Andrei Tarkovsky made seven feature films over his life, and they are all assured works of an artist in full command of his craft. He started here, though, with Ivan’s Childhood, a small film (his shortest by far) based on a novella that Tarkovsky himself didn’t like that recalls Stanley Kubrick’s first film that was far less artistically successful, Fear and Desire. Based in World War II with small casts of characters and an elegiac and dreamlike feel, both are the sorts of small first steps a master can take before moving on to bigger films. Seriously, though, this is much, much better than Fear and Desire.
Sometimes just the mere placement of opening titles can tell you something about a film. The opening titles in Ivan’s Childhood appear a few minutes into the film after we’ve seen two distinct scenes. The first is a dream from our titular character showing a tranquil and serene scene of life before the war. He was a child with a mother and a sister and everything was beautiful on that beach with his family. He wakes up, though, in a mill, dirty and harried, and he must cross a dangerous river from German occupied territory into Soviet territory. The crossing is filmed simply, but there’s an ever present sense of danger as flares fall around the frame and the sound of gunfire fills the soundtrack. Then the titles appear announcing the title of the film: Ivan’s Childhood. What defines the character’s childhood is the disparity of his pre-war life, which he only remembers in dreams, and his current existence where he’s a hardened former partisan and current scout for the regular army. This contrast is told purely through image and sound, without any supporting dialogue to point it out, and it holds for the film’s first thirty minutes or so. The way this opening is told is ultimately rather affecting emotionally because we’re asked to feel it, not to hear an explanation of it. It’s the film at its best.
And then I feel like the movie loses a bit. The focus moves off of Ivan and towards a small love triangle between Lieutenant Galtsev, Captain Kholin, and the pretty army nurse Masha. I think that this does end up fitting the overall theme of the film about the death of innocence in war, but we never get a really good ending to the subplot that would seem to justify it.
The only person of any real advanced age in the film is Lieutenant Colonel Gryaznov, an older officer who looks on protecting Ivan as a son, but he’s off being a general for most of the movie leaving the younger faced characters, especially Galtsev and Masha, to act as the adults in contrast to Ivan. However, Ivan is more the adult than Galtsev. When they’re introduced to each other, after Ivan has returned from his mission, they’re untrustworthy of each other, but it’s Ivan who can order Galtsev around with his commanding tone, eventually getting what he wants from Galtsev without giving much of anything up. It doesn’t help that Galtsev has a baby face that he keeps pristinely clean of any hair. So, we see all of these young people in the middle of certain death, trying to reclaim some kind of normalcy, most exemplified by the love triangle, while Ivan himself lets his dreams be his only escape. He’s offered the chance to go back to the safer regions of Russia to attend military school, but he refuses, knowing his place is there on the front.
That the war ends up claiming all innocence (except for Masha who just kind of disappears from the movie) with scars and death is the ultimate tragedy. Come and See by Elem Klimov, an ensuing Soviet film heavily inspired by Ivan’s Childhood, took a similar course, showing the effects of war on youth, but while the later film obviously took the stand that the fight overall was just, this one never does. It feels like it’s all a waste, like the Soviet people were fighting for nothing in the end. Considering that Tarkovsky would eventually leave the Soviet Union a few decades later to never return because of artistic financing and freedom issues, it might point to an underlying reality to Tarkovsky that the Soviet Union itself was never worth fighting for.
A major reason this movie is remembered is its visuals, and they are richly deserving of praise. From the use of handheld cameras heavily influenced by the work of cinematographer Sergey Urusevsky in The Cranes are Flying by Mikhail Kalatozov to the use of inverted photography in one of the dream sequences to really stark compositions like in Ashes and Diamonds by Andrzej Wajda, the movie endeavors to be endlessly interesting to look at. The most visually striking elements overall are the use of strong exterior lights in interior spaces, creating beautiful streaks of light that illuminate the action inside, and the use of the forest in the scene between Masha and Kholin. The camera follows the two at eye level until Kholin holds Masha up over a small ravine where the camera descends into the ravine. When Kholin lets Masha stand on the other side after a stolen kiss, the camera returns to ground level and follows the action yet again. It’s a wonderful move that just happens to occur in a scene that wish had been integrated into the overall picture a bit more.
Ivan’s Childhood is a good film from a great filmmaker, his first that shows real promise for his future. Oddly enough for his shortest feature film, I just think it’s the one with the biggest problem with focus. What’s there is never bad, not even close, but I just wish that it all flowed together more seamlessly.