Come and See is a Russian film about the Nazi occupation of Belarus during World War 2. The forests and marshes of that country made it an ideal territory for partisan guerrilla warfare, and a brutal conflict developed between an iron-fisted German occupation and tens of thousands of Belorussian fighters living in the wilderness.
We follow an innocent kid named Flyora who joins the partisans. The film invites him and us to come and see the horror of this war and of Nazism.
It’s a fact that usually gore and violence are an ineffective way of making a film audience feel horror. Filmmakers have to try harder than showing us our innards. Come and See does this amazingly well.
When Flyora returns home to find that the people of his village have all been massacred, we see only one fleeting glimpse – which
Flyora doesn’t see – of a heap of corpses behind a barn. We do see his empty house with his sisters’ dolls lined up on the wooden floor, and we hear the buzzing of flies. Later an agonizingly long shot follows Flyora and Glasha wading up to their mouths through thick, filthy mud, in a frenzy trying to get to an island where there might be survivors. We follow every moment. We don’t see the massacre, and we barely see the corpses. We get a deeper feeling of horror through not seeing the event itself.
Later in the film, of course, we do see the Nazis wiping out a whole village. The film is based on survivors’ eyewitness accounts and this is apparent in the little details that accompany this massacre. One Nazi soldier has white swastikas and bones painted all over his helmet; he jumps around the place yelling joyously like he’s high. We see him again and again. Music plays from a speaker on top of a van. As the Nazis set fire to a hall full of people, a Ukrainian collaborator who’s a bit of a daredevil and a showman makes a flamboyant escape from a bell tower over the burning roof before an “audience” of Nazi soldiers gearing up for a massacre. As the Germans leave town they carry a senile old woman out of a house on her bed and leave her, bed and all, on a heap of rubble. She doesn’t know what’s going on as her village burns.
What’s most striking of all is that the Nazis don’t do all this with the standard film-Nazi sternness and discipline. Nor is there any of the sophisticated sadism of the standard movie-Gestapo type. They are not stern, furious or fanatical. They’re a hooting, laughing unit of several hundred young men who have been given the best training and the best weapons and freedom to kill. They are having the time of their lives throughout the massacre.
This does not come from the filmmakers’ imaginations. In 1942-1943 the Nazis formed a Battle Group for Belarus that killed an average of two hundred civilians a day. Wiping out villages was everyday stuff. The most lethal unit was led by Oskar Dirlewanger. This alcoholic, drug addict, necrophiliac and child molester had fought in the Freikorps, a private army of war veterans set up to kill communists and terrorize the German working class in the aftermath of World War One when revolution was in the air. German capitalism found a lot of use for such characters in 1918-1923; it found a use for them again when it made a bid for world domination. In the Second World War Dirlewanger was put in charge of a unit made up of criminals, murderers and the clinically insane. This unit ended up killing at least 30,000 civilians.
Of course, most of the units that were given kill quotas and sent out to surround and exterminate villages were not made up of addicts and thugs. There is no excuse. If you put an army into a country where the people don’t want to be conquered, vicious massacres and total disregard for human life follow on from the situation regardless of the individual traits and histories of the soldiers. The people who mowed down villages full of their fellow human beings were “ordinary” young men.
Oskar Dirlewanger was moreover not just a bad personnel choice – he and those like him were made necessary by a German strategy which was to subjugate, terrorize and decimate the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. In Belarus they needed to wipe out the partisans and the surest way of doing this, as they saw it, was to wipe out the population that supported the partisans. It’s really very hard to grasp the absolute horror of the logic of the Nazi war. The Nazis, like the Japanese and the Italians, were trying to build in a few short years the kind of empires that France, Britain and the USA had built over decades and centuries. All the violence and brutality in the history of those empires was to be concentrated into a few short years and very consciously and deliberately applied.
A scene near the end of Come and See captures the misery of this war. The Nazis are on the run and one has dropped a portrait of Hitler in a muddy puddle. Flyora takes aim at the portrait lying in the water and fires, again and again. As he fires, old newsreel footage plays backwards. Reverse-explosions take place and buildings de-crumble from bricks and clouds of dust into proud edifices. Soldiers and tanks swarm backwards over battlefields. Storm troopers march backwards down a street.
This sequence shows Flyora’s emotions after his ordeal. But it also reminds us that, fuck, no matter how badly he wishes it, you can’t change what’s happened. The millions who are dead will stay dead. The whole world of the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe will never return. Warsaw, which lost half its population in the war, was rebuilt but the city that was is now gone forever. Not one of the individuals or communities that perished for no reason will return. We can never restore the world after such darkness and destruction has fallen on it.
It’s easy to treat the Nazis as a trope or a cliche or a cartoon, because that’s how we often come across them. It’s easy at a massive distance to be ironic and glib about the Nazis. The brilliance of Come and See is how it brings you right back into it, with such intensity and proximity that you have to vow that you will work so that this utter darkness will never fall on the world again.