“Come and See,” Elem Klimov’s 1985 masterpiece of hallucinatory realism, was originally conceived under the title “Kill Hitler,” and with good reason. Unsparing in its vision of the atrocities committed by Nazi forces in the Soviet republic of Byelorussia (now Belarus), and climaxing with its own indescribable Führer-murdering fantasy, it remains one of the greatest of war films and one of the most unshakably damning. The actual title, no less direct in its charge to the viewer, hails from the Book of Revelation: As the first four seals of God’s judgment are opened, one of the four living beasts declares, “Come and see.” The words beckon you with a chill; they’re like an invitation to the end of the world.
It’s an invitation you should accept. (A brilliant 2K restoration, courtesy of Janus Films, begins screening this weekend at the Laemmle Monica Film Center.) If you do, know that what awaits you is more than just another meticulously choreographed spectacle of war. This soul-scarring movie unfolds as though under a trancelike spell of its own making, one that disorients as much as it hypnotizes. What do we see in “Come and See,” and through whose eyes are we seeing it? The silent, off-screen deity invoked by the allusion to Revelation? Or perhaps Klimov and his cowriter, Ales Adamovich, who both drew on their memories of the Nazi invasion as young men?
It isn’t always clear. From time to time the perspective merges with that of the story’s young protagonist, Flyora (Aleksei Kravchenko), a 14-year-old Byelorussian villager who becomes our increasingly traumatized guide to this circle of earthly hell. It begins, in 1943, with a scene of impish play, as Flyora and a friend search for weapons amid the remnants of an earlier battle while German warplanes soar ominously overhead. Flyora digs up a rifle, which enables him to join the partisan fighters defending their country.
But the sense of an elaborate game, of a fundamental disconnect with reality, persists later at home when the partisans arrive to cart him off to battle. “Come and See” is about what happens when a young man’s coming-of-age merges with the coming of war. Flyora grins and makes faces at his two adorable younger sisters, even as his mother (Tatyana Shestakova), horrified at being abandoned, thrusts an ax at him and demands that he kill them all on the spot. He may think it’s a joke, but she’s deadly serious; she knows what’s coming.
And in time, so do we. Explosions rip through the forest where the soldiers have left Flyora behind to keep watch. Hitler’s troops descend on parachutes, and their reign of terror commences. Flyora flees back to his home village with another teenager, Glasha (Olga Mironova), who becomes his partner in a kind of dance of madness, as they begin to grasp — but also try to deny — the evil that has been unleashed. What Flyora sees and doesn’t see is crucial; at one point Glasha confirms the absolute worst with a quick, sidelong glance, but Flyora doesn’t look. He could be willing himself into obliviousness.
There are entire set-pieces that seem predicated, visually and thematically, on the sheer impossibility of facing the inexplicable. You will not soon forget the devastating sight and sounds of Flyora dragging Glasha through a muddy bog, insisting that he knows where to find his family, even as she knows they are beyond finding. The chaos of human destruction — a field of landmines, an eruption of flares — throws the natural world into a kind of uncomprehending paralysis: A wandering bird and a shell-shocked cow are scarcely the least memorable of the movie’s many characters.
We realize, at a certain point, that we have arrived on a strange new plane of cinematic consciousness. The sound design screams and reverberates with otherworldly effects; the camera hurtles this way and that, sometimes pulling back in a futile attempt to make sense of it all, and sometimes plunging us headlong into terror and confusion. (The stunning, nearly square-framed cinematography is by Aleksei Rodionov.) Kravchenko’s silent scream of a performance is almost entirely reactive, and extraordinary; by the end of this ordeal, Flyora’s cherubic blond features seem to have aged an eternity.
“Come and See” is a paradox: a visceral freefall into barbarism, but also a controlled, sometimes contemplative descent. It doesn’t flinch from its own horrors, but it’s still sufficiently restrained, even distanced, for you to process them. And it builds, inexorably, to a conflagration that tests your limits and those of the medium itself, of what depths of suffering can and cannot be dramatized. Klimov draws out the tension, the anticipatory dread, to an unendurable degree. Perhaps the most ghastly thing is that at a certain point, you find yourself longing for release, for the terrible relief that only the finality of death can bring.
Klimov, who died in 2003, never made another film after this one, though not for want of trying. You can understand why. The closing passage, like much of what we see, is ripped from the ravages of history; at the end the film tells us that the Nazis burned 628 Byelorussian villages. The statistic defeats the imagination even as this movie reawakens it.
(In Belarusian, Russian and German with English subtitles)
Running time: 2 hours, 26 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica