Ivan's Childhood (15.)
Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky.
Starring Nikolai Burlyayev, Valentin Zubkov, Evgeniy Zharikov, Stepan Krylov and Valentina Malyavina. 1963. In Black and White. Russian with Subtitles. 93 mins. A new digitally restored print, out on Blu-ray, DVD and on demand from Curzon Artificial Eye.
The beginning is generally very good place to start; with the cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky it may also be a very good place to stop. At least for some viewers. In the six films that followed his debut Tarkovsky established himself as the dictionary definition of slow, difficult, foreign assault course art house cinema. Brilliant slow, difficult, foreign assault course art house cinema, mind you, but not easy watches. Ivan's Childhood is by anybody's measure a great film, accessible to anyone prepared to read subtitles, a moving story of innocence lost during wartime that is beautiful to behold and readily comprehensible.
Tarkovsky's big break in showbusiness came after the state film company MosFilm got halfway through a production of a film based on the short story Ivan by Vladimir Bogomolov with another director before deciding to halt the production due to the poor quality of what had been filmed. The young Andrei was offered the chance to complete the film with what was left of the original budget, around half, and he set about re-writing the script and started again with a new cast.
Ivan's (Burlyayev) childhood playground is the Russian frontline in WWII, where he runs reconnaissance missions behind German lines. The soldiers debate the morality of using a child for such treacherous work but the orphaned Ivan is ferociously committed to his search for revenge and rejects any efforts to send him to military school.
This is easily his most straightforward film, indulging such old fangled, traditional concepts as having a story, characters and, towards the end, a little bit of tension. When there is a dream sequence – usually delineating a parallel life where Ivan had a happy childhood with his mother, but on one occasion to illustrate just how burden he is by his desire for vengeance – they are clearly marked out so that the viewer does not get confused.
Tarkovsky presents a mildly surreal vision of war full of burnt out houses where people still use the door frames for entrance or where the outline of crashed, half buried planes form crucifixes on the skyline. The film captures the idea of warfare as kind of waking dream-state, where everybody's emotional responses are heightened. So the soldiers compete to be Ivan's surrogate dad, or for the affections of a nurse Masha. (Her haircut seems anachronistic, like she was in a film from Czech New Wave in the 60s: I wonder if that is deliberately jarring touch or a misunderstanding of Soviet wartime coiffure norms.) After a taut opening half hour when Ivan returns from his latest scouting mission behind enemy lines the film pads around slightly aimlessly but climaxes in a superbly eerie and suspenseful dawn river crossing sequence as two soldier try to insert Ivan behind enemy lines as flares fly up into the sky.
It's the Tarkovsky film for people who don't like Tarkovsky films, and for those people this film will be a tinged with a sense of regret that the long haired layabout in the Soviet film bureaus were so lenient with this gifted young talent, allowing him to make his long poet epics, and hadn't instead forced him to make proper, sensible films for proper sensible audiences, albeit with a few little dream sequences thrown in just to keep him happy. If you're a fan though, Ivan's Childhood is a modest endeavour; if you think this is special wait till you get a load of what he did next.
Which we will, because Andrei Rublev is out in two weeks time.
A 36 page booklet.
Three lengthy interviews: with actor Evgeniy Zharikov, cinematographer Vadim Usov and composer Vyaaheslav Ovchinnikov.
The first part of Mary Wild's psychoanalytical examination of Tarkovsky's work.