We all have gaps in our moviegoing experiences. I’ve never seen It Happened One Night and only very recently did I watch It’s A Wonderful Life. In February, Janus Films released a 2K restoration of Come And See, a Soviet-era film from 1985 which depicts the horrors of World War II from a child’s perspective, but the onset of the global pandemic overshadowed it somewhat. In my self-isolation, I sought out what has been called “one of the greatest war films ever made” and, after viewing it, felt compelled to write about this unforgettable masterpiece.
Set in 1943 Nazi occupied Belorussia, the film follows a young man named Flyora (Aleksey Kravchenko, a non-actor at the time) who, upon finding a rifle amidst the rubble of a war-torn village, joins up with a mostly civilian branch of the Soviet Army to fight the brutal invaders. We experience, almost in real time, every agonizing moment our protagonist suffers through. Its director, Elem Klimov, who never made another film after this one, and writer, Ales Adamovich both as children lived through many of the harrowing experiences depicted here.
When Flyora first joins up, he leaves behind his young mother and two adorable twin sisters. The army assigns him menial tasks and leaves him behind at camp when sent off to face the Nazis on the front. Soon Flyora meets Glasha (Olga Mironova), a young girl who’s attached to one of the leaders and has also been left behind. Their sweetly idyllic moments together end swiftly when the Nazis start bombing. Often throughout the film, Flyora will look up to the sky and see a portentous Luftwaffe in the sky, seemingly tracking his every move.
Flyora and Glasha quickly flee back to his village to check in on his family, and here is where everything changes in the blink of an eye. With nobody home, flies buzzing around half-eaten plates of food, and a kettle still warm on the stove, Flyora guesses they have fled to a secret hiding place. As they hurry there, Glasha looks back and sees something horrifying, yet doesn’t reveal it to our young hero. This unforgettable moment sets the stage for the rest of this disorienting, nightmarish film.
As Flyora wades through mud, dodges bullets whizzing over his head, and sees the worst in humanity, he seems to age decades before our eyes, despite the film taking place over a matter of days. This wholly immersive experience puts the viewer right in the middle of the chaos, yet Klimov’s filmmaking technique is so precise, so artful, that you never feel like you’re in the hands of a “point and shoot” filmmaker. Often, he has his characters stare directly into the camera, revealing their agonized souls. The fluid use of steadicam by his Cinematographer Aleksey Rodionov feels as accomplished as anything seen in Paths of Glory and it’s clear that 1917 wouldn’t have existed without this film. Roger Deakins, who won the Oscar for shooting last year’s incredible World War I story, has even called Come And See one of his favorite films.
What truly sets this film apart, however, is its sound mix by Viktor Mors. He fills the soundtrack with a nonstop buzz of animal and insect noises, tortured screams of villagers, military marches, and more to create a wall of sound guaranteed to please generations of David Lynch fans. On top of this, we’re treated to operatic Soviet anthems. It took Klimov many years to get this film past the censors, who deemed it aesthetically dirty. It wasn’t until the onset of glasnost that he was basically given free rein to shoot the movie however he wanted. Of course, a film about the Nazis from a Russian point of view still props up the regime, but the grimy, gutted look and feel of the film remained true to Klimov’s original vision.
Much like 1917, the film plays almost like a video game, with young Flyora bouncing from one challenge to the next. Luckily the similarities end there, due to Kravchenko’s fantastic performance and Klimov’s dedication to bringing the truth to the screen. While not particularly graphic, you feel every bit of Flyora’s inch by inch struggle to survive. You won’t soon forget the third act set piece in which the Nazis set about destroying an entire village and its inhabitants. Same goes for the last few minutes, which plays with time to show us the root of all evil. It’s a feat of editing and sound to rival some of the best sequences in film and leaves you breathless. It’s followed by a memorable final shot, and this film is filled with them, as we watch a massive group of soldiers marching towards an unknown destiny. Come And See, like its title, urges you to not look away at man’s inhumanity towards man. It’s by no means a pleasant time at the movies, but it’s essential viewing nonetheless.
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic
Come And See is now streaming on The Criterion Channel.