Andrei Tarkovsky’s full feature debut film, Ivan’s Childhood was the beginning of a string of high-quality masterpieces that very much set him apart as an auteur and filmmaker. A blistering account of one of the most pivotal moments during World War II as the Soviet army tried to repel the Nazi invasion, Ivan’s Childhood is an anguished look at war. Yet it is also a commentary on the lost childhood of youths who were forced into the most depraved situations which would haunt a generation. Ivan’s Childhood therefore explores the very intimate relationship between war and youth, ever so often peering into what it would be like to escape and live in a pure dreamlike childhood where everything is sacred and everything is magical.
Ivan’s Childhood opens with one of the iconic shots in cinema. Ivan, naïve and exuberant, peers through an abnormally large spider’s web before running through trees with the sun bursting on his naked back. In typical Tarkovskian style, there is a longing, a pining for the naturalistic; that this boy is happy is important, but more so is his apparent freedom through which the natural world is monitored and explored.
The reality of Ivan’s situation however is that he is being used by the Soviet command to infiltrate behind enemy lines and scout on dangerous reconnaissance missions. What Tarkovsky does in Ivan’s Childhood that will be a de facto element of his entire oeuvre is develop a personality of the individual, contradicting many earlier Soviet war films which tended to focus on the army and regime en masse. In doing so, we can appreciate the horrors of war more than before as we are forced to endure the horrors of the individual. We are intrinsically connected to the fate of Ivan and in doing so we are part of the larger picture around which Tarkovsky is obviously attempting to develop a more profound discussion.
Ivan’s Childhood is interested in deconstructing all notions of war being a man’s game. What makes the film so pronounced is that the director is obsessed with developing a narrative through the eyes of the child, Ivan. Tarkovsky poetically weaves into the fabric of the film minutia of idealised and emotional memories, even if they are contradicted almost immediately by terrifying and unedifying wartime developments. In one scene, we’re exposed to dreamlike shots of children on a beach. In another, a young soldier embracing a nurse. Both are seemingly tangible, emotional moments at first glance but realistically contradicted by what they underlyingly represent: the homelessness of youth throughout any war and the longing for something that isn’t there, whether it be a mother, father or romantic encounter with a pretty-looking nurse. These poetic memory sequences are juxtaposed harshly and understandably by detailed camera angles and perspectives, such as the moment all the sharp wooden spikes of a splintered shelter seem to be pointed directly at Ivan. It is itself a sharp reminder that the realities of war far outweigh the attempts to lose yourself in idealised memories – fighting the imagery of war is as difficult here as the physicality.
Ivan’s Childhood is a surprisingly straight-forward film structurally. It possesses the hallmarks of a beginning, middle and end which Tarkovsky eventually strays away from in films like The Mirror. It certainly works in terms of grasping the nature of war as defined by most people, and having a concrete understanding of the journey that Ivan goes through, from boy scout to hardened war veteran, is certainly vital. Nevertheless, because of the linearity of the narrative, it is often difficult – and something the director acknowledges in Sculpting in Time – for Tarkovsky himself to develop any sense of magical realism and metaphysical understanding of war. What he does is make an exceptional film about a young boy and the realisation that a generation of youths will be lost, but beyond that it is about as straight-forward a film as Tarkovsky has made.
In doing so, Ivan’s Childhood may in fact be the most approachable and most understandable of all of Tarkovsky’s films. For all the director’s protestations at certain parts of the film not being up to scratch it is undoubtedly an influential and intriguing account of the ineptitudes and squalor of war. There is enough poetry here to entice someone to continue onto the bigger and meatier of the Tarkovsky filmography but as it stands it is a direct, approachable and often wonderfully edifying motion picture that is made even more profound, even more horrifying and even more iconic by the release of its Curzon Artificial Eye Blu Ray edition.
Ivan’s Childhood remains unequivocally one of cinema’s most potent and accomplished feature debuts. It launched the career of a filmmaker in Andrei Tarkovsky, who would redesign the entire landscape and palette of cinema as we know it.
Ivan’s Childhood is out now on DVD and Blu-Ray.