Film Review: Come and See

 

With Sword, and With hunger, and With Death

If there’s a God, He’ll have to beg for my forgiveness.”

The above quote was written on the walls of the Mauthausen concentration camp by one of its prisoners, and may as well be the epigraph of the whole war, for there is not a faith so strong to not be shaken by the evils committed then. Nazi forces occupying and later burning villages and their inhabitants in the regions that are now Belarus is one such evil, and director Elem Klimov illustrates that in starkest detail in his 1985 film ‘Come and See.; A quick web search shows it has a reputation as not only an artistic triumph but as one of the most unbearably bleak films ever.

It begins not so bleakly with two boys playing in the sand. Against the wishes of the village elder, they’re digging for rifles left behind in a prior conflict. One of the boys, Flyora, is only fourteen and eager to find the gun so he can join the Soviet partisans. The movie is matter-of-fact in how it depicts these early scenes. It doesn’t appear it wants you to feel any particular way about what’s on-screen, not when Flyora’s mother weeps and begs the partisan soldiers not to take away her son, not when he arrives at the camp and the soldiers laugh and joke while setting up a group photo. His enthusiasm is sincere, and if the film’s reputation did not precede it, you might expect a better outcome.

It’s not long before the naivete that fuels his enthusiasm begins to crumble. On guard duty, he’s told to shoot anyone who doesn’t know the password, a command we are immediately shown he is incapable of upholding when he lets past a girl who may know the password but can tell he is unwilling to do anything if she doesn’t say it. She is Glasha, a nurse a little older than he. She is warm and playful, and they’re a comfort to one another after the soldiers leave them behind at the camp. She starts teasing the boy when they’re interrupted by a deafening bombardment from German planes. The two escape the notice of German paratroopers and head back to his village which is completely abandoned so he leads her through a bog to an island where he’s sure the inhabitants fled to. They reunite with partisan forces and he goes with them to fight the enemy.

I’ll stop the summary of events here not so much to avoid spoilers but because the plot doesn’t enjoy the premium that a Hollywood production would put on it. It is a film that is felt. The critical consensus does not overstate the bleakness of Come and See. It is as apocalyptic as the Book of Revelation verse from which it gets its title. Few movies dare provoke the despair and anger Klimov does here, and of those that try even fewer succeed. Of course, the fact it depicts real events gives it a leg up working the audience’s emotions—Klimov wrote the script with Ales Adamovich who fought with the partisans in Belarus when he was the age of Flyora—but the events, horrific as they are, would not affect viewers so deeply were it not for the artistry with which they’re portrayed. Klimov directs with assured confidence, his touch so deft, so steady, yet propelled by a boiling rage, the kind that makes your limbs quake.

Consider the sound design. Sequences are accompanied by the likes of Mozart and Wagner, but it doesn’t have a score in a traditional sense. Instead, scenes are buried in ambient drones, or diagetic soundscapes from the barrage of bombs falling and the squealing tinnitus that follows, to the oppressing silence in the empty village, to the sloshing of bog water as Flyora and Glasha trudge their way to the island. And the wailing: the wailing of survivors grieving their dead and the wailing of villagers being herded from their homes into a barn and the wailing once they’re crammed in so close they become a roiling mass of heads and arms.

Visuals are equally important to the film’s nightmarish vision. Klimov shot only with natural light. The colors are muted and the lighting dims, especially for indoor scenes. Everything is drab, but it’s a convincing drab unlike those color-corrected abominations clogging streaming sites and theaters. From frame one we are struck by the aspect ratio, 1.37:1 (the “Academy ratio”), a rarity in a movie of this vintage that wasn’t made for television, and nearly unheard of for a war film. No panoramic landscapes, no beautiful vistas, no grand battlefields, no sweeping shots of unit formations, only a growing feeling of being confined, of not knowing what lays just offscreen. It becomes as asphyxiating as that barn stuffed with villagers.

The framing is also perfect for an unusual motif: characters staring straight into the camera like a classical portrait. These shots appear throughout the film and Klimov uses them to every effect possible. There’s Glasha and her reassuring smile, Soviet commander Kosach and his expression stony and resolute, a Nazi soldier shaking his face then cackling, the SS officer staring with indifference, but most of all there’s Flyora. We follow him throughout and his evolving portraiture is a roadmap of his mental descent. At first the bright, young recruit, then the timid soldier losing his confidence, then a soul so wrecked by grief he’s unrecognizable. In shots that have become iconic, we see him, his head sunken so his clavicles cradle his chin and the black shoulders of his shirt look on their way to surpassing his face, its features mangled into an expression of terror. With close-ups, Klimov actually emphasizes how small Flyora is. He looks younger by the end of the film. The bags under his eyes, the brow furrows and stains of dirt and blood look so wrong on a face like his. Credit must be given to the makeup department, though above all others Aleksei Kravchenko, who was not a professional actor, deserves praise for his searing performance.

Some imagery goes from the horrifying to the grotesque, such as a makeshift scarecrow topped with a human skull, outfitted in Nazi attire, and which the partisans haul around with them, or the final darting dance of the eye of a dying animal, or a hallucinatory montage near the film’s end. The film is so unsparing, it’s almost understandable how the Soviet censors didn’t approve the script for seven years, despite its favorable treatment of partisan forces.

I feel obligated to comment on a common remark about the film. Many say it, and non-American films in general, portray the harsh reality of war that jingoistic Yanks would never touch. Rah-rah patriotic movies about the glories of war exist worldwide. Not surprising since the same themes have had a constant presence in art through the ages and throughout cultures. Also, American filmmakers haven’t always shied away from the atrocities of war. Their depictions might never have been as piercing as Come and See, but that’s true of most movies everywhere. The most important factor for the discrepancy in how the cultures portray war, WWII in particular, is the difference in how the countries experienced the war. America joined late, and its involvement was confined almost exclusively to the military, many of whom were volunteers. Many of those soldiers weathered the unimaginable; their sacrifices and the sacrifices of those on the homefront cannot be overstated nor their contributions overvalued—they were liberators—but the war was entirely different to many countries in Europe, Asia, and Africa, countries who were invaded and destroyed, who had cities burnt to the ground. My AP History teacher told our class about traveling to Europe in the 60s or 70s and visiting small villages that were missing an entire generation of men. An invasion like the one of the Nazis against the Belarusians is a violation, a rape: a descriptor the film shows is sadly often not metaphoric.

Come and See does not end with a glimmer of hope because the hope it offers is not the sort that glimmers. It is a dull, tiny thing. There are soldiers remaining and they will continue to fight for their homeland, but, as viewers know, the year is 1943 and that means there are years left of fighting and those years bring horrors as Flyora has just witnessed.

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  1. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    Cat III, the One that Sparked … (View Comment):

    Jeez, you people know so much more about Russian culture than I do. The other week I had a dental cleaning and the hygienist had an accent which I think might have been Russian. Can any of you say that?

    My next review is another Russian film very different than Come and See. It should go up within a few days, early next week at the latest.

    Actually, I can, although it was the dentist and not the hygienist, last time I was home. The two office practice we use used to be owned by a married couple (he was general dentistry, she was pediatric) from Russia, with a third partner, and when they moved to Texas they handed the pediatric focused office over to a young Russian female dentist. She happened to be in the other practice I use on a Tuesday, because she and the other new doctor co-own. I heard her say a few English words, caught a few ticks that read as Russian to me, and took a chance by saying, «Здравствуйте, как дела?» I’ve never seen someone get so excited over hello, but she couldn’t believe I guessed her accent, and we chatted for 10 minutes. She also conducted my exam in Russian, because I think she got a bit carried away, so I had to translate for the hygienist when she finished. It was a lot of fun, though.

    • #31
  2. Oblomov Member
    Oblomov
    @Oblomov

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):
    I don’t think he so much had any deep thoughts about Russia overcoming its problems and taking its place in the world as he liked Vladimir Putin. And Putin is the cause of a lot of those problems. Russia as it is now is, like China, not a country the US wants to overcome the rough 90s in order to take an even bigger role in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

    I don’t know what was going on inside Trump’s skull, but clearly, for whatever reason, he did not share our establishment’s anti-Russian mania. But he did understand that our principal problem as far as the eye can see is China, and he may even have grasped with his animal cunning that we have obvious common interests with the Russians where China is concerned. The tragicomedy of U.S. foreign policy in the Trump era is that a rational policy toward Russia, i.e., one that did not push Russia and China together into a vast, Eurasia-spanning alliance, was made politically impossible. Or maybe it was straight-up tragedy, without any comedy at all.  

    • #32
  3. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Oblomov (View Comment):
    Hey there! It has been awhile. A combination of laziness, weltschmerz, and тоска (untranslatable). I lurk in and out from time to time.

    You sound almost like Oblomov. The one in the film. I haven’t read the book. Speaking of which, I didn’t know that Oleg Tabakov had died, and it has been three years already! Talk about laziness while the world goes on without me.

    I also just now realized that I have sometimes confused the words тоска and доска. They make more sense as two separate words.

    • #33
  4. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    Personally, I don’t really mind this project and our current mood of unhinged, delusional Russophobia strikes me as completely insane and counter to our national interests.

    You and me both, bro, you and me both. The Madeleine Albright war against Serbia was incredibly stupid and had corrosive effects on relations with Russia in the Yeltsin era.

    One of the better things about Trump was he seemed to understand that Russia overcoming the humiliation of the Nineties was inevitable, and for the US, potentially positive.

    I don’t think he so much had any deep thoughts about Russia overcoming its problems and taking its place in the world as he liked Vladimir Putin. And Putin is the cause of a lot of those problems. Russia as it is now is, like China, not a country the US wants to overcome the rough 90s in order to take an even bigger role in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

    The now-former president was, let’s face it, not big on deep thoughts in general, but as our UK friends say, sometimes the most ham-handed of arithmeticians manages to get his sums right. Sure, Trump’s negative opinion of American Empire was likely to appeal to local strongmen, regardless of its merits, or lack thereof, for Americans ourselves.

    Trump’s instincts for quite some time have told him that Russia’s grudges with the West weren’t all imaginary, particularly ones that have to do with media and culture. Of course, that’s self-serving on Putin’s part, but it also represents a widespread feeling in Russia and other Orthodox countries that social issues are being dictated worldwide by a somewhat insane cabal of intellectuals and marketers in the USA, enforced by a joyless bureaucracy in Brussels. And the Russians do know from joyless bureaucracies, as we all know. There wasn’t a helluva lot that a second term Trump could have done; the image makers of Manhattan and Hollywood do not like taking orders. 

    But he could have done what Bill Clinton successfully did with Black America; he could have done the symbolic stuff that Russians hunger for. Clinton is reviled now, but in his day, his diligent ass-kissing of Black politicians disguised the fact that he really didn’t do much to advance their political agenda. But they appreciated the different tone. I’m not talking about Putin now, but about all of Russia. A tough guy president who respects Russia will be forgiven his toughness in making deals. Nixon proved it. 

    • #34
  5. SkipSul Inactive
    SkipSul
    @skipsul

    Gary McVey (View Comment):
    Trump’s instincts for quite some time have told him that Russia’s grudges with the West weren’t all imaginary, particularly ones that have to do with media and culture. Of course, that’s self-serving on Putin’s part, but it also represents a widespread feeling in Russia and other Orthodox countries that social issues are being dictated worldwide by a somewhat insane cabal of intellectuals and marketers in the USA, enforced by a joyless bureaucracy in Brussels. And the Russians do know from joyless bureaucracies, as we all know. There wasn’t a helluva lot that a second term Trump could have done; the image makers of Manhattan and Hollywood do not like taking orders.

    The signs of American cultural imperialism are all over.  In Poland, devout Catholics complain regularly that foreign (usually American) companies will make their local employees participate in things like “Pride Days”, and Poland’s laws of conscience are both weaker on this matter, and untested in the courts (say what you will about the vast quantities of American lawyers, we do tend to hammer these things out).  The money coming in to try to force changes in Poland’s abortion laws is likewise massively foreign.  And, of course, Americans simply refuse to understand that ethnicity can matter deeply without it also being racist – Russians like being Russian, for instance, and we over simplify and condemn that as racist and nationalist without even understanding the damned terms in their context.

    So in an atmosphere where other nations already are annoyed at rich Americans trying to impose cultures and customs on others, and where the locals are convinced everything bad is a CIA plot already, you’ll be interested to know that Joe Biden is hated by the Russian Orthodox.  His family’s Ukraine business and government meddling shenanigans are well known.  But Biden is also friendly with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, and has been for years.

    When Patriarch Bartholomew unilaterally decreed that the Ukrainian Orthodox were really under his jurisdiction (and retroactively always had been), and not Moscow’s, not only did this cause a schism between Constantinople and Moscow, but the Russian Orthodox place no small amount of blame on Biden for backing the split.  Now that Biden is president, and is vocally pro-abortion and vocally pro gay rights (both of which are matters widely discussed in Russian Orthodox circles as signs of overt satanic influence in western culture), you can understand if Russia foresees a worsening of relations under Biden.  Not only do they expect Biden to get the US more involved in Ukrainian affairs, but they expect overt political and financial pressure from toxic US cultural forces that are now again openly allied with the White House.

    • #35
  6. Cat III, the One that Sparked This Member
    Cat III, the One that Sparked This
    @CatIII

    Oblomov (View Comment):

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):
    I don’t think he so much had any deep thoughts about Russia overcoming its problems and taking its place in the world as he liked Vladimir Putin. And Putin is the cause of a lot of those problems. Russia as it is now is, like China, not a country the US wants to overcome the rough 90s in order to take an even bigger role in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

    I don’t know what was going on inside Trump’s skull, but clearly, for whatever reason, he did not share our establishment’s anti-Russian mania. But he did understand that our principal problem as far as the eye can see is China, and he may even have grasped with his animal cunning that we have obvious common interests with the Russians where China is concerned. The tragicomedy of U.S. foreign policy in the Trump era is that a rational policy toward Russia, i.e., one that did not push Russia and China together into a vast, Eurasia-spanning alliance, was made politically impossible. Or maybe it was straight-up tragedy, without any comedy at all.

    Trump would’ve had an easier time convincing the public his Russian policy was principled and in our interest if he didn’t have a past of fangirling over Putin and other strongmen. I’m no expert in foreign relations (hard to believe, but it’s true), but I appreciate Trump’s more modest, less interventionist policy in the Middle East (reason #1 I voted for him this time when I didn’t in 2016), and think we should be less antagonistic of Russia. Even if the intentions of the Putin and Xi regimes were equally nefarious, China is in a much better position militarily and economically so of course they should be our primary concern.

    One of the reasons Russiagate was a farce is that the Trump admin’s actions toward Russia were not the chummy, enabling policies that you’d expect from a puppet of the regime. Trump may have shifted the rhetoric in the right direction, but I’m not so sure his actual policies followed suit.

    • #36
  7. Cat III, the One that Sparked This Member
    Cat III, the One that Sparked This
    @CatIII

    SkipSul (View Comment):

    When Patriarch Bartholomew unilaterally decreed that the Ukrainian Orthodox were really under his jurisdiction (and retroactively always had been), and not Moscow’s, not only did this cause a schism between Constantinople and Moscow, but the Russian Orthodox place no small amount of blame on Biden for backing the split. Now that Biden is president, and is vocally pro-abortion and vocally pro gay rights (both of which are matters widely discussed in Russian Orthodox circles as signs of overt satanic influence in western culture), you can understand if Russia foresees a worsening of relations under Biden. Not only do they expect Biden to get the US more involved in Ukrainian affairs, but they expect overt political and financial pressure from toxic US cultural forces that are now again openly allied with the White House.

    No doubt Biden would present himself as a champion of spreading progressive causes round the globe, and Trump is more sympathetic to nationalist causes, but I have questions about this statement. Are they unaware Trump was the first president to be pro-gay marriage while campaigning? If it’s an issue that important to them, did they not see this famous photo:

    The Trump admin also started a global campaign against the criminalization of homosexuality led by openly gay Richard Grenell*. Biden may only be ostensibly Catholic, but Trump’s religious faith is no more convincing. I suspect he’s as much a Christian as I am. Is the fact Trump is, at least from the Orthodox Christian view, better on the issue of abortion, enough reason for the Russian Christian community to overlook his progressive views on gay rights? Is it more to do with him not being so heavyhanded in his approach? Or some other factor I didn’t mention?

    .

    *When searching for a source, I happened upon the expected dumpster commentary from the usual suspects, but one that stood out was an article decrying the “misogynistic” and “internally-homophobic” tweets of Grenell. Of course, they never investigate if he made similar remarks to men (Who wants to bet he did?). Even worse, though, is how pathetic the smear is. He said Rachel Maddow looks like Justin Bieber and “needs to take a breath and put on a necklace.” Pretty weak tea for someone who’s apparently the offspring of Archie Bunker and Ted Bundy. He also tweeted “Hillary is starting to look like Madeleine Albright.” I don’t even know what he’s getting at, but they claim he insulted both women.

    • #37
  8. SkipSul Inactive
    SkipSul
    @skipsul

    Cat III, the One that Sparked … (View Comment):

    No doubt Biden would present himself as a champion of spreading progressive causes round the globe, and Trump is more sympathetic to nationalist causes, but I have questions about this statement. Are they unaware Trump was the first president to be pro-gay marriage while campaigning? If it’s an issue that important to them, did they not see this famous photo:

     

    It’s one thing to be for rights, and against criminal punishments – these are rule of law matters, and humanitarian ones too.  Russia’s track record here is well known to be poor.  It’s quite another thing, though to be shoving US culture chauvinism in their faces.

    It’s the difference between being seen chugging Diet Cokes all the time in public, and offering moral and financial support to various US lobbyists abroad to change laws, duties, and customs, to make other nations drink more Diet Coke, and worse yet, to pretend they actually like the stuff.

    • #38
  9. SkipSul Inactive
    SkipSul
    @skipsul

    Cat III, the One that Sparked … (View Comment):
    Biden may only be ostensibly Catholic, but Trump’s religious faith is no more convincing.

    It has all the appearance of sincerity as a sympathy Hallmark Card knockoff translated into German, then Latin, and back to English using nothing but Google Translate.  

    • #39
  10. Cat III, the One that Sparked This Member
    Cat III, the One that Sparked This
    @CatIII

    Cat III, the One that Sparked … (View Comment):
    I should also mention, the film has been released on Blu-ray by the Criterion collection, and can also be streamed on Criterion’s streaming service. The transfer is fantastic, probably the best the film has ever looked. The extras look nice too, though I’ve only watched the interview with Roger Deakins so far.

    Getting back to Come and See, last night I watched more of the extras (which are available on the Criterion Channel if you don’t want to buy the disc). The interview with Elem Klimov is the best one. He explains the genesis of the film, tells stories about shooting it, and talks about the themes of the film. One thing I should’ve mentioned in the review is Klimov, like his cowriter Ales Adamovich, grew up during the war, so the film draws on his personal experiences too, though I don’t think he joined the partisans or saw direct combat. Early in the interview he says the original title of the script was “Kill Hitler”, which he explains was meant to be metaphorical–killing the Hitler that’s in all of us. Like many original titles of works of fiction, we’re better off that it was changed, though Tarantino should’ve considered “Kill Hitler” for Inglourious Basterds.

    The interview with Aleksei Kravchenko is shorter (half the length I think), but still an interesting watch. Apparently he fasted and worked out to get in the right shape for the role. Good dedication for a thirteen-year-old kid who had no acting experience.

    Lastly I saw, The Story of the Film “Come and See”, a short behind-the-scenes documentary. It includes interviews with Klimov, Kravchenko, and Adamovich contemporary to the filming of the movie, and some glimpses at the actual shooting.

    There are a few more extras left to see. I might get around to them soon (the 70s documentaries about the invasion of Belarus especially interest me), and if I do, will post another update.

    • #40
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