How 'Come and See' Uses Horror to Make the Best Anti-War Movie You've Never Seen

'Come and See' WWII anti-war war movie video essay no film school
This classic WWII film effectively draws its strengths from horror and surrealism instead of war movie tropes. 

Come and See is one of the best anti-war films ever made, and yet, as this video shows, the 1985 WWII film by and large eschews war movie tropes, instead viewing the conflict through surrealism and horror.  The war film is one of the most complicated and fraught genres in all of cinema. In a Roger Ebert review the critic wrote, "It's said that you can't make an effective anti-war film because war by its nature is exciting, and the end of the film belongs to the survivors," but he is quick to add that, "No one would ever make the mistake of saying that about...Come and See."

In this video essay from Ask Clauswitz, the film—which follows a young Belarusian boy over a few days as his world is invaded by the S.S. in 1943—is analyzed as a study in "fear and naïveté," effectively drawing its strengths from horror and surrealism instead of war movie tropes war movie tropes.

Released in 1985 and directed by Elem Klimov in the erstwhile Soviet Union, the film was made to commemorate the Red Army's victory over Nazi Germany in WWII, though Come and See is neither triumphalist or propagandistic. One of the key ways this is achieved is through perspective: while most war movies are seen through the eyes of combatants, Come and See, in the words of the video essay, thoroughly examines "the plight of the civilian," who, being unarmed, lacks agency, or "the luxury of their own determination." In other words, they can't fight back. In this movie, the Nazis are not enemies to be vanquished, but a monstrous and inhuman presence, as they were to the vast majority of their victims, including the untold millions who were systematically murdered in the Holocaust

Note: all the following clips are from an English dub, but I'd highly recommend watching the subtitled version.

The film is mediated through the highly subjective, traumatized consciousness of Florya, a 14-year-old boy in Belarus in 1943. Eager to join the war effort, he hooks up with a group of local partisans. Posted as a sentry, he meets Glasha, a girl roughly his age, who is infatuated with the leader of the partisans. Then, in a surreal image that repeats through the film, a plane flies overhead; this time, though, German paratroopers float gently down from the heavens, blurry and unfocused like rain drops in the distance. As the essay notes, "the German soldier [is] obscured" throughout the film, and instead of individual enemies to be killed, they are "ghost[s], and they always seem to act as one." 

'Come and See' partisans WWII anti-war war movie video essay no film school

At that moment, Florya's war begins. Temporarily deaf from shelling, he also becomes delusional. He becomes separated from Glasha, and finds himself in a village where the Nazis soon arrive; they calmly order the population to assemble in the town square, though Florya knows they are not planning to examine everyone's identification (his family, and village, have already been slaughtered). This part of the film is based on the Khatyn Massacre, a largely forgotten episode in which an entire village was slaughtered (According to the film's credits, 628 villages in Belarus were destroyed in a similar manner.) 

Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=SELfwTauyzU&ab_channel=CHUCKCOLIN%27Smovieclips{HD}

As the essay notes, "the camera is a tool to show the chaos of what is happening, and this is why many of the shots are long, panning shots that highlight the chaos that is occurring." Another key element of the film's aesthetic is that characters are repeatedly shown facing the camera, staring at the audience. We are often looking from the POV of Florya, but just as often the images are unattributed to a consciousness or character; the camera bears witness, and the overall effect is one of surreality, a quasi-breaking of the fourth wall where no one speaks into the camera, or is seemingly aware that they are in a film. 

Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=kP4oTqm1F9c&ab_channel=CHUCKCOLIN%27Smovieclips{HD}

Ultimately, the film wants us to experience "15 minutes of utter chaos, then nothing." These minutes lie at the heart of the film, and are its most unforgettable. "It is this nothingness that the film wants us to understand," the essayist states, and I'd argue that it's what sets the film apart from other war movies, which tend to flinch from the realities of war, and give the horrors a redemptive arc. Movies are not generally designed to depress their audiences, and so time and again, the unthinkable is shoehorned into a structure that allows the viewer to make sense of that which Come and See refuses to. Ultimately, every filmmaker can learn from this genre- (and mind-) bending cinematic experience.

'Come and See' partisans WWII anti-war war movie video essay no film school

Your Comment

6 Comments

I saw this years ago and it is recommended. The savage Eastern Front is rarely touched in cinema, or at least cinema well known in the West. Come and See is not an action film, but depicts the war as uprooting not just affecting people but uprooting the land itself, such as the scene where night-time firing hits a cow in a field and it quietly lies down to die, or the moment a heron is shown silently going about it's business.

I'm going to be a little impolite and take a pop at Spielberg in contrast of the war genre in general. I never trusted doing pantomime Nazis in Raiders followed by scowling Nazis in Ryan or Schindlers - I felt Spielberg's baddies remained uncomfortably unsubtle for the wrong reasons.

Has anyone seen Sam Peckinpah's Cross of Iron ? Recommended too. Thanks for the article.

October 31, 2016 at 4:31PM, Edited October 31, 4:52PM

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Saied M.
1325

Cool to see attention being brought to this movie. The fact that it plays like a horror film is exactly what I remember thinking when I saw it. Just as Apocalypse Now is the cinematic pinnacle of depicting the insanity of war, Come and See is definitely the epitome of "war is hell".

October 31, 2016 at 7:02PM

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Warren Bros.
Filmmaker | Cinephile
252

A stellar film, strange and horrifying. I think it has a much higher profile in Europe than in the States, as I know of many filmmakers where I'm from (Iceland) that consider it a favorite, and an inspiration.

The use of searingly beautiful German music in the film, the ending in particular, didn't feel like it was being used "ironically". It felt like a real question was being posed: how do you get from Mozart to Auschwitz? (yeah, Mozart's Austrian, but then Austrians were even more nazi sympathetic than most of Germany).

October 31, 2016 at 7:47PM

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Honestly, never ever put "you've never seen" as a headline in an article about films.
It's arrogant and patronising.

This site obviously attracts film fans, and yes, many of us have seen this well known and respected film.

November 1, 2016 at 8:08AM, Edited November 1, 8:08AM

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Watching "Come and See" was like being dropped into someone else's nightmare. It is war films like this that need to be highlighted, brought to the forefront of pop culture. My good friends and I discuss the film here - https://soundcloud.com/cine-pile-podcast/cine-pile-7-ww2-films-modern-da... - for anyone who is interested in a discussion about this and the war film genre.

November 1, 2016 at 3:03PM, Edited November 1, 3:03PM

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Kyle Montgomery
Writer/Director of Photography
81

Cool, thanks!

November 1, 2016 at 9:40PM

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Justin Morrow
Writer
Writer/Director