Classic Movie Review: Come and See (1985)

Come and See
Directed by Elem Klimov
Starring: Aleksey Kravchenko, Olga Mironova, Liubomiras Laucevicius, and Juri Lumiste
U.S. Theatrical Release Date: February 6, 1985
Available on FilmStruck

Often my daughter comes running to me in a state of pure excitement prompting me to either “come and see this” or “come and see that.” She’s undoubtedly enthralled by whatever it is that seems to have captivated her for that specific second. She’s a child with boundless wonder, finding everything very fascinating.

A similar childlike wonder is on display in the 1985 Russian film Come and See, which documents the ruthlessness of the Nazi forces as they tear their way through Belarus villages in 1943. Aptly titled, writer and director Elem Klimov‘s film is told totally from the perspective of a child. It just so happens the child, Florya (Aleksey Kravchenko), roughly 12 or 13 years old, is completely enraptured by war and the valor and courage that he believes comes with it. He can’t wait to tell his mom to “come and see what I’ll be doing.”

We first witness Florya in a field with another child. Both are searching frantically for a gun just so they could be eligible to fight alongside the partisans, the Soviet resistance. Surely Florya discovers a gun and is ready to go to war. The other child doesn’t. A few scenes later we see Florya breaking the news to his mother and two younger sisters. His mother is crushed by the news. Florya remains calm, even when his mother begins reaching for an ax, screaming “you may as well kill all of us.” He’s the only man of the house and his mother knows that departing for war does nobody any good. Soldiers of the resistance quickly take him away. He’s thrown into the back of a carriage. Nothing seems to shake Florya. He’s undoubtedly enthralled by joining the partisans.

Here, at times, we can imagine war itself yelling out admonitions such as “come on and see, little boy, what is actually awaiting you.” Florya soon has his ideals of war diminished when he is ordered to exchange his boots with another soldier’s whose boots are full of holes. While the partisans begin their march he is told to wait back at the camp. He then meets Glasha (Olga Mironova), a girl a little bit older than he is. The two create a close friendship as they begin to search for Florya’s family, evade bombings, and trudge through a merciless marshland. While watching Florya’s journey as he hops from camp to camp, meeting new people and constantly experiencing incessant evils carried out by the Nazis, Come and See starts to mirror Dante’s Divine Comedy and his vision of Hell. This is a jaw-dropping experience acquainting us with the devastating atrocities of war and showcasing its uncanny ability to startle viewers to their core. If ever there was an anti-war film, this would be it.

Never do we leave Florya’s side. The film is nearly two-and-a-half hours long. His presence is in every frame. What he sees and doesn’t see throughout his arduous journey is extremely brutal. The film doesn’t withhold any terrors, either, and is unabashed in its approach to evil, which, by doing so, gives the film a more profound and lasting emotion. It shows dead bodies stacked high behind the safe comforts of a home; a lengthy sequence involving the burning of a barn that has adults and young children inside; and a bleak scene showing a cow slowly loosing its life.

Whenever Florya encounters a horrific sight Klimov’s camera lingers on his face for an inordinate amount of time, zooming in to the point where we can feel the boy’s deep breathes and feel what he feels. His face expresses unutterable emotion that travels beyond shock and awe. It’s an awakening for him to see how ghastly war actually is. Also, his face can remind cinephiles of Maria Falconetti’s face from the 1928 silent film Joan of Arc. Both countenances are full of awareness and saturated with immense sadness.

All of this that Klimov and cinematographer Aleksei Rodionov depict may be regarded as the truest depiction of human cruelty ever captured on film, and is certainly the most depressing war film of all time. He gives us a work of art that is vividly authentic. Deliberately devoid of any romanticism or sentimentality usually associated with war films, his depiction of the true horrific events that occurred in Belorussian (Belarus) must be appreciated. He is drawing on his own experiences when he was a child during World War II, fleeing the armed forces of Nazi Germany with his mother. Come and See is a most distinguished film made by a director who’s attempting to understand, or at least just behold, the heinous crimes carried out by humanity.

It is, in the end, Klimov’s superb direction that persuades us to stay with this film. Despite the overwhelming trauma and grief that’s evident here, it never feels like Klimov’s exploiting such travesties, rather, he’s coming to grips with his own past and that of the victims (the film states that 628 Belorussian villages were burned down by the Nazis). While his camerawork is visionary by placing us inside a living nightmare, it’s his two other audacious decisions that render this film great.

The first progresses throughout the film. We first meet Florya looking like a regular child. As he goes deeper into the heart of darkness his face becomes more wrinkled, withered, and looks thirty years older even though the film covers not even a year. It’s as if the exposure to war sucks the life out of him, wiping away the childhood innocence and wonder. The other decision Klimov goes for is near the end of the film. It’s an intense reflection of rewinding and reimagining time to the point that would prevent all of this chaos from ever happening. These are both subtle artistic embellishments that put into perspective how war physically and emotionally wears on an individual. This is filmmaking at its most eminent.

**** out of ****

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