COME AND SEE (1985) – SOVIET WAR FILM SHOWS THE TRUE HORRORS OF WAR

Come and See (Russian: Idi i smotri) is a 1985 Soviet anti-war film directed by Elem Klimov and starring Aleksei Kravchenko and Olga Mironova. The film focuses on the Nazi German occupation of Belarus, and the events as witnessed by a young Belarusian partisan teenager named Flyora, who—against his mother’s wishes—joins the Belarusian resistance movement, and thereafter depicts the Nazi atrocities and human suffering inflicted upon the Eastern European villages’ populace. The film mixes hyper-realism with an underlying surrealism, and philosophical existentialism with poetical, psychological, political and apocalyptic themes.

The movie shows the true colors of war – the horror and suffering are brilliantly brought out among the actors

In 1943, two Belarusian boys dig in a sand-filled trench looking for abandoned rifles in order to join the Soviet partisan forces. Their village elder warns them not to dig up the weapons as it would arouse the suspicions of the occupying Germans. One of the boys, Flyora, finds an SVT-40 rifle, though both of them are seen by an Fw 189 flying overhead.

The next day two partisans arrive at Flyora’s house, to conscript him. Flyora becomes a low-rank militiaman and is ordered to perform menial tasks. When the partisans are ready to move on, the partisan commander, Kosach, says that Flyora is to remain behind at the camp. Bitterly disappointed, Flyora walks into the forest weeping and meets Glasha, a young girl working as a nurse in the camp, and the two bond before the camp is suddenly attacked by German paratroopers and dive bombers.

Flyora is partially deafened from the explosions before the two hide in the forest to avoid the German soldiers. Flyora and Glasha travel to his village, only to find his home deserted and covered in flies. Denying that his family is dead, Flyora believes that they are hiding on a nearby island across a bog. As they run from the village in the direction of the bogland, Glasha glances across her shoulder, seeing a pile of executed villagers’ bodies stacked behind a house, but does not alert Flyora.

The two become hysterical after wading through the bog, where Glasha then screams at Flyora that his family is actually dead in the village; resulting in the latter attempting to drown her. They are soon met by Rubezh, a partisan fighter, who takes them to a large group of villagers who have fled the Germans. Flyora sees the village elder, badly burnt by the Germans, who tells him that he witnessed his family’s execution and that he should not have dug up the rifles. Flyora, hearing this, then attempts suicide out of guilt, but Glasha and the villagers save and comfort him.

Rubezh takes Flyora and two other men to find food at a nearby warehouse, only to find it being guarded by German troops. During their retreat, the group unknowingly wanders through a minefield resulting in the deaths of the two companions. That evening Rubezh and Flyora sneak up to an occupied village and manage to steal a cow from a collaborating farmer. As they escape across an open field, Rubezh and the cow are shot and killed by a German machine gun. The next morning, Flyora attempts to steal a horse and cart but the owner catches him and instead of doing him harm, he helps hide Flyora’s identity when SS troops approach.

Flyora is taken to the village of Perekhody, where they hurriedly discuss a fake identity for him, while the SS unit, accompanied by Soviet collaborators surround and occupy the village. Flyora tries to warn the townsfolk as they are being herded to their deaths, but is forced to join them inside a wooden church. Flyora and a young girl are allowed to escape the church, but the latter is dragged by her hair across the ground and into a truck to be gang raped. Flyora is forced to watch as several Molotov cocktails and grenades are thrown onto and within the church before it is further set ablaze with a flamethrower as other soldiers shoot into the building. A German officer points a gun to Flyora’s head to pose for a picture before leaving him to slump to the ground as the soldiers leave.

Flyora later wanders out of the scorched village in the direction of the Germans, where he discovers they had been ambushed by the partisans. After recovering his jacket and rifle, Flyora comes across the young girl who escaped from the church in a fugue state and covered in blood after having been gang-raped and brutalized. Flyora returns to the village and finds that his fellow partisans have captured eleven of the Germans and their collaborators, including the commander, an SS-Sturmbannführer. While some of the captured men including the commander and main collaborator plead for their lives and deflect blame, a young fanatical officer, an Obersturmführer, is unapologetic and vows they will carry out their genocidal mission.

Kosach makes the collaborator douse the Germans with a can of petrol brought there by Flyora, but the disgusted crowd shoots them all before they can be set on fire. As the partisans leave, Flyora notices a framed portrait of Adolf Hitler in a puddle and proceeds to shoot it numerous times. As he does so, a montage of clips from Hitler’s life play in reverse, but when Hitler is shown as a baby on his mother’s lap, Flyora stops shooting and cries. A title card informs: “628 Belorussian villages were destroyed, along with all their inhabitants“. Flyora rushes to rejoin his comrades, and they march through the birch woods as snow blankets the ground. That is in a summary the whole film but the film is so much more than that.

This 1985 film from the Soviet Union is one of the most devastating films ever about anything, and in it, the survivors must envy the dead. The film’s beginning itself is with an ambiguous scene, as a man calls out commands to invisible others on a beach. Who is he? Who is he calling to? Why is he fed up with them? It’s revealed that he’s calling out to children who have concealed themselves among the reeds. They are playing games of war, and digging in the sand for weapons concealed or lost during some earlier conflict.

The film follows Flyora for its entire length, sometimes pausing to look aside at details of horror. He doesn’t see everything. In particular, there’s a scene where he and the girl, separated from the army unit, return to his family farm, where he expects a warm welcome. There is nobody there, furniture is upturned, but it seems they’ve just left. A pot of soup is still warm. He suddenly becomes convinced he knows where they’re gone, and pulls her to run with him to an island in a marshland. Then she sees a sight that he doesn’t.

Such a departure from his point of view doesn’t let us off easy. All he sees is horror, and all he doesn’t see is horror, too. Later Florya finds himself in a village as Nazi occupiers arrive. There is a sustained sequence as they methodically round up all the villagers and lock them into a barn. The images evoke the Holocaust. As he’s shoved in as part of the seething crowd, Florya’s eyes never leave the windows high above the floor. By now his only instinct in life has become to escape death. Parents and children, old people and infants, are all packed in. Florya scrambles out a window and watches as the Nazis burn down the barn, its locked double doors heaving from the desperation inside. This is a horrifying scene, avoiding facile cutaways and simply standing back and regarding. I would suggest Come & See is all about sight and the eyes – the eyes depict so much more – horror, cruelty, desperation, fear and coldness of death.

I have rarely seen a film more ruthless in its depiction of human evil. The principal Nazi monster in the film, S.S. Major Sturmbannfuhrer, is a suave, heartless beast not a million miles distant from Tarantino’s Col. Hans Landa. He toys with an unpleasant little simian pet that clings to his neck. He is almost studious in his murderous commands. His detachment embodies power, which is the thing Florya never for a moment possesses throughout the movie. It is possible that Florya survives because he is so manifestly powerless. To look at him is to see a mind reeling from shock.

The film depicts brutality and is occasionally very realistic, but there’s an overlay of muted nightmarish exaggeration. The swamp that Florya and Glasha wade through, for example, has a thick gelatinous top layer that seems like a living, malevolent skin. There’s a sequence in which Florya becomes involved with some cows who will become food for starving troops. The eventual death of the beast is told in a series of images that mirror the inexorable shutting down of life. The cow’s life was doomed one way or another, but these suggest how utterly incomprehensible death is to the cow. The nightmare intensifies after Florya is too near an artillery bombardment and is deafened. The sound becomes muted, and there is a faint ringing, which makes the reality of sound frustratingly out of reach for him. I cannot describe the famous sequence at the end. It must unfold as a surprise for you. It pretends to roll back history. You will see how. It is unutterably depressing, because history can never undo itself, and is with us forever.

The anguish is captured brilliantly as one scene shows it where Florya’s inconsolable anguish at being deserted by his surrogate family boils to a breaking point when he accidentally steps on a nest of eggs, killing the tiny birds in a glimpse of nature made horribly grotesque by his unavoidable human brutality. It’s this violent and immediate style of detailed poetic storytelling that grips you and drags at your senses with an inescapable urgency of survival. Klimov’s precise use of graphic symbolism will steadily increase to a fever pitch in the film’s stunning postmodern climax where a backward moving collage collapses Hitler’s Pandora’s box of death and the war that determines Florya’s survival.

JAY’S VERDICT

If you truly want to experience a “war film”, experience it through Come and See. It is a movie which will shock you in more ways than one and isn’t that what war truly is?

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