When a colleague and I were asked by our editors if we could assemble a list of the twenty greatest movies about World War II ever made, I knew that I finally had to deal with a film that I had yet to see, the modern Russian classic Come and See. I wasn’t prepared though for what a gut-wrenching experience this is.
Joining the partisans
In 1943, the Byelorussian teenager Flyora (Aleksey Kravchenko) is excited about joining the partisans, the resistance movement fighting the Nazi occupiers in modern-day Belarus. His mother, who knows better, is devastated, but has no say in the matter; the partisans need men and any teenager will do. Flyora wants to be a war hero, but is sorely disappointed when more experienced militiamen are chosen for a mission. Weeping, he wanders into the forest and meets Glasha (Olga Mironova), a girl who’s working for the partisans as a nurse. There’s a bothersome age difference between them, but a sudden attack from German bombers and paratroopers brings them together, as they flee for their lives.
Eventually, they reach Flyora’s village where they find his home deserted. Flyora believes they must have escaped and thinks he can reach them on an island across a bog. Glasha joins him, even though she knows better…
Stark memories from the war
This was director Elem Klimov’s final film, and what an exhausting, nightmarish masterpiece it is. Born in Stalingrad, he had stark memories from the war, having escaped the city along with his mother and brother during the 1942-1943 battle. His parents were loyal Communists, but as a filmmaker Klimov was too unruly to fully obey the party. Even a film like Come and See, depicting German atrocities against the Soviet Union like we’ve never seen before, faced resistance. Klimov came across the novel ”I Am From the Fiery Village” in the 1970s and met one the writers, Ales Adamovich, who had fought with the partisans in Belarus as a teenager. That’s when he realized what he needed to make a movie about, the events that become the centerpiece of Come and See – the burning of hundreds of villages in Belarus, a crime that is thoroughly documented but not widely discussed. Klimov and his team shot it in Belarus, staying as faithful as possible to the environs and culture.
Come and See has many unforgettable images, some of them surreal, but nothing tops the long sequence where an SS unit (inspired by the real-life Dirlewanger Brigade, a German group of soldiers consisting mainly of convicted criminals) gather villagers and lock them up in a barn before torching it and aiming their machine guns at the burning inferno. This was done in many places throughout Belarus and the filmmakers make this hell on earth come alive vividly. It’s like watching an absurd painting, packed with quaint details. I have no idea how Klimov and cinematographer Aleksei Rodionov pulled it off, because there is so much going on in one vast place and the camera keeps moving all over it, capturing the worst of mankind in exactly the right moments. It’s a triumph of planning and blocking, and the effect is jaw-dropping.
Young Kravchenko was only 14 when the project began and one wonders how he survived this with his mind intact; there are so many harrowing scenes for him to endure and his performance is very intense. It feels like we spend the film chasing him; the camera keeps moving, almost creating the illusion of a single take as we effortlessly move from one scenario to the next.
My colleague and I ended up placing this film as number one on that list. It’s hard to think of any other movie that captures the surreal and historical relevance of the war in such a profound way.
Come and See 1985-Soviet Union. 136 min. Color. Directed by Elem Klimov. Screenplay: Elem Klimov, Ales Adamovich. Book: Ales Adamovich, Janka Bryl, Vladimir Kolesnik (”I Am From the Fiery Village”). Cinematography: Aleksei Rodionov. Cast: Aleksey Kravchenko (Flyora), Olga Mironova (Glasha), Liubomiras Laucevicius (Kosach), Vladas Bagdonas, Evgeniy Tilicheyev, Viktors Lorents.
Trivia: Original title: Idi i smotri.
Last word: “On the one hand, ‘Come and See’ is a memory about war. A people’s memory about the war. And it was meant to be a people’s film. That is, the recollections of the most horrible moments of the war. On the other hand, the main thrust, the main point, of this film was directed towards the present. It stands as a warning for all about war itself. Or, I might say, a passionate warning against war. A Japanese friend, upon seeing the film at the Moscow film festival, said: ‘Your Belarusian village is like our Hiroshima. And that the whole world could once again become an Hiroshima.'” (Klimov, Kinema)