Ivan’s Childhood is a call to order. It is Tarkovsky’s first film and it’s also a film that quite remarkably, contains the blueprint for his career. Yes he would go on to produce more ambitious features, and more enigmatic ones, but it could be argued that the emotional, tactile, and visceral imagery of his feature debut would never be surpassed. His assured command of the physical/spiritual content and the way to connect psychological meaning through starkly beautiful imagery is intact from the beginning. This was my first viewing of this film and I must say I was completely floored by it. From beginning to end it is a penetrating visual experience that pulls you in under its spell and doesn’t let go. I am in love with this film.
Ivan’s Childhood stars Nikolai Burlyayev as a 12 year-old Russian boy whose family has been killed and at the beginning of the film, we find out he had joined a partisan group and was trying to cross the front line to enter Soviet territory. He is captured by the Soviets, and quickly becomes ensconced into the war effort. He is jaded and rather stand-offish toward the officers, fitting right in it seems. He wants to stay on the front lines to embark upon reconnaissance missions, which he believes will be successful due to his small size. There is also a subplot involving an army nurse named Masha (Valentina Malyavina), and her burgeoning relationships with two soldiers.
Part of the major appeal of this film lies in Tarkovsky’s method of telling the story with dream sequences interspersed. Ivan’s dreams/memories of his mother and other moments from his childhood prior to the war are deeply affecting and magnificently staged and photographed, as is the entire film. Vadim Yusov's cinematography is breathtaking and the fluid camerawork that Tarkovsky’s films would be known for is on display here. Of particular note is the “birch forest scene” where Masha and her lover walk amongst a forest of white birch trees. White and black contrast magnificently in this striking sequence. Also, Ivan’s sequence in the bunker by himself is an intense examination of shadow and light with some brilliant editing. Furthermore, the dream sequence on the apple cart, with the “film negative” background, ending with the horses eating apples on the beach might be the most beautiful sequence in the film. Ivan’s trip across enemy lines in the boat through the flooded forest is an examination of low-light compositions, barren trees, and reflections. In the film’s chilling final act, the setpiece in
among the ruins and ashes as the soldiers
sift through prisoner documents is equally memorable. Berlin
What also strikes me about this film is Tarkovsky’s ability to convey the altered state of mind as completely essential to the storytelling. These scenes are not just cinematic flourishes, but the means to an end that fully conveys the altered universe that war creates. He would examine state of mind, and literal and imagined parallel existences later in other films, but here it’s so elemental to the boy’s comprehension of survival that these dreams and sequences must be filmed with a heightened state of consciousness and imagery. The boy, and we as the audience, “feel” through the images. The images are the conveyance of emotion. The use of organic materials- trees, water etc.- give a tactile presence to the images. You can feel them with your hands just as you can feel the emotional connection they make to your head and heart.
ravages the countryside and damages nature along with any connection to it,
just as it damages people and their lives and their connections to each other in this story.
This is not to say that acting is relegated to the background. Nikolai as the
small boy is absolutely compelling and intense. Rare is the performance by a
boy of this age that is able to project true independence and fortitude, as
well as brokenness as he is here. Perhaps Hunter McCracken’s performance is
equally potent in Malick’s Tree of Life
(2011). Most memorable though, is Tarkovsky's vision, which is on full display in this masterpiece. Russia