Film history tends to invite less counterfactual speculation than military or political history, but here’s one for you: what if Ivan’s Childhood, now reissued by Curzon Artificial Eye, had never been made? Because that really did come close to happening. During production, source author Vladimir Bogomolov rejected a draft of the script by Mikhail Papava which altered the short story’s original ending. Once Papava had produced a more acceptable draft, Eduard Abalov was hired to direct – until December 1960, when the Soviet arts council declared the film unreleasable. The project remained in limbo until the summer of 1961, when a young graduate of the State Institute of Cinematography was hired to produce a new version from Papava’s script.
That graduate was Andrei Tarkovsky, and his first film created a ripple felt to this day. Last year Sight & Sound put together a list of twelve wildly disparate films which represented “the Tarkovsky influence”, ranging from Lars von Trier to Terrence Malick, Steven Soderbergh to Nuri Bilge Ceylan. It limited itself to directors who began their career after Ivan’s Childhood was released, so there was no room for Ingmar Bergman, who described the director’s debut as “a miracle”. It also limits itself to film-makers, so there is no mention of Jean-Paul Sartre, who wrote a passionate defence of the film when it received a bad review in an Italian newspaper. Both as a film in its own right and as the foundation of one of the great careers in world cinema, it is a pretty big deal.
This is a double-edged sword. The intense seriousness of Tarkovsky’s films, not to mention the sheer length of later efforts like 1972’s Solaris, can create an off-putting impression that these films are unenjoyable or inaccessible. Ivan’s Childhood, at least, is nothing of the sort. It is dark, certainly – part of the reason why Papava’s first draft was rejected was that it made its title character into more of a straightforward hero, whereas Bogomolov and Tarkovsky were interested in taking advantage of the slight relaxation of Soviet censorship under Khrushchev to acknowledge the pain, rather than the glory, of the Russian experience during the Second World War. But it also moves along at a sharp pace, is incredibly confident and assured for a debut film, and has a terrific, completely believable central performance from Kolya Burlyayev.
Burlyayev’s Ivan is a twelve-year-old boy who is found wandering through a bombed-out landscape by Soviet soldiers. He responds to their presence with a strange, calm confidence, asking them to call a Lieutenant-Colonel and let him know he is in their company. It emerges that Ivan is on a mission to avenge a very grave personal tragedy inflicted on his family by the Nazis, and though his resolve is bulletproof it’s hard not to feel deeply anxious for this skinny pre-teen in the middle of the bloodiest battleground of World War II.
Tarkovsky gives Ivan one terrific hero shot, as a quick dolly-in on Ivan ends with him saying he’s not afraid. But he also frames the shots of Ivan with the adult soldiers objectively: neither looking up from Ivan’s perspective, nor down from theirs, he simply shows them side by side, laying bare the difference between their respective heights. Other elements of the film are less literal, more Symbolist in character. The wreckage of war arranges itself in strange, geometric patterns, burned timbers point at silhouetted characters as though they were spears, the sun shines through an abandoned cross… In Ivan’s sun-dappled childhood flashbacks, the camera often flies through the air – and so, in one early shot, does Ivan, providing the first instance in Tarkovsky’s filmography of levitation as an analogy for spiritual freedom, which would recur in Mirror and The Sacrifice.
Those flashbacks are integrated frequently into the narrative in a way that’s surprisingly sophisticated for its time – remember that TV, and quite a lot of movies, in the early ’60s seemed to believe the audience wouldn’t understand this narrative technique unless there was a long hold on the relevant character’s face, or a soft-focus effect around the edges of the flashback. Tarkovsky just cuts in and out of them, often for a harshly ironic effect, as in one cut where a living forest is replaced with a burned, bombed-out one. They also anticipate the work of Terrence Malick, although comparing Ivan’s Childhood to Malick’s war film The Thin Red Line reveals Tarkovsky to be a less sentimental, more clear-headed artist. Even as a paid-up Malick fanboy who thinks To The Wonder will one day be re-evaluated as a masterpiece, The Thin Red Line left me wondering if Malick genuinely finds the destruction of trees sadder than the destruction of humans.
Ivan’s Childhood, by contrast, is nothing if not a human tragedy – although not a humanist tragedy, as that shot of the sunlight coming through the cross shows. That moment reminded me of the shadow of the cross on Joan’s face in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, in that despite the image’s obvious debt to spiritual art Dreyer never hides the fact that it’s just the sun coming through a window. The reality of the image does not debunk its spiritual purpose, it intensifies it by enshrining it as concrete reality – an impulse that is all over Ivan’s Childhood, a film which uses oneiric flashbacks and expressive visuals to capture something painfully real. Even when you acknowledge that Soviet realist art was often quite stylised – all those angular murals and propaganda posters – this is still something very different to normal Soviet cinema. But it’s no less real and powerful, and it would be nice to think that the authorities’ acceptance of this project (it was submitted to the Oscars) was a recognition of that. It is a wrenching, masterfully made film. Once you’ve seen it, you won’t want to live in a world without it.
- 36 page booklet
- Selected scene commentary with Film Psychoanalyst Mary Wild
- Interview with actor Evgeniy Zharikov
- Interview with Director of Photograohy Vadim Usov
- Interview with Composer Vyaaheslav Ovchinnikov