A brave and confronting film about war, Come And See (1985, dir. Elem Klimov) is one of the most devastating films I’ve seen recently. Its synopsis is as follows:
During WWII, a Belarusian boy is thrust into the atrocities of war, fighting with a hopelessly unequipped Soviet resistance movement against ruthless German forces. Witnessing scenes of abject terror and surviving horrifying situations, he loses his innocence and then his mind. (source)
The film follows the young Flyora (Aleksei Kravchenko) as he follows his desire to join the Soviet resistance and fight Nazi invaders. We first see him and a friend digging in the sand at a beach, looking for dropped weapons. This first part has such a strangely innocent and idealistic tone that it makes you feel totally unprepared for the nightmarish onslaught that follows thereafter. You get the feeling that these two kids are joining the resistance for the glory of saving their country, not to genuinely kill or fight anybody; which must have been the case for so many young men during both of the World Wars, and those in modern times also.
Aleksei Kravchenko is incredible as the young wannabe-fighter Flyora. You can tell that he was put through hell whilst filming this; at the beginning, he’s a healthy looking young man with a bright smile, but by the end, he’s a malnourished and hysterical wreck with a thousand-yard stare. During the process of filming, Kravchenko’s hair turned white, and to compare his appearance from the beginning to the end is actually heartbreaking. He looks like an old man at the end of the film. This is a raw performance that goes beyond acting; it’s a pure physical representation of the toll that war and violence takes on the human body and mind.
There’s a simplistic approach to the creative aspect of filmmaking in Come And See – no special effects, guns apparently using real ammunition most of the time, spontaneous acting with unrehearsed dialogue, with the events filmed chronologically so that we can see them flow and develop naturally. The film’s plot begins in a linear fashion – boy wants to join the resistance, then joins it, et cetera – but once the fighting starts, all bets are off. The film devolves into this hypnotic, surging beast with an odd balance between realism and surreal moments, which enhance the overall feeling that what happened during these events was a complete nightmare for everyone involved.
Come And See is unlike any war film I’ve seen before, because even though the experience of watching it was horrifying, the approach to showing violence is fairly bloodless. The film has a hallucinatory and nightmarish quality that is achieved through the cinematography, sound, random events, and a build-up of tension and stress that is communicated with finesse by Kravchenko. Even though we don’t see a large amount of fighting or killing, the threat of it is ever-present, and when we do see the bodily results of the fighting it is more affecting than ever as a direct result. Sometimes the camera briefly glances at the victims of the Nazis, and sometimes the camera trains its eye on the wounds that people receive – whether they are physical or psychological. This randomness is highly realistic, and ensures that you never know what to expect, which causes it to feel scarier than other war films. Its most famous scene, where an entire village of people is slaughtered, is one of the most terrifying moments I’ve seen on film in my life, and there is little to no violence shown on screen during it. The visuals seen and sounds heard during that moment were more scary than seeing any blood or gore.
Not only is this film visually and thematically impressive, the music and sound editing is also completely mindblowing. Calm and moving classical music is used throughout to contrast against the frenetic horrors that are occurring on screen – which seems to be a standard trope of war films, but the selection was particularly good here. However, it’s in the sound editing where the film’s auditory elements begin to really impress. There is one section of the film where Flyora’s hearing is damaged after a bomb drops near him. We hear the events around him as he perceives them – high pitched ringing in his ears, muffled voices, lips moving but no sound coming out, his hearing ability having peaks and troughs as it recovers. Editing such as this ensures that the viewer is completely trapped within the film and within Flyora’s perceptions of his surroundings, even when what happens on screen is the very definition of terror.
The title of this film implores its viewers to witness the atrocities of war, to recognise that they occurred, and to acknowledge the suffering that millions of people faced during and after these tumultuous conflicts. Come And See encourages its viewers to confront the realities of war, its victims, and its perpetrators. The ending is one of the most simultaneously mindblowing and depressing sequences I’ve ever seen. It’s important to note that the director never made a film after this one, stating that, “I lost interest in making films. Everything that was possible I felt had already been done”. Indeed, Come And See is a masterpiece of cinema that is so full of meaning that it seems to be able to say anything it needs to – about war, about human nature, sacrifice, struggle, loss, horror, evil. This is by no means an easy film to watch, but it is an important film to watch.
Watch the trailer here (graphic content).
Watch this film at Amazon!
wow, I read about this a few weeks ago and have been waiting to find time to see it since it’s long and in Russian 🙂
strange coincidence Anna!
That’s a really crazy coincidence! Definitely worth setting some time aside to see it. I got the feeling that the subtitles I saw were a bit off and in need of updating for a fuller translation, but it still was an incredibly powerful film. Can’t wait to hear what you think about it! 🙂
Great write-up. Sounds like something worth finding!
Thank you! 🙂 It is an amazing film. Really, really bleak, but amazing.
Great write up. I’m actually nervous to watch this film as I’ve heard it’s completely harrowing. I know it gave my friend nightmares and they’re pretty tough when it comes to war films and horror. But at the same time it’s an important film so I should pluck up the courage to watch it!
Thanks! 🙂 I actually felt really nervous before watching it too. This is one of those films where you have to sit and think about life in complete silence for about half an hour afterwards. I had nightmares about it as well! I think it was because of the feeling you’re stuck with during the whole thing – a heightened feeling of threat and stress – rather than any graphic imagery, though. It’s pretty overwhelming and mindblowing, but so important to see!
Ok, you know what, despite the terrifying synopsis and your subsequently terrifying review, I think I need to see this. I mean, I do enjoy war movies, provided they aren’t the fueled-by-patriotism type. Is it comparable at all to Apocalypse Now? Cuz that movie is freaking fantastic.
If you enjoy war films, you should definitely see this! It really is terrifying though. This definitely isn’t one of those fuelled-by-patriotism films! Some reviewers say it’s a bunch of Soviet propaganda but there isn’t an overtly pro-Soviet message, just a frank portrayal of horrible things that the Nazi forces perpetrated whilst in Belarus. I would say its bleakness and portrayal of war is comparable to Apocalypse Now, but it’s more experimental in its approach. And its ending is a bit more depressing, if you can believe it. Would love to hear your thoughts on it! 🙂
Sounds interesting! Nice review Anna 🙂
Thanks Melissa! It’s full on but so worth watching.
Wow, just watched the trailer. This looks difficult but I so want to see it.
It really is a very difficult film to watch at times! But it’s definitely an important one to watch.
Was it because i’m a Finn that nature, landscape of deep forests and swamps made the first surprise: it was just like our nature. I never knew the nature of Belo Russia in many cases like that in Finland. The war in eastern front itself is of course much better known for Finns than western Europeans and American. We know well enough that WW2 in Europe was perhaps 90% vicious combat in east.
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