Come and See War For What It Is
A brutal Soviet film has some difficult lessons for today.
I have almost certainly spent too much time in the last several months on both Ukrainian and Russian Telegram channels, watching with morbid fascination the war of our lifetime play out in gruesome real time. Part of the attraction is the (false) idea that one can glean some kind of insight from watching snippets of bloodshed and destruction. You think you’re getting some special perspective that doesn’t make it into the reported stories. You feel like you can track better how things are going, as if it’s some kind of contest.
It’s a debilitating habit, and not good for the psyche.
Worse, it feels disrespectful. I am spending a lot of my time looking at a real tragedy which is not my own. I remember two years ago, when vacationing in Croatia with some friends, a man suffered a heart attack on the beach. A crowd stood and watched as some hero tried to revive the poor soul with CPR, with the victim’s girlfriend weeping inconsolably nearby. I just kept walking. I felt at the time that I didn’t want to be there. It felt like an awful private thing, and I wanted no part of it. I learned later that the man had died.
And yet here I am, unable to look away from the slaughter in Ukraine.
This weekend, exhausted, I decided to watch a movie. It would have to be a war movie. The 1985 Soviet war film Come and See has long been on my list. I knew it would be rough going, but I figured I’d give it a go.
(To say that I am about to spoil anything about the film feels wrong in its own right. “Spoiling” is the wrong word to use about a movie about such human depravity. But to those that like to see films without any idea of what happens in them, consider yourselves duly warned. And I extend the trigger warning more broadly: gruesome stuff ahead.)
Before I sat down, I glanced at Wikipedia for some background. It assured me this was an anti-war film, which gave me some comfort. But while it wasn’t about Ukraine, it did focus on the depredations the Nazis visited on the hundreds of rural villages in Belarus. Given where I felt mentally, it seemed like the thing to watch.
Dear readers, this is not an anti-war film. It’s an unnervingly shot excavation of profound trauma, and an unflinching look at how human barbarism perpetuates itself. There is little that amounts to heroism in it, so it’s certainly not a glorification of war. But it is no repudiation of its logic either.
The film tells the story of a young boy, Florya. We meet him as he and his friend are getting up to mischief, as young boys tend to do. War has clearly been going on for a while, and they are digging in the dirt, trying to find helmets and guns of recently killed soldiers. Florya wants to join the partisans to fight the Germans. He is delighted when he finds a rifle, and runs home to show his mother—and tell her he’s off to war.
Florya joins the partisans despite his mother’s pleading, but is left behind at camp when the partisans go off to fight—deemed too young to be of use. Depressed, he runs off to the woods with another girl left behind at camp named Glasha. For a few quiet minutes, the film intimates that the two might be falling in love.
The idyll is soon upended as German shells tear apart the forest. Both the kids survive, but Florya is rendered partly deaf. Throughout the rest of the film, the audio is somewhat garbled. A droning ringing sound punctuates the most intense scenes.
Florya tells Glasha they should go back to his village where they’ll be safe. They arrive only to find it deserted. In his home, Florya finds his twin sisters’ dolls strewn across the floor, and a still-warm pot of soup in the kitchen. As they eat, Florya tells Glasha that he thinks he knows where the villagers have gone to hide. As they run to find the hiding place, an island surrounded by a bog, Glasha looks over her shoulder and sees a horrific sight: several dozen bodies piled up against a barn, with the wall splattered with blood. The carnage only flashes on the screen for a split second, but it’s seared into our consciousness. Florya hasn’t seen it, but Glasha starts screaming.
When they get to the island, Glasha tells Florya what she saw. Florya has a nervous breakdown, and tries to drown himself. The two are discovered in the nick of time by a group of desperate refugees from surrounding villages, who save Florya and confirm that the massacre had indeed happened. His entire village has been wiped out. It’s at that point that you see Florya’s boyish face becoming increasingly stretched, wizened, and subtly disfigured.
The refugees are accompanied by three partisans, and Florya joins them to try to get food. Over the course of several harrowing episodes, Florya’s partisan friends are killed. Florya finally is rescued by a Belarusian peasant who offers to take the orphaned boy back to his village to protect him. They arrive in the village shortly before the Nazis do.
What follows is an orgy of violence that lasts an interminably long time. The villagers are all locked up in a barn, which is machine-gunned and then lit on fire. One of the girls from the village is gang-raped. An einsatzgruppen soldier poses for a photo with a Luger pressed to Florya’s temple, before kicking the boy to the ground. The Nazis torch the village as they depart. Florya looks up to see the raped girl staggering around the smoldering landscape in a senseless fugue state.
The film reaches its conclusion with Florya back with the partisans, who at this point count among their ranks more and more bedraggled peasants. Florya himself looks haggard, his lips parched, his face contorted with pain, his flesh sagging around his eyes.
The partisans have captured a dozen or so of the Nazis. We recognize them as the butchers from the previous scene. Some of them are pleading for their lives. The commander says he is an old man, that he hadn’t ordered anything, that the Führer is ultimately to blame. A few of the captives appear to be Belarusian quislings, and they too argue that they are not responsible. Only one Nazi is defiant.
“You dog, you swine,” the soldier growls at his commander for begging for clemency. “Typical German.” He then turns to his partisan captors: “Some nations have no right to a future. Inferior races spread the communist contagion. Your nation does not deserve to exist. We will fulfill this objective. If not today, then tomorrow.”
The leader of the partisans orders the Nazis doused in gasoline. But before they are lit on fire, someone among the peasants starts shooting. The others soon join in, finishing off the Germans.
I needed to recount the graphic horrors of the film in order to make two related points.
The first is about war itself.
I suppose it makes some sense to call the film “anti-war” when seen from the vantage point of someone very much used to perpetual peace. “If only it wasn’t for the hateful ideology of Nazism, perhaps none of this would have happened!” a viewer might be tempted to say. Indeed, the film indulges in the same kind of thinking at its very end, with Florya shooting a poster of Hitler as the credits roll—an attempt to exorcise the original evil.
But violence is done by individuals, and both the film and the historical record show that for many of the einsatzgruppen soldiers, the orgy of destruction was not something to be repented. As Tim Snyder recounts in his book Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, many German soldiers returned home from their “service” in the east not just untroubled but what they had done, but proud and boastful of their exploits.
That’s an ugly reality about humanity that we ought never to lose sight of. It’s not just that we humans are fallen, but we are base, capable of tremendous cruelty. War enables it, elevates it, empowers it. But our capacity for unbelievable violence is always with us.
It feels particularly important to remember this as we find ourselves transfixed by the Ukraine War. The Russians are aggressors, the Ukrainians are victims, and I certainly hope the victims prevail. But war is a horrible thing that makes a beast of anyone it touches.
And the second point is about historical memory.
I only ever spent four months in Russia, in the late winter and spring of 2003. During my time, it was repeatedly pointed out to me as an American that World War II was won by the Soviets.
I confess I didn’t truly appreciate what my interlocutors were getting at when they lectured me about the Great Patriotic War. I nodded that I knew how many of their forefathers died fighting the Nazis, and I acknowledged that Hitler could not have been beaten without those sacrifices.
But they were telling me more than that. I remember walking around St. Petersburg for Victory Day, May 9, a holiday that even in those early Putin years seemed to me most analogous to our own Fourth of July celebrations. They were telling me about a foundational myth, inculcated in them over decades by the Soviet system.
It was no “myth” in the sense that it was false. The Soviet Union lost unbelievable numbers of people fighting the Germans. And they fought so fiercely in no small part because it was an existential fight for them, a struggle against an enemy truly hell-bent on their destruction. But it was a unifying myth that helped give meaning to a Soviet system that itself was cruel and murderous, a system that had failed to deliver on the promises it was based on.
What I didn’t appreciate until watching Come and See is the extent to which the mythological call to sacrifice was not merely for the greater good, but against the greatest evil. The Nazis left deep scars, and the Soviets made good use of them.
If you spend any amount of time on Russian Telegram channels, you will see the Ukrainians frequently called “Nazis”. To a Western ear, that may seem like a pervasive slur, easily dismissed as lazy Putinist “disinformation.”
It is of course that.
But we write it off so easily at our peril. After this weekend, I appreciate this rhetoric as something far more powerful and dangerous: an attempt to mobilize Russians by appeal to a set of bitter narratives deeply entrenched in many of their psyches.
A successful attempt. Perhaps we should not be so surprised that these same Russian soldiers, agitated in just this way, continue to doggedly fight on.
Wisdom of Crowds is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support our work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.