When it comes to the horrors of WWII depicted in cinema, often it is the Western perspective that dominates. Films such as Saving Private Ryan from Steven Spielberg, Patton directed by Franklin J. Schaffner or even Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds are laden with praise for their accuracy, or thrilling depictions of the catastrophic war. However, in more recent times, it has been the Russian war epic Come and See from director Elem Klimov that has gained the most notoriety as being the most visceral war film ever made.
Despite being released in 1985, Klimov began work on the film in 1977, in time for V-Day’s 40th anniversary, with the film inspired by the book I Am from the Fiery Village which featured first-hand accounts of the horrors of the holocaust. As the director would later recall, “Many of them were still alive then, and Belorussians managed to record some of their memories onto film,” he said. “I will never forget the face and eyes of one peasant, and his quiet recollection about how his whole village had been herded into a church, and how just before they were about to be burned, an officer gave them the offer: ‘Whoever has no children can leave'”.
Whilst the world was familiar with other accounts of horror from the rest of Europe, Elem Klimov noted that they didn’t know about the massacre of Khatyn in Byelorussia. Continuing in his recollection of the film’s production, the director stated, “I understood that this would be a very brutal film and that it was unlikely that people would be able to watch it. I told this to my screenplay coauthor, the writer Ales Adamovich. But he replied: ‘Let them not watch it, then. This is something we must leave after us. As evidence of war, and as a plea for peace'”.
Shot entirely on Belarusian soil, Klimov made it his mission to recreate the horrors of WWII as realistically as possible, featuring non-professional actors each speaking Belarusian. Utilising dark, grainy cinematography whilst adjusting the audio levels throughout to reflect the ongoing torment of war, Come and See creates an unbearable air of grief and hopelessness as it depicts the horrors of war.
Several other techniques were used by the crew to create a sense of immediacy and realism, with Klimov also employing naturalistic colours, extreme close-ups and multiple Steadicam shots. Fascinatingly, the guns in the film were also often loaded with live ammunition as opposed to blanks, with many actors in the film reporting that bullets would pass mere inches above their heads while filming.
Such created a heightened sense of terror on set as the actors could better react to their surroundings and channel the fear of the soldiers of WWII. The terrified looks on the actors’ faces are all genuine. Though it was of course a dangerous filmmaking practice, it undoubtedly helped to create one of the best WWII films ever made.