“Devastating, intense, and incredibly disturbing, but at the same time almost dream-like, and dare I say, in an odd way, nearly beautiful?”
by Ken B.
We often think of the horror genre in film as something explicably narrow – a movie where there’s a killer, often masked or disfigured and usually immortal, cleaning through victims with a knife, chainsaw, or by invading their dreams. Thus, the term “horror” in relation to fiction often has a kind of skeevy, filthy connotation, with art occasionally seeping through. Elem Klimov’s 1985 movie Come and See does not meet the definitions of what is viewed as part of the genre. It is an extremely personal look at World War II, the German occupation of Belarus especially, as seen through the eyes of a boy named Florya (Aleksei Kravchenko) who joins a group of Belarusian partisans in 1943. But even though this is a movie that is as far from the classic mindset of what horror is, it’s very much able to be undeniably horrific – devastating, intense, and incredibly disturbing, but at the same time almost dream-like, and dare I say, in an odd way, nearly beautiful?
I know some of you stopped at the last paragraph – “Why?” you ask, “are you recommending a movie to us that you just called ‘devastating, intense, and incredibly disturbing’?” The answer is I’m not recommending it. I know it says four stars up there, but Come and See is not a movie that you just recommend – it is powerful, yet it is not for everyone. This is a film that has come closer to emotionally destroying me than just about any other one has. Klimov pulls no punches – this is brutal, harrowing stuff, and it manages to hold a sense of dread from its first frame, and hold it through the 137 minutes that follow. It begins with Florya playing with some of the local kids from his village. He finds a rifle buried in the dirt, and with this, he decides to join the partisans and fight. The next day they come for him, despite the screams of terror from his mother, Florya is taken away. His wish has been granted. He’s given low-level positions as the soldiers prepare to take on the Nazis. Excited, washed in naivety, Florya is soon thrust headlong into the traumas of war, and experiences things that he could never be fully prepared to see.
How old is Florya ? Maybe thirteen? Definitely not much older. It is the look of shock, unprocessable shock, transfixed upon his face throughout Come and See that is among the film’s most unshakable images. Aleksei Kravchenko’s performance is so realistic and haunting that it is rumored he was under hypnosis when performing one of the film’s climactic scenes, a sequence which surely deserves to be remembered as much, if not even moreso, as the rest of the movie it accompanies (but sadly, nobody really talks about this movie very much). And despite the events within, it’s Kravchenko’s face that drives the segment home. Indeed, close-ups on faces are a vital part of the movie’s 4:3 composition. Often, a character turns to look towards the camera, but there isn’t a sense of accidental fourth wall breakage, but instead a feeling that you, as a viewer, are being stared right through, solidifying the place Klimov has set for you – that of a distressingly close witness.
Come and See doesn’t follow a rigorous plot structure, instead choosing to move from point to point, but never feeling disjointed or superfluous. It has its own sense of flow, sprawling from Florya’s initial “enlistment”, to him meeting a local girl named Glasha (Olga Miranova), to his sudden deafness following a series of bombs dropped in the forest he happens to be near, to the story’s biggest and most difficult individual setpiece: an unflinching recreation of a Belarusian village destroyed. Nazi soldiers appear, invade the town, round up every citizen, and push the villagers; everyone, men and women, young and old, into a church, before burning it to the ground, firing at it with machine guns, and laughing, congratulating each other for the massacre they have committed, as Florya, who was separated from most of his fellow partisans during this time, witnesses to an even further extent the war he has entered. The worst part of this is how this wasn’t a fictitious turning point devised in Klimov and Ales Adamovich’s screenplay – a title card at the end of the film informs us that over the course of World War II, 628 Belarusian villages met a fate like this.
And this is a film that would likely be punishing beyond watchability if all of this were presented straight-up, in any form of direct realism. But there’s something odd about its aesthetic, that almost makes it feel like a dream – nightmarish. While the subject matter feels all too natural, given that it is set during a war that was one of the darkest chapters in recent human history, and one whose memories been a constant international presence in the years following the conflict, Come and See develops a kind of surreal feeling to it that is hard to accurately describe. The best I can do is point out how genuinely Mozart’s “Lacrimosa” blends into the last scene, a chilling closer with startlingly simple imagery.
As far fetched as the idea of a 13 year old in a guerrilla troop fighting Nazis sounds, this film’s story comes from truth, based at least in part by the personal experiences of co-writer Adamovich. And as easy as it would have been to just make this a biography-esque drama, it manages to exist in its own type of world, but one still within our own. The story never quite ends – by the final fade-out, hell is behind Florya, and nothing but an unsure future lies ahead. Even though this is a movie whose script was only finally approved in the Soviet Union after floating around for several years to serve as propaganda in the 40th anniversary of their defeat of the Axis, the film defies basic patriotic, nationalistic, or jingoistic grounds. Come and See is not entertainment. It is not escapist. It is art – art at its most potent and powerful. As for the question of whether it is rewarding, that is largely dependent on your personal definition of “rewarding”. All I know is that this was a truly unforgettable experience. Viewing a movie like Come and See might not be a pleasant endeavor, and I doubt many will want to watch it again for a long time afterwards, if ever, but it is definitely something you are very glad you saw, as it means you witnessed an example of film at its peak ability to affect a viewer in the most personal ways, showing World War II head on and in the most nightmarish depictions, steering clear from exploitation or mishandling, and simultaneously in all of that, being able to speed through history, time, and geography, right into every person watching it and making an irrevocably intimate connection.