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Posted on Oct 8, 2004 in Books and Movies

Come and See – Movie Review

By Brian King

A Dark Part of History

I’ve seen a fair number of war movies over the years, and for the most part I can enjoy them vicariously and not empathize on more than a superficial level with the characters being portrayed. Some good war movies, A Bridge Too Far for example, focus on events instead of individuals and seem more like a documentary than a drama. Others, such as the recent Pearl Harbor are pure "Hollywood," and focus so much on superficial characters, the events feel tacked on and hollow. However, some movies have found a perfect balance and have left a lasting impression upon my psyche by forcing me to feel for the people AND understand the events. Some examples; In the old made-for-TV movie Holocaust I still see the Jews being lined up and shot into that ditch in the woods. In Saving Private Ryan, I’ll never forget the emotions I experienced watching the soldiers try to get out of the landing craft on D-Day. In Black Hawk Down I’ll never forget the image of the two snipers fighting to the death to save the pilot. Come and See will join this elite group of movies, with characters and impressive imagery that will probably never leave me.

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Come and See cover art

At the most basic level, this movie is about Soviet Partisans fighting the Nazis in occupied Byelorussia in World War II. We join the central character named Florya (a clean, bright-eyed, proud young man) as he goes against his mother’s wishes and joins the partisan resistance. He is off to fight the Fascists and protect his family, his village, his nation. As one of the youngest soldiers (a child really) we can clearly see his awe and wonder at the events happening around him, and he is literally dragged along by the Partisans as he learns the ropes. One scene where he is on guard duty has one of the smallest bits of humor in this movie. Thus begins the young man’s (and our own) lessons about the war.

From this point on, his adventure becomes a nightmarish twist on Alice-in-Wonderland where he runs into characters and has adventures that really defy description. He starts out as a naive young boy, and over the course of this movie he has a profound physical transformation under the crush of more and more horror. When you reach the end of Florya’s journey, the actor playing him is almost a different person. When he finally "wakes up" at the end, he is truly a worn, mature soldier of Mother Russia and in an allegory to the entire Great Patriotic War, faces his ultimate nemesis and fires round after round into him. This is the only scene where he actually uses his rifle against the enemy!

From the beginning of his new life, he can’t catch a break. He is left behind by the Partisans because one of the veterans needed his boots. He goes partially deaf when German bombs fall in his camp. He meets a strange young girl whose beauty conceals a story even more tragic than his own. He runs into bands of starving peasants, forcing him to ask himself what he is truly fighting for. As the indignities pile up, Florya becomes less and less a child, and begins to see the "true" face of war. When his friends literally disappear as they step on land mines, he is so numb he almost doesn’t notice. And when he reaches the village at the end of the movie, you will spend fifteen minutes watching in absolute horror as you wonder how humans could have treated each other in ways that go beyond hatred. If you see the cover illustration for this movie, you can’t imagine how the boy ends up with a barrel of a gun to his head…

This movie is not about war – it is about survival in a surrealistic world of carnage and horror, where the urge to flee is only checked by the most basic human need to stick together and hope there is safety in numbers. We constantly see the poor Russian peasants clump together, almost like cattle. Sadly, this becomes their reality in the final village as they are herded together without a fight, many to meet their end. It is here in the final village where the most haunting imagery is seen, with the SS committing atrocities and celebrating their "victory" over their less-than-human victims. The haunting imagery rolls throughout this final spectacle, although one quick example worth mentioning is the Nazi propaganda truck containing one well-fed woman eating a lobster! Florya and this woman see each other, and we are forced to wonder what feelings she might have had at what was going on around them both.

The partisans were in a horrible spot, with many men joining up knowing that it would not be easy for their families who were left behind. Some, like Florya, knew their family paid the ultimate price because of that decision. Yet, as events unfold, we learn it would have made no difference – as everyone was earmarked for death be they young, old, man, woman, or young partisan child. Whether they fought or not made no difference. The war in Russia was truly to the death.

Unlike traditional American war movies, there are no heroes, there are no cavalry charges, and there are no miracles that save them. These people were 500 miles behind enemy lines and in 1943 were still a year away from any remote hope of rescue by Soviet Armed forces. This knowledge adds to the desperation of their resistance, and the grim fight to the death these people endured seems incredible looking back from the safety and comfort of my own home. It is not an easy story to watch to be sure, but my appreciation for the struggle of the Russian people (and indeed the many other nationalities who shared similar fates) has grown tremendously. I highly recommend this movie for this reason, and I invite you to experience their struggle yourself. If you can make it to the end, I can almost guarantee you will have a new perspective on what makes up a "good" movie on war, and the ability of men to survive the darker side of human nature.

DVD Particulars

This movie comes on two DVD’s, presumably to force you to take a break while watching this film. The acting is believable throughout, although I have no way of knowing how good the original Russian dialogue was because I don’t speak Russian and was forced to use the English dubbed voice track. The pacing and editing were fair, with some slow spots in the beginning, as well as some scene cuts that were rather abrupt. The entire movie was shot on location, adding to the grimy, realistic feel of the film. The sound was a mixed bag, although it might have been a function of the English dubbing drowning out the native Russian sounds. A bit of a distraction at times, but not bad. There are a few documentaries and interviews on the DVD, which were all fair. The interviews with the child actor (now grown) and the director were both interesting if you want some background into the film’s history as well as how the child survived making such a dark movie. Although this film was made in 1985 in the Soviet Union, it didn’t come across as a patriotic flag-waving film about the virtues of Communism. The film transcends politics, and I am glad to see it wasn’t used as a vehicle to promote any agenda or government.

Rating

Despite the low production qualities (when held next to western films), this gets high marks for the history portrayed within. It brings to light a part of the past that must not be forgotten. In that respect, I willingly overlooked its superficial issues and focused on the message. It is in that spirit I give this movie a solid mark of 4 stars out of 5. I invite you to come and see for yourself.

Directed by Elem Klimov.

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