And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.
The Book of Revelation, 6:8.
"Idi I Smotri" AKA "Come and See" was Elem Klimov's last picture. He was only 52 at the time of release in 1985, but refused to direct again as he felt he couldn't surpass what he achieved with this film. The story is set in Belarus in 1943, at the time of the nazi invasion of the USSR. It follows Florya (Aleksei Kravechnko), a 14 year old boy who joins the partisans that are fighting against the nazis, and witnesses the horrors of war. The plot may sound conventional to you, but Klimov's approach isn't. It's said that the title comes from the Bible itself, but it's very likely that it also serves as an invitation for the viewer himself to go to the hell of war too. Let me explain.
Elem Klimov and his cinematographer Aleksei Rodionov chosed to shoot the film through a lot of subjetive or semi-subjetive shots. There are very, very few, if any, over the shoulder shots, or two-head shots, as most of the time the actors are looking and speaking straight to the camera. They also employed the Steadicam, or a Russian version of Garrett Brown's invention, to follow the characters running, screaming, escaping, trying to survive or just to show the devastation as it's happening. The effect that the whole mise-en-scene produces is so inmersive and disturbing that really puts the viewer right in the middle of the horror. What’s the best operating you've ever seen in a war film? "Saving Private Ryan"?, "The Thin Red Line"?, "Full Metal Jacket"? The battle scenes from "Children of Men"? This could rival them any day, if it's not better.
But the whole approach could have been ruined without the proper lighting. Guess what they did. The chosed not to light at all, to trust the film stock's latitude and use the available light most of the time. Only some close-ups reveal that they bounced some light into cards to get better defined expressions from the actors. The very few interiors look so natural and so real that you wonder if they waited for the best time of the day to shoot them and then used the available light through the windows, as they look so unlit. There's also some great use of day-for-night photography, including lights correctly exposed in some part of the tracking shots (there's a great shot including a candle and an iris pull) and a scene involving a cow, sparklers and gunfire that it's breathtaking and makes hard to guess how they managed to keep the continuity and the right exposures. They probably could have made the picture to look prettier, or they could have gotten a better exposed and healthy negative by using movie lights more extensively, but the grittiness derived from the thin negative and the available light look work great for verosimilitude. It's hard to find a picture looking so raw.
Technically, the photography isn't first rate, due to the described stylistic choices and techniques. There are also some reflections or unintented flares in some shots at the beginning of the picture, as if light was hitting the lens through the mattebox. They shot using spherical lenses for a 1.37:1 Academy ratio, which was still common for the Russians back them, and it works well for the many straight-to-camera close-ups. It's not easy to guess the film stock by watching a DVD, but it looks very, very close to the look of the old Agfa XT-320 when rated at its normal speed: very low-con, grainy, with very milky blacks. The day-for-night scenes, or other night scenes, look specially grainy, as if they had underexposed too much and then printed up the footage. But even the technical flaws help since they give the picture a more authentic & organic look.
The film itself is really powerful, disturbing and unconventional. Every death takes place offscreen, but the atmosphere from the images and some amazing use of sound give you the impression that you have seen it all. This is a film not to be missed, not only by cinematographers, but also by film aficionados.