Ivan’s Childhood: A study of the ‘Tarkovskian Tragedy’

Andrei Tarkovsky’s debut feature, Ivan’s Childhood, arrived at a crucial point in Soviet history. Released in 1962 amidst the cultural thaw instigated by Nikita Khrushchev several years earlier, the film represents the way in which Soviet political and cultural policy were so inextricably entwined. Its protagonist is a 12-year-old orphan (Nikolai Burlyaev) on the Eastern Front whose small size allows him to scout German positions undetected. Ivan’s missions have been useful to the army, but officers Lt. Col. Gryaznov (Nikolai Grinko), Capt. Kholin (Valentin Zubkov) and Lt. Galtsev (Evgeny Zharikov) would like very much to send him to a military academy to get him away from the front, especially as the final offensive against the Germans is imminent.

Tarkovsky in building Ivan’s childhood

The Reality in Ivan's childhood
The Reality in Ivan’s childhood

Tarkovsky gives Ivan one terrific hero shot, as a quick dolly-in on Ivan ends with him saying he’s not afraid. But he also frames the shots of Ivan with the adult soldiers objectively; neither looking up from Ivan’s perspective nor down from theirs. He simply shows them side by side, laying bare the difference between their respective heights. Other elements of the film are less literal, more Symbolist in character.

The wreckage of war arranges itself in strange, geometric patterns; burned timbers point at silhouetted characters as though they were spears, the sun shines through an abandoned cross. In Ivan’s sun-dappled childhood flashbacks, the camera often flies through the air. In one early shot, Ivan provides the first instance in Tarkovsky’s filmography of levitation as an analogy for spiritual freedom; it would recur in Mirror and The Sacrifice.

Ivan’s tragedy

A child at war
A child at war

Ivan’s Childhood, by contrast, is nothing if not a human tragedy, although not a humanist tragedy. As, for instance, that shot of the sunlight coming through the cross reminded me of the shadow of the cross on Joan’s face in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). In that, despite the image’s obvious debt to spiritual art Dreyer never hides the fact that it’s just the sun coming through a window.

The reality of the image does not debunk its spiritual purpose, it intensifies it by enshrining it as a concrete reality. It is an impulse that is all throughout Ivan’s Childhood. It is a film that uses oneiric flashbacks and expressive visuals to capture something painfully real. Even when one acknowledges that Soviet realist art was often quite stylized, all those angular murals and propaganda posters are still something quite different from general Soviet cinema. But it’s no less real and powerful. It is a wrenching, masterfully made film. Once one has seen it, one won’t want to live in a world without it.

In conclusion

As far as Tarkovsky‘s films go, Ivan’s Childhood is still an immature work. One will find nothing of the slow, almost ritualistic pacing that marks his later films. This comes in at a compact 90 minutes. Still, a few shots tracking shots of a wall, Ivan flipping through a book of religious art, seem like mature Tarkovsky in embryo. His prominent use of religious iconography (crosses, fresco) is already here.

Vadim Yusov’s cinematography is memorable, with its several “layers” of view in certain shots. The prominent framing of shots with broken timber beams seems to hinder the characters. I was however very disappointed that at the end, the film segues into basically a Soviet anti-German propaganda film, complete with archival footage of the Soviet capture of Berlin. It is as if some completely different filmmaker took over.

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