"And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see! And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth." - Revelation 6:8

The above passage is written by John the Apostle in the Book of Revelation, and invites the reader to gaze upon an unfolding apocalypse brought about by the arrival of the four horsemen. It was also the inspiration for both the title and content of Soviet director Elem Klimov's harrowing war drama Come and See (1985), a film concerning the Nazi occupation of Belarus, and the atrocities of a scorched earth campaign that saw 628 villages and their inhabitants burnt to the ground.

A caustic and unforgettable exploration of dehumanisation, Come and See is so intense that filming it caused the hair of its young lead actor to turn grey. Widely considered as one of the most influential works in its genre, the film has since established itself as a blueprint for anyone wishing to depict on film the nightmares of war and the horror of armed conflict.

Klimov here combines two very disparate styles of filmmaking into one sprawling consideration of war, and its effect on the human psyche. We are witness to moments of historical authenticity alongside fever dream visions of hell on earth, with the film fluctuating wildly between realism and impressionism, a tonal relationship that this article aims to explore.

Though the intricacies of Come and See's design run far too deep to effectively dissect in 1000 words, there are two dominant techniques that best encapsulate this interchanging of reality with something much less definable.

The First instance comes in the form of the recurring use of direct eye contact, with numerous characters looking into both the camera and the eyes of the audience at regular occasions. Through this method, Klimov positions the viewer as a spectator to the horror in a similar manner that his characters are, dropping you into the heart of the war and simultaneously into the perspective of someone experiencing it first-hand. It also creates a direct link between the world of the film and our world, a constant reminder that though it may often resemble a dream, much of the narrative is drawn from history, with the script being largely based on the experiences of its writer Ales Adamovich.

Fig i

Fig ii

Fig iii

Fig iv

In figs i - iv we see examples of this eye contact, a technique that both establishes intimacy and often resembles a direct interaction with these characters. These stares are a gateway into this twisted world, and their focus is aimed directly at the viewer often to the point of discomfort. At its worst, it seems like these people are painfully aware of the viewer's presence and are pleading for intervention.

This technique appears throughout the film and consistently establishes a sense of realism that implicates the viewer in the very fabric of what they are seeing. By having these characters address the viewer directly, Klimov places the viewer in an involuntary state of participation; something that makes what is yet to come all the more disturbing.

Once this technique has achieved its intended effect, Klimov's direction takes a turn into the aforementioned impressionistic territory. We witness a reflection of the horrors of war in the frames he constructs, resulting in some of the most unsettling imagery in the genre's now vast catalogue.

Fig v - soldiers walk through a burning forest.

Fig vi - the use of eye contact resurfaces here, signalling the point in the film at which reality and nightmare become interchangeable.

Fig vii - A paratrooper hangs from a tree, where the twisting branches appear to pull him apart.

Fig viii - a village hall burns with the inhabitants inside. This is perhaps the most prominent nod to the idea that 'war is hell' with visual parallels to the traditional fire & brimstone depiction of hell present throughout the history of religious art.

Figs v - viii showcase only a fraction of the film's nightmarish imagery, but highlight a drastic shift from realism to impressionism through their oblique composition, their disturbing content, and the relentlessly caustic tone they cultivate. When combined with the moments of relative quiet provided by the direct to camera addresses, these images can be radically disorienting. Klimov films these abstract visions in unbearably long takes with an unnaturally smooth steadicam, just as he does the instances of realism, with the intentional breakneck change in imagery and tone adding a further layer of nauseating confusion.

In Come and See, Klimov invites you to observe the horrors that the human race has brought to Earth through war and conflict, and asks that you witness both the harsh realities of physical damage and the gradual crumbling of the human psyche. Few films better capture the idea of war being hell, and even fewer depict so effectively the psychological damage it ultimately brings about.

The phrase 'Come and See' in both the film's title and the corresponding biblical passage is an invitation to observe a world that may seem like a nightmare, but is firmly and undoubtedly rooted in reality. Where John the Apostle suggests that "The beasts of the Earth" emerged from the sea and the sky, In Klimov's vision they have been here all along. In this hell on earth, death wears a swastika, and his pale horse is the tank he rides into battle. So instead of hell following death to earth from the abyss, Klimov insists that hell is already here and that the beasts of the earth are not the demons that death will raise, but rather the human race with their inherent capacity for evil.