Come and See ★★★★½

How exactly does one make a movie about the Nazis? They were, by almost all measures, as close to true evil as any force in the history of the world. The atrocities committed by Nazi Germany were so widespread, diverse, and prolific that it would take thousands of films like this one to even begin to document them. Nothing can surprise us about them anymore, simply because we expect such monumental evil of them. And no film can possibly do justice to what that time in history was like.

And yet while all that is true, few films come closer to accomplishing this than Come and See.

Elem Klimov's film is everything a movie about World War II should be. Set in the Byelorussian USSR, it tells the story of Florya, a young Belorussian partisan who joins a group of freedom fighters resisting the Nazi invasion. Young and naive, he digs up an old rifle from a deserted battlefield in order to gain entry to the resistance, in a heartbreaking first scene that establishes the movie's overwhelmingly grim tone. War may be a necessity, but Florya's involvement in it is not. He sees it as a chance for glory and honor-- a mentality he has learned from years of hearing nothing but praise for dead soldiers. Nobody wants to believe that war is senseless and purposeless, as they don't want to believe that their friends and families died for nothing. But the glorification of war simply perpetuates it. Many things can be said about Come and See, but it could never be said that it glorifies war.

Florya's time in the woods is so beautifully filmed I had a hard time believing the movie was not a documentary. It captures the aesthetic and the emotions of the period with grace and unwavering realism. One scene, in which the soldiers gather to take a group photo, is like watching history being made before your very eyes. The partisan camp is populated by an authentic-looking group of emaciated soldiers, all of whom do their best to cope with their situation with a semblance of dignity and humor. It is a lost cause. The few scenes in the film that seem remotely optimistic are overwhelmed by a sense of impending doom. We see a girl dancing and soldiers talking, all laughing while they defile a Nazi corpse-- but Florya is temporarily deaf due to an explosion, and all we hear is a low, ominous rumble.

Come and See is not concerned with the geopolitics of WWII. Its scope is not exceptionally broad. It instead chooses to focus on one young man's experience during the war, using him as a window into the horrors and atrocities committed by the Nazis in this small corner of the world. Abandoned by their government and subjected to unspeakable war crimes, the people of Belarus are forced to fight for themselves, and it's hardly a fair fight. Florya's odyssey takes him from one nightmare to the next, and by the end of the film he looks as if he's aged several decades.

As for the movie's finale, no words can really describe it. Perhaps that's why Klimov chose to limit the dialogue so much here, instead mixing together a cacophony of shouted orders and terrified screams. I'm no nihilist, but a great film makes you see the world from another perspective... and I fully understand why Florya might want to give up on humanity in the end. He has every right to.

The film then concludes with reversed footage of World War II, interspersed with Florya shooting a portrait of Adolf Hitler. The implication is that no amount of revenge can let him unsee what he has seen. Like any other atrocity in human history, WWII can never be undone. He takes little solace in the conclusion to his story, and it does not make him feel whole again. It's a deeply depressing scene, and it's made all the more depressing by the knowledge of just how universal Florya's story is.

Come and See is a film I don't think I'll be watching again for a very long time, but it's still managed to secure a position on my favorite films list. Like Johnny Got His Gun, I'd recommend it to any student of history, or really any person who wants to see what suffering really means. I often criticize movies for being heavy-handed, but how can a movie on this subject possibly push its message too hard? It's practically impossible.