Ivan’s Childhood (1962)
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Cast: Nikolay Burlyaev, Valentin Zubkov, Yevgeni Zharikov
My Rating: 7/10
In Short: Desolate, uneasy war drama
This film is part two of my seven part Andrei Tarkovsky marathon. For more info on that, read this.
Andrei Tarkovsky’s first film, Ivan’s Childhood, is a desolate, unnerving portrayal of the fundamental ways in which war can affect us, and the unlikely circumstances in which it saves a young boy from an almost certain life of cold loneliness in an orphanage or boarding school.
It is Russia during World War Two, and young Ivan is a spy sent by Russian army headquarters to infiltrate the front lines of the enemy Germans, and bring information back to base. He is befriended by the at first dubious Lieutenant Galtsev, who realizes the boy must be cared for upon discovering his importance. Captain Kholin also sees the value of the boy, and cares for him like a son. He realizes the danger of sending the boy back to the Germans, and attempts to have him shipped away to a boarding school. But Ivan makes it clear that he wants to fight and avenge the death of his family, who are briefly seen in startling flashbacks that possess an eerie dream sequence quality, and an almost uneasy sense of disbelief and childlike wonder. They are the memories that Ivan considers most personal and important to him, and in order to feel worthy of remembering and cherishing them, he must keep his stance as a fighter and avenge them.
There is surprisingly little violence or bloodshed in this chiefly psychological examination of war. This is one of the few films that realizes the harshness of the conditions, but seems at times to condone war, presenting it as an exciting and embracing adventure. But this isn’t propaganda. Tarkovsky realizes that war is not something to be celebrated, and he counters this adventurous mood with a strange sense of danger and unease. Images such as Ivan standing beneath a wreck with sharp spikes of wood pointing ominously toward him indicate that his small size, as well as being a skill in sneaking into German headquarters, also makes him easy prey should he be discovered by enemies. Throughout the film, though we are confident the boy is smart enough to avoid bad situations, he seems to be too rebellious for his own good, and so dangerously provocative. No, Tarkovsky doesn’t condone war, that’s not right. Ivan is the one who condones it, because he sees it as the only chance he’ll ever get to do something useful and just, for the love of his country.
Tarkovsky manages to always ensure his camera is in the right place, filming fluid and moving shots that are never too noticeably extravagant, but perhaps more than we’d expect from a simple war film. It was a harbinger of what was to come in his career, and many of the styles and techniques that would become commonplace in later years are present here, if only in early stages. Images such as the aforementioned one of Ivan standing beneath a wreck are powerful and well-framed, and evoke tender emotions such as sadness and regret, whilst also managing to be suspenseful and dark.
There is one great scene where the boy runs away from the Russians and meets an old man. The man is standing in the wreckage of his own bombed house. It is nothing but rubble. He hangs a picture on a piece of wall and shines it carefully. Though his town – his world – is destroyed, he will care for the picture, even if it is the only thing he’ll ever have. They talk for a while, and a car roars up and takes Ivan away. As he watches them drive away, he quietly and wearily despairs: “Oh Lord, will this ever end?” Indeed, one can almost see Tarkovsky behind the camera, looking around him and up at the skies and thinking the same words.