'Come and See' and the Myth of the Heroic Soldier
This review talks about war crimes and atrocities in detail, so if you're sensitive to that, here's your warning.
The Horrors and Heroes of War
The phrase “horrors of war” gets thrown around often in descriptions of war movies. War is hell. War is evil. War is not good for anyone. There is an underlying theme for many war movies, perhaps all of them: heroism. Heroism has many different contexts and is definitionally broad. You can be considered a hero for brewing the perfect cup of coffee on a rainy morning. Or you can be a hero making the sacrifice to fight for your country or the greater good. But what is the parameter by which we define greater good? Are the soldiers of imperialist countries heroic for their willingness to carry out a state’s imperialist objectives? If your home is the one being invaded and that forces you and other innocent people around you to have to defend themselves with violence in return, is that heroic? To take that even further, is it heroic to be forced to fight a war just so your nation or people can continue to exist?
Heroes do exist in times of war. Those who go above and beyond the call of duty to put their lives on the line to defend their loved ones and their comrades in arms are heroes. The most human thing to do is to have compassion for those around us, and to continue to do that despite the death and destruction of war is heroic. But there isn’t anything inherently heroic about war, or the duty of being a soldier itself. If anything, cultural obsessions with heroism can be and often are used to feed the desire for preserving or expanding symbolic and physical power, which is a main driver of war. Even if people are inherently against war and violence conceptually, no one has a grasp on those conditions until they see them for themselves. Once they do, survivors would rather be dead than have to live with those painful memories for the rest of their lives. No film captures this bleak reality more than Elem Klimov’s 1985 anti-war film, “Come and See."
Capturing the Horror
It is hard to describe just why “Come and See” has the reputation of bleakness the way it does, so to understand, let’s compare it to a few other World War II period movies that have a similar reputation of being difficult to watch: “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan.”
“Schindler’s List” focuses on the story of German industrialist and Nazi party member Oskar Schindler, who overcomes his profit seeking nature to try to save the lives of Jewish people forced to work in his factories. The movie focuses heavily on the cost of genocide and the value of standing up to the perpetrators of genocide. “Saving Private Ryan” follows a regiment of soldiers led by former English teacher Captain Miller who has to save the last surviving son of the Ryan family after his brothers are killed in the war. It focuses very heavily on the brutality of combat, the ephemerality of life on the battlefield, and the value of life itself.
Though both Spielberg movies show the horrors of war and that there are no winners, they both reaffirm the notion of heroism. Both movies offer emotional catharsis by their respective ends. The movies don’t sugarcoat the characters, since the characters aren’t perfect or necessarily good people. Private Ryan, Captain Miller and his regiment, and Oskar Schindler faced the horrors of war, and they are loved and remembered for the sacrifices they made to save whoever they could. “Saving Private Ryan” adds a little dose of patriotism in its final shot of the American flag, reminding the audience how hundreds of thousands of Americans died during those dark times so that the flag can wave proudly today.
On the other hand, “Come and See'' doesn't show the horrors of war. The horror is the war. Unlike most war movies, we are not presented with a war story. We are presented with a surreal psychological horror story about someone in a nightmarish reality. The main character is not a German industrialist who saves Jewish people in the Holocaust or a group of soldiers saving a fellow comrade in arms. The main character is an innocent, helpless child named Flyora, who lives in a small village in Belorussia. In 1943, Flyora and another young boy dig up abandoned SVT-40 rifles in sand trenches to join the Soviet partisan fighters during the German occupation of Eastern Europe, much to the chagrin of Flyora’s village elder. A German FW 189 reconnaissance aircraft silently watches the young children.
Flyora’s story offers no catharsis of any kind, nor does it reaffirm patriotic sentiments or heroism in its final moments. Instead, there is a title card that reads “628 Belorussian villages were burnt to the ground with all their inhabitants,” followed by a shot of Soviet partisan fighters marching through the woods to their next battle. There is no heroism. Only death, violence, and more death.
The Myth of the Heroic Soldier
“Come and See'' falls in the category of war movies that explore the relationship between war and the human psyche and condition. There are many well-known war movies that fall into this category, including “The Bridge on the River Kwai”, “Apocalypse Now,” “Full Metal Jacket,” “Grave of the Fireflies,” “Platoon,” “Jarhead” and, most recently, “Dunkirk.” Each of these films focus on different themes. “The Bridge on the River Kwai” was one of the first war movies that addressed the myth of heroism in war and the follies of the men who seek honor through warfare and violence. “Apocalypse Now,” “Platoon,” “Full Metal Jacket,” and “Jarhead” all delve much more deeply into the psychological impact of war on the characters, the insanity of war, how it scars soldiers, and how being a soldier is not the heroic position people assume it to be. “Dunkirk” is more akin to a survival horror film, with sparse dialogue, nameless characters, and a constant sense of doom. “Grave of the Fireflies” (which deserves its own article) is based on the true story of an older brother trying to care for his younger sister after they are orphaned following the Tokyo fire bombings, a bleak story where innocence is torn away from children too soon. “Come and See” captures all of these themes at once with Flyora’s tragic nightmare.
Throughout the movie, there is a recurring motif of close up shots of people’s faces to capture their emotions in a singular moment. When he is first conscripted by Russian partisans and taken to their training camp, we see close up shots of Flyora, excited to go off to fight against the German soldiers invading his home. The partisan soldiers conscripting Flyora are off-putting men who try to play peekaboo with Flyora’s younger sisters, but end up making them cry instead. In the meantime, Flyora’s mother is frantically begging for her son not to be taken off to war.
When he arrives at the training camp, it’s not what he expects it to be. He’s not taken into combat immediately, and there is an air of mania that pervades the mood at the camp, a combination of fear, trauma, madness, and absurdity. He meets a girl named Glasha, and the two of them bond over this mania, frolicking through the forest and relaxing at the camp before it is suddenly bombed. The tone of the mania has changed as Flyora goes into shell shock, is partially deafened by the bombs, and hides from German soldiers.
The movie constantly keeps you in Flyora’s state of mind. Everything feels present yet unreal at the same time. The characters are larger than life and very distinct, as they pop out of the frame with the way the camera is focused and the dialogue delivery doesn’t seem to match the facial movements shown by the actors on screen. At the same time, the film uses natural lighting in its filming and isn’t hyper-stylized with its camera movements to make the war look like a spectacle. The sound design is made to overload viewers' senses the way a soldier would be overloaded in war. After the camp is bombed, the audio quality becomes increasingly worse to put you further into Flyora’s state of mind. You see what he sees and hear what he hears. The score heightens this with a combination of low droning noises, classical music, and opera to create more dread and madness.
Worrying for the safety of his family, he and Glasha head back to Flyora’s village, only to find it abandoned. It is clear what has happened, but a still shell-shocked Flyora is convinced that his family is hiding on an island across the bog near his village. He runs off without looking back, with Glasha in pursuit. Glasha then looks back at the village and sees the ugly truth: a stack of naked bodies crudely piled up behind a house. Flyora drags himself and Glasha through the muddy bog, only to find the island empty. Glasha yells at him, saying his family is dead and he is going insane, which causes Flyora to try and drown her. A partisan fighter, Ruzebh, intervenes, and takes Flyora and Glasha to a group of villagers who survived the Nazi Schutzstaffel (SS) paramilitary death squads. Amongst them is Flyora’s village elder, who was burned alive by the SS. He confirms that he witnessed Flyora’s family get executed and begged them to stop. Instead of comforting Flyora, he chastises him for digging up the rifle and joining the partisans. Flyora tries to kill himself out of grief, but is stopped by Glasha and the other villagers.
The rest of the film feels like it will then play out more like a conventional war movie, with sequences of intense combat and violence. Flyora’s long, soft hair is cut off and he heads off with Ruzebh and two other partisans to search for supplies and food. But the other two partisans are killed in a minefield, and Ruzebh is killed by a German machine gun in an open field after he and Flyora steal a cow from an occupied town. The cow is also killed. The next day, Flyora tries to steal a horse, but the farmer he tries to steal from has to protect him from an SS unit. There’s no elaborate or complex firefight. It’s just machine guns in the distance from an enemy Flyora can’t see or even fight back against.
The myth of heroism in war is especially apparent in the portrayal of combat in stories of war. This is the most common way heroism is portrayed in stories centered on war and battle for thousands of years, like the stories of Achilles and Hercules. Heroes in battle were virtuous, and those heroes were the ones who would lead their people to victory or save them when they were attacked. These stories are morale boosters, necessary optimism and positivity that helps guide people in a world filled with chaos and bloodshed and reminds us that goodness exists within our hearts in dark times.
But those are often stories written by those who feel they can hold the same virtue in the face of such darkness or are written by those propagandizing war as a necessary tool that can be virtuous for a narrowly defined set of “right reasons.” The majority of war stories are like Flyora’s. The morning after he is shot at, he ends up at a village with the help of the man he tried stealing from earlier. Flyora tries to fulfill his duty as an honorable soldier. He warns the villagers to leave but not before the SS arrive with the help of collaborators from the Russian Liberation Army. He is unable to get them to evacuate to their safety.
What follows is one of the most horrific sequences ever put to film, and is based on stories from survivors of the genocide on the Eastern front. Flyora and the entire village is rounded up into a barn by the SS, where they tell the villagers that they may leave but only if they leave their children behind. Flyora escapes, since he is not associated with the village and can’t help them. One woman tries to escape with her child, but she is quickly stopped by the SS and dragged away by her hair while her child is thrown back into the barn through the window. The SS then burn the barn down with Molotovs before opening fire at the barn as it burns with the trapped villagers screaming inside. The only survivors are Flyora, who is held at gunpoint as the SS takes a picture with him in front of the burning barn; and a bedridden old woman, who is left in the middle of the burning village.
Flyora wanders, unable to process. He sees that a group of partisans attacked and killed most of the SS brigade who burned the village. He joins them as the partisans take prisoners, including the brigade’s commander and junior officer, and a few Russian Liberation Army collaborators. Flyora watches as a partisan named Kosach gets the Russian collaborators to beg for their lives. The SS commander begs too, but the more extreme junior officer tells the Eastern European partisans that their nation doesn’t deserve to exist. A torch bearer runs down the road. Kosach looks at Flyora, who gives the Russian collaborators a jerry can to dump on top of the German soldiers while they beg to be spared. The partisans are unable to stand much more and shoot them to put them all out of their misery. The torch bearer arrives just as they shoot, and dejectedly tosses the torch in a puddle. As they leave, Flyora stumbles upon a painting of Hitler. He stands there, watching, and aims his gun.
Francois Truffaut once spoke in an interview about the difficulty of portraying violence in movies. Truffaut said that he found filmmakers used violence in an ambiguous fashion, and war movies end up becoming “pro-war” even if they claim to be anti-war. On the other hand, Stephen Spielberg addressed criticism of the portrayal of war in “Saving Private Ryan” by stating that every war movie is anti-war, whether it’s good or bad. Neither of these statements are untrue.
It is important for us to connect with our history. Reading it can only have so much of an impact. But visuals and sounds stick with us, and that can have a great effect. “Saving Private Ryan” and “Apocalypse Now” both have incredibly realistic portrayals of combat, with the former film causing veterans to relive their own horrific memories of combat. However, the drawback is that the visual presentation can unknowingly glorify certain elements of war without meaning to do so. “Apocalypse Now” was very anti-war, but there were many sequences that looked really cool and that is what is remembered the most by the audience.
Klimov, however, did not emphasize any spectacle. This was his final film, which he co-wrote with writer Ales Adromovich. Adromovich himself experienced the same nightmare Flyora did when he was a child in World War II. Both wanted the Soviet youth of the 1980s to remain connected with the brutality and suffering endured by their parents and grandparents during the war, but were blocked by Soviet censors for years due to the extreme realism of the film. The film was shot over nine months, and Flyora’s actor, Alexei Kravchenko, was put on a starvation diet so he could look skinnier for the end of the movie. Real bombs and guns were used, and the cow in the film was actually killed. Klimov was so concerned for the effects of the movie on Kravchenko that he wanted the young actor to undergo hypnosis so he wouldn’t have psychological trauma from the filming. Klimov checked in with all the actors years after the filming as well.
But Klimov’s most powerful use of imagery is at the end of the movie, where he explicitly connects the film with reality. As Flyora points the gun at the painting of Hitler, we see images of emaciated bodies and destruction. He fires the gun once. Suddenly, all the footage starts reversing. He fires the gun again. There is footage of planes flying and warfare all in reverse. Flyora keeps firing. He hopes to reverse the course of history and stop the war from happening, and the pace of the footage reversing becomes more frantic. He fires again. We see pre-1939 footage, with Nazi rallies and Hitler’s speeches. We keep going further back, seeing how easy it was for people to be manipulated by Hitler and his rapid rise to power. He fires again. We see the economic destitution of Germany and book burnings. He fires again. We see the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, which effectively blamed World War I on Germany and is considered by some historians to be the start of World War II. He fires the gun again. Then suddenly, the film shows Hitler as a child. Then it quickly cuts to an image of Hitler as a baby, sitting in his mother’s lap. Flyora stops firing and stares. The camera pans down, focusing on Hitler as a baby.
This leads into the final question that Elem Klimov leaves for the audience:
Would you kill a madman before he became one?
Flyora just stares. He doesn’t fire another bullet at the thought of Hitler as a baby. He could kill Hitler as a baby if he wanted to. But that would come at the cost of whatever humanity Flyora has left. The only way to stop everything from happening would be to kill Hitler as a child, before Hitler himself knew and influenced the bleak reality of the world of which Flyora is now a part. The final close up shot is focused on Flyora’s face, caked in blood, grime, sweat, and tears. It cuts to a shot of the burning village, an image seared into his head forever, as Mozart’s “Lacrimosa” overtakes the anxiety-inducing sound design. It cuts back to him. He stops aiming his gun at the painting. Two final tears roll down his face as he makes direct eye contact with the camera. The boy at the beginning, full of life and innocence, no longer exists. He is a shell, a vessel of darkness, defeat, and grief. Then the title card: “628 Belorussian villages were burned to the ground with all their inhabitants.” Flyora catches up to his partisan comrades, and disappears amongst them, becoming just another story among millions. The camera pans up to the sky, perhaps looking for another reconnaissance aircraft or perhaps looking for the god that forsake them.
“Come and See” refers to a bleak passage from Revelation 6 in the Bible, where one of the four beasts of the apocalypse invite John to watch the despair and desolation. It may seem like this film is too bleak to view, and it is very likely that after watching this, you will feel depressed and empty for hours. I certainly was. But it is important to watch. Artists don’t just make dark content for the sake of it. They hope that you see what they see and find some comfort that you’re not alone in the darkness. This was Klimov's final film, as he felt he had nothing left to say after making it.
As another war rages again in Eastern Europe, Klimov’s film remains relevant and is a reminder that we can’t be disconnected from the experiences of those who have suffered due to the violent aspirations of brutal politicians. Many in the Western world are tripping over themselves to assign Volodymyr Zelensky as a hero for simply doing his duty as a leader. But there is nothing heroic about having to fight for your nation’s right to simply exist, and this fight has been intrinsic to Eastern Europe for over a thousand years in a thousand ways. We can’t reverse the course of history, but we can always learn from those who have lived.