Flyora (Aleksey Kravchenko), a 14-year-old who recently joined the Soviet partisans, and Roubej (Vladas Bagdonas) have just caught a break. Roubej had led their supply run directly into a minefield which claimed the lives of their two comrades, but these two made it through and found a collaborator who has a cow. They threaten the man and make him roll around in manure, then steal the animal. This cow will save the lives of partisans and villagers if they can get it back. But before they are even out of sight, a German machinegun blasts them. Roubej is instantly killed, but the poor bovine lives long enough to try to understand what just happened as it suffers through its last labored breaths. It’s just the latest in a never-ending deluge of devastating blows thrown at Flyora, made all the more depressing because the filmmakers really did shoot a cow and film its death. Come and See is just that kind of grueling.
The movie begins with Flyora and another boy from his Belorussian village searching for weapons in a sandy battlefield. They think that if they each find a rifle, the partisans will welcome them into their numbers. A village elder warns the duo not to go digging, but they mock him and do it anyway. Flyora does eventually unearth a rifle, but not before the duo are spotted by a German spy plane.
The next day, partisans do indeed arrive and conscript Flyora into the militia. He leaves behind his sobbing mother and young siblings and heads out into the woods, where he meets the resistance. This is his first chance to see the horrors of war as he observes nurses tending to injured men, but he quickly becomes diligently obsessed with the menial tasks he’s assigned. Just as he thinks he’s become one of the guys, the militia decides to leave Flyora behind.
A dejected Flyora walks the forest weeping until he meets Glasha (Olga Mironova), a nurse that is about his age. The two have a conversation and being to bond a little. Suddenly, German bombs and paratroopers start descending all over the camp. The blasts leave both young people disoriented and Flyora partially deafened. They manage to take cover and avoid the German soldiers, but things are only going to get harder from here.
It’s a bit of a cliche to call a film an experience, but I was not prepared for how overwhelming Come and See was. That scene of the camp being destroyed was so big and so loud it unsettled me and set the tone for the rest of the movie. From there on out, Come and See is full of screaming, shooting, crying, burning… in short, suffering. It’s a living nightmare.
The typical WWII picture is about the struggle between good and evil. But the British and American perspective on the war was widely different from the Soviet one. The SS unit depicted in this film is based on the Dirlewanger Brigade, a real-life suicide squad made up of convicted felons tasked with committing war crimes. They do some unimaginably inhumane things in this movie, but when director Elem Klimov shows real footage at the end I realized I still couldn’t fathom how bad things really were.
I had the privilege of watching several coming-of-age films toward the end of this Criterion Month: Metropolitan, The Virgin Suicides, and Tiny Furniture. In Come and See, I got to see an innocent boy turn into a hardened soldier. All without Flyora ever really fighting a battle. Klimov constantly uses closeups and the way Kravchenko’s face changes, especially his eyes, is haunting. The only glimmer of hope we’re left with is that somewhere in that man he becomes is still the boy he once was. This movie was originally titled “Kill Hitler” and, after watching all this chaos, who wouldn’t want to do that?