Grading Historical Movies: Elem Klimov’s “Come and See” (1985)

Note:  Students in Stephen Norris’s HST/FST 252, History at the Movies, are grading historical films and offering reviews on how assigned films render the past.  The seventh film assigned in this Fall 2018 version of the course, which focuses on European films about World War II, was Elem Klimov’s 1985 Come and See.

Overall grade from 45 students: A-

Review One

By Steven Waurio

Grade:  A

There are few films that force an emotional response as powerful as the response felt while watching Come and See.  Directed by Elem Klimov in 1985, the film uses a tragic storyline and horrifying imagery to act as an extremely powerful warning against war.  It presents the war in Belarus as experienced by Florya, a boy roughly 15 years old.  He begins eager and ready to do his part in the defense of the Soviet homeland, and quickly finds that he hadn’t the slightest idea what that would actually entail.  In a story of war completely devoid of battles or heroism, Klimov is still able to convey a realistic, visceral feel and emotion of war that makes for a painful viewing experience.  The film follows Florya through a series of horrors.  He endures a bombing that deafens him, discovers that his family has been massacred, emerges from Nazi gunfire as the sole survivor, and witnesses the systematic defilement and murder of an entire village.

At a time (the mid-1980s) in which serious questions about the shared complicity of German soldiers in war crimes and the USSR’s failure to prepare for Nazi invasion were being asked, Come and See makes bold arguments.  It presents every German soldier as directly involved in and supportive of the Nazi cause of systematic extermination.  And, through a complete omission of Soviet leadership, it suggests that the Soviet government had little to no role in the defense of the homeland–that it was regular citizens who bore the full extent of the Nazi invasion. This implies that it was Soviet negligence that allowed the horrors experienced by Florya and other citizens to happen.

The most important function of the film, however, is to warn against all future wars.  Its title, Come and See functions as a demand to viewers.  Rather than blindly buy into the narratives of war that are put forth by governments around the world, the film’s title demands that viewers “come and see” the truth of war, stripped of its supposed heroes and glory.  When these narratives are stripped away, all that’s left behind is a sense of meaningless horror and terrible suffering.

Review Two

By Emma Darby

Grade:  A-

In all honesty, it is difficult to describe the emotional taxation caused by watching Elem Klimov’s Come and See. The continual insanity and decline in the life of Flyora is exhausting to watch because the audience’s heart as we watch him become broken. We become witnesses to the horrors of war.

It’s intriguing to compare the difference in how the war is perceived by young Flyora as the film progresses. In the beginning, though warned that he will regret his decision to hunt for an abandoned gun, the war seems to be an exciting new game for him to play, something that he and his younger friend imitate and find as a life goal. His mother protests and he finds himself overjoyed to be dragged out into the wilderness and posed like a good Soviet soldier. However, the realities and trauma of the war become quickly apparent, the plane that is seen early on continually reappearing and following him, bringing along tragedy and horror. Glasha’s character shows the physical trauma of the war, her body seen as a commodity and her view of herself as one to be taken over and over again. Though later, a woman looking very similar to her is viciously gang raped and beaten, adding to the new and rawer understanding of the war in Flyora’s eyes. Suffering allows no nobility through this understanding, any sort of push back meaningless in the overall loss in the war. The use of first-person camera angles creates a stronger sense of attachment to Flyora, as well as including moments that makes one feel as if they themselves are Flyora (such as when he is partially deafened), adding to his role as a witness to the atrocities. The slow death of light within Flyora’s eyes becomes more and more evident as he trudges onward, the death of his family, village, and hundreds of adults and children alike follow his journey.

The amount of emotional truth within the film is simply staggering. The continuous loss of life and the darkness of the film are overwhelming and almost sickening.  It never stops, truly. There is no end to the terror, no end to the pain that Flyora must go through. Watching the enemy soldiers claim they were forced into their actions, even the one who orchestrated the mass shooting and burning of hundreds of children and adults in the church and utilizing the idea of the clean Wehrmacht is enraging, painful, and the emotions in the bystanders are felt within a viewer. Flyora’s moment of revenge brings about a questioning of the birth of evil and just where and how did Hitler get where he was.  Flyora’s loss, both physically, mentally, and emotionally, all portray a unique and personal account of the war, making it so real, it’s almost difficult not to feel afraid of what’s going to happen to the viewer if they get too close to the screen.

Review Three

By Madeline Phaby

Grade:  A-

Come and See, a 1985 Soviet film directed by Elem Klimov, is a thoroughly chilling and unforgettable account of the destruction of multiple Belorussian villages by German troops during World War II. The narrative is mainly shown from the perspective of Flyora, a boy who is forced to witness unimaginable atrocities at a shockingly young age. The juxtaposition of youth and war, two entities that are essentially opposites, is much of what makes this film so memorable – and difficult to watch.

Flyora is conscripted by the Soviet partisans, and he willingly and enthusiastically joins the forces, leaving his horrified mother and two young sisters behind. After being left behind at the camp while the partisans moved on, he meets Glasha, a girl who immediately takes a liking to him. When the camp is bombed by Germans, Flyora’s hearing is permanently damaged, which is demonstrated by sounds being distorted for the rest of the film. Klimov’s decision to include this element provides the viewer with a more acute understanding of the trauma experienced by the boy and thus enhances the realism of the film. The two then return to Flyora’s home village but find it to be destroyed. Glasha realized that the boy’s family has been killed along with several other villagers, but Flyora has a delusional episode in a nearby bog and denies that they’ve been killed. The depressing sequence of events in which Flyora is told by multiple other villagers that his family is indeed dead and therefore finally realizes that they’re gone is only deepens the boy’s troubles. Throughout the rest of the film, Flyora witnesses Glasha (or a woman who looks like her) suffering irreparable mental damage from being raped by a group of German soldiers, a church full of people being inundated with grenades and gunshots, and the killing of a group of Germans by his original partisan troop. All of these events are nausea-inducing for the viewer, but the thought of an innocent child having to see such atrocities firsthand is absolutely gut-wrenching and provides a deep truth about the truly barbaric nature of war.

This film does not sugar-coat a single aspect of Flyora’s experiences, which is precisely what makes it so brilliant and yet also so horrible. It was not an easy thing to sit through, but the real events that inspired it were a million times harder to live and die through, which is clearly Klimov’s point. The brutal truth of the Khatyn massacre and similar occurrences is one that needs to be known, no matter the level of discomfort produced.


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