Come and See

English Title: Come and See

Original Title: Idi i smotri

Country of Origin: Soviet Union

Studio: Belarusfilm, Mosfilm

Director: Elem Klimov

Screenplay: Ales Adamovich, Elem Klimov

Cinematographer: Aleksei Rodionov

Art Director: Viktor Petrov

Editor: Valeriia Belova

Runtime: 142 minutes

Genre: War Drama

Language: Russian, Belarusian, German

Starring/Cast: Aleksei Kravchenko, Liubomiras Lauciavicius, Olga Mironova

Year: 1985

Volume: Russian

Nazi-occupied Belarus, 1943. Fifteen-year-old Flera leaves his protesting mother and his sisters to join the partisans in the nearby woods. He embraces the life of a resistance fighter until excluded from an important mission. Disgruntled, he wanders away and meets the bewitching partisan girl, Glasha. Together they escape a German air raid which destroys the camp and leaves Flera half-deaf. Upon return to village, Flera learns that his family and others have been massacred, and blames himself. He rejoins the detachment and goes on an ill-fated mission, only to witness the death of his comrades and to seek refuge in another village on the day it is slated for destruction by the SS. The Germans and their collaborators herd the villagers into a barn and set it on fire. Flera is left for dead in the burned-down village. The partisans ambush and execute the Germans. Flera, whose ordeal has turned him into a wizened old man, shoots at the discarded portrait of Hitler. The shooting alternates with documentary footage of Hitler’s life run in reverse until he appears as a baby. Flera stops shooting. The final caption says 628 Belarusian villages were destroyed by the Nazis in World War II.

A perfect companion piece to The Ascent, directed by Klimov’s wife Larisa Shepit’ko, Come and See complements the visual and narrative austerity of the former with baroque imagery and unrestrained emotion. Both are based on canonical works of Belarusian ‘partisan prose’ (Vasil Bykov’s Sotnikov and Ales Adamovich’s The Khatyn Story, respectively) and both have abandoned the dry, lapidary book titles for ones with biblical allusions (Come and See references the Book of Revelation 6:1). The two films capture and bookend a cultural moment when the Great Patriotic War has ceased to be a recent memory and begun to demand a more metaphysical treatment, yet before any historical re-evaluation has become possible.

These films are markedly different from the early, Thaw-era attempts at ‘God-seeking’ in Soviet war cinema, but they also stand in contrast to each other. While The Ascent presents Sotnikov as a Christ figure who wins a spiritual victory over his tormentors, there are no such consolations in Come and See, no heroism or hope of redemption, except on the symbolical level. Its would-be hero is unaware of his true role: that of a helpless victim and the viewer’s guide on a tour into the heart of darkness. Some of the film’s most excruciating moments occur when the character’s tender age and idealism are pitted against un-childlike reality. The film’s most horrific scene may not be the final fiery death of a village, but Flera’s return to his home where everything speaks of tragedy: his little sisters’ dolls scattered across the floor, the soup on the stove, untouched and still warm. Flera wilfully misinterprets the ominous signs, blabbering excitedly that his mother and sisters ‘have left’. Is he naïve or in deep denial? A more mature Glasha chokes on the soup offered her and takes the boy away, glancing back only once to see a mound of corpses behind the house. After that, the horrors keep coming without a minute’s pause. This relentless insistence on the narrative of victimhood and suffering sets Come and See apart from other coming-of-age-in-a-war films, such as Evgenii Evtushenko’s contemporaneous, poeticized Kindergarten (1983) or Andrei Tarkovskii’s Ivan’s Childhood (1962), which was released by a US video distributor as The Youngest Spy. Somebody apparently saw fit to re-package it as a conventional war story. Come and See will never be known as The Youngest Partisan.

A film like this could appear only at a particular, pivotal moment in Soviet history, coming out as it was on the very eve of glasnost and actually helping usher it in. It could not have been made a few years before – as witnessed by Elem Klimov’s seven-year struggle to lift the project, initially called Kill Hitler, off the ground. And were it to be made later, its partisan characters would probably be less saintly and its Nazis less single-mindedly evil. However, these vestiges of Soviet propaganda do not distract from the powerful panorama of man’s inhumanity to man. The point-of-view Steadicam camerawork of Aleksei Rodionov is masterly without being showy, and the colour palette is suitably sombre, conveying an almost physical sensation of a foggy rural morning or a rainy day in the forest. The dialogue by Klimov and Adamovich (a mix of Russian and Belarusian) was startlingly realistic for its day and still retains its freshness.

Author of this review: Sergey Dobrynin