In the history of cinema, there is a short list of films that can lay claim to having the ability to scar and leave a haunting impact on the mind. In 1985, in Soviet Belarus, a movie was made that lay claim to the title of the top of this list. A movie so disturbing, it had to fight 8 years of Soviet censorship before it was released to the public due to its realism depicting the horror of war. This movie was Come and See, a title in reference to the revelation in the Holy Bible featuring the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Labelled as the most important anti-war movie that has ever been made, this was a movie that used live rounds and starvation of actors to achieve realism of the horror of war. When filming was finished, the hair of some actors had turned grey and there was concern that some, including the main character, would end up committed to a mental asylum as a result.
Come and See was directed by Elem Klimov and is based on the book I Am from the Fiery Village as well as the testimony of Soviet partisans and the survivors of Nazi massacres. Klimov co-wrote the screenplay with Ales Adamovich, who fought in brutal battles against Nazi troops with the Belarusian partisans as a teenager. Klimov fully realised how brutal the film would be and how difficult it would be for people to watch. When Klimov mentioned this to Adamovich, he replied: “Let them not watch it, then. This is something we must leave after us. As evidence of war, and as a plea for peace.”
Come and See depicts the era of Nazi occupation in Belarus, a country which lost 1.9 millions of people or about 20 percent of its population during WW2. It’s dedication to accuracy meant that is was only shot inside Belarus, without professional actors and the language spoken in the film is Belarussian. The plot follows the main character Flyora, a young partisan, over a period of 2 weeks and by the end of the movie, after witnessing the atrocities and mass murder of Nazi troops and their Ukrainian collaborators, Flyora is aged to look twenty years older with his childhood innocence violently torn from him, leaving behind a gaping void of nihilism and a life fueled solely by hatred for the Nazi enemy and devoted solely to their demise.
This is a movie that graphically displays examples of the brutal atrocities committed by Germans against the Soviet people during the war. It features extreme close-ups of often shell shocked and traumatized faces which was achieved through hypnotism. It blatantly displays the unpleasant details of burnt flesh and bloodied corpses, and the guns used were often loaded with live ammunition instead of blanks. The main character later mentioned in interviews that live bullets sometimes passed just 4 inches above his head. After witnessing this spectacle, you will have a much better understanding of Russia’s desire for revenge during the final, apocalyptic stages of WW2.
Come and See remains a true masterpiece of Soviet cinema and is a must see anti-war movie, albeit likely only once.