Come And See: The Personal Horrors Of War


Twenty five years after its initial release, Elem Klimov’s Come and See (1985) remains one of the most affecting war films ever made. Set in 1943, it tells the story of Florya, a young boy who joins a band of partisans to battle the German forces driving East into the Soviet Union. Having being left behind in the forest, Florya narrowly survives an aerial bombing, which leaves him suffering from tinnitus. When Florya returns home to his village, he finds the cottage in which his mother and two sisters live eerily empty…

Along with Tarkovsky, Alexei Gherman and Larisa Shepitko (the director’s wife), Klimov was one of the brightest stars in Russian cinema during the 60s and 70s. Beginning his career with comedies, Klimov fell foul of the censors with his second film, Adventures of a Dentist (1965). Agony (1981), his film about Rasputin, although completed in 1975 spent ten years sitting on the shelf. In 1979, Klimov experienced a personal tragedy when Sheptiko was killed in a car crash while shooting a film based on Valentin Rasputin’s novel Farewell Matyora.

Like Shepitko’s The Ascent, Come and See was based on a largely autobiographical novella, The Khatyn Story (Khatyn, a Belarusian village, is not to be confused with the Katyn´ forest in Russia, the forest where Polish officers were executed by Russian soldiers, and the subject of a recent film by Andrzej Wajda, Katyn [2007], and of which newsreel footage features in Makavejev’s Sweet Movie, [1974]) written by a Belarusian World War Two veteran, Ales Adamovich. Adamovich and Vasil Bykau (author of Sotnikov, the story upon which The Ascent is based, available in English translation as The Ordeal), are arguably the two greatest Belarusian writers of the post-war period. Together they founded the Belarusian PEN Centre, and opposed Alexander Lukashenka, Belarus’s autocratic president, who has been in power since 1994. However, Adamovich is perhaps most famous for drawing attention to the sheer extent of the horror of the Chernobyl disaster during the late eighties. In both The Khatyn Story and his screenplay for Come and See Adamovich recounts in graphic detail the manner in which the SS and their collaborators razed over six hundred Belarusian villages during the Second World War. Whereas The Ascent was produced by Mosfilm, Come and See was a co-production between Mosfilm and Belarusfilm, the studios of the Belarusian capital, Minsk. Because of its association with War films, Belarusfilm is often referred to as ‘Partisanfilm’. Although directed by a Russian, Come and See is, therefore, very much a Belarusian affair…


What makes Come and See so affecting is not so much the graphicness, but the almost surrealistic manner in which Klimov films the atrocities. There is not so much a plot, but rather a series of episodes which Florya stumbles through, all of which are punctuated with his haunting, catatonic stares into camera. The more Florya endures, the more he ages, and by the end of the film his hair is grey and his brow wrinkled. There is a genuinely deranged moment in which partisans, having just suffered at the hands of the Germans, construct an Hitler effigy out of mud, which they then cover in spit.

Klimov films much of the action in long, Steadicam assisted takes, and adopts a startling, subjective approach to sound, reproducing tinnitus, ominous buzzing flies, snatches of Strauss amid the gun fire and cries. The film climaxes with Florya exploding into a violent rage, but Klimov has the audacity to end with a startlingly pessimistic conclusion, in which he likens Florya’s rage to that of his own Nazi persecutors, via a brilliant piece of intellectual montage that harkens back to the glory days of Eisenstein and October (1928).

One filmmaker clearly impressed by Come and See was Steven Spielberg, who gleaned stylistic elements from the film for both Schindler’s List (1993) and Saving Private Ryan (1998). However, Come and See has also exerted a strong influence is on recent British horror, with directors such as Christopher Smith (Severance, 2006) and Ben Wheatley (Kill List, 2011) citing Klimov’s film as in inspiration.

Both exhilarating and exhausting, Come and See is not just a great war film, but a great piece of cinema per se. For a film that was originally entitled ‘Kill Hitler’, it now makes a curious, albeit sobering contrast to Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds (2009)…