I recently watched the Russian classic Come and See, which had been on my to-do list forever. The film is rightfully described as one of the greatest ever, as well as one of the most brutal. The first half is an almost fable-like story about a boy who is sent off to war, separated from his troop, meets a strange girl in the wilderness, and returns to his village to find it empty. From there, the film shifts into a gruelling account of Nazi war crimes and genocide during their invasion of Belarus. It’s one of the most disturbing things one can see in a movie as Klimov’s camera refuses to cut away from the slow and deliberate build-up to the extermination of a village, as the laughing Nazis treat the whole thing as an elaborate game.
Come and See is also described as one of the great anti-war films of all times, and it’s this idea that I want to focus on here. What does it mean to be an anti-war film, and what do we want from one? And do anti-war films really matter at all?
One certainly doesn’t find any glorification of war or battle in Come and See. Our hero is never in anything resembling a fair fight, much less an occasion for heroic victory. Instead, the film depicts the flow of battle as a back-and-forth in which each side slaughters and is slaughtered. Instead of getting revenge, Klimov’s child protagonist ends the film completely traumatized, unable to process what he has seen and somehow survived.
At the same time, there is relatively little in Come and See that would cause a Russian audience to reflect on its own nation’s war activity. The Soviet army is depicted as being crude and offering soldiers little choice in signing up, but their cruelty is nothing compared to those of the invading Nazis. When the Soviets kill a group of prisoners of war responsible for an earlier massacre, it’s hard to feel very bad for the victims, who come off as snivelling cowards trying to excuse their evil deeds. The film faced Soviet censorship getting made, but mostly because it was seen as too depressing, not because of its political content. Klimov even wrote that part of his motivation was because of what he thought was an over-emphasis on Soviet war crimes in World War II:
“And then I thought: the world doesn’t know about Khatyn! They know about Katyn, about the massacre of the Polish officers there. But they don’t know about Belorussia. Even though more than 600 villages were burned there!”
The impromptu execution of the Nazis at the end of Come and See isn’t explicitly the Katyn massacre, but it’s clearly meant to be at least a parallel incident. The soldiers mention repeatedly that they “aren’t German”, and the story is in part adopted from the 1971 novel Khatyn. Thus, the great anti-war movie is in part a justification of a Soviet war crime.
These are not purely matters of historiography. Searching for a rationale for his justification of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin drew on the legacy of Nazi war crimes against Russians and Belarussians to argue for the “denazification” of Ukraine, beginning an invasion which inflicted similarly brutal treatment on occupied Ukranian cities. (That this invasion has only emboldened and empowered Nazi-adjacent militias in both Ukraine and Russian society is further example of the stupidity of this rationale.)
It’s possible to imagine Come and See functioning as propaganda, as an example of just what savage Westerners will do to Russia if it does not defend itself. If one response to a chronicle of horrible crimes is to disavow war entirely, another is to become an even stauncher fighter of wars, to make sure that such atrocities don’t happen to your people. History provides countless examples of nations who have used their own victimization as a rallying cry for the victimization of others.
Is Come and See, then, a failure as an anti-war film? Or is the concept of an anti-war film flawed? Could Titanic be called an anti-iceberg film? The concept suggests a misunderstanding of both what films can accomplish and how wars happen. Today, wars are almost always justified in the name of peace. It is because the nation loves peace so much that it must destroy all future threats. So the United States invades Iraq and Russia invades Ukraine in the name of stopping the next Hitler. In the West, we are told that the only way to prevent endless future conflict is a total victory for Ukraine: to be anti-war, one must be pro-war.
The movie ends in a memorable sequence, where the young boy, traumatized by what he has seen, fires his rifle repeatedly into a corpse. As he does, we see the events of the film, and his life, rewound. Bullets snap back into guns, and corpses jump up to life. Come and See ends with the boy as a baby, as his present-day version pauses, wondering if it would be better to have never been born at all.
The sequence is essentially the same as one in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, where the narrator speculates on how a war film played backwards would look like a series of miracles taking place. I have no idea if Klimov read Slaughterhouse-Five, or watched George Roy Hill’s film adaptation, although the book was translated and published in the Soviet Union.
Nobody could accuse Kurt Vonnegut or Slaughterhouse-Five of being pro-war propaganda: it highlights the horror of the American bombing of Dresden, suggesting that even virtuous war efforts create tremendous trauma and suffering. And yet it’s hard to say that Vonnegut’s work, despite its ideological purity, was any more effective as anti-war art. As Vonnegut has said, all of the anti-war art and literature which proliferated in the 1960s had the effect of a custard pie dropped from a stepladder against the napalm of the Vietnam War.
There’s a long history of films intended to be anti-war that are instead embraced by the military. Full Metal Jacket was long used as a reference for real drill sergeants, and The Thin Red Line is sold in boxes at Wal-Mart with the Stars and Stripes on them. This has led some to theorize that there is no such thing as an anti-war movie, as the inherent attraction of the cinematic image glamourizes anything it captures. But I think even the broader concept of anti-war art, no matter the genre, could be called into question.
Perhaps we ask too much of art. Filmmakers, like other artists and academics and critics, want to do politics and combat while still doing the things they love. Art can certainly inspire and reflect politics, but very rarely does it do the work for people. Only people, not movies, can stop war. But what a film like Come and See can do, and what it does perfectly, is capture the trauma and emotional experience of ordinary experiences in war. If art cannot change the world, it can at least speak to the truth in it.