Elem Klimov was 52 when Come and See was released. He lived another 18 years. Before Come and See, he had directed more than half-a-dozen features. Given its status among critics (it is #141 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time), you might think Come and See suggested further great movies from the director. Yet he never directed another movie, saying in 2000, "I've lost interest in making films. Everything that was possible I felt I had already done." Watching Come and See, you understand Klimov's position, for it's hard to imagine anything topping what became his final film.
Come and See is a war film that will bring to mind other movies, good ones that pale next to Come and See. Apocalypse Now is often mentioned, as is Saving Private Ryan. I was reminded of the great Fires on the Plain, and to a lesser extent, Bernhard Wicki's The Bridge. Both of those movies have an intensity that makes them hard to sit through, which is also true of Come and See. This Russian film makes Apocalypse Now seem almost trivial.
The film begins with young Flyora and a friend looking for abandoned rifles so they can join the Soviet partisans against the Nazis in 1943. I'm tempted to say we see what transpires through the eyes of Flyora, but that is not literally true, because the face of Flyora is increasingly haunting over the course of the movie. Rather than seeing things through his eyes, we read them through his face. I had to look up Aleksei Kravchenko, the teenaged actor who played Flyora, to see if he had suffered trauma from making the film. He's in almost every scene, and the atrocities he sees can't have been easy to handle, even in a fictional form (it's hard for us in the audience to handle, as well). I learned that Klimov wanted to hypnotize his young actor during the most horrible scenes to help Aleksei get through relatively unscathed, but the actor couldn't be hypnotized. Some sources say that the teenager's hair turned gray while making the movies. He didn't appear on screen for 15 years. But apparently Kravchenko survived ... he returned to acting and became a regular on Russian television.
The title of the film warns us of what is to come. "Come and See" is derived from the Book of Revelation: "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."
Klimov manages to include some black humor, although it comes mostly in the first half. There comes a point when you just can't laugh it off.