Browsing internet forums late last week, I came upon a film recommendation that I decided to investigate. Come and See, a Russian made film of 1985, details the barbarity of the German occupation of Belarus during the Second World War. For 8 years, the Soviet State Committee for Cinematography blocked filming, considering the subject matter too visceral to promote. Realism was so fundamental to director Elem Klimov’s vision, that untrained actors were explicitly sought so that the portrayal was as organic as possible, detached from the fortifications trained actors would build between themselves and their characters.
Aleksei Kravchenko, a fresh faced and unexperienced actor, was chosen for the lead role of Flyora, a Belarusian teen who joins the partisan resistance movement. Kravchenko’s aesthetic purity is defiled throughout the course of the film as he is exposed to the horrors of war, so much so that Kravchenko said after filming “I kept a most severe diet, and after filming was over I returned to school not only thin, but grey-haired”.
The most poignant and haunting moment in the film arrives with Flyora’s arrival at the village of Perekhody. Mingling with civilians in order to hide his partisan identity from the SS patrol, he desperately warns his compatriots of their impending fate as the Germans detain the entirety of the village in a barn. Whilst Flyora and a young woman escape, the rest of the captees in the barn suffer a horrendous fate; the SS guards setting the structure alight. The celebrations of the SS unit, based on the notorious Dirlewanger Brigade of criminals and sadists, contrasts with the suffering of the undeserving civilians. The girl escapee from the barn is pulled by her hair into a truck of rapturous soldiers, and gang raped. These scenes, so far removed from the story arc and redeemable fortunes of Hollywood depictions, paint the grit and horror of war like no film made since. There is no love interest to brighten the plot, there are no moments of warm camaraderie, there is scant dialogue to distract from the pain at hand, it is a relentless documentation of barbarous inhumanity on the Eastern Front.
Emphasizing the cyclical nature of war, Flyora stumbles upon a portrait of Hitler in a puddle. A historical filmroll plays in reverse chronological order portraying Hitler’s rise to power. Intermittently, Flyora shoots at the portrait, signalling an impulse that he can stop the suffering arising that he has witnessed. The roll concludes with a baby Hitler resting on his Mother’s lap, and Flyora hesitating over the shot. The refusal to pull the trigger emphasizes this virtue as a way to defeat war, breaking the cyclical nature of the victim’s transformation to aggressor in history’s endless narrative of revenge against injustice.
Although sometimes a difficult viewing, this is a film that etches onto the mind the realities of war. If for nothing else, perhaps it is important to expose ourselves to such work so as to not fall into the trap of infantilizing our common history, as Klimov, the director suggested “I understood that this would be a very brutal film and that it was unlikely that people would watch it. I told this to my screenplay co-author, the writer Ales Adamovich. But 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.’”
But beyond this, the film raises the unnerving concept that our inherent moral standard is a subjective condition, produced by a healthy fertile environment devoid of corrupting factors such as political instability. The unnerving factor is how easily this standard perishes under the influence of hardship, division and wrath. To maintain our humanity is to reject mirroring our enemies’ actions, denying participation in a race to the bottom.
By Bryn Dawson