendation got reviewed, hurrah!

    I know it’s probably debatable whether this can really qualify as a “weird” film, but I really do think there’s an unconventional tone to its overall approach, as this review outlines.

    Though that’s not the important thing, I suppose. What’s important is the film’s baldly unpleasant treatment of the subject of World War II. Much as I love most western cinema (I mean, I grew up on it), western war films have a very unfortunate tendency to romanticise the war that this film, thanks to its East-of-the-Curtain perspective, doesn’t do at all.

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