Sharky is a Maineiac from Portland rambling about all things art, and music of every stripe, including rock, progressive, jazz, symphonic, Lieder… and food, too. He writes regularly at Shark on Arts.
In 1985 Russian filmmaker Elem Klimov released his epic, Soviet-era, anti-war film, Come and See, based on the novel I Am From the Fiery Village, by Ales Adamovich, who co-wrote the screenplay with Klimov. By the time of its release, Klimov had fought his own war against the Soviet authorities who had prevented filming by declaring a litany of typical threats and nonsense which forbade the arts to portray realism (or anything deemed “controversial to the party”) in film. Soviet authorities tried bargaining with him, promising that, if he accepted their suggested alterations to his script, he could begin filming. Klimov held fast in his refusal to budge on any scene or suggestion. Somehow, his persistence paid off, approval was finally granted, and he spent the next nine months filming his uncompromised vision resulting in what many consider the greatest anti-war film of all time. I certainly do.
Rarely has a film’s title been so central, essential, so completely tied into every aspect of its storytelling, yet many audiences have had no idea of the reason for its name. It is taken from the Biblical prophecy of the Seven Seals from the Book of Revelation where the command of Come and See is used at the opening of the seals.
Most pertinent to the film, in my opinion, is the opening of the Fourth Seal:
And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see. And I looked, and beheld 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.
The story centers on Flyora, a 14-year-old boy who is witness to the Nazi occupation of his village in (what is now) Belarus, as well as to the abuse of the villagers at the hands of the invading German army. Though a delicate lad, Flyora desires nothing more than to join the resistance to fight and destroy the Nazis. In his way, he sees this as a means of becoming a hero. He imagines great things. His mother begs him not to do this, and when he refuses her desperate entreaties, she hands him an ax, commanding him to kill her and his young sisters on the spot. Flyora finds this gesture overdramatic… a joke, but mother knows what is coming. It is here we begin the chilling adventure, a nightmare from which there is no turning back.
Physically and mentally unprepared, Flyora plunges headfirst into a world of unspeakable horror, becoming our eyes and ears, and together we witness the atrocities only humans can bestow upon each other. Things that leave scars on both body and soul. Things that haunt. Things that change us forever.
As the story moves from village to village with the Nazis’ barbarousness increasing in each scene, Klimov unleashes an unrelenting barrage of sounds and images that move from the realistic brutality of war to visions of near biblical fantasy. With Flyora we come and see… see the burning of villages and villagers, parachuting Nazi forces dropping from the heavens, land mines exploding, forests decimated, starvation, and abuse of earth and humanity on every level. We can only watch it as Flyora does: through a sort of hypnotic trance, a suspension of disbelief… but it doesn’t work, as we know full well the reality facing us. The blur between reality and hallucinogenic delusion is overwhelming, as chimera and humanity fuse together into a monstrous whole.
There is a moment in the film where Klimov, sensing the assault on eyes and ears is too much, provided a release for his audience before continuing that assault, and it is here the tearful, appropriately named Lacrymosa—from Mozart’s Requiem—arrives as a sort of balm for the soul, eve as he remains enmeshed in (and even heightens) the surrealism that has engulfed us. That release is short lived, and by the film’s end we learn the Nazis burned to the ground 728 Byelorussian villages, decimating their inhabitants. One can hardly fathom such devastation and loss, but history proves, over and over: this is what war brings. This is what we as humans do to one another.
I first experienced Come and See during its U.S. release in October of 1985. I walked out of the theater, shaken to my core, and stopped for a whisky immediately afterwards, then went and locked myself in a bathroom stall and wept a good two or three minutes before I could present myself again.
Klimov wanted non-professional actors to play all the roles and this extended to 16-year-old Aleksei Kravchenko whose portrayal of Flyora must surely be one of the more astonishing debuts in film history.
In a remarkable restoration, Janus Films cleaned up the original print and sound to a level that matches anything produced today. It has been made available through The Criterion Collection (as well as on their streaming channel) and includes documentaries, interviews with the filmmaker’s brother, the film’s star, Kravchenko, and survivors of the 1943 massacre.
The effect of watching Come and See again several months ago was chilling. It was even more so, watching it the other night as it played against the news of what’s happening again in that same part of the world. The irony is inescapable and horrific: the greatest of all anti-war films was produced under a regime who spent nearly a decade trying to prevent it ever being made. And now, 37 years later, that regime’s successor is invading and destroying its neighbor, Ukraine.