360. COME AND SEE (1985)

Idi i smotri

“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. “–Revelation 6:7-8

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Elem Klimov

FEATURING: Aleksey Kravechenko, Olga Mironova, Liubomiras Laucevicius

PLOT: Florya, a boy of about 14, digs in a field with a playmate, hoping to find a buried rifle so he can join the Belorussian partisans fighting against occupying Nazis. He finds one, and is soon roughly whisked away by soldiers to the forest campground, leaving his sobbing mother behind. When the troops go on patrol he is left alone to guard the camp, but after the Luftwaffe bomb the area he and a female companion return to Florya’s village, where he finds the war has devastated everything his once knew.

Still from Come and See (1985)

BACKGROUND:

  • Based on a memoir of a teenage Belarussian partisan, Come and See was commissioned to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s victory over the Nazis.
  • Director Elem Klimov, still a relatively young man at 52 when he completed Come and See, chose to retire from filmmaking after its release, saying that he could not top this achievement.
  • Come and See is included in Steven Schneider’s “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die” and tied for 30th (among directors) and 154th (among critics) in “Sight and Sound”‘s 2012 Greatest Movie poll, among other accolades and honors.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: It could be the closeup of Aleksey Kravechenko’s prematurely aged face at the end. Or the S.S. skull-on-a-stick the refugees turn into an effigy of Hitler. For me, however, the most surprising and unforgettable image was the nightmare of Florya and Glasha sloshing through a muddy bog in desperation, fleeing from a horror they will never be able to outrun.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Forest Charleston; cow in a firefight; kill baby Hitler?

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Come and See’s flirtations with surrealism nudge it into the “weird” category, and then its sheer grueling intensity carries it to “must see” status. That recommendation should perhaps come with a warning that, despite containing nothing particularly graphic, this movie’s sheer aura of evil is likely to disturb you on a deep level. This is not a shock-for-shock’s-sake experience, however, but an honest, unflinching dip into the subconscious of an adolescent boy thrust into a horrific situation initially beyond his comprehension—one which he tragically comes to understand all too well.


DVD trailer for Come and See

COMMENTS: Come and See is war movie as horror movie. It is notable for its immersive intensity. It unrelentingly assaults your sensibilities, as sadistically eager to strip away your innocence as it is to trample the naïve idealism of Florya, its young protagonist. It alternates painfully realistic depictions of wartime atrocities with surreal flights of fancy. Once the bombs start falling, it is paced like the blitzkrieg; Florya is shoved from one horrific situation to another, becoming a volunteer soldier, a refugee, a combatant, a bandit, a prisoner, a witness, and an avenger, all in the space of a couple of days. The story compresses a war’s worth of horrors into about two-and-a-half hours of film, as Florya goes from an eager adolescent to a prematurely grim adult. Come and See is, at the same time, horrifically realistic and detached from reality, like a waking nightmare; probably as psychologically accurate a depiction of the stress of combat as you’ll ever witness. It also boasts one of the boldest and most effective sound designs in the history of film, with the buzz of distant bombers in the air inspiring a theme of musical drones echoed in murmuring insects, Florya’s ringing tinnitus, and tinny, hazy, distorted snatches of popular jazz and classical music, all densely layered into a disconcerting mix of ever-approaching doom punctured by bombs and gunfire.

Come and See‘s first especially strange sequence begins after Florya has been left behind by the older partisans to watch the camp. (Be advised there will be some spoilers in the following paragraphs, although the visceral, sensuous impact of the film is impossible to replicate in text.) After traveling through the woods (and ominously trodding on a nest of eggs left carelessly on the forest floor) the by solider comes upon Glasha, the partisan commander’s mistress, who is closer to Florya’s age than to her lover’s. Their first conversation quickly turns odd and existential; after introductions, she begins mocking him, then grows a mad smile and says, “Why won’t you see me? I’m right here… I exist…” Sexual tension develops, but Florya is too young, and she intimidates him. Then, the sound design takes over. Animals howl in the distance (Florya thinks they are beavers). Next comes the engine of a German plane. “Everybody’s howling today,” comments Glasha. They sight paratroopers falling through the sky. An eerie musical drone begins playing under the plane engine, accompanied by a buzzing insect, making a three-layered hum. Suddenly bombs begin falling, and Florya’s resulting tinnitus drowns out nearly everything: he cannot hear Glasha, who seems to be begging him to seek shelter, but we can still hear the sound of the plane, and a snatch of German marching music. The low-pitched musical drone returns, making another three-layered composition: drone, airplane, tinnitus. When the paratroopers land, Florya and Glasha are able to evade them by fleeing into the forest. Exhausted, they huddle together on a blanket of pine leaves. What happens next may be a hallucination; it serves as an idyllic break from the intense fear of the preceding scenes. A stork appears (mother of the eggs Florya accidentally crushed?), investigating  the scene. The strange, frightening chords continue to play, but are now accompanied by the gentle whisper of rainfall. The youngsters shake tall trees to create makeshift showers; a rainbow appears behind Glasha. They are suddenly, improbably happy together; Glasha dances the Charleston on top of a trunk, while distorted swing jazz plays under the chords which have now slowly morphed into an organ. This brief idyll is the last true breather the film will give us; the horror is coming fast, and furiously.

The next bizarre sequence occurs after Florya and Glasha return to the village, where the young soldier enters to his family’s cabin to find no one there. It only slowly dawns on him that his family’s absence is not innocent; the sight of flies crawling over his sisters’ discarded rag dolls sparks the realization that something is wrong. The drone again appears, mixed with the flies buzzing (insect noises pervade the film, suggesting decay, and the unnatural absence of humans from the habitat). The entire village is deserted, but Florya believes he knows where everyone has gone, and asks Glasha to follow him. She does, but glances behind her and sees a shocking sight (which the director spares Florya). The boy leads her to a strange marsh, with a layer of mud and floating weeds on top of waist deep water, and begins wading to the island where he believes the villagers have fled for safety. As the pair struggle through the morass, half swimming and half crawling, quickly caked in mire, the scene evokes that familiar nightmare sense of trying to flee in slow motion. The distress on their faces is likely genuine; this shoot must have been a terrible ordeal for the young actors. On the soundtrack, snatches of a distorted, ironic waltz play over the droney undertones, which slowly morph between a synthesizer and the hum of a distant bomber. The journey seems to take forever, although in reality it’s only a couple of minutes. This flight through the muck isn’t essential to the story—it would be easy to write this short anecdote out of the script—yet this dirty, senseless swamp journey is most emblematic of the frustration of the absurd situation in which these youngsters find themselves stuck.

Those two major weird sequences occur in the first half of the film. Although much of the rest of the film consists of all-too-real re-enactments of wartime atrocities, especially when the drunken Nazis finally arrive in force, there are still many odd touches to come. A Hitler effigy made from a real skull. Florya eating clover. A cow ducking for cover when the bullets fly. Sexy shellfish sucking by a female Nazi. And the shifting soundtrack that continually messes with your mind; hearing a snatch of Alpine folk yodeling amidst the chaos of a mass execution is unsettling indeed. But Come and See‘s other claim to surreal fame is its controversial ending. In the final act, we watch a horrific massacre (the event we were invited to “come and see”?) Florya somehow escapes, and reunites with his band of partisans, who have captured a few of the perpetrators. Although Florya does not kill anyone in the film—a small bit of grace afforded a character the script otherwise torments mercilessly—he does participate indirectly in revenge against the perpetrators. Ultimately, the prisoners are executed, summarily, but in a more humane way than the fate suffered by the civilians in the village. (The film cuts to documentary footage of concentration camp victims to emphasize the point; Soviets kill for self-preservation, Nazis for their irrational ideology). Florya notices something in a puddle and walks over to look at it. Some soldier calls for the “new one,” formerly the term the partisans used to identify our hero. A boy of about Florya’s height, newly arrived in a clean jacket with a trunk strapped to his back, responds. We then notice Florya’s face; he looks prematurely old, the head an adult stuck on the body of a child. He has scars and wrinkles, and his hair is graying. We see what he is looking at in the puddle: a discarded portrait of Adolph Hitler. Florya raises his rifle and, for the first time, fires it. As he fires bullet after bullet into the picture, wartime newsreel footage unspools in reverse. Buildings rise from the rubble, paratroopers levitate and pop back into their airplanes, treaties are unsigned, Nazis retreat through the streets of Paris, all scored to excerpts from Wagner. Finally the images focus on Hitler: we see him as a younger and younger man, until finally the montage stops on an image of a woman holding a toddler in her lap. The aged Florya trembles, but he cannot fire again. Did he just refuse to shoot the baby Hitler in order to stop WWII?

In much the same way that Solaris is often (if reductively) described as the Soviet answer to 2001: A Space Odyssey, Come and See is frequently seen as Russia’s version of Apocalypse Now. The realism that drifts into surrealism—as if the script itself is trying to escape the reality of the horrors it is showing—is tactically similar. I think that Come and See is an even better anti-war film than ‘s classic, because it sticks closer to its subject. And it is a film that deals with evil head-on. The Nazis, of course, are irredeemably vile, but the Belorussian partisans are not saints. Pushed to their limits, the soldiers steal from civilian farmers; Florya himself tries to take a horse and cart from a peasant at gunpoint. Perhaps Florya is a being a Communist hero here, seizing private property for the greater good; but, while the natives are clearly better than the invaders, the necessities of war drive the resistance to some morally sketchy behavior. The Soviet authorities intended to use Come and See as patriotic, anti-fascist propaganda, but the movie is so effective at depicting the nightmares of war that it comes across as an idealistic plea for pacifism, a howl of rage at the illogical evil of war. Intense though the combat scenes in American films like Saving Private Ryan may be, Come and See is more ruthless and honest, offering no sense of righteous triumph, no redemption. By the end there is only Florya’s tragic, devastated face. There is no grand moral triumph, only survival. Innocence is demolished. It is, I think, the greatest anti-war film ever made.

Giles Edwards adds: In his final film (after a string of tonally varied features), Elim Klimov leaves the world with a genuine nightmare of life in wartime. The civilians’ fear muted by day-to-day determination to live, the ethical collapse of society, and the mental anguish and disfigurement that combat exacts on its participants are on display in Come and See. The patriotic military bombast found in jingoistic movies and documentaries perhaps give a better glimpse of the bigger picture, but who is that bigger picture for? Through the lens of Florya, we see humanity coping with its worst tendencies. It is hopeful, though, in its bleak, Russian way: where there is innocence, even if we fear what is to come, we must refuse to destroy it. By sparing the infant Adolf, Florya secures a part of his better self.

The still photograph taken during the chaotic second act perfectly captures the nature of the beast that must be fought: not the Nazis, but the nihilism they represent. The movie’s title is both a challenge and an exhortation: by forcing us to bear witness to such horrors, Klimov hopes to help avert future cataclysm.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“In episodes that shift, sometimes subtly, sometimes startlingly, from down-in-the-mud realism to a dreamlike state, a boy named Florya endures the German invasion… 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)

“Directing with an angry eloquence, [Klimov] taps into that hallucinatory nether world of blood and mud and escalating madness that Francis Coppola found in ‘Apocalypse Now.'”–Rita Kemper, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)

“Elem Klimov’s searing Come And See paints a real historical event as an expressionist nightmare, full of abstract horrors and heightened surrealism.”–Scott Tobias, The A.V. Club (DVD)

IMDB LINK: Come and See (1985)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Interview with Elem Klimov – The director discusses several of his movies, so keep scrolling down for his Come and See comments

Katie Mitchell introduces Come and See | BFI – The English theater director introduces the film for the audience at a 2015 screening

Come and See Movie Review & Film Summary (1985) – Roger Ebert’s entry on the movie for his “Great Movies” series, with a lively (and sometimes ugly) discussion in the comments section

Come and See – Sight and Sound | CRISWELL | Cinema Cartography – Perceptive video analysis of the film from a YouTuber

This Soviet WWII movie used real bullets instead of blanks – Description of the movie by a military culture site

Atrocity exhibition: is Come and See Russia’s greatest ever war film? – Nathan Dunne’s article for the “Calvert Journal” gives background on the film and describes its influence on future Russian war movies

They Prized Social, Not Socialist, Reality – New York Times profile of Klimov and his director wife Larissa Shepitko (this essay is also reprinted in Kino’s Come and See DVD)

LIST CANDIDATE: COME AND SEE (1985)‘ original List Candidate review for this site

HOME VIDEO INFO: The now out-of-print Kino Video DVD (buy) inconveniently spreads the two-and-a-half hour feature over two discs. That said, switching discs in the middle allows for an intermission/bathroom break, and it’s a fine set, with many bonus features. Each disc includes a short “Chronicle” of vintage Soviet historical newsreels/propaganda films about partisans and Nazi atrocities in Belarus. Interviews with production designer Victor Petrov and lead actor Aleksey Kravechenko (now an adult) are spread across the discs, along with a 20-minute “Preface” from the director. Each disc also hosts small gallery of behind the scenes photos. A filmography of the cast and crew and an insert with an article about Elem Klimov and Larissa Shepitko (see “other links of interest) round out the collection. There are subtitles in thirteen languages (!) and options to listen to the film dubbed into Russian, English, or Arabic.

Other options for DVD purchase include a 2-DVD set from Russico (buy)—which is likely to be nearly the same as the out-of-print edition, since the features on Kino’s disc were licensed from Russico—or an all-region DVD from a Korean label, with unknown features (buy).

Mosfilm has made Come and See available for viewing on is YouTube channel. The video quality is not the best and there are commercial interruptions, but it is wonderful of them to make this underseen masterpiece of world culture available. Be sure to press the [cc] button for English subtitles. The upload is divided into two parts. Come and See on YouTube Part 1Part 2.

(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Blue Yonder,” who said it was “an unconventional one with some weird touches, especially by the standards of war films.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

4 thoughts on “360. COME AND SEE (1985)”

  1. I’ve seen a lot of war movies from different decades over the years, especially ones about World War II. It’s odd how two milestones in WWII depictions, Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, both fundamentally more graphic and both technical powerhouses, are somewhat undermined by Hollywood’s more didactic and commercial storytelling.

    It’s funny how Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan – movies that pride themselves in a realism embodied by their costumes, sets, incredible tracking shots and detailed production design, wind up seeming more UNreal than Come and See’s more arty tangents into symbolism and surrealism. Now matter how grueling the other two movies are, Hollywood’s necessity to have a true hero and a redemptive story arc that is pleasing to the audience supplants the trauma of war with something more tidy and false than Florya’s aged face at the end of the film. Even the final minutes, with the soldiers running off to fight the next battle cues us into the idea that war never stops.

    I used to work at a video store that had this movie and I always found it mesmerizing. There are few movies like this that have such a keen balance between an absolute feeling of realism and a passing dream.

    Come and See is my favorite war movie. I am constantly frustrated by the number of movies like this that are out of print. Something like this should ALWAYS be in print. It’s a public service lesson in film, art and war.

  2. Just came out of watching this for the first time and by coincidence I click here to find this, good Friday synchronicity!

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