Ivan’s Childhood (1962)

Review by David Jenkins @daveyjenkins

Directed by

Andrei Tarkovsky

Starring

Evgeniy Zharikov Nikolay Burlyaev Valentin Zubkov

Anticipation.

Always a pleasure to see the film which kicked off this stunning career.

Enjoyment.

Brutal, still. Dreams of love and freedom smashed at every cruel turn.

In Retrospect.

Great, but too intimate for Tarkovsky who went on to make bigger and better films.

The startling, bleakly poetic debut feature from one of the movie pantheon greats, Andrei Tarkovsky.

That Andrei Tarkovsky sure knew how to throw a film together. His 1962 film Ivan’s Childhood was not made from a standing start, as the director had been plying his superlative trade on various collaborative shorts and the impressive medium-length essay on the intersection between work and art, The Steamroller and the Violin, from 1961. Yet this is talked of as a classic debut feature, demonstrating a near-rabid hunger to distort and subvert conventional cinematic parlance.

As a currency, film is much cheaper than it once was, but it means that simple pleasures have become more pronounced and more noticeable. Perhaps its unfair to gauge the film against others before and since, but Ivan’s Childhood has the rare ability to stop you in your tracks. And it’s less down to the storyline, concerning the abject horrors of the Russian front during World War Two as seen through the eyes of the gangly, blonde title character, but down to the formal construction itself. You watch a shot and think, ‘Wow, an immense amount of thought and planning has clearly gone into that shot.’ But Tarkovsky, not a man to rest on artistic laurels, repeats the formula again, creates another elaborate shot which forces the viewer to consider the form as equal to the content.

And as you continue to watch, you soon realise that the little linking shots, or contextual asides, or expositional exteriors, or anything which might be used as invisible glue to bind together the central scenes, is simply not there. Every shot is calculated to perfection. Yet ‘perfection’ is not the right word to use, as it could refer to aesthetics or framing or the action or the length of the shot. But Tarkovsky – the clever bastard – somehow manages to locate an equilibrium in all of the above. And then, the real coup de cinema comes when you realise that each shot is designed to enhance those around it, not just as stand-alone set pieces.

Take Ivan’s dream sequence when he recalls the brutal death of his mother. We segue from a military bunker to a well, following the camera as it drift from a sleeping Ivan to a mysterious light in the ceiling. The sequence of shots begin by exaggerating the loving relationship between the pair, as they glance down the well and mother tells boy to beware of falling down. Then the camera appears looking up at them though a film of water, perhaps itself hiding from some encroaching danger. Suddenly Ivan is then in the well, Tarkovsky using the depth of field through a low-angle shot to exaggerate the boy’s safety from whatever is above. The bucket falls towards the camera like a guillotine. The mother screams and water evocatively splashes over her soon-to-be corpse, signifying her violent demise. And then we’re back in the bunker.

When you read writing on Tarkovsky, the term ‘poet’ often arises. There’s certainly a poetry in the life and the people that he places in front of his lens, but in a sequence such as the one above, there’s poetry engrained within the very fibres of the frame. There’s a fluency which is rare, an ability to string together disparate, sometimes even conflicting expressions and show that they can make something beautiful. Tarkovsky is the enemy of complacency, he pushes every image with all his might.

If this film has a problem it might be that the material is too intimate for a director like Tarkovsky. He is the star here, not little avenging angel Ivan, played by Nikolay Burlyaev. The horrors of warfare seem too plebeian a subject for this filmmaker, and he would quickly understand that he needed to make stories that felt worthy of his formal mastery. Four years later he would release the existential and spiritual masterwork, Andrei Rublev, and confirm to the world that he was and remains one of the grand-high poets of cinema.

Published 17 May 2016

Tags: Andrei Tarkovsky Russian Cinema Soviet Cinema

Anticipation.

Always a pleasure to see the film which kicked off this stunning career.

Enjoyment.

Brutal, still. Dreams of love and freedom smashed at every cruel turn.

In Retrospect.

Great, but too intimate for Tarkovsky who went on to make bigger and better films.

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