Why do people watch Come and See (1985), Russian director Elem Klimov’s film about a young man trying to survive World War II in what is now Belarus? The events of the film are so disturbing that they age its teenage protagonist Flyora and turn his hair white. The images that Klimov, his co-writer Adamovich, and director of photography Aleksei Rodionov created were considered so disturbing that Klimov noted in an interview that ambulances had to come to theaters in Russia and Hungary to take away disgusted viewers. Why, then, should people watch such a film, especially in dark times such as ours?
One reason is that it is one of the most well-made films ever created. Klimov and Rodionov expertly use Steadicam technology to create elegant, gliding tracking shots that rival the work of Max Öphuls. The forest locations they film in, especially during the early scenes, are beautiful. In addition, the sound design is just as aesthetically exceptional as the visual style. At times it puts you “in the ears” of Flyora after he gets tinnitus, and at other times creates a cacophony of screams that you will not soon forget. This film’s incredibly high production value makes you want to marvel at it, even as you wish you could avert your eyes.
I can list many more reasons why you should watch Come and See. I could write entire pieces on its strange undercurrent of surrealism, welcome moments of levity (including an especially delightful shot of a double rainbow near the female lead Glasha), or its heartbreakingly powerful lead performance by Aleksey Krevchenko as the teenage partisan Floyra. But ultimately, the most important reason why you should watch Come and See is not because of its high value as a work of fiction. Instead, it is the history that it tells, and the messages it conveys.
The graphic climax of Come and See, in which the Germans lock an entire village in a barn before setting it on fire, actually happened many times. As a later title card will inform us, the Nazis destroyed “628 Belorussian villages…along with all their inhabitants.” By putting this horrific imagery on screen, Klimov sears the brutality of the invading Germans into the memory of anyone who sees this film. The cinéma vérité style with which he depicts this atrocity, as opposed to earlier scenes that featured stylistic flourishes, aids in depicting its full horror. Klimov ensures that anyone who watches it will feel the full revulsion of this crime against humanity, and hopefully recoil from leaders who try to start wars with other countries, especially in an election year that offers Americans a chance to vote out a man who tried to start a war with Iran. It is not for nothing that acclaimed filmmaker Karyn Kusama praised this film for its “confrontational, deeply moral filmmaking,” or that Klimov’s co-writer Ales Adamovich described Come and See as “evidence of war, and…a plea for peace.”
Many people have testified to the power of Come and See. Academy Award-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins recently recorded an interview with the Criterion Collection praising it. Director László Nemes has acknowledged that it was an influence on his powerful drama Son of Saul. But the most memorable review of this movie came from an elderly German man that Klimov recalled standing up at a post-film discussion. He declared that he was “a soldier of the Wehrmacht; moreover, an officer of the Wehrmacht. I traveled through all of Poland and Belarus, finally reaching Ukraine. I will testify: everything that is told in this film is the truth.” He went on to note that “the most frightening and shameful thing for me is that this film will be seen by my children and grandchildren.” May we all act as if the ones who come after us will see movies about what we have done in times of great crisis.
On September 25 at 7 pm, filmmakers Karyn Kusama and Alexandre O. Philippe will be present for a conversation and interactive Q&A in IU Cinema’s Virtual Screening Room, where they will discuss Elem Klimov’s Come and See. This special event is part of the Cinema’s Filmmaker to Filmmaker series.
We encourage you to watch (or re-watch) Come and See before joining us for this event. If you do not own the film, you can watch it online via the Criterion Channel or iTunes.
Jesse Pasternack is a graduate of Indiana University. During his time at IU, Jesse was the co-president of the Indiana Student Cinema Guild. He also wrote about film, television, and pop culture for the Indiana Daily Student. Jesse has been a moderator at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival and is a friend of the Doug Loves Movies podcast. An aspiring professional writer-director, his own film work has appeared at Campus Movie Fest and the Anthology Film Archives in New York City.