Shot only two years after his diploma film, The Steamroller and the Violin, Tarkovsky embarked on his first feature film; Ivan’s Childhood. A frank and brutal depiction of the human cost of war, adapted from a short story by former soldier Vladimir Bogomolov, Tarkovsky highlights the terrors of war through a young orphan utilised on reconnaissance missions because of his size and youth. The utilisation of Ivan by the Soviet forces raises interesting philosophical and ethical questions for both the characters, and the audience to grapple with.
Tarkovsky’s seminal debut feature was one of many Soviet War films developed during the Khrushchev Thaw; these films did away with the glorification and pro-war themes of older war films, instead focusing on the horrors and terrors the Russian soldiers experienced in World War Two. Tarkovsky purposefully juxtaposes the innocence of childhood through Ivan with the surrounding chaos of the war, from the very opening scene we’re treated to a bright scene, with a radiant close-up of a shirtless young boy behind a spider’s web. In this opening shot, Ivan is the very picture of innocence, bright face, soft blonde hair, and in a picturesque field that could have been plucked straight out of the Garden of Eden. This sequence reveals itself to be distorted and technically expressionist, as Ivan begins to fly above the scenery, laughing and smiling as he glides through the clouds. But this dream sequence ends abruptly, as we soon see Ivan waking up in a cold, dark destroyed windmill, where Ivan’s face is no longer exuberant and bright, but harsh and weathered by his journey through the war-torn countryside. It’s a striking contrast in the opening few minutes, but Tarkovsky and his team also use the technical side, with darker lighting and harsher contrast within the cinematography between Ivan and his surroundings in the real world, compared to the brighter scenery of the dream. The depiction of the real world is firmly rooted in realism, while all of the dream sequences (including the nightmares) are much more surreal and expressionist. This contrast also works on a thematic level as it is in Ivan’s dreams that we see hope, as Ivan often dreams of his now deceased family and his life before the war, it’s a picturesque view of freedom and innocence that is rarely, if ever, seen in the war.
As the film continues we see Ivan return to the military base where he encounters both new officers, who are rightfully shocked at his involvement in the war, and reuniting with officers Ivan previously knew. The film follows two main plots; Ivan’s struggle with the officers as he wishes to continue to fight and serve on the front line despite the objections by various officers, and a love triangle between Captain Kholin, an army nurse and Galtsev, the first official that Ivan encounters. Both of these stories are concerned, in their own way, with corruption. Within. Ivan’s story of corruption is clear, due to the suffering Ivan experiences through the war, he has a burning desire to fight for Russia, at the expense of his own childhood. Tarkovsky represents this corruption in very interesting ways, the biggest way we see this is through the adult soldier’s reactions to Ivan’s determination. Throughout the film the adults try to convince Ivan to go back home to boarding school or to a military school, but Ivan resists and refuses, running away or getting so passionate about fighting that he breaks out in tears. It’s a frightening conviction for both the audience and characters as it really represents quickly just how broken Ivan is, and how little is left of his childhood innocence. We also see this in other clever ways, things like the officers offering Ivan different children’s magazine’s to read but Ivan refusing saying that he had read them all, but the book of War iconography being the one to rouse Ivan’s interest. He still retains some childhood innocence, as he asks if it contains any pictures, but the underlying fact that it is the war, and violence, related book that interests him is a way for Tarkovsky to highlight Ivan’s diminished innocence. Other moments, like Ivan informing one of the officers about the horrors he witnessed at an execution camp, is a clever subversion of expectations, highlighting a reversed innocence between Ivan and the older soldier’s, that is just as horrifying as it is clever.
But similarly the secondary love-plot is just as concerned with corruption as Ivan’s storyline is. As the uncomfortably pushy Captain, tries to woo, and pressure, the young Army Nurse Masha into a relationship with him, Tarkovsky is showing how the War corrupts and infects even traditional social relationships, as the front-line mission of advancing the troops (that is constantly spoken of throughout the film) can be seen reflected in the advances that Kholin makes towards Masha. Both involve the conquering of something, and it’s clear from his actions that Kholin sees Masha as just that, something to conquer during this time of war. Meanwhile, Galtsev, the other side of the triangle, while clearly yearning for Masha, is not only questioning the point of the war, but also the effect it’s been having on Ivan, and in turn Masha. Ultimately he transfers Masha, to keep her away from the violence of the front line, but also away from the corruption of the Captain. I must admit that overall I found this secondary plot to be one of the weaker elements of the film, but I did find the thematic depth that Tarkovsky manages to instill within it to be very interesting and shows how clever he was in his filmmaking.
The film is shot beautifully, with great cinematography that crafted some now-iconic shots, such as the broken house that looks like knives all pointed at Ivan, the kiss over the trench, and the war-torn landscapes of the front line. Vadim Yusov’s work on this film cannot be understated, as the use of lighting, especially with the black-and-white colouring of the film, is superb and without it these shots would never have looked as gorgeous as they thankfully do. Even in the night-time sequences, the use of flares to create the dynamic lighting is tremendous.
I think it’s fair to say that Ivan’s Childhood isn’t my favourite of the few Tarkovsky films that I’ve seen, but in terms of directorial debuts, Ivan’s Childhood is easily in the conversation of the best feature film debuts. While this shouldn’t be of any surprise, as Tarkovsky is now widely accepted to be one of the all-time greats in film history, the technical craft and directing ability that he shows in this film is still incredible to see. The whole film is beautiful and the story is harrowing, the gut-punch of an ending the film leaves you with is a really strong ending that won’t leave you any time soon.