“What do you think you are doing?” yells the village elder, to the boys he cannot see. “Playing a game? Who are you playing with?” Once he’s gone, the younger of the boys retraces the old man’s steps, marching and barking in a spot-on impersonation, and the older boy giggles. The opening scene of Elem Klimov’s Come and See (out this week on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection, and streaming on the Criterion Channel) serves several purposes: it establishes a visual and editing style, creates a throwaway moment that ends up powering the narrative, and clarifies a time and place. But most importantly, it helps us understand that Flyora, the teenage boy at the story’s center, is still (for all intents and purposes) a child.
The setting is Belorussia, 1943. WWII is in full swing, German Nazis have occupied the area, and Flyora has joined the Belarusian resistance movement. “Everybody’s going. I must go,” he tells his mother. “I won’t let you go! I won’t!” she insists, but there’s no talking him out of it. He’s enchanted by the idea, and by the military men who come to transport him; he thinks he’s going off to play soldier. But their antics make his little sisters cry, and that should tell him something.
“The new recruit” soon finds that there’s nothing fun or exciting about war; it’s terrifying and upsetting, and no sooner has he arrived than he’s left behind, his boots deemed more valuable than his service. Like any person this young might, he cries, helpless and hurt, and in the remnants of their resistance camp, he finds a (brief) companion, and narrowly dodges an air strike, losing part of his hearing in the process. They escape, and it becomes a strange kind of survivalist adventure, with Flyora and friend wandering an abandoned countryside. And then the Nazis find him.
The acts of casual brutality and sneering intimidation that Flyora both witnesses and is subjected to as their captive are horrifying, and Aleksei Rodionov’s camera does not blink. Though there are moments of stunning beauty here (including a handful of gasp-inducing split diopter shots), Rodionov and Klimov are more concerned with using the camera to capture the experience, via flashes of nightmare imagery and carefully composed, subjective close-ups, tight and involving. (An unexpected hard cut, late in the film, to archival newsreel footage is also devastating.) The immersive sound design further pushes us into Flyora’s wrecked headspace; one moment in particular sticks in this viewer’s mind, with flames, gunfire, music and screams, horrible screams, battling for bandwidth on the soundtrack. It’s unshakable.
But for all of the picture’s technical triumphs, Klimov’s most effective tool is the expressive face of Aleksei Kravchenko, the young actor who plays Flyora. It’s a wide, open face, and that’s key, because as he registers the aggressions and atrocities around him, he becomes something of an audience surrogate. The work Kravchenko is doing here isn’t subtle; he may as well be in a silent movie, and this is meant as a compliment. Sometimes you have to go that broad, that operatic, to convey the depth of this terror. Klimov famously shot the picture chronologically, over nine grueling months, and as a result, it genuinely feels as though Kravchenko has been through an ordeal; throughout these 143 minutes, we watch the innocence of the early scenes fade from that face. It hardens, into a pained, then terrified, then furious grimace.
Throughout Come and See, the presence of death is barely more upsetting than the abruptness of it; violence just breaks out, over no sooner than it’s begun, emanating from anywhere, and not a single voice objects. This is perhaps what’s most unnerving about watching the film now, as new strains of fascism arise all but unabated. In perhaps the film’s most horrifying sequences, the Nazi soldiers board up a church with villagers (including women and children) locked inside; the church is torched, killing them all. As the building lights up, the observing crowd of soldiers breaks into cheers and applause. Mass murder and domestic terror are, for these monsters, a spectator sport. And that aspect of the film hasn’t dated one bit.