The Soviet Union
Revelation 6: 7-8:
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. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.
As an American, I find it disturbingly easy to forget that a large portion of World War Two was fought in the Soviet Union on the Eastern Front. And why not? In school, I learned about the fronts that involved American soldiers. There were the Beaches at Normandy, the invasion of North Africa, and the Pacific Front. God knows that the soil of Berlin, the beaches of Iwo Jima, and the sand dunes of Africa are stained red with American blood. But what about the USSR? After all, they were instrumental in the Allies victory over the Axis powers. The Battle of Stalingrad is rightfully revered as one of the most horrific, hellish engagements in human history. But I think that as Americans, we tend to diminish the sheer scale of human loss and suffering that took place on the Eastern front. After all, as soon as the war ended, we found ourselves gripped in a Cold War with the Soviets. But a look at the statistics results in a painful reality check.
Exact numbers vary from source to source, but it is generally accepted that the United States had about 407,000 soldiers killed in action. Because of our isolation from the actual fronts of the war, civilian deaths were relatively low, registering in at about 6,000. So, in total, the United States only lost about 413,000 people. Now Germany, the original aggressors, lost about 3.25 million soldiers and 2.44 million civilians, coming to a total of around 5.69 million deaths. The USSR suffered 27 MILLION total deaths. But that is only a rough estimate. Nobody really knows how many Soviets were killed. But the generally accepted figures report that only 12 million were soldiers. That means that approximately 15 million civilians were killed.
Let that figure marinate in your mind for a bit. More Soviet civilians were killed than the combined deaths of the United States, Great Britain, France, Japan, and Germany. How can I, an American, even begin to comprehend the horrors witnessed in Soviet Russia during World War Two? The simple answer is that I can’t. But thanks to fearless movies like Иди и смотри (Come and See) by Elem Klimov, I can at least get a general idea.
As with many Russian films about World War Two, Come and See depicts the war through the eyes of one or two key players. Similarities arise between this film and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood (1962), as both use a young boy as the main character who joins the army to fight against the invading German army. Both can be interpreted as sermons on the loss of innocence. But whereas Ivan’s Childhood alternates between scenes of warfare and memories of his home before the war broke out, Come and See introduces the viewer to a world of harsh realities. There are no fond reminisces here about life before the war. The first time we see the protagonist Florya, he is frantically digging in a sand field trying to find abandoned rifles. He finds one, returns home, and ignoring his mother’s pleas, joins up with the Soviet partisan forces. These first few minutes of film turn the theme of lost innocence on its head. Florya is not a smiling child dragged off to fight in a war against his will. Instead, he smiles as he abandons his mother to go off and fight. His innocence is derived from the idea that the war is one that he can win, one that will not affect his family, and one that he can survive intact. No, he doesn’t think that war is a game, but he cannot deny himself the opportunity to fight back against the evil enemy. So maybe the appropriate word for Florya isn’t niave, but stupid. His ignorance is his innocence. Only the true face of war can reveal to him the realities of fighting.
Unfortunately, he is not allowed to join the partisans. At this point, Florya stops being a soldier. For the rest of the film, he will act as a witness. For the next two hours he will witness a miniature reenactment of the entire European theater. All the while, as if by some cruel preordination, he will survive in situations where others will die. He will escape mines, bullets, and even mass executions. All the while, he will grow older and frailer as the truth about war becomes apparent to him.
Florya at the beginning.
Florya at the end.
In the beginning, Florya enters the forest after he is left behind by the partisans. He meets up with a young woman named Glasha who happens to be in love with the partisan commander. As they return to their village, they become embroiled in a German paratrooper offensive. Florya becomes temporarily deaf after he is almost hit by artillery fire. But no matter, they make it back to Florya’s suddenly empty house. Florya suggests that they go to a nearby island in the middle of a bog where they might be hiding. But Glasha looks back and sees that his whole family had been shot behind their house. Florya, now in denial, plunges the two of them into the bog in one of the film’s most memorable scenes. Almost drowning, they desperately swim across the bog. The mud and water dirties them. Could this be an allusion to Florya’s lost innocence? Probably. As soon as they get across the bog and onto the island, they run into the remnants of their village who tell him that his family had been killed.
So now begins the resistance. Florya joins with three other fighters who go out and try and find food for the villagers. Unfortunately, during a raid on a farm, the others are killed, leaving Florya alone. He comes across a horse and cart and tries to steal it. The owner catches him and is about to punish him when they hear the sounds of approaching Nazi troops. The farmer decides to help hide Florya. So, he buries his partisan jacket and rifle and helps him come up with a new identity. Once they arrive in the village, panic and chaos ensues.
One of the strengths of this film is that most of it was filmed with Steadicam. This helps make the village scene a cacophony of people, screams, and disorder. It is cliché to say that such a technique helps make a film seem more realistic because it makes you feel like you are right there. But in this case, Klimov and his team of editors chose to use the Steadicam to disorientate the audience. We are never quite sure what is going on. This is probably more realistic, as the villagers involved probably didn’t have any idea of what was happening when the Nazis invaded their town. All they knew was to follow the sounds of the shouting and the flow of people. And so we, the audience, follow the flow of the cuts and edits until we reach our destination.
Eventually, Florya is crammed into a wooden church with the rest of the villagers. A German officer announces a grim ultimatum: anyone can leave the church as long as they leave their children behind. Numbly, Florya exits the barn where he is gruffly shoved aside.
He is then forced to witness the destruction of the barn. Grenades are thrown through the windows, machine guns are fired at the sides, and the whole thing is set on fire. Florya watches this holocaust as the German soldiers laugh and clap. A soldier grabs Florya, points a pistol to his head, and forces him to take a picture with him. Both Florya and the audience breathe a sigh of relief when they walk away after the picture is taken. Aleksei Kravchenko, the actor who plays Florya, makes the wise decision to sit back and silently watch the proceedings. His mortified face tells us more than a hundred lines of dialogue ever could.
The Nazis proceed to burn the entire village down. As they leave, they rape one of the survivors who made it out of the church. Unfortunately, her toddler was literally thrown back into the church after she tried to pull him out. All that is left after the Nazis leave is a town of burning buildings. There are no corpses, for they are all burning in the church. Florya plays dead on the ground (or isn’t he?) as a final German comes by, kicks him, and leaves. The massacre complete, Florya leaves what was once a village.
As he walks away, he starts to see German corpses scattered about. The execution squad had the bad luck of running right into an army of partisans. Florya retrieves his gun and jacket and joins them. What follows is a perverse court as the German officers beg for their lives. Of course, they were just following orders. It was all for nothing, as the remaining Germans and the local collaborators are executed. In the last scene, Florya joins with the army as they walk away into the woods. The screen turns black and red letters inform us that 626 Byelorussian villages were burned to the ground along with their inhabitants. It makes the audience wonder if there were 625 other Floryas, too.
So ends Come and See, one of the most terrifying war movies ever made. Even though it only lasts about two and a half hours, almost the entire war is represented: The initial successful invasion, the execution of civilians, the systematic destruction of “unwanted” people, the defeat of the invading enemy, and the trial of war criminals. The fact that the partisans disappear into the forest is symbolic as well, as it represents the uncertain future that the USSR faced after the war. But perhaps the symbolism doesn’t end there.
Could it be that the role of Florya represents the audience? After all, he bears witness to these historical crimes, and yet he doesn’t take a part in them. He is similar to those who never grew up during a war and confront the realities of combat for the first time. His horror is our horror. And at the end when he starts shooting a picture of Adolf Hitler that has fallen into the mud, we join in his anger. Even though we all may have never seen the true face of war, Come and See will make us feel like we have. It is realistic to a fault. This was Klimov’s last film. In 2001, he explained why, “I lost interest in making films…Everything that was possible I felt I had already done.” I share in his sentiment. If I had filmed Come and See, I would have hung up my movie camera, content in the knowledge that I had recreated the past so perfectly. Too perfectly…