Being a bit of a history nerd with a love of horror, it would be no surprise that interesting things pop up in my online searches, especially when some sites have a “you may be interested in…” section, and it always seems that this film titled Come and See pops up, finally I looked into it and watched the film and HOLY SHIT does not even begin to describe what I saw. Everywhere I looked afterward it seems everyone has said the same thing over and over, this film is a “non-horror horror movie” which after seeing, I have to agree, let me tell you about Come and See.
Come and See is a surrealist anti-war film made in the Soviet Union in 1985. The film was directed by Elem Klimov and was his last as he felt after making the film that he went as far as he could creatively as a director which was not far from the truth as this film was his most successful internationally and has been put on many film lists including the list of best films ever made.
I’m going to keep this as spoiler-free as possible but there will be a major point in the film that I will explain later that could be a spoiler, you’ve been warned. The film takes place in 1943 Belarus and follows a 16-year-old boy named Flyora (Aleksei Kravchenko) who desperately wants to join the Belarusian Partisan movement against his mother’s wishes as she fears it would bring death to her and his two younger sisters. As the film progresses Flyora witnesses the horrors of war and the insanity that comes with it leaving Flyora’s fate unknown to the audience as he goes off to war.
Now you’re asking, “what makes this a non-horror horror movie?”, well surprisingly… how it was filmed. The majority of the film was filmed using a steady cam giving a lot of following shots, especially at times when characters are running, a key visual in the film is that whenever something bad was going to happen, Flyora would see and hear a German reconnaissance plane flying overhead, so this plus the following shots gives the feeling that someone is always watching or chasing.
This film is known for using tight shots on the faces of characters throughout the film, in some scenes, this is VERY uncomfortable as the shots are sometimes tight on the actor’s faces as they speak, and their eyes are fixed on the camera…at you… pulling you into the story but also giving an uneasy feeling, especially towards the end when a German officer heartlessly justifies the murder of civilians all the while staring at you intensely with eyes with nothing behind them. Big credit to all the actors in the film who were able to pull off these close-up shots and to visually deliver a performance, sometimes by not having to say anything which is how Flyora does at key moments in the story. Throughout the film, if you pay attention closely, Flyora’s boyish appearance begins to change.
Now, this part not only may contain spoilers but some distressing information. A key scene of the film that pretty much made it infamous was the “Church burning” scene. If you’ve ever seen Schindler’s List, throughout the entire movie it showed a lot of intense visuals of the holocaust, now take the intensity of that entire movie and cram it into roughly 20 or so minutes of pure visual hell that will haunt you long after seeing the film. Flyora witnesses and the entire village get stuffed into a church by German and Ukrainian collaborators before it was set on fire, the whole while the Germans and their allies go about laughing and partying and goofing around having fun as if this was nothing.
Not only was this scene hard to watch because of the indifference by the film’s antagonists, but it’s also the fact that this was not creative license by the director/writers, this shit happened for real and it was documented by both survivors and the culprits themselves. Some historical background, the German unit depicted in the film was based on the Dirlewanger Brigade, Or The Black Hunters as they were called, this branch of the SS was made up of violent criminals who were taken from German prisons, given military training, and were let loose on the battlefield as an anti-insurgency unit, in short, they were tasked with terrorizing civilian populations.
What is shown in the church scene is the kind of thing the black hunters did throughout Eastern Europe and was the popular MO of the group. The unit was so infamous that even towards the end of the war before Germany’s defeat, the SS itself was set to investigate and punish the unit and its leaders for war crimes! It makes you wonder how bad someone has to be to make the SS, a unit that has a literal grinning skull as its symbol say “You’ve gone too far”?!
Come and See, is hard to watch, I’ll admit it, but it’s a film that should be. The acting is amazing, the visuals catch your attention, the surreal soundtrack haunts, the intense nature of the film’s tone, and the message of struggling to not become what you hate haunts you well after watching the film. It’s not for everyone, but if you’re willing to check it out, you can find it pretty much anywhere online for free. Be warned, there are scenes towards the end showing actual images from the Holocaust, implications of rape, and unsettling imagery and diolague.