Ivan’s Childhood (Andrei Tarkovsky 1962) – BlogalongaRusskie #1
Here’s the first fruit of my mission to watch all of Andrei Tarkovsky’s movies, one a month, before the end of the year.
Want to join in? These guys have already reviewed Ivan’s Childhood: Hope Lies.
Artificial Eye releases The Andrei Tarkovsky Collection on DVD next Monday (27th June).
(Andrei Tarkovsky, Rus, 1962)
Innocence vs experience, not only on screen but also in Tarkovsky’s reclamation of art-house austerity into a debut of visual freshness and haunting power
By the early 1960s, Hollywood was already beginning to ironise World War Two, its patriotism taking the form of rip-roaring, all-star adventure. Was the same thing happening in Russia? Nyet. This was a country that had actually lived through the war, its people forced to become victims and vigilantes fighting a terrible battle against Nazi occupiers. Andrei Tarkovksy’s debut is one of the starkest reminders about the human cost of war, because its boy hero desperately wants to get back to the innocence he’s lost.
The bold opening sets the scene. In a dream, Ivan floats skyward, buoyant in a natural paradise; one savage cut later, he’s chest-deep in murky water, a scout forced to swim back to Russian lines after being stranded in enemy territory. Visually, tonally, the film keeps this contrast throughout, between Ivan’s sun-dappled past and the scorched, muddy earth of his present. It’s all Ivan’s childhood, of course, but Tarkovsky highlights the ease with which the idyllic can become hellish through sheer forcefulness of image. Once upon a time, Ivan was watching horses contentedly munching apples on a beach; now, he’s chatting to a shell-shocked man intent on hanging up a picture even though his house has been destroyed, clinging as desperately to his past as Ivan is.
Ivan himself is fascinating character: wise beyond his years, commanding enough to convince soldiers he’s a 12-year-old major, and yet vulnerable enough to require coddling… although that doesn’t stop the nightmares. The formidable child actor Nikolai Burlyayev nails the irony: tough-as-boots and yet fighting back tears. The central plot revolves around whether Ivan has convince the authorities he’s more use on the front than in military school, and the pointless hypocrisy depends on you believing that Burlyayev doesn’t need to be taught any more than he knows.
“Ivan’s Childhood is one of the most assured debuts ever, whose surreal imagery of warfare surely influenced Apocalypse Now.”
If that’s all the film was, it’d be one of the most assured debuts ever, whose surreal imagery of warfare – notably an upriver boat journey past a crashed airplane – that surely influenced Apocalypse Now. The austere imagery is sometimes gauche, betraying a novice director in thrall to the luminaries who were then lighting up World Cinema. Then again, why not? This was an era when a young director might gatecrash the art-house by aping Bergman’s medieval gloom, Welles’ wide-angle close-ups and Kurosawa’s obsession with trees and water as image systems.
But the dream-like logic is all of Tarkovsky’s doing, and instantly you can see why he was so revered. The film is full of seemingly impossible shots where characters re-appear within the frame at odd angles or with frightening speed; and fluid camera moves take reality into memory within a single take (notably the audacious pan that begins with Ivan in an army base and ends with them at the bottom of a well). He can even transform his locations into monumental metaphors – an extraordinary scene in a birch forest is shot in such low-contrast that the pale trees blend into the sunlight, a cross between a prison and a void. The only way out is down, into the trenches.
Yet Tarkovsky, even in a lean running time of 90 minutes, isn’t content to contemplate his symbolic navel. Given the director’s reputation, what’s surprising is how much narrative there is, as Tarkovsky delves into the lives of those entrusted with Ivan’s care (such as it is). The boy’s arrival kickstarts a dialectical duel between two surrogate fathers, both of whom think they know best how to look after him. A young lieutenant, who can’t quite believe Ivan is his superior, supports the General’s policy of getting him out of harm, but Ivan’s captain wants to back a hunch that Ivan is as ready as he’ll ever be: why not leave him to (literally) sink or swim in the quagmire?
All of that is unspoken, but obvious from the soldier’s metaphorical crossing of swords over a pretty nurse. The Lieutenant wants to protect her innocence; the Captain is on a mission to help her lose it, and spends half his time trying to force himself on her. Thematically, this fits together with the concept of soldiers struggling to retain a semblance of normality in the face of harsh reality. Arguably, though, Tarkovsky loses the steely nerve and control whenever Ivan’s off-screen; it’s perilously close to being a soap opera in uniform. Only in the devastating coda in post-war Berlin does the film make you realise that, even when absent from the screen, Ivan has been centre-stage all along.