August 2, 2007
Ivan’s Childhood (1962) was Andrei Tarkovsky’s first film and it is certainly an impressive debut. The script was based on a novella by Vladimir Bugomolov but when the novice director came on board he reworked it with his friend Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky. The film was set during World War II and was Tarkovsky’s ticket to international distribution as the Russian government tended to favour these kinds of movies because the Soviet identity was still being defined by the war. However, many war films prior to Ivan’s Childhood tended to be propagandistic in nature. His film was part of a new wave that showed the dehumanizing effect war has on people.
The film begins with a beautifully serene, pastoral setting and a young boy named Ivan (Burlyaev) imagines he can fly above the treetops. He meets his mother for a brief moment before he awakens in a broken down windmill and emerges to a smoky, ruined wasteland with dead bodies scattered in the grass. It is this jarring juxtaposition of the peaceful with the war-torn that immediately grabs one’s attention. We find ourselves wondering, how did he go from that happy, idyllic countryside to his current state: haunted and alone?
Ivan is soon found by Russian soldiers on the bank by a river. He is very weak, wet, dirty, and shaking from being cold, like a drowned rat. He has that dead look in his eyes of someone who has seen too many horrible things too soon in life. Ivan is a scout for the Russian army, reporting on enemy troop movements and numbers, and just narrowly escaped numerous German patrols. The war has aged and hardened him. He lost his entire family to the invading Germans and is consumed by revenge. Ivan’s loss of innocence and having a proper childhood is the real tragedy of this film. He is a stubborn free spirit who prefers to have free reign, much to the chagrin of his military handlers who want to send him to school and away from the war.
Tarkovsky imbues the film with a kind of stillness, using long takes with very little movement. He also uses dialogue sparingly, relying more on visual storytelling. There are numerous striking images of the horrors of war. For example, we repeatedly see two men who have been hung by their necks out in the battlefield with a sign that says, “Welcome,” draped across their bodies.
Tarkovsky shows the emotional and physical toll the war has taken on poor Ivan. He’s lost his entire family. What does that do to a child? In Ivan’s case it has made him dead inside. He is no longer afraid of death because he has seen so much of it first hand. All he cares about now is vengeance against the German army. Ivan’s Childhood is a powerful character study about the loss of innocence with a moving performance by Nikolai Burlyaev that provides the film’s emotional core.
talks about the film in relation to the rest of Tarkovsky’s career. She sets the stage, historically speaking, for his emergence as a filmmaker. With the death of Stalin, Russian filmmakers could now make films that no longer glorified war.
There is an excellent “Nikolai Burlyaev Interview,” the actor who played Ivan. He recalls his memories of making Ivan’s Childhood and speaks highly of Tarkovsky who clearly made a big impression on him at such a young age. He also talks about how he prepared for a crucial scene where he had to cry on camera and how the director helped him get ready for it.
“Vadim Yusov Interview.” The film’s cinematographer talks about working on the film and with Tarkovsky. He speaks about how storyboards were created before filming in order to get an idea of what the shots would look like.