Catching Up with the Classics: COME AND SEE (1985)

Is there such a thing as an anti-war film?

One of the best things about being a filmgoer in the digital age is the sheer amount of film history that’s now within reach. From streaming to repertory screenings, there’s no shortage of opportunities to catch up on cinematic blind spots. But, like most of us, I’ve spent years collecting way too many movies in my “to-watch” list with no impetus to, well, actually sit down and watch them.

I decided in May 2018 that needed to change. I whittled down my assorted lists of the best films I hadn’t seen into a solid list of titles I found exciting or irresistible. I shot for an even 100, but some films seemed too tempting to deny — so I ended up with 115 in total.

To keep myself motivated, I came up with three rules:

  1. Write a review for each film on the list. These films earned their spots in cinema history, and they deserve proper attention.
  2. Don’t move onto the next film without writing a review for the previous one. This isn’t a project to speed through for completion’s sake.
  3. If I can, watch them on the big screen–especially with a friend. If I’m watching a classic for the first time, why not seize the opportunity for the best viewing possible?

It’s been such a liberating experience watching these films for the first time over the past year. Now, thanks to Editor-in-Chief Ed Travis, I’m excited to continue this journey on Cinapse. Feel free to catch up on the last fifty entries on my Letterboxd, and to get an idea of what blind spots I’ll be rectifying in the weeks to come. I’d love to get thoughts on the reviews so far, as well as to talk about any favorites on the list. And, of course, to get recommendations for the next round!

Film 51 of 115: Come and See (1985)

Compared to the Great War, where film was in its infancy, World War II was fought in a cinema-dominated world. Footage from the front lines, both real and fictionalized, brought the international conflict to local filmgoers more so than ever before. From 1939 to 1945, there was a vested interest in doing so to bolster the war effort. Afterwards, dramatizing the War — the victors into heroes, the villainous losers even more so — helped place the recent bloodshed into a uniquely mythic context, regardless of national origin. Whether it’s because the war was so well-documented, or because of how the war was documented, one thing is for sure: World War II’s an incredibly cinematic war.

Whether by Frank Capra or Leni Riefenstahl, films during this brutal period in history became a vehicle for easily digestible ideas of heroism, patriotism, and, to varying degrees, an undeniable sense of nationalism. Here’s a conflict where the battle lines were so clearly delineated not just between Axis and Ally, but in a profound sense of right and wrong. As word of their atrocities spread, Nazism became synonymous with hegemonic Evil, and the Allied Forces were immortalized as courageous heroes who fought not just for their member nations, but for the fate of the world as we knew it. This resonance hasn’t faded over the years, either; according to Box Office Mojo, 2017’s triple-feature of Dunkirk, Darkest Hour, and Mudbound racked up eighteen Oscar nominations and over half a billion dollars in international box office between them.

Such inherent drama gives a certain weight to François Truffaut’s claim that there’s no such thing as an “anti-war” film — that films dramatizing war inevitably end up glorifying it. However, Elem Klimov’s Come and See doesn’t just ridicule this idea — this film rejects it outright.

The film follows Flyora (Aleksey Kravchenko), a teenager who follows his dream of joining the Partisans in the forests of Belorussia in their fight against the Nazis. As he joins their ranks, the soldiers abandon Flyora, ordering him to remain behind in a reserve camp. His eagerness to fight is ridiculed by a local girl, Glasha (Olga Mironova). The dreamlike eden of their camp is suddenly destroyed as they’re barraged by bombs, and for the next two days Flyora is plunged into a nightmarish maelstrom of gunfire and genocide.

Flyora encounters atrocity after atrocity, each moment trumping the next with random, senseless barbarity. Flyora returns to his village, where he learns of the undignified fate that befell his family but he narrowly avoided himself. The village’s other survivors transform an enemy’s skull and uniform into an effigy of Adolf Hitler for them to vent their rage upon. A dead man circles aimlessly about on a driverless sidecar, strapped to a sign urging cooperation with the Germans. A packed church is set on fire. And all Flyora and the audience can do is watch it happen.

Come and See’s repulsive sights are made even more so by the passionate dispassion of how Klimov shoots his subjects. There’s at once an ethereal aimlessness and brutal rigor to Klimov’s camera, hurtling through the horrors of this world with no sense of control or direction of one’s own, the audience urged ever forward by an unseen hand. Sweeping tracking shots wander from open, beautiful fields tinged with smoke to uncomfortably close shots of carnage, turning the most cinematic war into a virtueless hellscape.

Each act of cruelty is joined by Flyora’s stare. Klimov’s camera never focuses on anything else when Flyora’s attention is focused on it. Flyora’s face is one that haunts and is haunted by the worst nightmares–once sparkling with youthful vigor, his eyes deaden into obsidian glass. There is a timelessness to his fear, a young face marred by the crimson blood of others and hair that grows elderly white over just two days. It stares to make sense of the world until it realizes there’s no sense to be gained. It rages at the myriad horrors in front of it until they cease to not only be horrifying, but also unique.

There is a moment near Come and See’s climax where Flyora is forced to pose for a Nazi group photo while a gun is aimed at his head. It echoes Flyora’s proudest moment, where he joins Belorussian partisans for a photo in the forest. There’s no pride here — just abject terror. His tearful gaze is a pleading interrogation to the viewer, a spectator looking upon spectators. Klimov confronts us with our choice to stay and watch Flyora’s suffering by uniting his helplessness with our own, creating an unbreakable cinematic bond between viewer and protagonist. As a result, when the scene’s anticlimax comes, both Flyora and the audience are left devastated.

There’s no honor or necessity in the violence depicted in Come and See. There’s no sense of duty accomplished or wrongs righted. This is a world where allegiances last the length of a battlefield and morality is a luxury few can afford. With Come and See, Klimov strips away notions of heroism and civic duty until the only thing worth fighting for is just another minute of existence. By the end of the film, Flyora isn’t fighting for a cause. He isn’t even fighting to live — he’s merely following the instinct not to die. And there’s a hell of a distinction between the two.

But there is still one choice left for Flyora to make. It’s rooted in the same dilemma the partisans and villagers have when given the opportunity to take revenge on the Nazis who killed their families. I don’t wish to spoil how Flyora’s choice comes to pass — but it’s a moment that acknowledges a universal capacity to do evil deeds. That no matter one’s national origin or moral upbringing, the choice to commit violence is just that: a choice. Here, Flyora must hypothetically decide whether committing one unforgivable act is worth preventing multitudes more.

It’s in this moment that Klimov finds one glimmer of hope amidst Flyora’s apocalypse — that a boy still exists, buried under Flyora’s haggard, aged exterior. And, ultimately, Flyora’s dilemma is one that Klimov and Come and See urges us to confront so that the generations after us won’t have to do the same.

While Flyora may be a fictional character, the atrocities depicted in Come and See are tragically based in fact. Klimov co-wrote the screenplay with Ales Adamovich, who fought alongside the partisans as a teenager; his book, “I Am from the Fiery Village,” is a history of the hundreds of Belorussian villages destroyed by the Nazis. When Klimov acknowledged that the brutality of Come and See may be too difficult for their audience to handle, Adamovich told him, “Let them not watch it, then. This is something we must leave after us. As evidence of war, and as a plea for peace.”

Come and See is a film about World War II that does not seek to mythologize acts of valor, nor does it believe that any cause is worth taking the life of another. It recognizes the immense responsibility of filmmakers inherent in depicting acts of violence, and endeavors to give equal weight to their brutal consequences. It vilifies both crimes against humanity and acts of subsequent revenge. And, most importantly, it is an anti-war film because it recognizes that to romanticize our brutal history is to ensure it is repeated.

It was a punishing experience watching Come and See, but that does not mean it’s an unforgiving one. It is a film I may not ever watch again, but it is one I’m ultimately grateful for and one I doubt I will ever forget.

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