Seeing is Believing

The relentlessly hellish 1985 war film Come and See has marched to the number two spot on Letterboxd thanks to a stunning restoration, digital availability and pandemic-panic. Aaron Yap surveys the community’s reviews of Elem Klimov’s “mortar-blast of a masterpiece” for insights into its importance—and our psychic states.

War is hell—fundamentally the principle behind every anti-war movie, but there’s arguably never been one that conjures this state of being as convincingly as Elem Klimov’s 1985 Come and See (‘Idi i Smotri’) does. And it’s a hellscape that appears to be wildly resonating with the Letterboxd community—the film has now unseated The Godfather to take second place in our Official Top 250 Narrative Feature Films list, just behind Parasite.

For those yet to surrender to this mortar-blast of a masterpiece, Come and See plunges the viewer into the chaos and devastation of the 1943 Nazi invasion of Soviet Belorussia. Based on Klimov and writer Ales Adamovich’s own experiences during World War II, and the accounts of genocide survivors, it’s almost an anti-anti-war film. There are no professional actors. No battle scenes. No digestible history-pedia plot beats. No heroic feats of courage. Our guide into the harrowing void is a fourteen-year-old partisan adolescent named Florya (Aleksey Kravchenko).

Joining a troop of resistance fighters against his mother’s wishes, he embarks on an unnervingly subjective odyssey that leaves him a shrivelled, visibly aged husk by the end. It’s without question one of cinema’s most heart-breaking, unforgettable transformations.

Come and See is not a standard art picture per se. Klimov’s vision contains traces of Andrei Tarkovsky’s poetic, deep-dream sensibilities—many images assume otherworldly, psychedelic qualities that lodge in our mind and occasionally temper the pools of screaming despair around it. But the film is also as immediate as the lacerating scald of a flamethrower to the face. It possesses the grubby, cult-ish midnight-movie energy of something you should probably not be witnessing.

Awareness of the film’s infamous production lore—the plan to hypnotize Kravchenko, the use of live ammunition and real Nazi uniforms—only adds to the whole unshakeably surreal experience. Perhaps only Threads comes close to its singularly nightmarish, nearly unbearable grip.

While the film’s detractors point to a certain misery-porn obviousness (“a Disneyland dark-ride”, writes Nick), the majority of Letterboxd reviewers are unable to deny the sheer, overwhelming, scorched-earth impact of the film:

“It’s just so utterly fucking relentless.” —⁠Andrew

“I am shaken to the core. Come and See is the only war film anyone needs to watch.” —⁠Matt

“It is—through and through—a physical experience. It can be felt all the way to the bone. At a certain point it just stops being a movie, it leaves the screen and begs to become a part of you.” —⁠Anna

“It’s no joyous or action-oriented trip of entertainment: it is authentic horror, flawlessly filmed. Be prepared.” —⁠Edgar

“The most horrifying non-horror horror film of all time.” —⁠Anton

In a more measured take, Mike D’Angelo questions the value of recreating this savage piece of history: “It’s undeniably powerful—so much so that it’s pretty much the sole memory I retained from my first viewing—but enduring it a second time made me more sympathetic toward the ‘some things are too monstrous to function as art’ camp than I’ve generally been in the past.”

Likewise, Robb struggled, preferring a more nuanced depiction: “I don’t want the easy release of thinking that there are strictly good and evil people. I want to know how all-in-all normal people, not monsters, commit monstrously heinous crimes. The alternatives, of just having throat-stomping scenes one after another, feels to me like an evening at the feelies.”

To be clear, Come and See isn’t some underrated, recently unearthed discovery. It was released in the United States in 1987 and officially submitted as the Soviet entry into the Foreign Language Film category of the 58th Academy Awards. It’s been featured on Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies” series, and best-of lists from Empire and Sight & Sound magazines.

In Hollywood, the likes of Steven Soderbergh and Roger Deakins have been vocal in their praise of Klimov’s film. “What I saw will stay with me forever; it is a masterpiece not only of filmmaking, but of humanity itself,” Sean Penn once said. Films such as The Thin Red Line, Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan all owe a little something to Come and See in their respective cinematic representations of WWII.

But as we’ve seen in the recent surge of Studio Ghibli viewing—and with Soderbergh’s Contagion back in March—it’s sensible to hypothesize that the combination of increased media availability and a tumultuous socio-political atmosphere can contribute to the most dramatic of Letterboxd activity spikes.

Our data shows a clear correlation between Come and See diary entries and screenings of the stunning Janus Films 2K restoration that appeared in select theaters earlier this year—a big spike, in particular, after the screening at New York’s Film Forum on February 21. And Criterion Collection’s DVD, Blu-ray and digital release—a true revelation for those who’ve only ever watched the film via the 2003 Kino Lorber DVD—has positively pushed the film into the stratosphere, with a huge jump in numbers in late June, and holding steady ever since.

Given present circumstances—an out-of-control global pandemic with no discernible end in sight; Nazi sentiment and systemic racism still thriving in plain sight—Come and See’s petrifying apocalyptic wallop may not exactly be comfort viewing, but it does serve as a sobering, industrial-strength reminder that this is definitely not The Good Place and we should be concerned. As Lizzy asks in her ominous review, “What urges could turn men into such beasts?”

The film’s original title is the agreeably pointed Kill Hitler (“I think that’s beautiful” —⁠Muriel). But its current beckoning, lifted from the Book of Revelation, is the more provocatively accessible invitation of the two: once you come and see, you can’t unsee Come and See.

Images courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

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