Come and See refuses to relent

War films tend to ride on the line between regret and righteousness. Inherent in notions of victory is often an unspoken sentiment: it was righteous to fight evil. Western depictions tend to simplify conflict. Evil is over there, and here we go to stop it. Depictions from eastern Europe (The Painted Bird; If Not Now, When?) offer a distinctly different view. None are as uncompromising as Come and See.

Directed by Elem Klimov and originally released in 1985, the film is set in Belarus in 1943. A teenage boy, Floriya (Aleksey Kravchenko), digs up a rifle to join the partisans. When they come for him, he leaves his family with the enthusiasm of a kid off to summer camp. He’s eventually abandoned by the frivolous gang (they spend more time taking a group photo than fighting) and realizes that he’s gone from war-torn poverty to somewhere much worse.

What follows is a surreal journey across a type of hell. When Floriya encounters Glasha (Olga Mironova) sobbing in the woods, the camera begins to detach from our sense of realism. When they speak, they stare directly into us, going from sobbing to uncontrollable laughter. We chase them through the forest as they’re bombarded, the sound so splitting and awesome it’s a wonder we don’t go as deaf as Floriya. Glasha dances atop a suitcase with abandon, jerky and unreal. A curious stork follows their every move.

Images like these make Come and See such a gripping carnival to witness. The film’s restoration accentuates the contrast, muted colours become rich, characters emerge from the darkest shadows and we linger on them like paintings. From the opening frame, the restoration of an already beautiful film proves to be exemplary. It also brings the final harrowing carnival act into sharp focus. The act starts quietly, only the buzzing of a motorcycle circling a foggy village. As the dread mounts, the sequence becomes a cacophony of machinery, weaponry, screams, and jeers.

Like other important films (12 Years a Slave; The Nightingale), Come and See‘s expression of historical terror may be too much for some to bear. As infamous as it is respected, the film does not hold back. It offers little in the way of victory. Indeed, every small triumph begets further tragedy. There is no righteous revenge by the damned on the wicked. And yet the vision is not muddled. It’s clear: this is a regretful and upsetting chapter in history.

Depictions of war on the Eastern Front are inexorably tied to the Holocaust and other atrocities inflicted on the peoples there. Come and See exemplifies this unforgiving portrayal. It commands you to watch and at times feels like it’s gripping you, threatening to not let go. But it does, and as the partisans fade into the lush forest in the final image, it still sticks to you.

The restored version of Come and See plays at the Cinematheque on March 13 (7:00pm), March 15 (7:00pm), and March 16 (8:20pm).