In 1943 Byelorussia, Florya (Aleksei Kravchenko), a 14-year-old boy who is eager to fight the Germans, goes off to join the Russian army, against the pleadings of his mother. But the regiment makes him stay behind at the camp, and he wanders off on his own, joined by a peasant girl (Olga Mironova). Rendered partially deaf by aerial bombardment, and evading capture from German paratroopers, he tries to return home, but fate guides him to a band of partisans, after which his journey leads him ever deeper into the inferno of the Nazi invasion.
The picture's rigorously subjective style, hallucinatory imagery, and refusal to soften or glamorize the realities of war, makes it something of a milestone in the Soviet World War II film, a genre distinguished, at its best, by a sense of grief over the great tragedy of that conflict, which killed an estimated twenty million Russians. In Byelorussia, the Germans systematically wiped out hundreds of towns, rounding men, women, and children into barns and burning them alive. By depicting these horrific events through the eye of a naive boy, Klimov gives them immediacy, elevating them above the mere recounting of historical fact into the heightened realm of an actual witnessing, where they appear strange, grotesque, and unbearable.
Kravchenko's almost wordless performance is riveting. Over the course of the film we see his face become aged beyond his years, hardening into a mask of fear and trauma that reflects every atrocity he has seen and endured. The film is constantly directing our attention to people's faces, their expressions, their stares and glances, which visually emphasizes the fact that all these horrors are happening to people, to someone, the unutterable limits of inhumanity experienced in the souls and feelings of living beings. Klimov doesn't let the viewer detach to contemplate psychology or motivation, but brings us down to the stark level of survival, where his young protagonist lives.
Sometimes the images are lyrical, as in the brilliant sequence in a forest where Florya and the girl are hiding. The girl dances in the rain, a stork wanders through a clearing -- the beauty is tinged with fear and ominous foreboding. When Florya is deafened, the movie's soundtrack is muffled, and the music and sound effects express his disorientation and maddening inability to connect with what's going on around him. At key moments, Klimov always chooses an unexpected image or shot, startling us out of ordinary perception and keeping us on edge, as in the scene when Florya and a partisan are stealing a cow and come under fire, and we suddenly see a close-up of the cow's eye, another uncomprehending creature subjected to the merciless insanity of this world.
Come and See (even the title alludes to our role as witnesses, willing or not) is a deeply unsettling experience. This is a film designed to shake you to the core of your being, a vision of what life looks like when all we know and cherish is savagely uprooted, when love and morality are ripped away and humans turn into beasts. In one of the film's most daring flourishes, Florya vents his rage on a symbol -- a picture of Hitler -- and with each gunshot Klimov moves the newsreel images of history backwards, undoing in fantasy what can never be undone, until we are left with the haunting face of a child. The shooting stops; we can never go back, but we will never -- should never -- forget.
P.S. To watch the movie preview video clip you can on russianDVD.com website for free.