IVAN’S CHILDHOOD A
aka: My Name Is Ivan
Russia (84 mi) 1962 d: Andrei Tarkovsky
My discovery of Tarkovsky’s first film was like a miracle. Suddenly, I found myself standing at the door of a room the keys of which had, until then, never been given to me. It was a room I had always wanted to enter and where he was moving freely and fully at ease. I felt encouraged and stimulated: someone was expressing what I had always wanted to say without knowing how.Tarkovsky is for me the greatest, the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream.
Working on Ivan's Childhood we encountered protests from the film authorities every time we tried to replace narrative causality with poetic articulations...There was no question of revising the basic working principles of film-making. But whenever the dramatic structure showed the slightest sign of something new—of treating the rationale of everyday life relatively freely—it was met with cries of protest and incomprehension. These mostly cited the audience: they had to have a plot that unfolded without a break, they were not capable of watching a screen if the film did not have a strong story-line. The contrasts in the film—cuts from dreams to reality, or, conversely, from the last scene in the crypt to victory day in Berlin—seemed to many to be inadmissible. I was delighted to learn that audiences thought differently.
—Andrei Tarkovsky, from Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema
Andrei Tarkovsky not only established himself as the finest Soviet director of the post-War period, but is considered one of the most significant filmmakers of the 20th century. Working between 1962 and 1986, he only completed seven feature films, five in the Soviet Union, and the last two in Italy and Sweden. Heavily influenced by the classical education provided by his father, Arseniy, a well-known Russian poet whose works appear in THE MIRROR (1975), Tarkovsky, at least initially, was able to evade Marxist restrictions on art and the Party’s insistence upon social realism, where his films instead focus upon internal spiritual battles. What Tarkovsky brought to cinema was a leap into the future, as he was no longer bound by conventional narrative, often using avant garde or stream-of-conscious narrative presentations that might initially seem incoherent, but the overall effect is both haunting and elegiac, exploring complex spiritual and metaphysical themes, often blurring the lines between realistic action sequences and dreams, visions, and dense personal memories of various characters, using a distinctive style, which includes long takes, slow pacing, and among the boldest and most perfectly composed images in the history of cinema, transforming visual composition into an art form, where often his films are a comment on art itself. Tarkovsky explored matters of faith throughout his lifetime, often presenting a deeply mystical Russian orthodox view pitting man against nature or God as well as against himself, creating transcendent themes that express an unconquerable human spirit.
At 29, Tarkovsky had just graduated from VGIK (the Gerasimov All-Russian State Institute of Cinematography) when his first film was inherited from director Eduard Abalov, who had to abort the project, and is based on Vladimir Bogomolov’s novella The Ivan, and is now considered one of the boldest, artistically daring directorial film debuts in history, and one of the greatest post-Stalin era Russian films, winning immediate recognition, including the Golden Lion 1st Place Prize at Venice, calling Tarkovsky the Bergman from the East. Bergman responded by calling Tarkovsky “the greatest, the one who invented new language, reflections of life as a dream.” Tarkovsky treated his profession as a high calling, a devotion, a special cause, claiming film is the high art of opening up the human soul to an artistic image, claiming “Art can lead a man to the depth of the human soul and leave man defenseless to good.” The film was introduced at the Moscow Institute of Cinema with the following comments, “The film we are about to see is something extraordinary, never been seen on our screens before, a really great talent.” Tarkovsky was born in 1932 and would be 13 when the war ended. “I was his age when the war began. His situation was that of my generation.” The film is a very personal statement which introduces poetic cinema, moving from a terrifying realism to a poetic fantasy, revealing a mastery at incorporating surrealist elements into his cinematic world, which included his cameraman Vadim Yusov, a very strong presence of an artist behind the camera, creating a certain texture of images. He and Tarkovsky establish very personal imprints. “I’m sculpting in time,” imposing rhythm, time, duration, giving the film a language outside the regular dimensions of human existence.
Called by Jean-Paul Sartre a work of “Socialist surrealism,” the film is far from a conventional war drama, set during WWII over the course of just two days, where war is shown without bombs or battle scenes, as the past and present are woven into a psychological state of emotional turmoil, as Tarkovsky creates a uniquely personal stream-of-conscious narrative that blends reality with dreams and childhood memories to capture the portrait of an anguished soul of a young 12-year old orphan Ivan, in an unusually sensitive and affecting performance by Kolya Burlaiev. Opening in a dream, flying through the air among the trees, leading to piles of dead bodies around the devastated ruins of a burned-out mill, Ivan is seen wading through some swamp water, crawling under barbed wire, and the reality of war is revealed instantly. A flashback sets Ivan and his mother standing above a well looking down into it. She points out a star at the bottom of the well, stating our day is its night. Ivan can then be seen at the bottom of the well trying to scoop up the star in his hands, looking up at his mother who is then shot and killed. From such tenderness, death, that introduces Ivan’s overriding sense of melancholy throughout the film, a poetic moment where the dead return to console the living, where his main solace becomes his dream-memory world, a return to a time and place of childhood innocence.
Attempting to avenge his parent’s death, Ivan performs reconnaissance missions for the Soviet Army and is immediately told “War is for grown men,” ordering him to the rear where he can attend military school. But instead, he hangs around headquarters and volunteers for some of the most dangerous missions behind enemy lines, where his shy, childlike behavior is a stark contrast to the battle-hardened courage displayed during combat. He’s attracted to the character of Masha (Valentina Malyavina), an attractive nurse to Lieutenant Galtsev (Yevgeni Zharikov), who is then aggressively courted in the birch woods by Captain Kholin (Valentin Zibkov), swinging her effortlessly over a dug ravine, giving her a long kiss. She then has a long shot walking on a tree trunk, beautifully extended in time, eventually running away into the birch trees. In another sequence, Masha is told “War is a man’s business, it’s not for girls.” She has a fantasy in the trees with swelling music, but this becomes a fantasy of death, revealing Ivan in the present as a young boy wearing big boots, flipping through pages of an art book depicting Germans trampling on people, commenting “They poured petrol over people,” asking the two officers “Will you take me along to the other side?” But they respond “War isn’t for children...We mustn’t let him cross to the other bank,” claiming Ivan lost his mother, father, and sister, all killed by Nazi’s, followed by a play sequence of Ivan playing out a war game, like a dream, hearing voices, ringing a bell, a child alone, drawn into the shadows of darkness and light.
As a result of the post-Stalinist thaw in Soviet film construction, Tarkovsky’s highly personalized film deglamorizes war and instead focuses on the horribly anguishing internalized consequences, which often find expression on the surface, blurring the lines between dreams and reality, as Ivan joins a team assigned to retrieve the bodies of two other boys hung from a tree, previous scouts executed by the Germans. Like a mythical journey across the River Styx, Ivan and the two officers set out for the other shore, quietly in a boat, with hauntingly serene and still images, with a sign “Welcome,” which reveals the entry into enemy territory, where Ivan sees a wall with the words “Avenge our death. There are 8 of us, all under 19,” where flares light up the night sky over a tranquil lake which is at peace. Ivan’s inner thoughts suggest a dream where he is with another girl riding a cart filled with apples, initially in the rain, then the trees in the background become negative images, arriving at a peaceful shore where several horses are eating the apples on the ground, with a burning fire followed by the image “Avenge our death.” As they pass a downed plane in a mist and arrive in perfect stillness on the other side, Ivan separates from the men, preferring to go alone, where eventually the two officers are able to return without Ivan. It is the first snow and all is quiet. There is a long extended scene of the two men sitting at a table, motionless, where nothing is happening. “It’s so quiet—the war.” One hears the dripping of water, a true Tarkovsky moment, followed by the playing of a Russian bass, Chaliapin, on a phonograph, where the haunting quiet feels like the granting of a final wish before death.
The extreme hush is followed by thunderous newsreel footage of a Soviet victory with soldiers marching down the streets of Berlin, with the ringing of church bells, where soldiers examine what was a Nazi headquarters in ruins, revealing what appears to be identified as the charred body of Goebbels, who poisoned his wife and family, then committed suicide. We hear random thoughts out loud, “Will this be the last war on earth?” “I survived, and I must work for peace.” The soldiers find picture after picture of dead Nazi victims, shot, shot, hanged, hanged, shot, where they find Ivan’s photo where he is seen hanging upside down from a meat hook, dead. The camera pans the death rooms where the Nazi’s killed their victims, followed by a dream fantasia expressing the absolute tenderness of Ivan and his mother on a peaceful shore, collecting and drinking water, where Ivan plays with other children, chasing after a little girl, the one with the apples, running along the shore, running, running, running right past. As the film progresses, it becomes more and more a reflection of Ivan’s interior landscape, where by the end of his spiritual journey, Ivan is finally free from the brutality and madness of war and this hollow victory of man, and has finally crossed over to the other shore and found peace at the end, the peace of the dead. A transforming work, where certainly one of the essential themes of the film, and what likely attracted Tarkovsky to the material in the first place, was downplaying the military heroism and instead focusing on how someone’s rational interior world could be fractured and shattered by traumatizing war experiences, a symbol for the many Russian lives shattered by the war, using haunting imagery to show how war alters human perception to the point where people can no longer distinguish between reality and illusion.