Very few films are worthy of the descriptor “masterpiece.” It’s not to say that there aren’t many good films. Far from it! I’d like to think that all the films I’ve covered here on VL were at least good, if not great. But how many films have you seen that were genuinely profound?
Moreover, how many horror films are masterpieces in the most commonly understood sense. Horror fans might agree that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a masterpiece in the genre, but you aren’t likely find that one topping the “best of” lists from The American Film Institute. But what about the outliers? Those films that sit outside clean lines of description, that bend genre and film making conventions?
Come and See, directed by Elem Klimov in 1985, in a true genre-bending masterpiece. It is a film that uses the best artistic direction of an era to achieve genuinely horrifying ends. Set in Belarus in 1943, Come and See tells the story of Flyora, an early teen dragged into the Hell of World War 2 on the Eastern Front. Klimov’s portrayal of Nazi atrocities in Soviet Belarus are based on true events, and while the film is not gory in the sense of something like Hostel, it is unflinching in it’s depiction of genuine destruction.
But there are plenty of war films, right? If we are measuring realistic depictions of violence as one yardstick, is Saving Private Ryan a horror film? But violence is not the single end of horror. In order for a film to be a Horror Film, it should evoke feelings of dread or apprehension. At the risk of a tautology, a Horror Film must Horrify. Come and See delivers in this arena like almost no other film. It is a film that is genuinely beautiful and revolting in equal measure.
Klimov made several clever decisions in the creation of Come and See. Following the horror axiom that “what the audience does not see is more scary than what they can see,” the film is not a barrage of one-note gore. Often the most affecting moments occur only briefly, barely on screen for a minute. And when Klimov’s lens does linger, it serves to drive home what our protagonist is forced to handle. Aleksei Kravchenko’s portrayal of Flyora is, for my money, one of the greatest on-screen performances of it’s decade. Klimov uses many tightly framed shot’s of Flyora reacting to the world around him, his face contorting into a mask of sharp disgust or mute terror. The hyper-realism of the incoming bomb raids becomes justified with the surreal.
A recurring image throughout this film is the presence of German reconnaissance aircraft passing over a scene. Klimov simply does not use the sound of the engines (which would be scary enough,) but blends into it a single droning tone that lingers over the scene. The aircraft ceases to be a mere engine of war. It becomes a harbinger of existential threat, a very real portent of doom. This Lynchian blending of audio manipulation into diegetic sound into a unstylized world is incredibly unnerving.
“I am sick and tired of war. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance, for desolation. War is hell.”
- William Tecumseh Sherman
Come and See is more than a mere collection of horrifying images. There are more than enough films that provide that sort of viewing. Instead, Come and See is a slow burn. It seeks to illustrate the loss of individual innocence and the corruption of a world. It is not enough to see war in a realistic way, and this film seeks to crush the thought that “Total War” can ever be noble. ((An actual note I took during my viewing of the film: “Is it possible to feel like you are committing a war crime by watching a movie?”) It seems so obvious that attempted genocide and wholesale destruction merely degrades the soul of all involved. But genocides didn’t stop happening with World War Two. Come and See offers a believable proxy experience to brave cinephiles and horror fans. It is not to be missed, underestimated, or forgotten.