Come and See is a 1985 film from the Soviet Union by director Elem Klimov. The film is set in Byelorussia in 1943, and follows a young boy, Florya, as he is recruited into the struggling resistance movement against the crushing arm of Nazi Germany. He enters the war with confidence and courage, as many young recruits do, but his mind and body are soon ravaged by the horrors of war.
I know that description was scant, but Come and See is a movie about the experience, and no amount of words can really explain nor do justice to what I watched on screen just the other day. The goal of Come and See is to subject you to the absolute worst horrors of war. It starts like a mostly typical war film. The exposition is even funny at points, but even the humor has a horrific backdrop. The film begins with two young boys, Flyora and his friend, messing around a beach scavenging for guns off the corpses of dead soldiers. Flyora makes his sisters laugh as his mother hysterically pleads with him to not join the war. Even as Flyora is taken to a camp in the dense, spindly forest, we see the jovial comradery of a band of brothers. We even get a sort of twisted love interest, that is both off-putting and captivating. But all is shaken when the Nazi’s invade the camp, with artillery shells deafening Flyora and seemingly corrupting his human spirit. From this point on the film becomes more and more of an onslaught of terror. The main character is made a punching bag, becoming little more than an observer to the worst atrocities of war. It feels like we, the audience, have as much power over the situation as he does. We are forced to simply watch as barns full of people burn down, villages are slaughtered, and bullets and explosions surround us.
In that sense Come and See is painfully realistic. How could a young boy not feel powerless when subjected to the atrocities of German occupation, and caught in the strong arm of Hitler? The film’s hyperrealism extends beyond the screen, with real World War II conditions being simulated as accurately as possible. Real bullets were often used, and the film was shot on location and in chronological order. The 13-year-old Aleksey Kravchenko consumed as little as 700 calories a day, and was trained by hypnotists to accurately portray the psychological effects of war. Arguably the most impressive thing about this movie is that they were able to artificially create the thousand-yard-stare. The cinematography and production design presents the world plainly, obscuring none of the death and carnage.
Despite this, much of Come and See is interpretive and abstract. In one scene, red tracer rounds fly over Flyora’s head like laser beams. One particularly interesting motif is the recurring appearance of a recon plane during pivotal scenes. This could represent the watchful eye of God, aiding Flyora through the torture. Or perhaps God corrupted, as if the director is implying that God had abandoned the world during the war, and we replaced Him with machines. The realistic and the abstract clash to create a disorienting experience, and by the end of the movie you’ve become fully invested in the horror, and it feels like nothing exists but the horror. Come and See is one of those movies that ruins your whole day, kind of in a good way. This isn’t the best screenplay ever written, but the impeccable elements of production and incomparable realism make this one of the most unforgettable films of all time, and my new personal pick for the greatest war movie of all time.