November 7, 2013
Ivan’s Childhood – Russia, 1962
Andrei Tarkovsky’s debut film, Ivan’s Childhood, begins in a utopian land replete with lush fields, a warm sun, and even a few seemingly friendly animals. There, a young boy named Ivan (Kolya Burlyayev) curiously peeks out from behind a tree, and for a moment, he seems aware that someone is looking back. He sees a butterfly and forms one of the innocent smiles that children are apt to give when all is right with the world, and then the rug begins to be pulled out from under us. We watch as Ivan soars into the sky and flies over the field, finally ending up next to a woman carrying a pail of water. He drinks from the pail happily and then looks up at the woman with childlike adoration. We expect him to be merry; instead, he lets out a terrifying scream.
What we next see is Ivan’s shocking reality. Dirty, disheveled, obviously hungry, Ivan awakens in a rundown barn and makes his way to the swamps nearby. As flares light up the pre-dawn sky and faint explosions sound in the distance, this young boy, who doesn’t look like he could be more than thirteen, sneaks under sharp barbed wire and into what we can only hope is friendly territory. Even more startling, he does this without registering anything in the way of emotion. It is as if he is on emotional autopilot.
In just one scene, Tarkovsky has shown us two visions of the same character: One reveals the harsh reality; the other is what everyone who comes in contact with Ivan wishes were true. It is a theme that can be seen in many of the film’s other characters, for in a perfect world, their fates would be different as well. Briefly, the film introduces viewers to a man who has lost his wife and is obsessed with finding a nail to hang her picture up with. We also meet a young lieutenant in love with a medical student. His feelings are reciprocated, but war and the chain of command conspire to prevent them from even hinting at their feelings.
We quickly learn that Ivan is a spy. He shouldn’t be of course, and therefore it is tempting to be rather critical of the men who sanction his involvement in the Second World War. However, we soon learn that they have tried their best to steer Ivan into a more stable environment. Just what are they to do with a young boy who runs away from every place he is sent to and seems determined to join the war effort in one way or another? Early in the film, Ivan is questions by Lt. Galtsev (Evginey Zharikov), who asks all the right questions and questions the morality of sending a child into enemy territory. The truth is that he isn’t asking any questions that his superiors haven’t asked themselves already.
Perhaps the key to understanding the film’s protagonist can be found in the message carved into the wall of the building that the Russian soldiers use as their base of operations. The words portend a horrible massacre: “In one hour, we’re to be taken out and shot.” Following these words is a chilling plea that reverberates in Ivan’s head: “Avenge us!” It is these words that influence the only game of make believe that we see Ivan play, and there is a level of violence in his fantasy that is truly shocking. Equally unnerving is the way this young child remains unfazed even as sirens blare and bomb explode around him. In truth, he has seen much worse.
Ivan’s Childhood is a stark reminder of the toll that strife can have on children, and I couldn’t help thinking of the children growing up in such places as the Palestinian Territory, Tel Aviv, Iraq, and Syria. The horrors they must be witnessing. The effect it much be having on their psyche. There is a scene in Tarkovsky’s film in which Ivan is shown an old picture of an ancient German battle and all he can see is Fritz, the name he has given to those whom he considers his enemy. How many other children are saying a variation of this very sentiment at this moment?
Ivan’s Childhood is tough going from start to finish, but it fascinates and startles like few films in its genre. In Ivan, Tarkovsky is giving us an example of one of the most tragic casualties of war – innocence. It is a theme that has been repeated countless times in war films, yet rarely as powerfully as it is here. And like the best war films, Ivan’s Childhood does not try to impress its audience with well choreographed scenes of battle. In fact, we do not even see the enemy until the film’s closing moments and then we only see them in archival footage detailing the war’s aftermath. However, the enemy is always there just out of view, perhaps wading in the swamps or perched somewhere in the trees. He is a constant threat and a reminder of the peril that Ivan and those whose job it is to drop him behind enemy lines are in. The effect is terrifying and suspenseful. By the end of the film, we’re left to once again wonder why he was there in the first place and lament that this had to be his childhood in the first place. (on DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection)
*Ivan’s Childhood is in Russian with English subtitles.