Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Ivan’s Childhood


Even before the first frame of his first feature, Tarkovsky asserts himself as a subversive artist, asserts his total control of sound and image. The Mosfilm statue of two heroic figures appears, arms thrusting forward into a glorious future of state-approved Soviet cinema – and we hear a cuckoo cry. Its one of the few touches of humour in a harrowing, stark, difficult, but rewarding wartime fable.

Next : Ivan (Kolya Burlyayev) by a tree, his eyes riveted to a spiders web. He moves off, but the camera doesn’t directly follow him – it rises up the tree, up the thin grey trunk, all the way to the top, while Ivan retreats into the middle distance, at ease in his peaceful, seductive rural idyll. A fantasy. Soon he wakes to his horrific reality, as a spy on the devastated Russian/German front. He wades across a treacherously swampy river to a command post, where he convinces a skeptical Lieutenant Galtsev (E.Zharikov) that he isn’t just a stray peasant kid – he’s a key pawn in the vast strategy of war.

Nothing much actually happens: Ivan is told he’s to be sent to military academy, away from the front; he refuses; female medic Masha (V.Malyavina) spurs the interest of both reserved, youthful Galtsev and brash, older Holin (V. Zubkov); Holin and Galtsev set out on a dangerous mission, with Ivan in tow…

Tarkovsky places at least as much emphasis on Ivan’s inner existence – he gives us regular, privileged glimpses of the boy’s dreams, his memories of a family murdered by the Nazis. It’s these visions, at once comforting and tormenting, which power his waking hours, his thirst for revenge.

Adapted from an apparently undistinguished short story by Vladimir Bogolov, Ivan’s Childhood is in many ways typical of the approved school of heroic post-war Russian film-making. But Tarkovsky’s ambition is unmistakeable, as is his disinterest in conventional expectations of narrative. The action is often hard to follow; the Masha subplot, though striking agreeably touching notes of tentative romance, feels extraneous – an excuse for Tarkovsky to concoct a unique cinematic embrace as, in a wintry treescape, Holin pauses as he carries Masha over a trench, his two feet on either bank, Masha’s dangling in mid-air, their kiss tantalisingly invisible above the screen’s upper limit.

Although there was, presumably, nothing holy about the Russians’ Great Patriotic War, Tarkovsky shoots his movie like a religious epic. He has the the Russians use a ruined church as their base, allowing him glimpses of shattered icons looking on as wiry crosses tilt in the cold, smoky light. There’s the constant implication of (or search for) some higher order behind the chaos of earthy horrors. Ivan’s dreams reveal the boy’s transcendent relationship with idealised nature – reality’s wasteland all the more unbearably wrong, as wrong as a cockerel kept on a leash… As in his later films, Tarkovsky’s poetry is of fire and water – the soundtrack alternates the sound of dripping rain with the distant calls of unseen birds.

But whose story is this? If Tarkovsky’s approach to plot is offhand (and it is), this does open up his film to looser interpretations of themes. The original story was simply entitled Ivan – but Tarkovsky emphasises the childhood – a previous state – as glimpsed in the dreams. Though Ivan is about 12, war has accelerated his development. He’s at least the equal of the men we see (it’s no accident he shares his name with a Major) – which makes Burlyayev’s ferocious performance all the more remarkable – he’s also incredible in Tarkovsky’s next film, Andrei Rublev.

Ivan thinks nothing of telling the men what to do, and they, eventually, think nothing of following his orders. But Ivan’s Childhood is arguably as much Galtsev’s story. The film begins with Ivan entering Galtsev’s territory – as the lieutenant sleeps – and the main plot ends with him leaving it. We then zoom forward to Berlin, with the war won and Galtsev amid the ruins of the Nazi administration. He sees a photograph of Ivan, and the film ends with a final vision of the lad’s dreams. At the very least, the whole film is Galtsev’s reminiscence – it’s possibly his fantasy, his idealised version of a heroic wartime tale, his movie.

And it’s intriguing just how very cinematic Ivan’s dreams are. Each involves some kind of special effect, some piece of startlingly innovative camera trickery. In the first, Ivan performs a subtly gravity-defying crane shot through the trees. Later, he sees himself on the back of a horse-drawn cart full of apples, and the countryside behind is developed in negative. These reveries do veer towards the sentimental – his mother’s brow-wiping gesture is entirely phoney, while the music is too often heavy-handed and repetitive. But just as you begin to draw back from Tarkovsky’s rough edges, he delivers a knockout blow: is there a more lyrical vision in the whole of cinema, for instance, than then when a cart spills its impossibly vast load of apples, which spread across the road, which transforms into a beach, which is then grazed by wild horses, nuzzling each apple in turn?

Neil Young
8th January 2001

IVAN’S CHILDHOOD7/10 : (Ivanovo Detstvo) : USSR 1962 : Andrei Tarkovsky : 95 mins