‘Come and See’ Turns the Eastern Front Into a Hallucinatory Hellscape
Everyone should watch the classic Soviet film about war crimes in the bloodlands
by MATTHEW GAULT
When Elem Klimov was nine his family fled Stalingrad for the Ural Mountains. It was 1942 and Hitler’s armies had pushed the Eastern Front deep into Soviet territory. Young Klimov poked his head out from under the blankets as his family crossed the Volga River.
One of the bloodiest battles in human history raged behind him. The city of his birth burned. Fire consumed the streets, buildings and even the Volga. He had never seen anything like it, but the worst was yet to come.
A thousand miles away, teenager Ales Adamovich aided his partisan family in Byelorussia. Nazi Germany wanted the territory to be a new frontier for ethnic Germans, but millions already lived there. The Nazis had a solution to that problem.
Forty years later, on the anniversary of the Soviet Union’s triumph over the Third Reich, the two men made a film about their experiences called Come and See. It’s one of the most devastating, haunting and bizarre movies I’ve ever seen.
Come and See is a Soviet film about the Nazi extinction campaign in Byelorussia during World War II. The movie opens with two kids digging for weapons on a beach. They want to join the partisans and resist the Nazis, but the guerrillas won’t take them without a weapon — and the beach holds many treasures.
Flyora, the older of the two boys, digs up a semi-automatic SVT-40 and grins. He rushes home where his mother begs him not to join the partisans. But Flyora won’t be swayed. He puts on his father’s over-sized suit and leaves his village just as dawn breaks.
What follows is, in director Klimov’s words, “an excursion into Hell.” Flyora hangs out with the partisans in the forest, meets a beautiful young girl, travels back to his village and wanders across the bloodlands as Nazi troops rampage through the villages of his homeland. It’s raw, horrible and honest in a way movies rarely are.
Come and See is one of those movies that comes up late at night when fans of grotesque cinema gather to trade favorites. It’s whispered about in the same hushed tones that follow Cannibal Holocaust, The Sinful Dwarf and A Serbian Film.
But Come and See is different. It has the grammar of an art film and the tone of an exploitation movie. The violence is terrible, but less overt than I expected, and less cartoony than the exploitation work of the Italian masters.
No one eats flesh, guts don’t explode and there’s no close-ups of bullet wounds. Yet Come and See haunts the viewer in ways the most sordid grindhouse celluloid show can’t.
Come and See is hallucinatory and shocking. Watching it made me feel as if I’d taken powerful psychedelics and wandered into the wrong house to hang out with the wrong people.
The camera closes in on faces until they fill the screen, demanding the audience look the victims in the eye. The young boy Flyora ages subtly, his youthful glow fades as wrinkles surround his eyes and his hair turns gray. Time clips forward in confusing ways. The pace slogs then lurches, never letting the viewer get comfortable.
Then there’s the sound. Come and See’s brilliant soundtrack does most of the work of unsettling the audience. Industrial noises drone over muted classical music as if Genesis P-Orridge is covering Mozart. Voices change and fade away before booming back to frighten the listener.
This discordant wall of hellish sound tinges even ostensibly happy scenes. Early in the movie, the partisans leave Flyora and the beautiful Glasha behind in the forest while they go to fight. Hurt by the adults leaving them behind, the pair share a pleasant time in the woods while avoiding the war.
But the filmmakers don’t want the audience to feel comfortable or happy watching the youths frolic. Just listen to the noise that plays while a smiling Glasha dances in the rain.
Feelings of dread and foreboding drip from that scene. Later, Flyora takes Glasha back to his village and the home of his mother. They’re looking for safety and security in a world turned to madness. They find neither.
Klimov uses the sound of flies and quick shots of dolls lingering on the floor to unsettle the audience and force them to understand what Flyora won’t face. The buzzing flies fills the speakers. The music swells. Glasha understands.
Klimov builds a terrible anticipation in that house and releases it when the two characters flee. Glasha looks over her shoulder and Klimov lets the audience see what she sees for just a moment.
It lasts maybe three seconds, but those three seconds both release the tension earned in the cabin and ratchet up the intensity of the overall film. It’s a brilliant movie.
A brilliant movie that harrowed its cast and crew. Klimov never directed another film. He didn’t use blanks in the weapons, instead firing live bullets over the actors’ heads. You can tell. “Thank God that boy … didn’t go mad,” Klimov said of his young lead.
Come and See feels like a mission. Both Klimov and writer Adamovich wanted to honor the dead and show the world what had happened to the people stranded on the Eastern Front. They filmed in Byelorussia and Adamovich spent time with the local villagers. He read aloud to them the first-hand accounts of people who had survived the genocide, and listened to their stories in return.
“It kept me from the tiniest falsehood. That subject was too sacred for us to be false,” Klimov explained during an interview late in his life. “The Byelorussian genes remember that holocaust because every fourth person perished there.”
When you watch — and you should watch — know that Klimov and Adamovich based the film’s climax on the story of a survivor they met. The SS burned that church and they did let some people flee if they didn’t have children. The survivors envied the dead.