Elem Klimov, Soviet Union, 1985, 142 min.
Before: I have heard great things about this film. It is supposed to be one of the best war movies ever made. Hard to watch, I’m sure, but I’m looking forward to it nonetheless.
After: Right off the bat I’m going to say that there has never been a more devastating war film than Come and See. It was produced to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Soviet victory against the Nazi’s in World War II. To call that a victory brings to mind images of smiles and cheers and flag-waving, but as this film makes perfectly clear, it was anything but that.
Come and See is filled with horror and fear and danger and mud, dirt and despair. It follows the initially cheerful Flyora, played Aleksey Kravchenko in one of the best performances ever put to film.
Flyora is a young boy from a small village in Belarussia. Barely a teenager, he is excited to join the army and fight against the Germans. The opening scene shows him and his friend, playing in the dirt, digging up the graves of fallen soldiers in order to find a gun. When he finds one, it isn’t long before he leaves behind his mother and sisters to go off to join the local militia.
The militia is happy to have him, and things are looking up until the unit is mobilized and Flyora is forced to give up his nice boots to a seasoned soldier and stay back at the base. He takes it very hard. This was his dream! And it is being denied. He thinks, at the time, that this is the worst thing that could have happened to him.
Here is where Glasha (Olga Mironova) enters the story. She had a connection to one of the soldiers that just left her behind, and acts out against Flyora, who she finds crying in the woods. It’s a very surreal interaction, and serves as almost the calm before the storm of harsh reality that is to follow.
For here is where the film takes a turn. I have written a lot of words about the setup, because I don’t want to dwell on what follows. I’ll just say that it is impressive in it’s harshness. As Flyora and Glasha navigate a war-torn landscape there are moments of solace and moments of panic, moments of relief and moments of terror.
The world is populated by real-life people, Non-actors like the film’s leads, who bring an incredible sense of reality to what happens. Real explosions. Real bullets. And I would dare-say real terror on the actors faces.
The film-making itself is simple and stark. A steady camera shows us what we need to see but don’t want to see, and Klimov knows when to focus on Aleksey Kravchenko expressive face, which is often. There are images in this film I will never forget, and that’s partly because the director gets out of the way and never calls attention to himself.
This litany of atrocities ends with a powerful coda that gives everyone a chance to turn back time and make a hard choice. It’s a unique sequence that affected me even more than what came previously.
Yes, this film is hard to watch, so why even sit down to view it? What does that get you? I can’t answer that, but I’ll leave you with these words from Ales Adamovich who co-wrote the screenplay with Elem Klimov. He was once asked who would ever want to watch this film and answered: “Let them not watch it, then. This is something we must leave after us. As evidence of war, and as a plea for peace.”