As the Nazis penetrate ever further into his country, Byelorussian peasant boy Florya discovers a buried German rifle and leaves home to join the army. But as he witnesses atrocities first hand his innocence is shattered and very nearly his sanity.
Properly considered one of the most powerful and disturbing war movies ever made, Elem Klimov's hallucinogenic journey into the vile inhumanity of war, especially as perpetrated by the Reich as they invaded Russia, this is a film of great craft, courage and a deep seated compassion. Although made under the auspices of Soviet controlled cinema, the film rages against oppression, the terrible price that is paid by the humble and poor in the face of political conflict. It is a vision of hell on earth, contrasted with moments of unearthly beauty, that spiral of haunting majesty and lunacy of Apocalypse Now, but with its own deterministic grit.
Rumours abound that Klimov used hypnosis on his fledgling actor Aleksei Kravchencko, the twisted soul of his story, to extract the emotional, even existential, shock of reaction to unknowable things. Whatever the case, it must stand as one of the greatest child performances. Through a series of intense close-ups, reactionary shots to death's myriad forms, Kravchencko's face is a map of terror and incipient madness, but there is a gradual closing up, a sealing off from horror. It is one of the film's pressing themes - how humans become inured to extremity, how the annihilation of innocents can become the norm.
The physical representation of war, not of battle but of the Nazi's genocidal sweep across the pastoral plains of Byelorussia, is shot with a raptured precision like a netherworld from a Grimm Brother fairytale. But none of their moral nightmares, for all their trippy gloom, could compare to the carnival of abhorrence as the Nazis hound an entire village into a barn ready to burn them alive. Spielberg for Schindler's List borrowed their clapping, deranged, subhuman enjoyment of the process. Klimov's guile is to offer up, all-too briefly, moments of emotional connection as Florya escapes in the company of a luminous peasant girl, played with a mild delirium by Olga Mironova, through those desolate woods - they shower by shaking sodden tree branches and when she quicksteps on his case top it is like a moment stolen from a dream. War's unbearable reality forces humanity into surreal pastures, and this landscape, fogged and unending, feels like nowhere on Earth.
Unforgettable and deeply traumatic - while never forcefully gruesome, the death rent across the screen tests you to the limits - Come And See is an extraordinary piece of filmmaking. More than that, though, it is a cry of indignant force: how could something so indisputably wrong ever come to pass?
A relentless masterpiece, and a brilliant study of the cause and effect nature of brutality.