"Come and See" Is an Apocalyptic Vision of the Past
The teenage boy’s ears are blown out, and blackish crimson is flooding out of his nose. A Nazi paratrooper is ensnared in the trees above him, struggling to grab a hold of a machine gun and spray the boy down with bullets. The teenage girl, her grip limply holding the strap of her rifle, once so eager to fight the enemy, has the opportunity to take her shot and defend her new friend. In a profoundly human moment, she grabs the boy and runs away rather than (justifiably) kill the fascist invader, because to take a life would mean too dramatic a change in their already horribly uprooted lives.
This is just one pivotal scene in Elem Klimov’s 1985 Soviet masterpiece “Come and See”. A key piece of Soviet cinema, Klimov’s film follows Flyora, a young peasant boy living in the Nazi-occupied Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (modern-day Belarus). Finding a rifle one day while digging in the sand, Flyora is conscripted into the partisan resistance movement.
“Come and See” invites the audience to be strangers in a strange land. Many Americans aren’t aware of the sacrifices made on the Eastern Front, with as many as 25 million Soviets dying. Facing not only the invading German forces, but also armed returning White Russian emigres and other collaborators, many ordinary Eastern Europeans who couldn’t immediately join the Red Army formed partisan guerilla units to fight back.
Named after a passage from the Book of Revelations, the apocalyptic final book of the New Testament, “Come and See” depicts Flyora’s dark odyssey through the savagery of the Second World War. Facing unspeakable brutality, Flyora is stripped to the deepest recesses of his subconscious, facing the terrible truth of the deeply unromantic but necessary struggle he has become part of.
The combat depicted isn’t fun or exciting. It is relatively sparse until the end and terrifying. The spaces between violent moments are incredibly tense.
Flyora faces an enemy he almost never can see directly; machine gunners many yards away shoot tracers across the dark wilderness; what appears to be little specks in the sky are really planes ready to drop thunderous bombs; and any clearing between the dense Byelorussian forests can be a treacherous minefield.
Any comrades Flyora makes along the way are quickly killed or separated from him. The only comrade Flyora reunites with is a teenage girl named Glasha, who is subjected to a fate worse than death.
Released to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Soviet victory in World War Two, colloquially known as the Great Patriotic War, “Come and See” meticulously recreates the barbarism used by the Nazis against the peoples of the Soviet Union. Klimov demonstrates that it wasn’t abstract patriotism and/or loyalty to the “Grand Marshal Comrade Stalin” that led millions of Soviets to fight against Nazism. Klimov depicts the war for what it was: an ugly life or death struggle.
“Come and See” works on all levels. It is a beautifully honest homage to the ordinary Soviet people who struggled against fascism, a frightening coming-of-age tale, and a beautifully shot technical masterpiece. In honor of the 74th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day, it is worth watching.