‘Ivan’s Childhood’ Was Cruelly Interrupted by the Horrors of World War II

Between Ivan’s nightmarish dreams and the real world of the Eastern front, “Only the idle rest during wartime.”

Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-1986) has long been acknowledged to be one of the Soviet Union’s greatest filmmakers. A director with a relatively limited output of just seven feature length films, the sci-fi film Solaris (1972) is perhaps his best known title in the western world, thanks in no small part to the fact that Steven Soderbergh directed a much-hyped remake starring George Clooney in 2002.

Artificial Eye’s new Blu-ray of Tarkovsky’s debut feature length film, Ivan’s Childhood (1962), reveals that his talent as a filmmaker and his distinctive auteurist traits were already much in evidence at the start of his career.

Set during World War II, the film tells the tragic story of Ivan (Nikolay Burlyaev), a 12-year-old Russian boy who is caught up in the savagery of the fighting on the Eastern front. With his family having been killed by the Nazis, Ivan is determined to seek revenge. To this end he serves as a reconnaissance agent who is loosely linked to three Russian military personnel, Colonel Gryaznov (Nikolay Grinko), Captain Kholin (Valentin Zubkov) and Katasonych (Stepan Krylov), whose activities are top secret. Ivan uses his diminutive size and youthful agility to surreptitiously traverse a wide river, marshes and flooded woodlands in order to slip behind enemy lines and gather information about German troop formations and the like. However, the morality of employing a child for such a task is called into question when a young army officer, Senior Lieutenant Galtsev (Evgeniy Zharikov), becomes aware of Ivan’s activities.

In the communist controlled countries of the old Eastern Bloc, filmmaking was financed and controlled by state-run film studios. Mosfilm of Moscow oversaw the production and distribution of Russian-made films such as Ivan’s Childhood. In common with all of the other arts, films made in the Eastern Bloc were expected to tell stories and express ideas that supported the ideological outlook and general worldview of the state while also confirming the important roles that regular citizens played in the creation and the ongoing maintenance of the state. This pointed approach to the production of art was dubbed Socialist Realism. Although Nikita Khrushchev allowed an element of liberalization to take place within the Russian arts scenes during the late ‘50s, many of the country’s artists would continue to adhere to the basic principles of Socialist Realism until well into the late ‘60s.

Ivan’s Childhood has the essence of Socialist Realism at its core. Though it contains no direct references to the preferred political ideologies of the state it does tell the story of Russian citizens bravely preparing to fight an ideological enemy under the most desperate of circumstances. However, the characters that Tarkovsky uses to tell this tale – and the trying scenarios that they find themselves in — are loaded with moral ambiguities, which in turn make this an interesting and quite subversive film.

Ivan is essentially a good Russian citizen fighting to save the state. But he isn’t fighting for ideological reasons; he’s fighting for revenge. He’s also too young to be doing the highly dangerous reconnaissance work that he excels at.

Gryaznov knows this and wants Ivan to leave the frontline and enroll at a military school. Kholin and Katasonych are slightly more pragmatic – they know that Ivan shouldn’t be part of their team but they also know that the future of the state is at stake and Ivan is the person best equipped to supply them with the knowledge that will ensure that the Russian Army’s battle strategies succeed. Ivan could easily be killed while on a mission behind enemy lines but if the Nazis are victorious he and his colleagues will likely die anyway. By contrast, Galtsev doesn’t want Ivan involved in the war at all but his efforts to alter the situation fail.

Kholin is something of an existentialist who happily attempts to force his affections on a young female Lieutenant in the Medical Corps, Masha (Valentina Malyavina). He does so despite noticing that Masha and Galtsev appear to have unacknowledged feelings for each other and he goes all out to seek a fleeting moment of pleasure with her. By contrast, the conscientious Galtsev remains determined to focus on the job in hand and he has Masha transferred to a hospital far away from the frontline. His motives for doing so are not clear: does he want to give Masha a chance to survive the war by moving her from the danger zone or does he simply view her as a potential distraction that cannot be countenanced? Either way, it’s hard to determine whether his decision best serves the absolute needs of the state at this time.

While Masha’s presence does serve as a handy device that highlights the different outlooks and attitudes held by Kholin and Galtsev, her scenes also work as a reminder that female Russians played their part in the war on the Eastern front too. However, since Galtsev cites her inability to cope as the reason for her transfer, her status as a thoroughly committed and capable citizen is perhaps drawn into question too.

In an interview included here as an extra feature, the actor Evgeniy Zharikov indicates that Ivan’s Childhood was suppressed in Russia – a fate that befell any Eastern Bloc film that might be deemed subversive by the powers that be – when Khrushchev attended a screening and declared “we never used children like that in the war.”

The action depicted in Ivan’s Childhood takes place in two distinct worlds: Ivan’s dreams and the real world of the Eastern front. Tarkovsky introduces us to Ivan’s dream world in the film’s very first scene. Here what we initially take to be a representation of reality becomes increasingly artificial and disorientating. We’re presented with a picture perfect rural location where Ivan seems to be at one with nature. We can hear a cuckoo calling but it sounds synthetic. Ivan sees a butterfly and then suddenly takes to the air and follows the insect’s giddy flight trajectory. He chances upon his beloved mother (Irina Tarkovskaya) and enthusiastically starts to tell her about the cuckoo. But, before he can finish, a disturbing mechanical noise interrupts this idyllic scene and Ivan is jolted back to reality as he screams for his mother.

Interestingly, Ivan’s return to reality is not expressed by an appeal to documentary style realism. The nightmarish nature of Ivan’s predicament – he’s exhausted and is trying to make it back to safety behind the Russian lines – is telegraphed via a multitude of stylistic embellishments: extreme camera angles and canted shots abound while everyday buildings and bits of unremarkable farmyard machinery cast ominous silhouettes. The shots of the windmill that Ivan has been hiding in would fit perfectly into one of James Whale’s stylish Universal Frankenstein films from the ‘30s.

Further nods towards the style of German Expressionism that influenced Universal’s horror film directors can be found throughout Ivan’s Childhood. A striking example of this occurs when Ivan runs away to avoid being sent to military school. As he wanders a bomb-shattered landscape, Ivan takes shelter in the ruins of a house and Tarkovsky employs a semi-circular arrangement of protruding and portentously splintered wooden beams to frame the boy in a threatening manner. Elsewhere an earlier bout of fighting is signposted by the shell of a German fighter plane that has hit the ground nose first and remains sticking out of the earth with its tail in the air and its wings outstretched like an expressionistic monument to the dead.

Tarkovsky also uses the sequence where Ivan runs away to highlight the tragic-yet-sometimes-absurd nature of war. Ivan meets an old man (Dmitri Milyutenko) whose home has been reduced to just a stove and its chimney, and a front door frame with its door, which he still insists on locking. The shell-shocked old man is busy looking for a perfectly straight nail so that he can hang a favored picture on the side of his chimney. He distractedly recalls that his wife was shot dead by a Nazi but then busies himself with trying to tidy up the rubble that surrounds him as he is expecting her to return home soon. When Tarkovsky subsequently starts covering the scene’s action from a wider perspective, we see that where there was once a thriving community of households, there is now just a landscape littered with ovens and chimneys.

Most of the film’s real world scenes are noticeably stylized to some extent. Virtually every shot in this film has been meticulously composed and exquisitely lit and many of the shots are captured using wonderfully fluid camera movements or leisurely structured long takes. Chiaroscuro lighting is used to great effect at times, again bringing to mind aspects of German Expressionism. As such, the real world sections of Ivan’s Childhood possess a look that is similar to that of poetic realism. Indeed, a contrast can be drawn between Tarkovsky’s take on poetic realism and documentary realism when the director incorporates disturbing period documentary footage of the fall of Berlin into Ivan’s Childhood’s final scene.

Featuring soldiers awaiting orders for a make or break offensive, likeable characters undertaking dangerous missions into no man’s land and an emotionally scarred child who is intent on placing himself in situations of extreme peril, Ivan’s Childhood remains a poignant and emotionally charged film that fully deserves to find a wider audience.

The picture quality of this Blu-Ray release is really quite exceptional. A number of the film’s scenes take place in a vast forest of white-trunked birch trees. The clarity of the details seen on the trees’ trunks and the equally sharp depth of field that is present in most of the shots of the forest combine to create some striking and vivid location work.

The disc’s extra features are of a good quality too. Interviews with the actor Evgeny Zharkov, cinematographer Vadim Usov and the film’s music composer Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov offer interesting insights into the background of the film, its creation, their relationships with Tarkovsky and his working methods. Elsewhere Mary Wild uses the theories of Sigmund Freud to offer psychoanalytical readings of key scenes from the film.

RATING 8 / 10