30th Jan2018

‘Ivan’s Childhood’ Review (Criterion)

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Nikolay Burlyaev, Evgeniy Zharikov, Valentin Zubkov, Valentina Malyavina | Written by Vladimir Bogomolov, Mikhail Papava | Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky


If Solaris was Andrei Tarkovsky’s answer to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey then Ivan’s Childhood could be his answer to Kubrick’s Fear and Desire. Both were feature debuts concerning war-haunted soldiers waxing philosophical on some forgotten riverbank. The difference is that the Russian auteur’s is the vastly more accomplished film – to the extent that it would go on to win the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.

Tarkovsky’s 1962 drama opens with Ivan (Nikolay Burlyaev) as a blonde angelic child, prancing in nature. Khachaturian’s music is whimsical, and there’s an air of innocent fantasy as Ivan begins to fly. He sees his mother – at which point he wakes in fright. He’s back in the war, hair matted and face blackened. The music darkens as he steps out of a burned-down windmill. The tone of the film is set.

Ivan sneaks his way to an underground military base, where he meets Lieutenant Galtsev (Evgeniy Zharikov) and Captain Kholin (Valentin Zubkov). They want to return him to military school. But Ivan burns with vengeful feelings toward the Germans, who killed his family. He yearns to be on the Front Line, and he’s prepared to run off and join the partisans to do so. Galtsev and Kholin finally relent and agree to escort Ivan across the river, to where the action is.

Ivan is the perfect Russian army scout: skinny and too young and too broken to know fear. A child alone in wartime, brutalised by their experiences: it’s impossible not to see the influence on Elem Klimov’s shattering 1985 epic Come and See. Both are about the murder of innocence by war. Ivan’s Childhood is more poetic and less harrowing, but the effect is similarly tragic: that blend of playful childishness colliding with premature adulthood. At one point, Ivan weeps while saying, “I am my own boss!”

Orphaned, Ivan’s family is the military. Galtsev is like a big brother; Kholin, a father. A subplot about Kholin romancing a beautiful nurse named Masha (Valentina Malyavina) appears aimless. But then you realise that Kholin’s stumbling attempts at seduction – more like sexual assault – are from his being a product of the military. Like that Peter Pan reference in the opening dream, Kholin has never grown up. He seeks love, but the love he finds in Masha is conditional. The love he finds in Ivan, however, is the unconditional love of military hierarchy: uncomplicated and adoring. Meanwhile, Galtsev has ostensibly less to do, although his relationship with Ivan is key: he’s a reflection of what Ivan could become.

Tarkovsky would go on to become a deliberately challenging director, but here he tones down his tendency for characters to batter each other with philosophy. Other Tarkovsky tropes, though, come fully-formed: the delicate sound design, epitomised by the bunker’s perennially dripping water; the carefully arranged human degradation against the backdrop of indifferent nature; characters sliding in and out of the frame as the camera slowly tracks, as if engaged in some kind of diegetic dance.

The framing is exquisite, whether it’s a still tableau of blackened ghostlike husks, or tracers gliding through the fog above a swamp, or a classic trench tracking shot. This precision makes the occasional handheld moments even more impactful. There is one hilariously bad shot near the end – it’s supposed to be a rolling head, I guess – which undermines a key character moment, but we’ll put that down to inexperience.

The editing deserves special mention. Tarkovsky spoke of “sculpting in time,” and this is particularly evident in the numerous dream sequences. When transitioning from waking to dream state, the divide is often indistinguishable. One astonishing sequence sees Ivan alone in the bunker, playing army like a normal boy would – except his imagination is full of genuine war horrors. Clearly traumatised, the faces of the fallen haunt the dark; dead-eyed zombies of Ivan’s memories.

Apart from being a taut and intelligent war drama in its own right, Ivan’s Childhood is a great introduction to the canon of Tarkovsky, whose work would become more sprawling, dense and slow as time wore on. The Russian auteur wouldn’t fully hit his masterful stride until Andrei Rublev four years later; but an influential war drama, mythic in its conception and timeless in its delivery, isn’t bad for a first try.

Extras include three pieces from 2007, produced by Criterion themselves: “Life as a Dream”; an interview with Burlyaev, including screen tests; and an interview with DP Vadim Yusov, who worked with Tarkovsky on Andrei Rublev and Solaris.

Ivan’s Childhood is out on Blu-ray now from Criterion.


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