In 1961 Andrei Tarkovsky directed The Steamroller and the Violin, a short film which was to be his graduation project. In the movie he displays the kind of mastery of the form that would become his stamp until the time of his death. While not completely a happy story, The Steamroller and the Violin has something that results as striking when compared with Tarkovsky’s feature length debut, Ivan’s Childhood. Released in 1962, Ivan’s Childhood doesn’t only differentiate from The Steamroller and the Violin for its black and white cinematography ( The Steamroller and the Violin is famous for its magnificent use of color) but because it seems as if it was directed by a different person, someone who in a matter of months maybe had had his worldview completely altered.
Where The Steamroller and the Violin is lovely to the point of being heartwarming, Ivan’s Childhood results more tragic for its bleakness than for the actual turns in its story. The film opens with a bright sequence in which we see little Ivan (Kolya Burlyayev) frolicking under the sun with his mother by his side. This is interrupted by the sad reality of waking up and we see how the smiling boy we met a few minutes before is a completely different creature. He has lost his entire family in the midst of WWII and is living on his own, moving from hiding place to hiding place, just trying to stay alive.
He is captured by Russian soldiers to whom he has to tell the story of his life—“a report” they call it—and even if the movie uses flashbacks and dream sequences to put together the little boy’s history, it’s never really a chronicle of his life. As Ivan is recruited by his army and used as a spy on the front, we finally come to understand that story’s real purpose is to explore the horrors of war through the people who suffer the most in it. This little boy who became an orphan because of the war doesn’t have the cute qualities we would expect in such a character; rather, he has become a machine almost, whose only purpose is to hate the people who took everything away from him.
Tarkovsky’s film came out a few years after Francois Truffaut’s groundbreaking The 400 Blows, and they both share much more than one would think. They are both poems in which the idea of romance has been completely removed from the concept of childhood. It would be facile to say that these kids have had their infancy stolen, yet in a way this is precisely what happened to them. Both Ivan and Antoine Doinel are victim to a system that doesn’t know how to handle them, but that nonetheless is aware that it needs them and their generation in order to perpetuate itself.
Where Truffaut’s movie tends to be more forgiving and the ending is slightly more optimistic, this sense of calm is almost nonexistent in Tarkovsky’s film. In latter years he would become famous for the way in which he was able to sculpt with time and capture melancholy and nostalgia like few directors ever did (even Ingmar Bergman confessed being a devoted fan of Ivan’s Childhood). But the movie is surprisingly never sensationalist, either. The concept of an infant avenger might seem tongue-in-cheek, but as explored by Tarkovsky, it resonates with brutal honesty. We come to understand that simply put, there is no one else this kid could’ve turned into.
Little Bulyayev’s performance is absolutely remarkable, seeing how he allows his director to shape him into a perfect embodiment of hatred and horror. We always pity him because we understand he has no chance at salvation, this was stolen from him the moment he lost his family. Further, Tarkovsky’s movie is shot as if it took place on a stage, there is always the threat of a fog and swamps and dried trees become menacing omens. Are we at times supposed to think that maybe the story is taking place inside Ivan’s disturbed mind?
The gothic settings might very well lead us to believe that, especially since Vadim Yusov’s cinematography plays with our idea of vision in completely unexpected ways. Ivan’s Childhood is famous for its marvelous use of deep focus. Yusov captures layer after layer in which not only can we see everything clearly, but there is something going on in each layer. It’s as if the lens becomes Ivan’s mind, trying to absorb as much as it can, even if it doesn’t know exactly what to do with this information later.
Thematically linked to something like Roberto Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero, Tarkovsky’s movie is a potent cry against war. In a way, Ivan’s Childhood is an updated version of the former, only filtered through his idiosyncrasies. Where Rossellini highlighted the power of truth and reality, Tarkovsky suggests that without the power of fantasy, life might be even more insufferable than what it already is. Both movies have been criticized for the endings they offer their heroes, but both remind us that they are masterpieces of world cinema because we realize after watching them that there is not a single thing we’d change about them.
The talented folk at The Criterion Collection have brought Ivan’s Childhood to vibrant new life in high definition. It’s ironic to say that a movie this bleak is often so beautiful to watch and the new transfer is absolutely glorious. There’s a visual depth in this format, which makes some scenes look like new. Bonus materials include an interview with scholar Vida T. Johnson about the making of the film. There’s also a wonderful interview with Burlyayev in which he talks about his experience with the director. The best supplement in the disc might be an interview with Yusov, who goes into precise details about how he shot the movie. Also included is a booklet which features a touching poem written by the director’s father, hauntingly called “Ivan’s Willow”.