Ivan's Childhood: A Russian Classic

Ivan’s Childhood  (1962)
Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky
Criterion Collection, 97 minutes, Black and White, in Russian with subtitles

Many of the greatest classic films were made thousands of miles from Hollywood, and their auteur creators never set foot in California. Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-1986) made nearly all of his films in the Soviet Union (except for a film completed in Sweden and another begun in Italy). His heroes were European directors such as Antonioni, Bergman, Chaplin, Dreyer, Buñel, and Kurosawa. That’s a pretty heady bunch.

Tarkovsky films seldom go down easy. They are often philosophical musings and some viewers find them painfully slow. To give but one example, the sci-fi movie Solaris (1972) is probably his most acclaimed work, though most English-speakers know the story from Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 remake. Same story, but Tarkovsky’s Solaris is a whopping 166 minutes in length and Soderbergh’s a mere 98.

All of this is in service of suggesting that you might wish to ease yourself into Tarkovsky’s oeuvre by starting with his first film, Ivan’s Childhood. It’s probably his most accessible film and the closest he got to conventional filmmaking. It’s my favorite; not because it’s “easy,” but because it is his most humane offering. It takes place during World War II, as seen through the eyes of Ivan Bondarev (Korlya Burlyaev), a 12-year-old boy, and Lt. Galtsev (Evgeny Zharikov), one of his military contacts.

When Ivan’s Childhood was released in 1962, World War II was just 17 years in the past. That conflict often gets called “the good war” in the United States and the decade or so that followed was dubbed “victory culture” by historian Tom Engelhardt. Not so in the Soviet Union. Of the roughly 75 million war dead, more than a quarter of them were Russian–far more than the dead of fascist aggressor states of Germany, Italy, and Japan combined. As we learned after the fall of the USSR, its economy never really recovered from the war’s devastation.

Tarkovsky gives us several dream sequences that help us understand young Ivan. Idyllic romps through the countryside abruptly end as Ivan awakes for a swim across a river in war-ravaged Mother Russia to make his way to the Russian frontline. He is sullen, angry, arrogant, and tells Lt. Galtsev that he will speak only to Captain Kholin (Valentin Zubkov) or Lt. Colonel Gryaznov (Nikolai Grinko). In due time we find out that Ivan’s family was murdered by Nazi invaders and that he has sworn revenge upon the fascists. He has essentially been a free agent spook since soldiers slew his family and he managed to get away. Ivan also escaped the military school in which Kholin and others acting as his guardian placed him, as he wants to return to spying on the Germans. Ivan might be 12 years old, but it’s an “old” 12 and the only thing childish about him are the temper tantrums he takes when he is told war is no place for a child.

There is a subplot involving the rivalry between Kholin and Galtsev for the affections of a comely nurse, Masha (Valentina Malyavina), who looks like no more than a teen herself. Presumably Tarkovsky wanted audiences to contemplate how war accelerates “growing up,” as it were. I shall say no more except that not much that happens is as surfaces suggest.

Yes, the film is subtitled and yes, it’s in black and white. It’s also utterly brilliant–one of the better uses of flashback structure you will see. (That technique bordered on being considered uniquely innovative at the time.) Cinematographer Vadim Yusov paints the screen as if grainy old photographs have sprung to life. His shots of Ivan being ferried across the river and set loose in a swamp have an Edward Gorey-like creepy quality that would not work in color. Besides, another point of the film is that war’s devastation drains everything: normality, childhood, emotions, even color.

How good is this film? How many movies can you name that won praise from Ingmar Bergman and was reviewed by Jeal-Paul Sartre? If you don’t think you are an “art” cinema kind of person, try Ivan’s Childhood. It will leave you shattered.

Rob Weir

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