director Elem Klimov
“War is hell,” that oft-quoted understatement is attributed originally to William Tecumseh Sherman and is no doubt applicable in many contexts. I imagine that many a War genre film has portrayed its topic as such and has probably evoked such a response in its viewers.
Elem Klimov’s 1985 film, Come and See, doesn’t depict a battlefield but rather an occupied country by an invading force. It’s 1943 in Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic and the peasants of the country are rising up in partisan troops to fight off the invading Nazis.
Klimov’s film is a visceral sensoria, a harrowing nightmare whose surrealism is evoked through utter naturalism paired with the subjective psychological effect of bearing witness to terror and atrocity. The witness of the hellishness of this war is teenage Flyora (an absolutely amazing Aleksei Kravchenko), from cheery pluck and naiveté to shell-shocked horror and trauma. The film opens on him playing with a younger boy, until he finds a rifle and declares himself fit to go and fight the war. He is quickly taken in by the partisan troops, but also left behind by them.
Abandoned in the woods he finds a beautiful teenage girl named Glasha, played by Olga Mironova, who has similarly been left behind by the troops. They share a brief, playful interaction before the bombs start strafing the woods, shattering trees and cascading down in destruction. It’s an amazing sequence, the first of several.
From there, Flyora’s journey goes from bad to worse: he finds his home abandoned (he doesn’t see what Glasha does, the bodies piled up behind it), a struggle through a mire to an isolated island, a hunt for food that winds up killing all his companions and the cow that they steal from a Nazi conspirator farmer, and ultimately the destruction of a village in which all of the people are corralled into a church which is then set on fire, killing all inside.
Toward the film’s end, photo-journalistic images invade the screen of death camps and marching soldiers and Adolph Hitler himself. And a title card reads “628 villages in Byelorussia were burnt to the ground with all their inhabitants,” signifying that the horror depicted was not conjured up in fiction nor by any way an isolated occurrence.
The film was made in part to remember to atrocities inflicted upon Belarus (Byelorussia), perhaps not one of the more well-known horrors enacted by the Nazis in their reign of terror in WWII. It was also, in part, made to recall the victory of the Russians over the Germans in 1945, the 40th anniversary of that event.
It’s an amazing film. Unbelievable. Aleksei Kravchenko was a non-professional actor when employed here and bears all the most amazing traits and genuine naturalism that come from the best uses of non-professional actors. His performance is completely amazing and harrowing and heartbreaking. This film is much more than his face but this film is also entirely embodied on his face, the stark-staring horror and tragedy and psychological trauma.