EK is one of the leading Russian film directors of the "Glasnost" period during which the controls of the previous decades have been gradually removed. One result has been a much more critical and socially aware Soviet cinema. In an interview EK related how he grew up in southern Russia during WW2 and that similar things to those depicted in the film happened to relatives and friends. Screenplay written by Adamovich and EK.
Title may come from a verse of The Bible from "The Revelation of St. John the Divine", chap 6 verse 1:
And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seals, and I heard, as it were the noise of thunder, one of the four beasts saying, Come and See.
The film concerns the Nazi policy of annihilation in the republic of Byelorussia (now known as Belorus or White Russia, adjacent to Poland) in 1943. The racial policy of the Nazis was to eliminate all "inferior races" such as Jews and Slavs from Eastern Europe and to thus make land available for German settlement in the east (Lebensraum). Because of the importance of Eastern Europe to Nazi policy the bulk of the German Army was sent to the eastern rather than the western front. Estimated that 20 million or more Russians died fighting Hitler (recent estimates place figure 25-30 million). Units of the SS (Schutzstaffel) and SD (Sicherheitsdienst) were used to carry out the genocide. The SD was seperate from the main body of the German Army (Wehrmacht) and made up of fanatical Nazis and fascist East European (often from the Baltic) collaborators. The film raises two very sensitive issues which could not be discussed in the pre-Glasnost period - why so many eastern Europeans welcomed the invasion of the Nazis (seen as preferrable to the tyranny of Stalin) and the fact that anti-Semitic attitudes were widespread in Soviet society.
The film is about one small area under German occupation where some 628 Byelorussian villages were wiped out and the experience of war of a naive young man, Florian or Flor for short (played by Alexei Kravchenko), who has his family and entire village destroyed by the Nazis. He is forced to join the partisans and struggles to maintain his humanity and dignity in spite of the horrors he sees around him. By the end of the film he has visibly aged as he tries to comprehend the magnitude of the evil of Nazism. The film opens with Flor searching for a rifle, since he cannot join the poorly equipped partisans without one. An old man (Yustin, the village elder) warns him that "they'll teach you a lesson" for stealing a rifle. Later the old man is burnt to death and blames Flor for being the cause. F joins the partisans and this begins his trauma. Because he is inexperienced he is left behind in the partisans' camp in the forest when they go off on a raid. He meets up with a young woman, Glasha, with whom he plays in the pristine Russian forest like a carefree child at a summer camp. They are interrupted by a German aerial attack on the camp and F is temporarily deafened by an explosion.
G and F flee the forest to seek refuge at F's home, where they discover an empty house. As they run to the swamp where F believes his family has taken refuge G looks over her shoulder to see the family had been lined up against the wall of the house and shot. F and G make their way to an island in the middle of the swamp where they find the refugees from F's village. They are starving so an expedition to find food is sent off. F and his companions steal a cow but they are killed by the Germans. F remains with the cow which is accidently killed in a night-time battle. F seeks shelter with people from another village but a SD unit arrives and orders the villagers to assemble in the town hall. The Germans set fire to the hall but F is able to escape at the last minute. G is raped by the Nazis and left to die.
The partisans defeat the SD unit and assemble them under a bridge while they decide what to do with them. Some of the Nazis argue for their innocence. Others continue to defend their actions by shamelessly denouncing the "inferior" Slavic race whom they intended to exterminate. F brings a container of petrol and the Nazis are doused with it in the expectation that the Nazis should die in the same way as their victims (torch brought from village but dropped in river and extinguished). This option is not taken and the Nazis are "executed" honourably like soldiers by machine gun fire. F rejoins the partisans but stumbles across a picture of Hitler lying in the mud. For the first time in the film F fires his rifle at the picture of Hitler. As he does so repeatedly, Wagner's music is played and newsreels of the rise of the Nazis and the life of Hitler are played backwards. The closing scene is of the partisans returning to the forest to the music (Lacrimosa) of Mozart's hauntingly sad and beautiful "Requiem."
Recent estimates of the number of Soviet citizens killed in "The Great Fatherland War" are 20-27 million or about 15% of the total population. In a chilling, recent account of the activities of the Germany Army in the Soviet Union Omer Bartov notes that (pp. 89-95):
If the Ostheer's commanders found themselves in some conflict with their troops over the treatment of POWs, there was much less friction regarding the so-called partisans, though here too the soldiers found ample opportunities for "wild," unauthorized actions. "Partisans," or "bandits," was a term used to desribe all civilians deemed unworthy of life by the army, whether due to guerrilla activity or to political and "racial" affiliation. In a world where life was cheaper than food and clothes, and whose inhabitants were divided into members of the "master race" and "subhumans," one could not issue orders for massacres of helpless civilians without expecting the perpetrators to perform similar atrocities on their own initiative. Sanctioned already in the "Barbarossa" decree, collective punishment for partisan attacks soon became the rule, and from that point on no one in the army seemed to bother much about the identity of the murdered.
... the 12th Infantry's standard reaction to partisan attacks on its units was to burn down the villages in the vicinity of the attack, shoot all the male inhabitants, and leave the remaining women and children to fend for themselves in winter conditions without any shelter...
The Ostheer thus provided its troops with an array of orders, rationalizations, and incentives for brutally treating both captured enemy soldiers and the occupied civilian population. The scope of officially authorized murder, maltreatment, and destruction of property far outweighed "wild" actions performed on the troops' own intitiative. Moreover, the troops' conduct can only be understood within the Wehrmacht's far-reaching legalization of actions previously considered criminal, the organized manner of their execution, and the widespread agreement with the ideology which motivated them, all of which made for a situation whereby an army normally insistent on rigid obedience allowed its troops to get away with breaches of discipline regarding the treatment of enemy soldiers and civilians.
On why the so-called "ordinary men" in Reserve Police Battalion 101 in Poland willingly murdered Polish Jews in 1942-3:
Here we come full circle to the mutually intensifying effects of war and racism noted by John Dower (in War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (1986)), in conjuction with the insidious effects of constant propaganda and indoctrination. Pervasive racism and the resulting exclusion of the Jewish victims from any common ground with the perpetrators made it all the easier for the majority of the policemen to conform to the norms of their immediate community (the battalion) and their society at large (Nazi Germany). Here the years of anti-Semitic propaganda (and prior to the Nazi dictatorship, decades of shrill German nationalism) dovetailed with the polarizing effects of war. The dichotomy of racially superior Germans and racially inferior Jews, central to Nazi ideology, could easily merge with the image of a beleaguered Germany surrounded by warring enemies. If it is doubtful that most of the policemen understood or embraced the theoretical aspects of Nazi ideology as contained in SS indoctrination pamphlets, it is also doubtful that they were immune to "the influence of the times" (to use Lieutenant Drucker's phrase once again), to the incessant proclamation of German superiority and incitement of contempt and hatred for the Jewish enemy. Nothing helped the Nazis to wage a race war so much as the war itself. In wartime, when it was all too usual to exclude the enemy from the community of human obligation, it was also all too easy to subsume the Jews into the "image of the enemy", or Feinbild. (Browning, p. 186).
Peter Calvocoressi, Guy Wint, and John Pritchard, Total War: The Causes and Courses of the Second World War (Penguin, 1989, second edition).
Nazism 1919-1945. A History in Documents and Eyewitness Accounts. Volume II: Foreign Policy, War and Racial Extermination, eds. J. Noakes and G. Pridham (New York: Schocken, 1988), pp. 1086-1102.
Norman Rich, Hitler's War Aims: Ideology, the Nazi State, and the Course of Expansion (New York: W.W. Norton, 1973). Ch. 18 "The Final Drive for Lebensraum: The Attack on Russia," pp. 204-223.
Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, trans. Ralph Mannheim (London: Hutchinson, 1972).
Omer Bartov, Hitler's Army: Soldiers, Nazis, and War in the Third Reich (Oxford University Press, 1992). Chap. 3 "The Perversion of Discipline," pp. 59-105.
"The Final Solution. 1. The Decision and How it was put into Effect in the Occupied Zone of Soviet Russia," in Anatomy of the SS State, Helmut Krausnick and Martin Broszat, trans, Dorothy Long and Marian Jackson (London: Paladin, 1973), pp. 77-91.
A. Werth, Russia at War (London: Barrie and Rockliff, 1964).
Christopher Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (New York: HarperPerennial, 1993).
M.R.D. Foot, Resistance (Paladin, 1979).
S. Hawes and R. White, Resistance in Europe, 1939-1945 (Harmondsworth, 1976).
Soviet Partisans in World War Two, ed. J.A. Armstrong (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1964).
Denise J. Youngblood, "Post-Stalinist Cinema and the Myth of World War II: Tarkovskii's Ivan's Chiuldhood (1962) and Klimov's Come and See (1985)," Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 1994, vol. 14, no. 4, pp. 413-20.
Ian Christie, "Klimov: Perestroika in Person," Sight and Sound, Summer 1987, vol. 56, p. 156.
Review of Come and See, Mark Le Fanu, Sight and Sound, Spring 1987, vol. 56, pp. 140-1.