Elem Klimov’s 1985 film, Come and See (Idi i Smotri) is considered by many to be a very powerful anti-war film with shocking brutality. Perhaps when it was released this was so. Thirty years later, in the mid-teens of the twenty first century, film brutality has seemed to catch up. While violence in general is commonplace in film, even gratuitous and meaningless, the flavor of brutality depicted in Come and See is still a stunning and emotionally hard kind.
This is, essentially, a coming-of-age story set in brutal times. The very tender and lovable main character, 12 year old Floyra, is moved from idealized, innocent, country youth into deep and horrifying circumstances. He grows from boy to adult in the course of a few months. He gains love, loses love. He gains a partisan family, loses his biological one. Florya grows hard and shellshocked. It is surreal, nightmarish, and grueling. It is a vision of the gradual opening of terrors, much akin to the prophecy of Revelation 6, from which Klimov likely named the film:
“And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seals, and I heard, as it were the noise of thunder, one of the four beasts saying, Come and see.” – Revelation 6:1
Poor use of theological allusions aside, the plight of this young boy tore out my heart. Perhaps it is because I have a young son that I relate to the delicate state of Floyra’s innocence, and his absolutely unjust loss of it.
The simple and sometimes crude cinematography layers surprising dimensionality to the film. The depth of war’s roots as experienced by partisans and peasants in Byelorussia in 1943 is communicated well. Mostly seen through the boy’s eyes, the visuals are stirring and the soundtrack is perfectly harrowing.
This is no glorious war epic, no action packed thriller, and no date-night movie. This is a personal drama of an extreme magnitude set in an impossibly harsh circumstance. Even more, the ferocity of the Nazi machine, even if overstated on purpose, displays the historically ruthless and cold mass murder of the Nazis on the locals. This film provides not only a grim setting for young Floyra’s experience, but a reminder of how deadly serious we must take brutal, evil regimes intent on extermination.
For the western viewer, this is a foreign film, not a cheap war movie. It is filmed in Russian, subtitled, and somewhat propagandistic in message. If you are looking for a Western style ‘movie’, this is not for you.
Be prepared for longer than usual scenes and transitions, different framing, unusually crude but beautifully effective camera techniques, and very non-western pacing and timing. There are some lengthy symbolic scenes that handle well the blossoming of manhood and the love of youth. Bravo to Klimov for keeping it tasteful and not stooping to the easy way out.
If there was ever a testimony to a film’s power, it was that director Klimov never made another film after Come and See because he felt that there was nothing more to say. When an artist declares “fin”, pompous as it may be, it is worth a look.
I’d give this film a firm A rating. It is a real classic, that one film that really communicates in concentrated form the plight of the people caught behind the German advance in the east. It sums up the scorched earth policies so often implemented with cruel hatred. It shows the nasty dark side of man, and astonishingly, toward the end, Florya seems to pull through.
In fact, here is an article describing why this film is the best war movie ever made. I disagree with some of its points, but can get behind most of them. Enjoy…