Accompanied by a younger friend, Belarusian teenager Florya digs through the sandy trenches that now pepper his native land. The boys scavenge for a weapon of some sort, a gun that might bolster their chances of acceptance into the partisan resistance against invading Nazi forces. Unearthing the paraphernalia of war’s remnants—helmets, radios, other discarded portents of recent death—the youth also mimic the crude language of an older individual, Florya’s uncle. In this fleeting moment of innocent enthusiasm, a preliminary indication of the innocence soon lost and irrevocably shattered, the two are excited by the possibilities of potential engagement. Though it’s not likely to diminish anyway, it’s nevertheless imperative that this early exhibition of juvenile conduct remains fixed in the mind for the duration of Come and See (Idi i smotri), Elem Klimov’s staggering 1985 anti-war epic, for all that transpires in the principally adult realm of ruination to come, most of it afflicting Florya in an almost incomprehensible fashion, is at its most forcefully concentrated when witnessed through the vantage of a child’s perspective. Soon after this introductory sequence, taking place in 1943, Florya is conscripted as a low-ranking addition to the regional militia. Played by Aleksei Karvchenko, who is astonishing in this, his first feature film, Florya is assigned to menial tasks. But save for the drudgery of these inglorious duties, he is sufficiently happy to be part of the struggle. What he does not foresee at this initial stage, however, whether due to his overwhelmed passivity, his sheer naïveté, or his zealous optimism, is what Come and See will progressively accentuate as it delves into the wartime depths of fear and madness.
Florya’s mother is thoroughly and quite understandably distraught when soldiers come calling for her son, not wanting the compulsory man of the house to abandon her and his small twin sisters. She pleads hysterically for Florya to simply kill the three of them with an ax; he might as well, she reasons, they’re as good as dead anyway. The two girls are meanwhile baffled by her impassioned behavior, their bewilderment alleviated somewhat by a wink and a smile Florya sends their direction. That brief expression of levity, as it often is in Come and See, though with increasingly less frequency, is quickly upended when Florya’s mother begins to thrash her son with a bundle of rope. Such contrast is also seen in Florya’s recruitment, which is, despite this maternal outburst, imbued by a deceptive lightness and passing positivity, a pretense for what proves to be a pitiless induction indeed. At the heart of this opening skirmish is the notion of fundamental responsibility, of one’s ultimate worth as the defender of domestic stability or of national pride, a tension beyond the years of an ill-equipped Florya but one he must reckon with all the same. Once he is whisked away, Florya enters the collective, no longer a person of irreplaceable importance but one of many. Yet he remains a singular expressive entity, a boy among men, a conduit through which Come and See will reveal its horrors, and his largely silent, observant disposition betrays his incompatibility within the demanding scenario.
Florya is not alone in his apparent discordance, though. Among the exemplars of hardened masculine demeanor, he glimpses the gentle softness of Glasha (Olga Mironova), a young woman, apparently the lover of partisan commander Kosach (Liubomiras Laucevičius), who hovers around the troop. Florya is instantly sensitive to her incongruous yet comforting presence, but it’s clear this sensitivity is a prelude to his fragility, a responsive delicacy affirmed when he grimaces after stepping in a bird’s nest. Death will not come easy for the boy, nor will the shattering of his illusions. His ingrained idolatry of those in charge is challenged when Glasha claims Kosach cries at night, and his sense of self-worth in the conflict is punctured when Glasha says Kosach takes pity on the green recruit and that’s why he is left behind to remain at camp. Perhaps this was a protective gesture, for which Florya should be grateful, but it proves futile nonetheless when the Germans launch an uncompromising bombardment that ravages the encampment and the surrounding forest. The deafening sounds of the assault ring in Florya’s ears, permanently penetrating his psyche and setting him off on a disorienting course of action.
Written by Klimov and Ales Adamovich, who recalled his harrowing first-hand familiarity with the war in the film’s source text, Come and See’s narrative proceeds as a reflection of Florya’s unsettled, inescapable confusion, assuming an erratic and indeterminate trajectory. With Glasha, he returns home, a home in ruin, where he is greeted only by disorder and emptiness, the amplified buzzing of flies and the ominous phantom of forsaken food and dolls. Although he refuses to believe it, his family is no more, a dreadful thought certified when Glasha catches sight of bodies stacked behind a cabin. From there, wracked with a delirious, overwhelming guilt, Florya journeys on, wading with Glasha through a consuming bog, encountering displaced hordes of citizenry, and eventually joining a quartet of men led by Roubej Klimov (Vladas Bagdonas), who advance in search of sustenance and munitions.
Burdened by the pain of his own childhood experiences, reinforced and magnified by contemporary cold war anxieties, Klimov instills in Come and See a suitably pervasive unease, a pronounced consideration of empathy and uncertainty, and the oscillation and escalation of emotional responses and physical reactions. Fluctuating postures of elation and solemnity are precariously balanced, especially early on, as the men assemble for a spirited photograph for example, the mass of figures gathering in solidarity as music plays on a radio, their assured, brave faces offsetting the gravity of what awaits them in battle. A similar balance hinges on the alternation between laughter and heartbreak, bliss and brutal realization, as when Florya and Glasha bask in the ecstasy of a cleansing, refreshing rain, the inordinately buoyant Glasha dancing in the downpour as if they were miraculously alone in the world, a mocking prospect of serenity; or when later, the simple joy of drinking fresh milk is cut short by a torrent of gunfire lighting up the sky. The cinematography by Alexei Rodionov is a correspondingly searing amalgam of gritty realism, soiled detail, and pointed accuracy, but it also projects a subjective, expressionistic rendering of the nightmarish sensory overload that engulfs Florya. The camera’s free rein maneuvering through a vast landscape becomes a hazardously variable trek through a scenic abyss of textures and elements, the often-squalid fusion of water, soil, foliage, and mud or the ethereal respite of Florya alone in the early morning mist.
While it’s perhaps less graphic than one might expect, compared to the gory palette of viscera that has become commonplace in modern war-related cinema, Klimov holds little back in terms of an equally affecting representation of war’s traumatic corollaries. From the random, unremitting raising of settlements to the effectively implied depiction of rape (a bleeding, nearly catatonic young woman who bears a strong resemblance to Glasha), the images and words of Nazi cruelty are intensely prevalent. Come and See is primarily disquieted by the degrading nature of the slaughter, the humiliating audacity, the sheer casual normalcy of the incursion and even the glee expressed by the vicious oppressors. An extended sequence in the SS occupied village of Perekhody, where the Germans force Florya to pose for a photograph with a gun to his head, a twisted echo of the film’s earlier, celebratory primer, descends into a dehumanizing massacre that is at once carnivalesque and calculated, sadistic and systematic. Its counterpoint comes when a band of anti-Fascists manage to capture several Germans and their collaborators, some of whom beg for their lives, deflecting blame and responsibility and testing the decency of the Soviet victors.
Work on Come and See began in 1977 but was immediately stalled by eight years of censorship as state authorities refused the screenplay on the grounds of its “aesthetics of dirtiness.” Eventually permitted into production, unimpeded and timed to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Red Army’s conquest in World War II, the film was shot in chronological order over a span of nine months. Like many Soviet filmmakers in the closing half of the twentieth century, Klimov focuses on the psychological rather than the physical strains of war, and with an evocative score by Oleg Yanchenko, Come and See’s soundtrack resonates in a diligently dramatic and cogent cacophony of aural anguish, layered over the oftentimes silent manifestations of inconceivable pain and suffering—the bloody impact of gunfire is almost benign compared to the spiritual wounding. In moments of sporadic chaos or insecure downtime, the film’s formal scheme is neither abstract nor ambiguous, though it does gain much of its potency from the visceral collision between a direct and surreal jarring of reality. An objective detachment regarding the ostensible action is weighed against an array of hardened faces centered in the frame, unnervingly close, their stares harsh and pointed, particularly the precipitously aging visage of Klimov’s adolescent protagonist. The boy who was earlier seen wide-eyed and eager has become a wrinkled and weary shell of his former self, deflated into a slack jawed daze as his matted hair is trimmed away and barely processing the sight of partisans piecing together a haunting specter of Adolf Hitler from mud plastered upon a skull, forming a grotesque scarecrow of emblematic tyranny.
The original title for Come and See was, in fact, “Kill Hitler,” as in, per Klimov, to “kill a Hitler within yourself,” to recognize and excise one’s inner demons. While that inclusive, rather personal proposition of correlative evil remains prescient, the film’s eventual designation is likewise apropos for its broader implications and its allegorical scope: as taken from the New Testament Book of Revelation, “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.” Come and See would be Klimov’s final film, the director, only 52 to at the time, asserting he simply “lost interest in making films.” Everything that was possible, he said, he felt he had already done. It’s true, Come and See is a grueling masterwork that must surely have been an exhausting experience for all involved. Real bullets were used for certain scenes, Klimov supposedly planned to hypnotize the 13-year-old Kravchenko so as not to forever traumatize the boy, and by his own account, Kravchenko concluded the production with prematurely graying hair. Klimov even stated that ambulances took distressed viewers away from screenings in Russia and Hungary. So, while there is the often-stated contention that one can’t really create an anti-war film (usually credited to François Truffaut, the argument’s case is based on war’s inherent action and excitement), if this avowal does remain true, surely Come and See comes as close as any to contesting the reception of cinematic warfare.
There is, by film’s end, no sense of affirming triumph nor even that of ultimate defeat, though its closing statement—“628 Belorussian villages were destroyed, along with all their inhabitants”—certainly evokes a poignant, extremely disheartening truth to the matter. Come and See cuts deeper, though, breaching superficial divisions of national or political strife and fervently canvassing a wide range of repercussions. In an arduous series of events, through its delineation of genocidal devastation, uncanny desperation, and utter helplessness, Klimov’s film proves largely unparalleled in the genre. In its concluding sequence, conveyed through Karvchenko’s performance and a spectacular deployment of striking historical imagery, one can virtually feel the director’s anger and his own private affliction. Gun now firmly in hand, Florya shoots a framed, waterlogged portrait of Hitler, at times aiming his rifle directly at the camera. The salvo sets off a montage of documentary footage, reversed to follow the backward progress of World War II’s atrocities and its acceleration. The apocalyptic tableau settles with the image of Hitler as a baby, sitting on his mother’s lap. What arises is the disturbing concept that such evil had its seemingly innocuous origins in a child, a conceivable innocent not unlike Florya himself. But there is also, in the inverted chronicle, an ultimately vacant implication of possibility, because there is no going back; there is only the illustration of how such barbarity was actually able to unfurl. What occurred in the years leading up to and throughout World War II did happen, and as compelling as Come and See is, the film itself seems to acknowledge that it scarcely scratches the surface.
Elem Klimov's Come and See is showing February 21 - March 3, 2020 at New York's Film Forum in a new restoration.