I recently started reading Sculpting in Time by director Adrei Tarkovsky. The book features musings on the philosophy of film as well reflections on his own films. The first chapter was about his experiences with his first feature film Ivan’s Childhood. I had never actually seen the film and knew I had to go out watch it before I read any further.
Ivan’s Childhood tells the tale of our titular character Ivan (Nikolay Burlyaev), a child who is serving as a reconnaissance spy for the Russian Army during World War II. Ivan has just returned from the front lines and to his dismay is being sent to military academy. He disappears out the picture. A little while later he inexplicably returns, and is sent off another mission. End of story. Encapsulating the film are dream sequences of Ivan’s family, who were killed by the Germans.
The film is peculiar to say the least. The narrative is sparse and simple, especially for a war film. We never see the Germans or any of the actual fighting. Instead, the film is claustrophobic, with our main characters stuck in rooms and bunkers talking amongst themselves. We never even get a full sense of what’s going on. The final fateful mission that Ivan is sent on is never actually explained. Where is Ivan being sent to? What is the actual plan?
So much questions would leave many to wonder what the actual point is of the film. And yet what it lacks narratively, it makes up for in the mood it evokes. The film opens with an extraordinary dream sequence (though we don’t know this at first) in which Ivan plays along the beach with his mother. The way the camera playfully follows Ivan as well how he is lit by the sunlight creates this sense of purity and joy. This could very well take place in the Garden of Eden.
Notice at the end of the sequence how Ivan wakes up, and the sound effect that provides the sense of startle at the realization that the dream isn’t real. The film is full of these little touches. Tarkovsky’s biggest strength in Ivan’s Childhood is this marriage of sound and image. Most directors like to point the camera and shoot, letting the actors carry the burden of creating meaning. But here Tarkovsky uses all the tools at his disposal. It’s the sign of a master filmmaker.
Most impressive is how Tarkovsky and his cinematographer Vadim Yusof find interesting shots with such limited sets that help convey the inner emotional states that the lead characters are in.
Here’s a creative use of a mirror to frame the captain as he speaks with Ivan. Notice the picturesque quality, as if he isn’t in the actual room with Ivan, but rather a photo to be remembered. And look at Ivan’s face and his expressions of anger. He’s vengeful against the Germans for what they did to his family. The shot evokes how distant these two characters are, and reflects how the story will end.
Here’s another lovely shot of a soldier holding the medical nurse over a trench, locked in a kiss. The shot is part of a playful sequence in which the two flirt and play. Look at how the framing of the shot conveys the romanticism of the scene, all the more emotional because of its wartime setting.
Ivan’s Childhood is full of these little delights. It’s no wonder that Tarkovsky is a celebrated filmmaker, being cited as major influence among such giants as Ingmar Bergman. I’m almost embarrassed to write this review, having to admit this was my first film I’d ever seen by such a master. And yet what a delight it was to escape from the Hollywood mainstream that I seemed to have been sticking to.
I could go on and on about the film and the inventiveness of the camera angles and movement, and yet the same can be said numerous European art films. What really set the film apart for me was how detached it felt from the war it was portraying. The film is subtle in how it treats its characters. We see a soldier and the medical nurse look away from each other, and without words being spoken, know that there’s feelings being left unsaid. Ivan never goes into detail about his dealings with the Germans and how he escaped their clutches. Instead we see his fears carried out by his facial expressions and by the aforementioned dream sequences.
Which brings us to the ending. We jump forward in time to the end of the war. Ivan, we learn, has been killed by the Nazis. Via a jump cut we’re thrown back into a dream sequence in which Ivan chases around a little girl, most likely his sister. They play on the beach in a game of hide and seek, both smiling as they run after each other. In the midst of all this happiness is a dead tree sprouting out of the sand. It’s such a bittersweet sequence which is a snapshot of Ivan’s life. Such a waste that is war and the loss of youth. It’s the power of cinema, to convey so much without words. Ivan’s Childhood is a masterpiece of the film, and I recommend if you haven’t already, go and watch it.