Ivan’s Childhood (1962)

Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky


Ivan, the titular character, is a 12 year old boy soldier, used in reconnaissance efforts for the Soviets during World War II.  We first meet him in a dream sequence, emphasizing his youth and innocence, but then we quickly dive into his reality, a grim world full of swamps, raining gunfire, and stale interrogation rooms which transform into rooms of torture.

In one scene, Ivan plays pretend war, acting out a scene by himself like any other kid with a wild imagination.  Because this comes after a depiction of him actually participating in the war, however, this re-enactment feels like the ravings of someone suffering from PTSD.  The film re-contextualizes Ivan’s childlike behavior, forcing us to examine the ways his youth, and eventually his life, have been stolen from him.

Ivan’s Childhood is a tragedy.  It starts and ends with a dream sequence, showing Ivan laughing and playing with other kids, but the final shot is of a dead tree.  At the start of the film, this vision might just be a dream, but in the end, after we’re told Ivan was caught and hanged by the Germans, this vision feels like a depiction of the afterlife, a vision almost too good to be believable as a memory.

What’s most troubling about Ivan is not that he’s been recruited to join the army but that he was so eager to volunteer.  A twelve year old boy should not so desperately long to fight on the front lines, but Ivan makes a good soldier.  Early in the film, he sneaks across a river, joining his Soviet comrades who can’t believe he’s really a fellow soldier.  Despite his small stature, Ivan is eerily composed, his youth having been washed away sometime ago.  He comes across as much more mature than his other soldiers, many twice his age, but this composure is frightening considering kids shouldn’t act that way.

So we know that Ivan must have lost something, not just because only something drastic could place him in the middle of an active war, but because our first image of him is as a laughing, joyful boy literally flying through a forrest.  We’re told right up front that Ivan is just like any other kid, except now we see that he’s not.

Through flashbacks and dream imagery, Andrei Tarkovsky helps portray what is lost in war.  In this case, we see how much Ivan has changed, but I have to assume that the intention was to show that all soldiers are Ivan on some level.  World War II was fought by so many men who could barely be considered men, given their age.

Ivan is the most extreme example of this, but once you (and the other soldiers) get past his age, he’s just another soldier, and he’s killed unceremoniously like one too.

The tragedy of the film is almost made more tragic when we see the Allies win, ending the war.  You’re made to think that this war will never end, at least based on the soldiers’ grim attitudes and because there seems to be little context about how far into World War II we are.  But they win, and happens very suddenly.

After an effort to get back across the river, right under the Germans’ noses, Ivan is lost, and it’s not until the Soviet troops raid the former Nazi offices, that one of them identifies Ivan’s photo among images of the dead.  Another soldier recites the method of execution for each person in the folder with no emotion, saying “hanged… shot… hanged… shot…” and then at the very end, a photo is dropped to the ground, falling through a bombed out portion of the building to the floor below.  The camera tracks this piece of paper in just another beautiful, complex shot that seeks to connect space and time without cutting, until a friend of Ivan’s identifies him in the photo, his face hardened like he’s ready to die.

Ivan’s Childhood feels like a surprisingly modern film.  From Tarkovsky’s movement of the camera, to his use of music and sound and even the obvious attempts to pull at our heart strings, feel modern, somewhat like a Spielberg movie.  The film never felt overly sentimental, but you’d probably understand if it was.  Tarkovsky just shows us what we need to know and effectively heightens the scene to put us on edge or to appeal to our pathos.

Early in the film, Ivan’s dream is interrupted by a sudden twist and zoom of the camera in towards his mother’s face.  Coupled with a violent sound cue, we cut to Ivan’s grim reality.  By today’s standards, such an effect might be shrugged off as another jump scare, but here it’s so unexpected and yet so perfect for the tone of the film.  Ivan, like other soldiers, likely suffers from PTSD and misplaced anger.  Or maybe it’s perfectly placed, I’m not sure.  Despite Ivan’s aggression and passion for war, he makes a surprisingly fantastic soldier, finding a way to compose himself on cue, like some kind of Westworld robot.  His role in the war, after all, requires more of an ability to be unseen than to use force against the enemy.

In other sequences, Tarkovsky doesn’t cut the camera for a long period of time.  His camera moves, coming to rest in multiple set ups, effectively stitching together three or more shots within one take.

Within one shot that lasts almost a minute, Tarkovsky creates the following images:

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Those are effectively four separate shots.  By not cutting, Tarkovsky shows a small but meaningful arc for Masha’s character (the woman).  She is helped by a man across a trench she could easily handle on her own, he kisses her as she is suspended over the trench (like a grave), and then she hides from him as best she can, though he remains there over her shoulder.

Masha is trapped in this moment, by the man, by the war and by the shot.  Maybe you could achieve the same effect through multiple cuts, but the single shot restrains the scene and Masha herself.  Of course, maybe I’m not reading into this the right way, but to me it all feels like a prison cell.  When we get used to the simplicity of a cut from one shot to another, we start to anticipate that this is always an option.  We could cut from Masha in this scene to anything, but we don’t.  We stay right here, right with her.  We’re stuck, like she is.

This moment is beautiful for a variety of conflicting reasons.  It’s a beautiful location, the white birch trees feeling almost heavenly and out of this world.  And considering we’ve already spent time in a kid’s imagination, this all feels somewhat dream-like.  At the same time, we follow a soldier pestering the only female soldier we see in the entire film.  They are both tired of war, but she’s tired of this male energy too.  She is bombarded not just by the military grind, but by even the people on her side of the battle lines.  There are multiple moments in which she is harassed by one of her fellow soldiers, as she is here.  Her powerlessness and reluctance to fight back says even more.  She’s been through this before, and she will go through it again.

As a photo, that kiss is striking.  It’s peculiar, as the soldier (Kholin) straddles a grave-like trench like he’s purposefully defying death.  He knows he could die in any moment in battle, but for now he doesn’t care.  The kiss is, on a primal level, the most death-defying thing you can do, right?  It’s death-defying and life-affirming.  Then again, in the context of the scene,  this life-affirming act is sexual harassment.  It’s perverted and grotesque, but it’s all Kholin thinks he has.  Later the war will kill him, like Ivan, somewhat unceremoniously.

I didn’t even mention this about the above scene, but you can tell from my description, that Ivan is nowhere to be seen.  When we follow Masha, we forget about Ivan, though the feeling that follows Ivan follows her as well.  Ivan has been destroyed and remade through the war, as has Masha.  You know the drill, you’ve seen Titanic, it’s about saving the “women and children,” but Ivan’s Childhood shows us two cases in which the war has affected both women and children.

It’s a man’s war, but it’s not just men fighting the war.  The men are the ones who wreak havoc, and the women and children (and sure, other men as well) are the ones who pay for it.  Again, my interpretation may be off (this is only the second Tarkovsky film I’ve seen after his short film The Steamroller and the Violin of which I’m sure I probably didn’t understand all the subtext), but to me these are Tarkovsky’s feelings about the nature of war and its effects on just about everyone.  The Soviets win, and yet the story just gets worse and worse.

It’s not about who wins and loses, obviously, because we all lose.  It’s war, need I say more?

There’s another moment in which the Soviets inspect the dead bodies of Joseph Goebbels and his family.  There are a few depictions of dead Nazis and their families.  The Soviets inspect them with mostly objectivity but still some sympathy.  Goebbels ordered his troops to burn his body, but his girls lie there as if they could just be asleep.  They’re only children, but they were destined to die because of their father’s crimes.

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