Ranking: #18/111

Director: Andrei Tarkovsky (Russia)         

Genre: War Drama

Tarkovsky was an inventive, authentic and abstract film artist who thought very deeply about cinema’s unique artistic strengths and its relationship to other, older, art forms in literature, music and theatre. He became one of the poets of cinematic art, developing his own distinctive language of film, one rich in visual symbolism, cinematic figures of speech and stylistic experimentation. He is one of the most pictorial of all filmmakers. His work made a significant impression on Ingmar Bergman, who regarded him as the best filmmaker of the “next generation”.

Ivan’s Childhood was Tarkovsky’s first feature film and remains his least abstract, most accessible, work. In it, he contrasts his nostalgia for childhood, as an ideal world of moral innocence, with the twisted world of war in which an orphaned Ivan has become a scout, living a dangerous, homeless life, often behind enemy lines, stripped of all homely and family comforts.

On the surface, the film is about the boy’s friendship with some empathetic Soviet officers who try to help him. His parents have been killed by German forces.

But it’s just as much about showing what has been lost through war. Through flashbacks to Ivan’s pre-war childhood, Tarkovsky creates an idealised inner landscape. He creates a vision of innocence and childhood insouciance. He wants the viewer to feel this state, not just to see it. The director’s first, and rather mystical, image is when Ivan is shown floating over the countryside where he was brought up. This is followed by a juxtaposition with a shot of him being alone in a dilapidated windmill somewhere in the middle of the war. It is a shocking contrast. Many of the flashbacks feature his mother, who was obviously the central figure in his life before the war (in the director’s life, his parents were separated when he was only four and he felt the long-term effects of being the son of an absentee father). Again, the director wants the viewer to feel a huge sense of loss. So often in his movies, Tarkovsky tries to get us to enter a character’s state of mind. He believed a film should be experienced before it is analysed.

Another beautiful memory shared through a flashback shows Ivan, along with a girl, on the back of a truck filled with summer fruits. Rain is pouring down and several apples fall off the back and are eaten by some horses. I believe this stunning sequence is a representation of a time of plenitude before the sudden scarcity brought about by war.

In a Tarkovsky film, one enters a spiritual landscape, part external, part psychological, part spiritual, part symbolic. All of his films have a dream-like quality, depicting an inner world of the imagination, for here is one of cinema’s most visionary filmmakers. His narratives are often non-linear and his visual style is complex and very plastic, fluid.  You could say he took cinematic art to a whole new level.

Tarkovsky’s depiction of the war in Ivan’s Childhood is subtle. Instead of showing battle scenes and the usual gore, he creates a symbolic war-torn landscape. Along with the juxtapositions between the flashbacks to childhood, this method of portrayal represents an elegant way of conveying the anti-war message. At the end, when victory over Germany is won, the mise-en-scène becomes abstract and symbolic once again. The final scenes show Berlin under Soviet occupation. We find out through a document an officer discovers that Ivan was caught and hanged by the Germans. We are left with a significant sense of sadness. But then, as always in a Tarkovsky film, imagery reigns supreme. In the final flashback, Ivan is seen running across a beach after a little girl in moments of sheer freedom and happiness. Then we see the shot of a dead tree on the beach, a prefiguring of the little boy’s eventual fate.  

Here is what The Oxford History of World Cinema observed about Ivan’s Childhood: “As with other revisionist war films of the period, there is remarkably little action with only hints of fighting indicated by off-screen sounds, and a hallucinatory, burnt-out landscape that suggests a mental rather than physical reality…[The film] is distinguished by Tarkovsky’s visual and aural presentation, his stylised, often expressionistic camera work and sound, all used to present the sharp contrasts between Ivan’s two worlds.” (The Oxford History of World Cinema, p. 643)

It took deep reserves of mental strength and artistic integrity for Tarkovsky to pioneer a more lyrical and mystical film style than that allowed in the tradition of Soviet Socialist Realism prevailing in the film school to which he was beholden. What a titanic struggle that was for him! He thus embodied the great cultural “thaw” inaugurated by the Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev.  But he was a mystic by nature and looked upon film art with a moral seriousness that has been compared to the likes of Bresson and Bergman. He simply detested any form of soulless materialism. For him, any compromise of his idealistic art would have represented a violation of his essential character.