The horrors of war in Come and See (1985)

Soviet times are often demonized in the West, even a small collection of words in her favor straps in for a ride of a particularly colorful dose of anti-communism.

Well regardless of which political stance you take, there is one horror any common person worth a damn could unify under and that’s war, and all the ugly beasts it unleashed. 

Come and See was a film I had on my watchlist for an extended period of time but with the recent wars that have broken out over the years, and a deafening chorus of war drums being stroked across the world, I decided I needed sobering and came to the film with a simple request. 

“Let me fear what I never have known, let me kiss this peaceful ground I walk every day.”

Elem Klimov’s masterpiece is not for the faint-hearted, it’s war at its most brutal and barbaric, it’s a film that will leave you sick and turning away only to be wrestled back into the frontline of the horror. The horror we have often been cradled away from, the screeches of the voiceless and nameless, the ones that die in our phone screens and trending tweets.

The film was released on July 9, 1985, but director Klimov had a long battle with Soviet censorship that lasted 8 years prior to the release of the movie. Klimov being a survivor of World War 2 himself felt the film was needed, not because he wanted to make the audience clap in a triumphant cheering of the “good guys” but simply to show that in war, only one thing is certain–true agony. 

The opening scene is our first introduction to our main character a teenage boy Flyora playing with one of his friends in a village in Belarus, the two boys at first seem to be imitating German soldiers playing around in the fields but it soon revealed the boys are looking for weapons instead, in hopes they could join Partisan groups fighting off Nazi invasion. 

Quickly the boys return home and split up into their individual homes, Flyora walks into his home shared by his mother and little twin sisters, they are peasants in a town of peasants but the boy has big aspirations, to fight and to find glory. 

His mother pleads with him to stay, her face becoming colored with a mother’s worry and desperation, as a Partisan group looking for recruits comes to the village her son’s fate is sealed, she begs the men not to take him away. 

“He’s a good boy, a kind boy,” she screams but to no avail, the Partisans don’t have time for a mother’s tears, it was the tears of the Soviet Union’s they were looking to wipe.

There is often a game in war, both sides play it to different devious ends but it’s the idea of heroism that stays the same, the idea that you are doing unquestionable good while the one standing across from you on that battlefield is not wrong in ideology but simply in existing. 

The Soviets had the most casualties in World War 2 with the Nazis slaughtering upwards of 20 million of their people both soldier and civilian. The atrocities committed against them are still not widely discussed in this region of the world, partly due to the taboo of communism and partly due to Stalin being such a reviled figure. 

Yet a people protecting themselves against slaughter and extermination from one of the evilest forces in history is a fight worth remembering, and in terms of today’s Russia, a shell of its former might, philosophy, and size now finds herself on the other side of the aisle, attacking foreign soil, showing history is truly a cruel poem.

The film has scenes that would make Deakins quiver in terms of shots and one of the most goosebump-inducing moments is when the character of Flyora, after quickly being broken away from his Partisan herd is caught by Nazi forces, more specifically the especially cruel and sadistic SS and is made to watch as a whole group of villagers are shoved into a barn and burned alive, children and elders are not spared. 

As this barbaric act is being carried out, there is a specific uncomfort about the agonizing length of the shot, its unflinching commitment to pulling the audience into the moment is an immensely brave act. Klimov doesn’t let us look away, the same way he never could, the same way Belarus never could, and the same way no one in the face of conflict could ever dream of doing.

Looking away is a privilege, a privilege that only comes to us fat cats of the West, our job is only to hashtag and retweet, to send money and the great sympathy that only we can muster, while other countries are meant to die.  

It’s cruel, it’s war and it’s real. 

Come and See Me is a film that doesn’t stutter through hero-worship, its job is to be a simple historian of what it observes. The ending of the film is one that has gone down in cinema history as one of its prized possessions. Florya meets back with some Partisans and advances forward with them, protecting Belarus, or what’s left of it after 30% of its population was killed.

On his journey he sees a portrait of Hitler, the man that has destroyed his life and his world, he points his gun at the photo and symbolically shots Hitler over and over, each time a different part of Hitler’s rise shows, as he continues to shot it begins to show Hitler in his youth until a photo of him with his mother shows. 

He hesitates. 

He looks into the eyes of Adolf Hitler, not the evil mass murderer but Hitler the innocent child, and he can’t pull the trigger. He can’t kill a child. 

War is inhuman and barbaric, good men aren’t. 

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