In Focus: Come and See (1985)

By Susie Kahlich

How do you recognize perfection? When talking about film, it should be obvious, right?  Multi-dimensional characters, clever but realistic dialogue, a plot that both surprises and makes sense, subplots that engage and tie up loose ends.  In short, perfection in film is the power to draw the viewer into and make them a part of the world that is being presented, to let them walk away feeling like they’ve just returned from an epic journey—of the heart, of the mind, of the funny bone – it doesn’t matter which. What matters is the experience. If the producers have done their job correctly it’s an experience that the viewer will want revisit again and again.

There are some experiences, however that are so pure, so perfect, that you know to have it again will only ruin its perfection.  For me, that’s the definition of a truly well written film.  And for me, that film is the 1985 Soviet war movie, Come and See.

Written by Ales Adamovich and Elem Klimov, Klimov also directed this piece, Come and See draws upon both men’s personal experiences during World War II in Belorusse, where the Nazis systematically burned hundreds of villages to the ground, exterminating their inhabitants in some of the most brutal acts of wartime in the 20th Century. The film perfectly captures the essence of war; presenting it as the horrifying night terror it is at its core.

Come and See begins with a gun and ends with a gun: a gun found by the boy Florya. Over the course of the film it becomes a symbol of the tragic burden placed upon the man Florya turns out to be. The story is told with little dialogue and poetically wrenching cinematography, the film alternates between fairytale-like imagery and gruesome reality as Florya grows from confounded innocence to angry futility at the massacre of his entire world – in fact, of the entire world.

When I think of child soldiers in Sierra Leone, the atrocities in the Balkans, the hundred years of war in Afghanistan, this is what I think of. Come and See has defined for me what it feels like to be caught in a war, to be invaded, to live through the tragicomedy of a manmade hell even though I’ve never, very thankfully, had the first-hand experience.

Come and See has the rare power to move, to haunt, to stay with you years after seeing it.  I’ve only seen it once, and that was many years ago.  Although I should watch it again, I feel I don’t need to.  The experience was perfect: I have lived through war, I have survived, I have been changed by it forever.  This may sound naïve to some, after all how can a film harness the true brutality of war? Come and See is as close as film is ever likely to get to this.

Klimov never made another film after Come and See was released in 1985. In 2001 – two years before his death –he said: “I lost interest in making films … Everything that was possible I felt I had already done.”

The ability to create perfection is also, arguably, rooted in the ability to know when to walk away.

One response to “In Focus: Come and See (1985)

  1. My friend Ben always told me Come and See was an amazing film – I still have his DVD of it and have not got around to watching it yet. Your piece confirmed the impression I had that it is something you very much have to be in the mood for!

    I actually found watching Rambo an experience similar to the one you described with Come and See: incredibly powerful and I hesitate to watch it again because doing so might well reduce the impact it had on me.

    A film in a similar vein that is well worth checking out is Cross of Iron. It is also set on the Eastern front in WWII and is equally anti-war in its message, but more specifically focuses on the experiences of soldiers without featuring atrocities like the Einsatzgruppen massacres. Sam Peckinpah at his finest!

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