Remembering ones collective history’s more traumatic moments has always been a popular draw for film-makers and audiences alike. They act as cultural artefacts that can facilitate a group identity or memory in communal points of reference. Benedict Anderson utilised an image of ‘imagined communities’ that suggests we are bound to each other through various collective experience and reference points that those within our group will share and identify with.
This obviously isn’t merely a function of film, but any cultural representation, and its influence on the group dynamic is such that for example, any good authoritarian regime worth its salt is always quite concerned with how the history is told; to recall the oft quoted line that ‘history is always written by the winners.’ The ‘who’ of any author, director or artistic creator, ought to be considered regardless of broader political environments.
“Come and See” is an historical film set in Belorussia in 1943 during the German invasion and acts as a testament to the brutality of war, as seen through the experience of a twelve year old boy, Florya. The film was made and produced in the 80s whilst the Soviet Union was still alive and kicking, yet the explicit war politics are subtlely diffused by a focus on the trauma and the suffering. The characterisation of the German soldiers is I suppose reasonably standard, but when one is dealing with the particularly horrific events that are portrayed here, it is difficult to mould a complicated image of a culprit spirit that systematically eradicates entire villages of its inhabitants through intolerably cruel methods.
However, the greater message is of the horrors of war in general. Through Florya, we are taken on a personal journey from an innocent boy playing with his friend, eagerly trying to find a gun buried in the sand in order that he can be allowed to join up with the other soldiers, to one who, alongside a young female companion who joins him early on, learns oh so quickly and graphically the reality that shatters the illusion. His performance is terrific, with eyes that age dramatically as the film goes on, indeed in one scene towards the end, a slightly blurred close up in the aftermath of a tragic fire, paints an impression of a face that could easily be that of a 50 year old man.
The direction of Elem Klimov is masterful throughout, and he marshals a narrative brimming with a foreboding sense of doom so well that the long length of the film passes by unnoticed. The sound is a particularly well done feature in my view, from the moment the first shells land near the young Florya, rendering him disorientated and for a time, deaf. It is contained within a brief couple of scenes yet it’s effectiveness is striking. There are moments within the film which enable a viewer with prior-knowledge of the history of the period to guess what is going to happen next, and it doesn’t shy away from proving you right, leaving an haunting impression on the mind.
The film is a testament to the specific sufferings of communities in the East under the German advance but also the tragedy of the impact of war in general. In its cultural historical context, it sits well with other depictions of the period, offering another point of comparison to the suffering endured. As a companion to other offerings from the other side – such as the film based on an anonymous diary – ‘A Woman in Berlin’ which charts the rape of German women by Soviet soldiers, it is an important part in reconstructing the tapestry of violence that was the Second World War.