“Come and See” (dir. by Elem Klimov)



A 13 year-old boy’s odyssey during the Nazi occupation of Byelorussia. Startling mixture of lyrical poeticism and expressionist nightmare; an anti-war masterpiece. 1985. In Russian with English subtitles. Not rated. 2 hr. 22 min.

The following is adapted from Roger Ebert’s 2010 article on the film:

It’s said that you can’t make an effective anti-war film because war by its nature is exciting, and the end of the film belongs to the survivors. No one would ever make the mistake of saying that about Elem Klimov’s “Come and See.” This 1985 film from Russia is one of the most devastating films ever about anything.

The film begins with an ambiguous scene, as a man calls out commands to invisible others on a beach. Who is he? Who is he calling to? Why is he fed up with them? It’s revealed that he’s calling out to children who have concealed themselves among the reeds. They are playing games of war, and digging in the sand for weapons concealed or lost during some earlier conflict.


Florya’s younger sisters

We meet them. Florya, perhaps 14, lives nearby with his family. It is 1943, Hitler’s troops are invading the Soviet republic of Byelorussia, and Florya dreams of becoming a heroic partisan and defending his homeland. He wants to leave home and volunteer. His family forbids him. But as events unfold, he leaves, is accepted in a fighting unit, forced to change his newer shoes with a veteran’s worn-out ones and is taken under the wing of these battle-weary foot soldiers.

He is still young. He seems younger than his years in early scenes, and much, much older in later ones. At first he is eager to do a good job; posted as a sentry, told to fire on anyone who doesn’t know the password, he challenges a girl scarcely older than he is. He does not shoot her; indeed, he never shoots anybody. They grow friendly. Glasha, innocent and warm, dreams of her future. Florya is not articulate and may be mentally slow, but he is touched.

The film follows him for its entire length, sometimes pausing to look aside at details of horror. He doesn’t see everything. In particular, there’s a scene where he and the girl, separated from the army unit, return to his family farm, where he expects a warm welcome. There is nobody there, furniture is upturned, but it seems they’ve just left. A pot of soup is still warm. He suddenly becomes convinced he knows where they’re gone, and pulls her to run with him to an island in a marshland. Then she sees a sight that he doesn’t.

Later Florya finds himself in a village as Nazi occupiers arrive. There is a sustained sequence as they methodically round up all the villagers and lock them into a barn. The images evoke the Holocaust. As he’s shoved in as part of the seething crowd, Florya’s eyes never leave the windows high above the floor. By now his only instinct in life has become to escape death. Parents and children, old people and infants, are all packed in. The Nazis call for any able-bodied men to come out. The fathers stay with their families. Florya scrambles out a window and watches as the Nazis burn down the barn. This incident, and the story of the boy himself, are based on fact.


The principal Nazi monster in the film, S.S. Major Sturmbannfuhrer, is a suave, heartless beast. He toys with an unpleasant little simian pet that clings to his neck. He is almost studious in his murderous commands. His detachment embodies power, which is the thing Florya never for a moment possesses throughout the movie. It is possible that Florya survives because he is so manifestly powerless. To look at him is to see a mind reeling from shock. One would like to think the depiction of the Nazis is exaggerated, but no. The final title card says, “The Nazis burned down 628 Byelorussian villages together with all the people in them.”

It strains credulity to imagine Florya surviving all the horrors that he witnesses, but there was a real Florya, and Klimov’s script was written with Ales Adamovich who was the same age as the hero in the film. He and his family fought with the partisans and witnessed the genocide perpetrated by the Nazis on Belarussian soil. The film was shot in Byelorussia (now known as Belarus) near where the events took place, and used no professional actors.



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