The idea,” states Klimov’s brother and collaborator, German Klimov, “was to tell the truth.”

By Jeremy Carr.

Elem Klimov’s Come and See, an unremitting 1985 opus and one of Soviet cinema’s great anti-war dramas, enjoyed a swift and positive period of reevaluation when a new restoration made its theatrical rounds earlier this year. On the heels of this successful return to cinematic consciousness, the Criterion Collection has released the film on DVD and Blu-ray, and aside from the impressively restored imagery (there are few films as pronounced in their visual intensity as this), the disc is stocked with supplements shedding appreciable light on the making of the film and the sources of its inspiration. 

“The idea,” states Klimov’s brother and collaborator, German Klimov, “was to tell the truth.” Like many featured in the interviews on this Criterion release, he proudly testifies to Come and See’s grounding in reality and its use of genuine wartime accounts to stir spectator emotions. Regarding the presence of extras who lived through the nightmare, several of whom play villagers in the film, Klimov speaks of the “genetic memory of the war,” the powerful emotional ties that bind these unfortunate observers and inevitably feed into the prevailing tremor provoked by the film itself. The central setting and event of consequence involves the village of Khatyn, which, writes Belarusian poet Valzhyna Mort in her Criterion essay, “Read and See: Ales Adamovich and Literature out of Fire,” is “located thirty miles from the Belarusian capital of Minsk [and] was the site of a massacre that took place on March 22, 1943.” This, she adds, is “not to be confused with the better-known massacre at Katyn, the Russian forest where a few years earlier the Soviets had executed many thousands of Polish military officers.” During this tragic March day, a Nazi police battalion “rounded up nearly all of the 156 inhabitants of Khatyn, half of them children, trapped them in a shed, and set it on fire. […] Afterward, they looted the village and burned it to the ground.” Ex-partisan Ales Adamovich, writer of Partizany (Partisans), assembled the events of this horrific incident into Khatyn, a fictional work integrating witness testimonies and published in 1971. This text, along with 1977’s Out of the Fire, which Adamovich wrote with Vladimir Kolesnik and Yanka Bryl, served as primary sources for Come and See, the script of which Adamovich also composed alongside Elem Klimov. For director Klimov, this latter work in particular was seen as a “sacred text,” a “touchstone.”

Work on Come and See began in 1977 but was stalled by eight years of censorship

The Criterion disc includes short segments from Flaming Memory, a series from 1975–77 by filmmaker Viktor Dashuk. Although abbreviated, these documentary supplements, featuring firsthand accounts from survivors of the Belorussian genocide, lend further contextual credence to Come and See’s historical validity. But part of the national framework behind Come and See’s genesis also has to do with the Soviet mindset during the time of Adamovich’s writing. The author was, as Mort remarks, “aware of a tendency to harmonize the national war narrative,” and the concurrent Soviet ideology demanded “uplifting literature that zooms out of the local, personal tragedies in order to present history from a high vantage point. […] The deaths belong to everybody – generally, abstractly.” The question, then, as Mark Le Fanu suggests in his own Criterion essay, “Come and See: Orphans of the Storm,” becomes how much “one needs to know about the political background of individual movies [and] to what extent does the ‘agenda’ of a film like Come and See matter, beyond its obvious primary agenda as a protest against the barbarity of warfare?” It’s a compelling enough point, and indeed most any work concerning warfare, from any nation, benefits from a cogent knowledge of actual events, just as those works surely have a degree of intentionally overt, or at the very least implied, messaging, which cannot be separated from the resulting product. It may be, though, that as a profoundly impassioned anti-war statement, Come and See can more easily be excused for its ostensible “agenda.” In any case, as Le Fanu writes, it “wouldn’t be the first time that a propaganda movie (if that’s what this is) was also a cinematic masterpiece: Soviet cinema is full of such examples, from Eisenstein onward.”

Mort writes that Adamovich’s books “are still painfully difficult to read,” and that they “testify to the failure of humanity as a project in humaneness. Humaneness, as the stories in these books clearly show, is a quality not inherent in human beings. Humaneness is simultaneously cultivated and tested during the trials of history initiated by the failure of humaneness in others.” This notion of widespread applicability to all humankind was in part what inspired Elem Klimov’s original title for Come and See: “Kill Hitler.” In his segment of the Criterion release, Klimov shares extensive detail on the making of the film, including how his own wartime recollections and his Cold War anxieties shaped the surreal and vivid impression manifest itself in this harrowing chronicle. Klimov, born in 1933, witnessed the destruction of Stalingrad in 1942 and, Le Fanu writes, “later spoke of escaping the city in a barge together with his family”; he thus “knew firsthand the meaning and the ‘look’ of apocalypse: it had been seared into his soul at a very young age.” With the ultimately scrapped “Kill Hitler,” Klimov’s intention was to suggest the notion of killing “a Hitler within yourself,” that is, to recognize and expunge the inner demons one carries within, thus adding to the broad implications and allegorical scope of his picture. Name change notwithstanding, this aim remains a vital aspect of Come and See’s enduring relevance. As for the new title, that was gleaned by German Klimov from the New Testament Book of Revelation: “And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see! And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.”

While Klimov began his film career during a precarious period of “relative liberalization known as the thaw,” Le Fanu points out “the cultural freedoms on offer during this period (roughly from 1956 to the middle of the 1960s) were always provisional, and liable to be withdrawn at any moment.” And Klimov did endure prolonged bouts of interruption and disappointment, particularly with the production and distribution of Agoniya (Agony), his 1981 film about Grigori Rasputin. This was just his third feature since the early 1960s and, although it was completed in 1975, the film underwent nine years of governmental interference before premiering in the USSR. Not unlike the dithering process of Agoniya’s release, work on Come and See began in 1977 but was stalled by eight years of censorship before eventually being permitted to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the Red Army’s conquest in World War II. The actual shooting was also an ordeal, and bearing the brunt of the absorbing creative force was 13-year-old Alexei Kravchenko in the role of Flyora, the young protagonist of the film through whom the war’s detrimental horrors are perceived. In an interview from 2001, Kravchenko discusses how he essentially happened into the fortuitous part and talks of the preparation involved prior to filming, which included watching hours of dreadful war footage and undergoing a “hunger diet.” Kravchenko was an “innocent, like a clean sheet of paper,” according to German Klimov, and the psychological toll experienced by the boy (Klimov’s quest for realism was extreme, to the point of using live ammunition in scenes of gunfire) is subsequently evinced on screen. “To a startling extent,” writes Le Fanu, “the film is the record of the successive woes that are etched on the faces of these children, as the steps of their journey wrench them from the familiarity of home and take them further and further into the deep heart of darkness.” Nevertheless, although Kravchenko reiterates the grueling method of the film’s assembly, he also acknowledges the rewarding experience, sentiments echoed by production designer Viktor Petrov, who commends Come and See’s documentary look and congratulates the team effort in striving for technical realism and unprecedented authenticity.

“To what extent does the ‘agenda’ of a film like Come and See matter, beyond its obvious primary agenda as a protest against the barbarity of warfare?” Mark Le Fanu

That said, this harshness does not do justice to Come and See’s moments of overpowering, albeit fleeting, tenderness. The relationship between Flyora and the slightly older Glasha, played by Olga Mironova, exemplifies what Le Fanu calls the “pure flame of love in the midst of unimaginable brutality […] one of the great characteristics of Soviet war movies, differentiating such films from their Hollywood contemporaries, which tended to be more single-mindedly dedicated to masculine solidarity and action.” He compares the ravaged bond between Flyora and Glasha to what is also seen in Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes Are Flying (1957), Sergei Bondarchuk’s Fate of a Man (1959), and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood (1962). In a new interview with Roger Deakins, the acclaimed cinematographer likewise evokes such films, Tarkovsky’s especially, as he applauds the style of Come and See and laments the lack of challenging content seen in contemporary cinema. What also stands out for Deakins, quoting fellow cinematographer Conrad Hall, is Klimov’s aesthetic ability to “create beauty with ugliness.” Deakins recognizes Klimov’s potently rendered anger, and of the compositions shaped in collaboration with cinematographer Alexei Rodionov – visceral, direct portraits of anguish and concentration – he calls them “mind-blowingly beautiful,” which they assuredly are.

Elem Klimov was just 52 when he finished Come and See, and while he lived until 2003, this film would be his last. In a 2001 interview with the director, he speaks of his “restrained” treatment of depicted events, an earnest enough assertion but one that is staggering all the same considering how brutal, without being exceptionally graphic, the film truly is. According to German Klimov, after an early screening when female projectionists were heard screaming and crying in the background, his brother wondered if they “overdid it.” Not quite. And besides, as Elem Klimov states, “Creative work is worth doing when you can offer people something truly serious, truly meaningful.” That meaning is perhaps best expressed by Kravchenko, who appears in a short 1985 documentary about the making of the film, also included on the Criterion release. First seen performing a song he wrote during production, he is asked why the film was made. The young actor puts it succinctly: “So there’d be no more wars.”

Jeremy Carr teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, The Retro Set, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine and Fandor. His monograph on Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) is forthcoming with Auteur Publishing, and he is a contributor to the collections ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May, from Edinburgh University Press, and David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation, from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press (forthcoming).

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