In the underappreciated thriller Transsiberian, in which an American couple becomes inadvertently embroiled in drug trafficking while aboard the titular train running from Beijing to Moscow, a character observes that if you want to learn about U.S. history, you buy a book; if you want to learn about Russian history, you buy a shovel.
Few nations have as much buried history—both literally and figuratively, and often intentionally—as Russia, particularly in the years during and surrounding World War II. Consider Come and See, a film that focuses on the Nazis’ brutal invasion of what was then the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic.
Made during the early days of glasnost, Come and See’s script waited nearly a decade for official approval and was filmed some 43 years after the actual atrocities on which the movie is based (although it received some festival play, including—unsurprisingly—winning first prize at the 1985 Moscow Film Festival, it did not receive an international theatrical release until 2001). Cowritten by Soviet director Emer Klimov and Belarusian author Ales Adamovich, whose real-life experience as a teenage member of the partisan resistance informs the film, Come and See provides a glimpse at one of the most tragic and little-known episodes of World War II (as the end titles inform, 628 Belarusian villages and their inhabitants were torched by the Nazis, killing between 2 and 3 million people, or about one-third of Belarus’ population).
The film opens with two boys digging in the sand, searching for the rifles of dead soldiers so that they might take up arms with the Soviet partisan forces, whose guerrilla network spanned the countryside’s forests and farmland. With his freshly unearthed gun, adolescent Florya (Alexei Kravchenko) is soon spirited away by the partisans over the protests of his mother, who has already lost her husband to the war.
Part of the film’s power is derived from the way Klimov subtly transitions the tone, from the gallows humor of the boys struggling to remove a gun from a corpse to the mother’s foreboding emotional plea to the blunt-trauma force of Florya witnessing first-hand humanity’s worst.
Come and See is a boy’s view of the war, but it contains none of the optimistic twinkle of John Boorman’s fine Hope and Glory, the lavish spectacle of Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun or the austere poetry of Lajos Koltai’s potent Fateless. If anything, the movie is an exercise in psychological horror, a spiritual relative of Apocalypse Now.
In Come and See, the visceral blow is strengthened by the way it observes the casual inhumanity of the Nazis. I can’t think of another film that depicts Hitler’s dogma with such insinuating, chilling effectiveness.
After becoming separated from the resistance camp during a German artillery attack, Florya leads fellow young partisan Glasha (Olga Mironova) to his nearby family farm, where he expects to be greeted by his mother, sisters and a warm meal. Instead, they are met with an empty cottage and a set table, the food on which is covered with flies. As they make their way to a neighboring home with Florya desperate to find his remaining family, Glasha turns back and sees the evidence of what she and viewers already suspect, a mound of bodies left to rot behind a stable.
In another scene, a terrified family invites German officers into their home and offers them food as Nazi soldiers storm their village; one trooper passing by outside nonchalantly punches through a kitchen window and steals bread.
Later, Nazis leave an elderly, bed-ridden woman alive to “breed” while her family and village burn around her.
That the film is bearable to watch is a testament to Klimov, a contemporary of Andrei Tarkovsky (who made the thematically similar Ivan’s Childhood), and Come and See is his finest and best-known work. Although much of the movie is seen from Florya’s point-of-view, it is filmed with a sharp, sage eye. Never harried or documentarian, but lacking the visual polish of many Hollywood war movies, Come and See feels damp and cold and savage (there are rumors that live ammunition was often used during filming, so maybe there is an element of reality in the characters’ palpable sense of dread). It is not afraid to linger, though it never does so gratuitously, and it has the perfect vehicle with which to behold its devastation in Kravchenko, then a nonprofessional actor with an open, expressive face who transforms from a righteous, enthusiastic youth to a wearied shell over the course of the film (the boy was allegedly hypnotized for the movie’s closing scenes, perhaps an appropriate state for, as J. Hoberman writes in his Village Voice review, “most viewers will be as well”).
In those final moments, Nazis captured by the partisans reveal their humanity through their cowardice and fear as they try to explain away their barbarity, telling those whose families they exterminated that they were “following orders,” that “this is war, and nobody is to blame…”
Florya fires his only shot at the movie’s end, and then at a picture of Hitler. Klimov cuts footage of death camps and regressing archival footage of Hitler against the prematurely aged face of Florya. The impact is impossible to bury.