Ivan's Childhood Review

Andrei Tarkovsky’s first film Ivan’s Childhood does not perhaps receive the same kind of recognition, attention, or acclaim reserved for his own more personal and elegiac films. Scripted by Vladimir Bogomolov and Mikhail Papava from Bogomolov’s own novella ‘Ivan’, Tarkovsky took on the war-movie assignment for Mosfilm – one that had already been in production with a different director - with the intention of establishing himself as a filmmaker. The film would certainly appear to have little in common with the heavyweights in the director’s canon – films like Andrei Rublev, Solaris, Stalker and Mirror – but Tarkovsky drew deeply from his own personality, sensibility and memories to convert the story into something deeper and more personal. Right from the first remarkable dream sequence scene that opens the film, Ivan’s Childhood looks less than a conventional war-movie than the poetic vision of a director who would come to make an indelible mark on world cinema and on cinema as an art form.

The opening sequence is the dream of Ivan (Nikolai Burlyayev), a young 12 year-old boy who is acting as a scout during WWII for the front-line Russian troops pinned down in their positions by the German army, making dangerous crossings of a river to bring back and forth vital information that will eventually enable the troops to make the final push forward into Berlin. Tarkovsky does full justice to the heroism of the story and the actions of a young boy, orphaned by the war. But as the opening dream sequence indicates – one of four that are the lynchpins of the film – Tarkovsky is more interested in the psychological impact of the war on a young child. His parents and family having been executed by German troops, perhaps before his own eyes while in a prison camp, the impact is inevitably a deep one. Although on the surface the young boy shows tremendous confidence and determination, at heart and in his mind, he is terribly scarred by what has happened. Perhaps by extension then, the film could be seen as considering the deeper trauma endured by the Russian people, with even the title Ivan’s Childhood suggesting that it is not just one boy but a whole nation which would be transformed by the tremendous losses it would suffer during the war.

With his parents dead, tellingly it’s the army commanders who act as Ivan’s godparents and the boy has a close relationship with one of the front-line commanders, Kholin (Valentin Zubkov). They are concerned, as any parent would be, about such a young boy continuing to work in an increasing hostile environment. But when they suggest sending Ivan back to military school, he sees it as a rejection and threatens to run away. “I’ll run away from your military school”, he states, “just like I did from the children’s home”. “I ran away from Granny and Granddad too”, mocks one of the other soldiers, underlining the surrogate family role the military institutions now play in a time when many other children are doubtlessly likewise orphaned and lost.

But it’s not just Ivan’s life that has been turned upside-down and turned inside-out by Tarkovsky in his deeply expressionistic style that externalises the interior turmoil of the characters into the outside world around them. The landscape where the soldiers are dug into their trench position is a terrifying swamp environment, an expression of their fears and desires that is not so different from the Zone in Stalker. Yet there is also a grove of birch trees nearby that reach up out of sight into the heavens where Kholin tries to seduce the attractive young medical officer Masha (Valentina Malyavina). The choreography and the cinematography here are simply stunning in this respect – the characters enmeshed in their environment, their senses evoked in the tactile nature of the texture of a tree bark, in the concrete of a bunker, or in the viscous water that they wade through in the dark.

It’s far from a conventional way to depict a war film, from an internal viewpoint rather than one of crashing bombs and flying bullets. Two of the most important flashback sequences of the film are expressed off-screen in this unconventional way – Ivan’s memory of the death of his mother and sister takes place through sounds only in a darkened bunker, a waking dream that the young boy relives while crawling around illuminating the darkness with a small flashlight; and an imagined sequence by Galtsev (Yevgeni Zharikov) of the fate of Ivan is similarly enacted through sound only and images of the remaining devastation around him. Yet, without all the flash and bang, the full horror of the circumstances is revealed on a deep personal and psychological level. A few documentary inserts at the end of the film testify to the destruction and the wider human cost, but they are no more effective or affecting than the final image of the film, an imagined dream sequence of the loss of innocence that has occurred.

Ivan’s Childhood is released in the US as part of the Criterion Collection. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc, is in NTSC format, and is encoded for Region 1.

In many respects this is a magnificent transfer from Criterion that is simply head, shoulders and chest above any previous DVD release of the film. Progressively encoded, the image moves smoothly along with only the occasional brightness flicker in the image. There is a certain degree of softness in the image, but there is nevertheless good clarity and luminosity, with strong if not perfect greyscale tones. Blacks are however occasionally impenetrable and there is some posterisation in the darker scenes. There are very few marks or scratches on a very clean print and only a hint of edge-enhancement haloing. On most displays this looks most impressive, but some set-ups may detect the thin horizontal banding of what look like analogue tape tracking lines which are visible down the length of the whole frame and are present throughout the entire film. Even on a display sensitive to this unusual phenomenon they are not always noticeable, and since I can’t find another review of the disc on the Net that even mentions this – even though it shows in some of their screenshots – I have to assume it won’t be as much of a problem to most people as it was to me. A screenshot is provided below as an example, the lines clearly showing in the sky. It can be enlarged by clicking on the image.

Click to enlarge
(Click image to enlarge)

The original mono soundtrack is presented as Dolby Digital 1.0 and it stands up quite well. The volume is quite low, but there is relative clarity and noise-reduction largely eliminates any analogue noise without dampening the tone too much.

English subtitles are in a clear white font and are removable.

Life As A Dream (30:44)
Film scholar and writer Vida T. Johnson considers the significance of Ivan’s Childhood as part of Tarkovsky’s wider body of work, looking at the background of Russian filmmaking at the period and other influences on the young filmmaker. She also looks at the use of imagery in the film, the contrast of realism and poetic techniques and how they differ from Tarkovsky’s other films. The feature is overlong and not particularly revelatory – the stylistic differences between Tarkovsky’s first film and the rest of his work are quite clear, as is the personal imagery that shows the director’s own hand.

Nikolai Burlyaev Interview (10:47)
In a recently recorded interview, the actor who played the young Ivan talks about how he was cast for the film and the importance of this casting to Tarkovsky. He recalls the challenges he faced in the role, how Tarkovsky drew out his performance, his memories of working on-set and considers Tarkovsky’s relationship with Russia, which he considers very important in any understanding of the man.

Vadim Yusov Interview (11:20)
The film’s cinematographer considers the type of director Tarkovsky was, his visual sensibility towards mood, nature and spirituality and how he worked the script into a visual style that would capture the required tone. At the same time he acknowledges the mystery of what Tarkovsky was able to achieve through the textures of the objects he filmed.

The most valuable insights however come from the 30-page booklet, which contains an essay Dream Come True by Dina Iordanova, which examines each of the dreams in the films and looks at the influences that directed how Tarkovsky filmed them. Coming from Tarkovsky himself however, the article Between Two Films is the best consideration of the lessons learned in Ivan’s Childhood and the direction that will be taken in the future by the director.

Ivan’s Chidhood may not be the purest expression of the cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky, but it’s an accessible and impressive demonstration of the director’s ability to transform the familiar - in this case a war film - finding deeper resonances that show the world in a new and uniquely cinematic-poetic way. A simply stunning looking film, it has finally received a DVD release from Criterion that goes some way towards doing justice to the black-and-white cinematography and the whole tone of a remarkable film.

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