August 14, 2013

Movie Review: Ivan's Childhood (1962)

Scouts are the soul of the front. - Ivan (Nikolai Burlyaev)

Directors: Andrei Tarkovsky

Writers: Vladimir Bogomolov (screenplay and story "Ivan"), Mikhail Papava (writer), Andrei Tarkovsky and Andrei Konchalovsky (uncredited)

Production Manager: G. Kuznetsov

Studio: Mosfilm

Major Stars: Nikolai Burlyayev, Valentin Zubkov, Yevgeni Zharikov, Valentina Malyavina, Stepan Krylov

Note: In keeping with my policy about movies 25 years old or more, I feel no compunctions about revealing what happens in the film. With that in mind, there may be SPOILERS below. If you haven’t seen the film yet, you may want to avoid this review.

Ivan's Childhood is one of the most powerful films I have ever watched. It is a war film that shows very little of the war itself but explores the impact war has on people and their lives. That it does so through the eyes of a 12-year old boy just makes it that much better.

Ivan's Childhood was Andrei Tarkovsky's first major film, one he came upon by accident. The original director, Eduard Abalov, was fired from the project. Tarkovsky was told about the film by his cinematographer, Vadim Yusov. Tarkovsky applied for, and was granted, the project. The result is a film that is akin to visual poetry.

Ivan (Nikolai Burlyayev) is a 12-year old boy whose family has been killed by the Nazis. He had joined a band of partisans who flew him to safety when they were surrounded by the Germans. He fled the school and fell in with an Army unit as a scout. His age and size allows him to go places others cannot.

But the soldiers want to get him away from the war as well and they want to send him to a military academy. Instead, he resists the plan and demands to remain as a scout, as that is the only way he can have revenge on the Germans. They give in and allow him to go on another mission behind enemy lines, one that he never returns from.

That brief description does no justice to this movie. Tarkovsky explored war and its cost in Ivan's Childhood in a way that earlier directors could not. This film was made during Khrushchev's "de-Stalinization" period between Stalin's death and the rise of Brezhnev. This was the period when other great Russian films like The Cranes are Flying and Ballad of a Soldier were made. Like these movies, Ivan's Childhood was a break from the old Russian style of war movies, where dying for Mother Russia was a great honor.

For example, you have young Lieutenant Galtsev (Yevgeni Zharikov), a good-looking, healthy soldier in the movie. In a Stalin-era film, he would be exhorting his men to sacrifice themselves for the country and telling them how lucky they were to fight. But in Ivan's Childhood he says that war is no place for a child. He tries repeatedly to get Ivan away from the war. He is bored more than anything and definitely not overjoyed to be in a war. And at film's end we see him in Berlin in 1945, his face scarred and his eyes cold and haunted. There is no joy for him in Russia's triumph.

There is another sequence with Captain Kholin (Valentin Zubkov). He is an experienced soldier, the kind that in the older films would have talked of the joys of combat and repelling the German hordes. Here, he woos a young nurse in a grove of trees in one of the most beautiful scenes in the movie. The iconic moment is when he helps the nurse cross a trench and then holds and kisses her as she hangs over the trench. The symbolism is powerful, of this soldier and nurse fighting for a moment of peace and humanity in the chaos of war.

But the truly remarkable moments of this movie surround young Ivan. Tarkovsky added four "dream sequences" to the movie where we see flashbacks to Ivan's life before the war. There, he is fresh-faced and happy. He is in nature, playing with his sister and mother, eating apples, playing on the beach as the sun shines down. These contrast with his "real" childhood, one of bleak landscapes and death. Ivan is gaunt and dirty. There is no sun and no trees are seen. There are no apples, just black bread and onions.

And the ending, when we find out Ivan's fate in Berlin along with Lieutenant Galtsev, is heart-breaking, especially as it segues into Ivan's final dream. It is one where he is clean and strong and young, playing with his sister and other children on a sunny beach. The beach's only feature is a dead, black tree which he runs to in a race with his sister. It ties back to the beginning of the movie when Ivan had to swim across the river to safety because he missed his contact who was hiding in a dead tree.

There are also repeated images of Ivan being caught in this war and being unable to escape. The very first image we see is in one of his dreams; Ivan is staring at us through a spider's web. In another dream he is at the bottom of a deep well at the moment his mother is shot by the Germans. Tarkovsky's ability to communicate so much to us without words is on full display here and it works wonderfully.

We also see that Ivan is driven not only by his desire for revenge, but his inability to actually take it. The most haunting moment of the film is when he pretends to stalk a German in a darkened room. At the climax of the scene he threatens an empty coat (the surrogate German) with a knife, and then breaks down crying as he realizes this is as close as he will ever come to truly taking his revenge. Even he knows his participation in the war is ultimately futile. And yet he cannot do anything else.

Yusov's cinematography compliments Tarkovsky's film. He uses different angles and positions to help communicate the feelings of the characters. It is a beautiful film to watch, one that shows you something new with every viewing. Tarkovsky also experimented with sound a lot. Clashing and jarring tones to create unease, lilting music during the dreams and disembodied voices telling us of what happened in the past as we watch current events unfold.

The other thing to note is that, in a movie about the Great Patriotic War, you only see the Germans once near the film's end. In the final sequence in Berlin, as Galtsev explores the prison and execution chamber, you hear the voices of the Germans who worked there. And that is about it. This film is not about the Germans and fighting; it is about the act of war and how it damages humans.

Ivan's Childhood is a remarkable work, a powerful story about how war can affect and damage us all. On the current list I would place this by the slightest of hairs ahead of Saving Private Ryan. I wrestled with this decision for a while. Emotionally I don't think there is another film on this list right now that comes close to Ivan's Childhood. But Ryan shows us the brutality of battle at which Ivan only hints. We feel the pain of the war empathetically in Ivan but viscerally in Ryan. Is one superior to the other? Is one more "real" than the other? What tips it for me is that my mind will return to Ivan's Childhood now and again. I can't say the same for Saving Private Ryan.

Ivan's Childhood is a film you cannot miss. It is absolutely amazing and a film that should be a part of everyone's collection. The Criterion Collection DVD is well worth the extra cost.


Post a Comment


Site of Future Awesomeness

Coming soon.

Site of Future Awesomeness

Coming soon