Culture

To understand modern Belarus, learn about its past. The greatest war film ever made is a good place to start

When the Western world thinks of World War II or the Holocaust, it thinks of D-Day, of Dunkirk, of Auschwitz, of Anne Frank, and of Schindler’s List. The systematic killing of millions of Jews from all across Europe is well documented and for a few is still in living memory – there are museums, memorials, books and films that serve as a reminder of human cruelty in an attempt to ensure we learn from our past as a species and that we never repeat its crimes.

Concentration camps remain the most prominent part of the Holocaust in the public consciousness, largely because the very concept of a location built with the sole intention of working people to death or killing them upon arrival is almost unthinkable. Many of these sites can now be visited; they represent a tangible link to Germany’s dark past.

The Jewish people were undeniably the group that suffered the most at the hands of the Nazis, but to say they were the only ones who did so would be a massive understatement.

Often left out of the spotlight when it comes to films that depict either the Holocaust or World War II in general (with a few exceptions) is the story of the Eastern Front; not entirely surprising, given how the English-speaking world had little involvement, and also given how the winning side was the Soviet Union. It is commonly accepted that the Soviets were on par with the Nazis in the human rights abuses department.

For many countries in Eastern Europe, life under Nazi and subsequently Soviet occupation were two sides of the same coin. The story of the Eastern Front is not compatible with the idea of generalist war films because they cannot end with the implication that “the good guys won”. While the people of a dozen or so countries east of Berlin were no longer at risk of being sent to Treblinka, they were now at risk of being sent to the gulag. Playing joyful Mozart over the Red Army rolling into Vilnius, Warsaw or indeed Berlin wouldn’t sit right with most audiences.

Schindler’s List ends with the reveal that there are thousands of Jews alive today thanks to the actions of Oskar Schindler; La vita e bella concludes with young Giosue reuniting with his mother on the way back to a now Mussolini-free Italy. Everything mostly turned out alright.

The truth is that after a harrowing few hours which depict the lowest humanity has ever sunk, audiences probably expect an ending that mildly lifts their spirits. Western audiences, that is.

In the East, things are different.

In the late 1970s, Russian director Elem Klimov began work on a film about the Nazi occupation of Belarus with the working title Kill Hitler. Klimov wrote the screenplay along with Ales Adamovich, the latter having co-written the book the film was to be based on, I Am From the Fiery Village. The film was renamed Come and See and had to fight against Soviet censorship for eight years before it was allowed to be produced in its entirety.

By this point in his career, Klimov was no stranger to the ins and outs of Soviet censorship. His very first feature film, 1964’s Welcome, or No Trespassing (in the UK known as No Holiday for Inochkin) was a satire of bureaucracy in the USSR in the guise of a children’s summer camp adventure story. The film was banned in cinemas across the Union, until Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev viewed it in private and authorised its release. His second film, Adventures of a Dentist, a dark comedy about the manner in which society ostracises those who are gifted, also faced problems due to its subject matter and had a limited release.

Come and See was in a different league entirely, as it didn’t even receive permission to be made. Not because it was anti-Soviet, but because it was deemed “too realistic”. The project was shelved and Klimov occupied himself with other projects, including the finalisation of Farewell, the film his wife Larisa Shepitko was working on at the time of her death in 1979. Come and See, which would come to be his defining work, finally began production in 1984 with no censorship requirements.

The film is also in a league of its own in terms of subject matter and filmmaking; it is in many ways a masterpiece. It was positively received upon release in 1985 both in the USSR and abroad, and as time has gone on the acclaim for it only seems to grow. It was, in fact, the Soviet Union’s submission for Best Foreign Language Film at that year’s Academy Awards, but was not accepted as a nominee.

The critic Roger Ebert wrote: “it is one of the most devastating films ever made about anything. In it, the survivors must envy the dead”.

Come and See gets its name from chapter six of the Bible’s Book of Revelations, as an invitation to look upon the destruction caused by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. This is why Come and See is the more commonly used English title, as opposed to the direct translation of the Russian Иди и смотри, which is closer to “go and look”, and preserves the idea of ‘inviting’ the viewer to witness the horrors committed in Belarus, 1943.

The premise of the film is that a 13-year-old boy called Flyora, from a small village, digs in the sand looking for German rifles in order to join the Belarusian partisan forces, as the village elder scolds him for doing so, insisting it will arouse the suspicions of the Germans. The Belarusian partisans were essentially the resistance movement in Nazi-occupied Belarus and were the closest thing to protection people had, the Red Army having long since retreated east.

Upon finding a rifle buried in the sand, Flyora rushes home to be conscripted by the partisans, not before a Luftwaffe reconnaissance plane spots him holding his new-found weapon. Much to the great disapproval of his grief-stricken mother and twin sisters, Flyora almost gleefully rushes off to the partisan camp, insisting that “everyone else is doing it”.

The remainder of the film explores how Flyora quickly discovers that being in a militia group is a far cry from summer camp.

I will try not to give too many plot details and instead describe individual moments and details that define the film. Firstly, it’s seriously grim. I admit there are many other anti-war films that convey the idea that war is hell, but none do it in the way Come and See does.

Image wise, the film is very dark as it was shot in natural lighting – even scenes set in broad daylight look like they were filmed in the late evening, and as a result many scenes are underexposed and required high frame rate cameras. This gives the result of grainy footage, making it seem less like a professionally produced film and immersing the viewer in grim reality.

The sound design is superb; as part of the film’s overall contrast between hyper-realism and surrealism, the soundtrack uses almost out-of-place Mozart one moment, and low drones a few minutes after, in order to create a powerful sense of dread. The first example I can think of is when the Luftwaffe reconnaissance plane spots Flyora in the sand with his rifle; all ambient noise fades away and the long, deep sound of the engines gets louder and louder.

The plane is used as a storytelling device throughout the film; each time it appears it indicates something deeply troubling is imminent.

At the beginning of the film, Flyora is portrayed as optimistic and curious, but not overly intelligent; he fails to pick up on the sarcasm of Glasha, the girl he befriends at the partisan camp.

That being said, Glasha’s behaviour would probably unnerve anyone. When Flyora first talks to her, she goes from crying to laughing to telling Flyora she wants to love and have children. It’s implied that by the time our protagonist meets her, she has already suffered at the hands of war.

The sound design also contributes to one of the most distressing scenes in the film; in what would otherwise be a brief moment of relief from the conflict, Glasha performs a dance on Flyora’s kit bag, much to his amusement. However, the backing music slowly fades from a recording of an upbeat song to a drawn-out synth note, all the while Flyora’s and Glasha’s expressions remain the same.

The true stand-out aspect of the film, however, are the infamous extreme close-up shots of the characters.

Olga Mironova as Glasha in Come and See

This type of shot is prominent throughout the film and adds to the viewer’s discomfort. Combined with natural lighting, it makes the viewer question whether or not the fourth wall is trying to be broken.

Filmmaking aside, the film has garnered a sense of mysticism over the years due to the unorthodox style of production and distressing imagery, and many urban legends have sprung up about it. Some of them are obviously false, such as the claim that Flyora’s actor Aleksey Kravchenko’s hair remained permanently grey after filming concluded (his hair did remain grey for a few months due to the hair dye used, but like any other dye, it faded away). Kravchenko was chosen for the role because he was not a professional actor, and Klimov’s idea was that putting an inexperienced person in traumatic scenarios would elicit more realistic facial expressions and reactions. He was right; Kravchenko’s performance is outstanding, and he would go on to become a professional actor who appears in Russian films to this day. His co-star Olga Mironova would never star in another film.

Other facts are very much true; the cow that Flyora at one point attempts to bring back to the camp was genuinely shot on camera, and while we don’t see many fighting scenes, the ones we do see all used live ammunition.

Come and See is hard to stomach, but it was never meant to be easy to watch. In a 2001 interview, Klimov stated: “I understood that this would be a very brutal film and that it was unlikely that people would be able to watch it. I told this to my screenplay coauthor, 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.’” Klimov experienced the Battle of Stalingrad as a child, and Adamovich survived the Katyn massacre which served as inspiration for the book and film.

Although the locations in the film are fictional – there is no village named Perekhody in Belarus – the Schutzstaffen raids aided by local collaborators herding up people in a barn and setting it on fire are real, as depicted in the film. The text in bold red letters at the end reads “628 Belorussian villages were destroyed, along with all their inhabitants”. A quarter of the country’s population was killed during World War II.

Perhaps the defining scene of the film is towards the end; following the massacre at Perekhody, a captured Nazi officer explains to the partisan forces why “their race doesn’t have the right to exist”, and is executed shortly thereafter. They initially choose to give him a taste of his medicine and prepare to set him and other captured troops on fire, but ultimately they are given a more humane execution by rifle.

As the partisan forces start to march forward, Flyora, who by this stage appears to have aged a few decades in the span of two days, notices a framed portrait of Adolf Hitler in the mud and begins to shoot it with his rifle – this is the first time he uses it in the film. What follows is the film’s best use of the contrast between hyper-realism and surrealism – the extreme close-ups of Flyora’s enraged face shooting the portrait are juxtaposed with reversed film sequences of Nazi Germany’s and Hitler’s personal past. As he keeps shooting, the film sequences go further back in time, to before the war, to the Nuremberg rally, to his first public speeches, until Flyora is confronted by the photograph of a baby Adolf in the lap of his mother. Flyora stops shooting the portrait, before running off to join the others.

While the surface-level interpretation of this scene is that it’s Klimov’s take on the classic “would you shoot Hitler as a baby” enigma, others consider that this sequence is a metaphor for the effects of war on the innocence of children; Flyora’s descent into madness, fuelled by fear and anger, are a central theme of the film. By looking at the photograph of young Hitler, he realises he is now a part of the cycle of hate.

There are of course other interpretations to this scene, however we can doubt that Klimov’s intention was to make the viewer empathise with the German leader.

As Flyora rushes to join the other partisans, they march through a forest as the music of Mozart fades in one last time. This time, the music seems to be mocking the partisans, the viewer, and the idea of typical war films; if you were expecting a happy ending, you’re not getting one. The camera pans towards the sky as snow starts to settle; the war in Europe would continue for another year and a half, and the partisans march forward, presumably towards Belarusian freedom. Given the current crisis in the country, they are probably still marching.

Klimov would never make another film, in the same 2001 interview claiming he lost interest in making films, and that “everything that was possible I felt I had already done”. He died in 2003 and is buried in Moscow.

Upon finishing viewing the film, I was inclined to compare it to Threads, a 1984 British film that documents a hypothetical nuclear war from the perspective of a young couple living in Sheffield. Both films were shot in rather low resolution and were intended to be as realistic as possible, warts and all, and they both ultimately have the same message that some humans are capable of true evil, and how everyone else gets caught up in the resulting chaos. The key difference, of course, is that Threads is a result of the paranoia regarding a nuclear armageddon omnipresent in the minds of everyone at the height of the Cold War, whereas Come and See is a realistic portrayal of events that actually took place, making it far more terrifying.

Come and See is available in its entirety in 720p resolution, with English subtitles, on Mosfilm’s YouTube channel (Mosfilm was the parent company of Belarusfilm, who produced it). It is a fantastic depiction of an under-documented area of World War II that too few people know about. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Just remember though, that it makes other World War II films look like Disney movies.

Unlike many news and information platforms, Emerging Europe is free to read, and always will be. There is no paywall here. We are independent, not affiliated with nor representing any political party or business organisation. We want the very best for emerging Europe, nothing more, nothing less. Your support will help us continue to spread the word about this amazing region.

You can contribute here. Thank you.

emerging europe support independent journalism