Come and See is possibly one of the most bleak, depressing experiences that cinema has to offer. Elem Klimov’s film about the Nazi invasion of Byelorussia follows a young boy’s descent into madness and desperation at the sight of the unspeakable horrors unfolding around him. At first the boy, Florya, is excited to become a partisan and defend his country. He digs through the sand near his village in search of a gun, a remnant of past skirmishes, in order to join the resistance forces and aid his fellow countrymen in the Sacred War. But his enthusiasm is short-lived. Every bit of Florya’s innocence is dismantled and discarded. First he loses his childish looks and the happy gleam in his eyes, then he loses his hearing and, finally, his mind.
What makes Come and See the definitive portrayal of the horrors of war is its detachment thereof. When Florya’s forced to give his boots to an older and more experienced partisan and is left behind by his comrades, there is no judgement on the film’s part. When the bombs fall and Florya and his new friend, Glosha, are nearly killed, there is no judgement. When Florya finally realizes his mother and sisters are dead, there is, again, no judgement. The list of atrocities grows ever longer, yet Klimov refrains from giving the viewer anything other than Florya’s reaction, his pain, his fear and confusion, only occasionally interrupted by the camera’s meandering through the bloody mise-en-scene. It’s simply the story of a boy that is forced to endure, to survive in a climate that so many succumbed to, that haunts our collective consciousness even today, more than 70 years after the end of the war.
Not once are we, the viewers, permitted to avert our gaze. The camera focuses on the hellscape that surrounds Florya. There is no optimism to be found in Come and See, no respite for the boy or for the viewer. In scene after scene we see charred fields, misty villages full of unhealthy-looking common folk, bogs and swamps, destruction and decay. Nothing remains whole in this world for long, not the characters, not the scenery, not even the animals. When Florya and his uncle steal a cow in order to feed the people of their village, they are almost immediately beset by sentry fire in the middle of an open field. The uncle dies, but his passing is quick, painless and almost tranquil. The cow on the other hand stands amid the whizzing bullets, utterly confused and unable to process what is happening before finally being hit and killed. Much like the common people, those who suffered the bulk of both Stalin and Hitler’s murderous fantasies and power games, it was caught in the middle of something much larger than itself, something it couldn’t comprehend. And maybe it shouldn’t be able to comprehend it. After all, war is not part of nature. It’s a human creation that escaped our grasp and morphed into something that runs contrary to everything we are, everything we should be.
One of the main components of this carefully composed parade of confusion and terror is the sound design. There is overlapping babble of soldiers during the scenes in which the camera is left to wander, abandoning Florya’s nightmarish perception of what is unfolding around him and taking a stroll through the devastation, giving us an unflinching look at the pain and suffering caused by the Nazis on their march through Byelorussia, which we are told at the end of the movie resulted in 628 villages burned, along with the people in them. Back in Florya’s skin, we’re subjected to constant noise, reminding us of his damaged hearing and acting as a sort of barrier between him and the rest of the world. It is only at the very end of the movie that we hear music, uninterrupted and pure, as the camera looks up, towards the snow covered peaks of the pine trees in the forest and Mozart’s Lacrimosa from Requiem plays. The viewer is left to make of that what they will. Is it a hint of optimism at the end of a film that portrayed the beginning of a bloody campaign? Or is it Klimov’s way of saying c’est la vie and turning to the sky in a sign of complete bewilderment and desperation?
And, of course, I can’t help but mention the one sequence that most people talk about after seeing this movie. Florya, after witnessing the execution of the men responsible for the mass murder just minutes earlier in the film’s run time, sees a portrait of Hitler floating in the mud. As he points his gun at it and pulls the trigger, he witnesses time running backwards. All the events at the end of World War 2 are reversed. We see Hitler’s life in rewind all the way back to his first days on this planet, as a new-born babe in his mother’s hands. And Florya, shocked, lets go of the trigger. Again, no clear-cut answer is provided. Was Florya taken aback by the realization that his sworn enemy was not, in fact, an alien or a monster, but rather a human being just like him, yet capable of unspeakable evils, testament to the darkest parts of our psyche? Or did Florya simply snap at that moment and lose what remained of his marbles, going off with his comrades to fight in the war as a way of coping with his complete loss of humanity? Most great movies are ambiguous, and this one is no exception.