Criterion Review: Ivan’s Childhood


On the Eastern Front, 10-year-old Ivan Bondarev (Nikolay Burlyaev) is a Russian scout spying on the German army in order to avenge his family. Ivan’s Childhood may not be master filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky’s finest work, yet his enduring aesthetic and political concerns are all present and correct in the director’s superlative debut film.

We first see the eponymous Ivan in one of several dream sequences, floating through bucolic landscape, telling his mother of the sounds of cuckoos, before he wakes up in the real-world nightmare of the Second World War. The straightforward premise – Ivan works as a scout for the Russian army to avenge the murder of his family – belies the complexity of the film’s stylistic arrangements and religious symbolism.

Tarkovsky’s persistent fascination with childhood is at its clearest here – Ivan is both a compelling character study and emblematic of the film’s central theme of the human cost of war. But additionally, the fixations that of Tarkovsky’s later films – time as nonlinear and experiential, the collapse of internal psychology and external space, nature imagery – are all visibly and grippingly in utero in Ivan’s Childhood.

Indeed, the film’s representation of reality is arguably its most successful element. Divided into the present of the war and past of idealised flashbacks, Tarkovsky incorporates the thematic concerns of Italian neorealism, yet his monochrome cinematography and the hyperreal, apocalyptic landscapes invariably invoke Ingmar Bergman. The effect is that the realities of both the past and present, the waking world and the dreaming, seem to collapse in to one another.

Certainly, Ivan’s relationship with his mother – another recurrent theme in Tarkovsky’s films – told only in flashbacks and dream sequences, feel more emotionally immediate than the present reality of the war which itself is shot like an unreal nightmare apocalypse. From leaking drops falling on to a sleeping Ivan’s hand, to a forest of silver birches emerging from a waterlogged swamp, the symbolism of water pervades Ivan’s Childhood, and prefigures its central role in the director’s later Solaris and Stalker as an ectoplasmic representation of psychology.

Ivan’s Childhood does not quite represent the mastery of cinema that Tarkvosky’s later works do, yet it is indicative of sophistication yet to come. The surrealism of Solaris, the spatial experimentation of Stalker, the psychological insight of Mirror, these are all visible if not fully developed in Ivan’s Childhood. More importantly, on its own terms, Ivan’s Childhood is a challenging depiction of warfare set against a Soviet cinema that typically favoured heroism over the cost of war. Tarkovsky’s film is at once metaphysical, narratively compelling and aesthetically revolutionary.

Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell

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