‘Come and See’

And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seals, and I heard, as it were the noise of thunder, one of the four beasts saying, Come and see.

And I saw, and behold a white horse: and he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering, and to conquer.

And when he had opened the second seal, I heard the second beast say, Come and see.

And there went out another horse that was red: and power was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth, and that they should kill one another: and there was given unto him a great sword.

And when he had opened the third seal, I heard the third beast say, Come and see. And I beheld, and lo a black horse; and he that sat on him had a pair of balances in his hand….

And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see.

And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.

Revelation 6:1-8, King James Version

I recently watched Elem Klimov’s phantasmagoric 1985 Soviet war film Come and See (Иди и смотри [Idi i smotri]). I’ve known about the film for years but have had trouble accessing it. Come and See made a strong impression on the few audiences who saw it when it first appeared (there are stories, like those surrounding The Exorcist, of ambulances waiting outside cinemas for traumatized filmgoers). But the film seemed to fade from memory. It was selected as the Soviet Union’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, but was absurdly not nominated by the Academy—that honor went to two other World War II dramas from Yugoslavia and West Germany, a period drama from Hungary, the French film on which Three Men and a Baby was based, and the eventual Oscar-winner, the legitimately good The Official Story from Argentina. Worthy as these films might have been, they illustrate once again the Academy’s bizarre taste in foreign-language films. And when it comes to war movies, the Academy tends to prefer the dull or saccharine; Come and See is decidedly neither.

A decade or so after its initial release, Come and See earned the reputation of a lost film suddenly rediscovered. The blunt shock of this rediscovery is palpable in the reviews that began to pop up in New York’s film circles around 2001 and 2002: the critics can’t believe what they’re seeing, a masterpiece of the twentieth century, the greatest war film ever made.

In 2017, Russian director Karen Shakhnazarov oversaw the restoration of Come and See, which won the prize for Best Restored Film at the Venice Film Festival that year, resulting in new prints circulating throughout Europe’s cinemas. In February 2020, a trailer for a new 2k restoration by Janus Films premiered at New York City’s Film Forum; a North American theatrical tour was supposed to follow, but alas, COVID-19 has put that on hold. The Criterion Collection will release the Janus Films restoration on Blu-Ray and DVD on June 30.

I don’t want to dwell much on the plot of the film. It follows a gentle, expressive teenage boy called Flyora through Nazi-occupied Belarus (then called Byelorussia) in 1943, during the height of the Wehrmacht’s occupation of Eastern Europe. Flyora is at first eager to join the partisans who mount continued resistance against the Germans. His experience with the comically inept Belorussian resistance leads him to return home, where…enough said about that.

Come and See‘s current reputation is like that of a snuff film. The title itself is a taunt, a dare. Like most films with this reputation, it’s not as bloody as you’d imagine (although I tried, and failed, to learn whether the cow in the film was actually killed by automatic gunfire—the scene looked too real to be fake, so be forewarned). The horror is derived not from gore but from…what can I say? The horror is derived from every aspect of the filmmaking. The film is shot in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio (very square, associated with silent movies), which makes the cinematography and mise-en-scène feel blankly rendered, almost naked, unframed. Whenever the film’s tone is whimsical (critic Daneet Steffens called it “fairy tale-like”), it is astonishingly effective. Whenever this fairy-tale tone is interrupted by artillery fire, it is astonishingly effective. Whenever the cinematography is flat and realist, passively showing the Nazis inflict every imaginable horror on the population of Belarus without judgment or commentary, is is astonishingly effective. Whenever the cinematographer draws our attention to a sentimental or melodramatic detail, such as the cow’s rotating eye as it dies, it is astonishingly effective. Whenever the acting is unnatural and stagey, like something from a silent movie, it works. Whenever the acting is brutally realistic, it works. Whenever the film’s legendary makeup is naturally and subtly applied to its actors, it works. Whenever the makeup is heavy and grotesquely stylized, it works. This is a rare film that deals in varied and sometimes conflicting tones and techniques and that chooses them perfectly for every scene, every time. Watching the “characters” die is as horrible as the scenes in which their deaths are merely implied. The slaughter of the guilty German officers and their Slavic compatriots is as horrifying as the slaughter of the innocent Belorussian civilians (and one Jewish man). Guilt or innocence doesn’t play much of a role in this film.

I put the word “characters” in quotation marks because Elem Klimov relied heavily on non-actors. Almost everyone in the Belorussian cast and crew had lived through the events portrayed in the film, which took place only 40 years earlier: they were working from vivid memory and so blurred the line between actor and character, between screenwriter and autobiographer, between director and documentarian. The centerpiece of the film is the arrival of German SS officers and German-allied Slavic troops into a small village. They destroy everyone and everything. This may be loosely based on the well-known Khatyn massacre (not to be confused with the Soviet-enacted Katyn massacre of 22,000 Poles), but that massacre isn’t a singular event so much as a synecdoche for a larger phenomenon. The film teaches us that 628 villages were burned to nothing during the three-year Nazi occupation of Belarus. Soviet historians found that over 300 villages were burned twice; over 120 villages were burned three times; thirty-seven villages were burned four or more times. Over 2 million Belorussian souls—roughly one quarter of the region’s population—were murdered. This was the living memory of everyone who worked on Come and See.

Watching the film, I felt the weight of each of those 2 million souls. No other Holocaust or war film has so successfully balanced both the particular, sacred individuality of each person’s life and the utter scope of the millions murdered. We never lose sight of the fact that each of these people is a person, and at the same time we feel that personhood within the context of millions of others.

As Roger Ebert wrote in his 2010 review of 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…Come and See. This 1985 film from Russia is one of the most devastating films ever about anything, and in it, the survivors must envy the dead.” Many critics have called Come and See an anti-war movie, which is puzzling. This is a film almost completely devoid of a message beyond the horror and reality of evil.

If anything, the film ends on a strange (but not jarring) triumphalist note. The survivors (how can there be any? we ask, after witnessing what we have witnessed) slowly emerge, gather their weapons, and march to join other survivors, forming a ragtag army of partisans that disappears into a black forest. They will offer what little resistance against the Wehrmacht they can until Marshal Georgy Zhukov’s Red Army sweeps through and finally liberates the region. Most of them will die.

This ending is historically interesting. Within six years of the film’s release, Belarus would gain its independence. One can’t imagine a film with such a nationalist focus—this is resolutely a Belorussian story—appearing earlier in Soviet history. But the 1980s was a period when nationalism was rising throughout Eastern Europe. These new nationalisms—from Slovenia to Serbia to Poland to Belarus—were grounded in the memory of horrors. These horrors occurred amid a series events that we in the Anglosphere somewhat clinically call “World War II,” that the Russians boastfully call “The Great Patriotic War,” that Jewish survivors call, with more specificity, “the Holocaust” or “Shoah.” There is no one word or term to unify the experiences of the Belorussians during these times. References to the Khatyn massacre do not do these events justice. If Come and See is about anything, it’s about the limits of language and thought to express or comprehend evil (it’s no coincidence that Flyora, about whom I’ve deliberately said little, is virtually mute throughout the second half of the film). It is also, in its final moments, about the terrible irreversibility of history. To watch Come and See is to develop a little more sympathy, however small, with those reservoirs of Eastern European nationalism that bubble up and cause so many geopolitical headaches for the West.

My review of Come and See on Letterboxd consisted of a single word: “Well….” I was not trying to be flippant. I was merely trying to capture the experience of seeing Come and See for the first time. It brings to mind the old Wittgenstein adage: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” (sometimes rendered “what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence”; in the original German, “wovon man nicht reden kann, darüber muss man schweigen”). The film does not pass over these horrors in silence, but it does do them the honor of portraying them without easy answers, without sentimentality, and without the luxury of a strong, coherent narrative that only a fiction could provide. It pushes the limits of what we talk about when we talk about fiction. But that’s another subject for another time.

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