Ivan’s Childhood

94/100

Ivan’s Childhood opens, unexpectedly enough, inside a dream. The film is impatient. Its dreaming actually begins before the Mosfilm logo has faded from the screen, as the call of a cuckoo echoes softly on the soundtrack. Young Ivan appears, surrounded by trees (their pine needles dripping with what must be cool morning dew), our view of his face criss-crossed by the lines of a spider’s web strung up between the branches. The shot is perfectly composed, with the tree’s slender trunk and one of its branches creating a secondary, off-centre frame around the boy’s face. Ivan pauses there for only a moment–he must be looking for the cuckoo–before turning abruptly out of frame, a move that sends the camera skyward, moving vertically up the body of the pine and revealing more of the landscape. When the camera finishes its ascent, Ivan is again visible, in the midground of the image. His scrawny body, now seen in apparent miniature, turns again towards the camera. Nature is large and beautiful; he is small and, while lovely in a way, still awkward in his skin.


Director Andrei Tarkovsky was known for his camera’s affinity with nature, and the misty imagery here seems to indicate a remembrance of humid childhood summers. (Tarkovsky himself wrote that the sequence was inspired by his own memories from the age of 4.) In the first, startling edit of the film, we see that Ivan is being watched by a goat, who peers back into the camera lens in extreme close-up. Running between the trees, Ivan catches sight of a butterfly. And then something remarkable happens: laughing, Ivan begins to move into the trees overhead as the camera tracks alongside him. A magical POV shot swooping down towards the riverbank below precisely evokes those delightful dreams–I had them when I was Ivan’s age–in which you find yourself flying through the air, inexplicably and effortlessly. Still, the orchestral music by Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov isn’t full of triumph and wonder. It’s mysterious and in a minor key, recalling Bernard Herrmann’s woozy Vertigo score. Incongruously, the camera next moves slowly sideways alongside a wall of dirt–the cuckoo bird again audible–until it locates Ivan’s face in profile. Shafts of sunlight filter through the trees. Ivan shields his face from the sun, then turns to find a woman with a bucket of water walking nearby. He runs to her, and the music swells on the soundtrack, happier now but still undergirded by the two-tone dissonance of that cuckoo bird overhead. Ivan dunks his face in the water, then looks up at the woman and says, “Mama, there’s a cuckoo.”

The mother beams down at him and wipes her brow, and suddenly Ivan’s Childhood makes a wrenching descent into hell. Without warning, the camera snaps forward, lurching into Mama’s face at a Dutch angle, and Ovchinnikov’s score is overpowered by an anguished cry and a terrible, unexpected ripping sound. In the next shot, Ivan jerks himself awake in a dark room as the noises of giant pieces of wood creaking can be heard in the background. Ivan’s face, seen from an extreme low angle, is no longer gentle and full of curiosity, but rather wide-eyed and terrified. As he makes his way down a staircase, the camera tilts down, assuming an unnaturally high vantage as Ivan peers out through a hole in the wall. The next cut is to another sharply-canted low-angle of Ivan leaving the building, which is revealed to be a disused windmill. Ivan makes his way towards the rising sun a a field littered with bodies. It used to be a farm. Ivan crosses a flooded plain studded with trees and thick with reeds as flares drop from the sky. Criss-crossed lines of barbed wire stretch across the screen in parody of the delicate spiderweb from Ivan’s dream. It’s a crypt-quiet but dreadful tableau, and, woodwinds hooting softly on the soundtrack, it frames the opening titles of this initially playful but mournful and ultimately ghastly film.

Ivan’s Childhood is a World War II drama told mainly from the perspective of the Soviets fighting along the Dnieper River, pushing the invading German forces west. (The original story by Vladimir Bogomolov is set near Minsk, in Belarus, though the picture was shot mostly outside of Kiev, Ukraine.) Although Tarkovsky had already gained attention with his 46-minute student film “The Steamroller and the Violin,” completed at Mosfilm in 1960, Ivan’s Childhood really made his reputation. Tarkovsky’s mise-en-scène uses careful blocking of the actors to emphasize the emotion of a moment, or the unspoken quality of a conversation. His camera frame slices out chunks of three-dimensional space, with characters stepping out of the foreground only to reconfigure the image by strolling, seconds later, into the background. The cinematography, by Vadim Yusov, isn’t noir-ish, exactly, but it often recalls the unsettling visuals favoured by German expressionism, dark shadows stretching across the scene, and beams of light stabbing into the darkness. That’s the tragedy–Ivan’s recurring dreams of the unspoiled, natural world are merely a hazy fantasy, while the stark black-and-white nightmare of soldiers, trenches, and death camps is his reality.

What’s most surprising, given Tarkovsky’s generally uncompromising approach to cinema, might be how conventionally Ivan’s Childhood plays as entertainment. The Soviet soldiers who discover Ivan crouching in the river in the opening scenes don’t know what to make of him. (Amusingly, he identifies himself only as “Bondarev” and demands to speak to their commander.) He comes on like a delusional gamin aloft on a “Calvin & Hobbes” flight of fancy, but his bona fides as a member of the resistance are verified soon enough. It sets him up as a terrific war-movie character: the pipsqueak spy sent on recon missions behind enemy lines. The army uses him in this way partly because he’s small enough not to be noticed, but mostly because he refuses to be sidelined. He began fighting with Soviet partisans after his family was killed by German soldiers. He was sent to boarding school, but he ran away. He mentions being at the German death camp at Trostyanets, and presumably he ran away from there, too. The Soviet officers talk half-heartedly of sending him to a military school, but they must assume he would flee as quickly from that cage as any other. Little Ivan is damaged but committed; war has replaced what he once was with something new and fiery.

The film is not tethered to Ivan’s point of view. There is an unforgettable mid-film digression involving one of the military officers, Leonid Kholin, and a nurse, Masha, that unfolds in a wintry birch grove. The scene is established with an elaborate shot, lasting more than two minutes, in which the two actors and the camera weave through the tree trunks together. At one point, Kholin looms suddenly on the right-hand side of the frame, almost as if teleported there by a Méliès trick edit. Masha escapes out of the picture to the left, and the camera tracks alongside Kholin, who takes six steps before Masha appears again, this time in the background, walking directly forward. The mood of this highly choreographed dance for characters and camera is mildly predatory, the older officer stalking the younger one through the woods and trying out dry pick-up lines: “Have you ever…known a guy named Lennie?” Masha says she lives near Moscow and once saw the writer Aleksei Tolstoy on a stroll. He comments on the vastness of Siberia. She confesses to a fear of spiders. He tells her to relax; she can’t. She keeps moving, fending off his advances by passing among tree trunks that become vertical barriers in screen space as the camera tracks and pivots. The scene is quiet but for the sound of a woodpecker rapping in the distance.

It’s a seduction scene, to be sure. Masha seems a bit ill at ease, but Kholin’s is a game she’s willing to play–a little flirtation to take one’s mind off the horrors that lurk nearby. That the spectre of death haunts even the promise of sex is rendered explicit as Masha prepares to hop over a trench–presumably cut into the earth to facilitate some battle or other–and Kholin, straddling the gap, takes her into his arms, holding her suspended in the air as he plants a kiss on her. What happens next is unexpected, even by Tarkovsky’s standards. The camera drops gently into the trench, creating an astonishing composition of lovers framed among the raw earth, the sky, and the trees, in a moment punctuated by the sound of gunfire. The view is from the grave itself, and the effect is breathtaking.

As war movies go, Ivan’s Childhood is not so much about the fighting as it is about the waiting, about the spaces between battles and the tension that builds up there. The closest the movie gets to depicting an actual combat operation is when two Soviet soldiers traversing the river come under fire as they try to recover the corpses of two countrymen strung up by the Germans in plain view. Mostly, the film is about emotions–the feelings of loss, regret, anxiety, pride, and fear that stack up near the front lines of any outsized national conflict. There’s a nationalistic streak to Ivan’s Childhood, as it seeks to spotlight not just the horror of the Eastern Front–known by the Russians as the Great Patriotic War–but also the enormous sacrifices that were made by the Soviets as they turned the tide of history. Young Ivan is the mouthpiece for much of this and, as embodied by headstrong young actor Kolya Burlyaev, he’s a highly effective spokesman. Told by Lieutenant Galtsev (Yevgeny Zharikov) that war is none of his business, Ivan responds by asking if the officer has seen the Trostyanets death camp, on the outskirts of Minsk. “You know who rests during wartime?” he asks rhetorically, then declares, “Useless people.” Tarkovsky paints the cherubic Ivan as an angel of vengeance, highlighting the words carved by Soviet prisoners onto one wall of the room where the officers wait for battle: “There are eight of us, none over 19. In one hour, we’re to be taken out and shot. Avenge us.”

Tarkovsky’s decision to use World War II newsreel footage in the picture’s coda is jarring, if not outside the bounds of his project. These moments show that it’s fuelled in large part by anger and a great sadness. The Russian government estimated Soviet military and civilian casualties in World War II at a staggering 26.6 million–more than 13 percent of the total population of the USSR at the time. The film, completed less than 20 years after the war’s end, never makes explicit reference to those numbers, but still it plays like a funerary service, especially in the closing section, which takes place after the German surrender. This denouement is a signal of the terrible toll of war, and the disturbing real-world imagery it incorporates is enduring testament to the atrocities suffered. As a saving grace, the whole piece comes around full circle, concluding with a dream that unfolds on a sun-kissed shore where a boy and a girl chase each other through the sand. More than a dream of innocence lost, it’s the dream of a dead child. But Ivan’s Childhood is more than an elegy for the dead–it is, finally, a survivor’s complex and poetic howl of grief over what the living have lost.

THE BLU-RAY DISC

Ivan’s Childhood is only the third Tarkovsky film to arrive on Blu-ray in North America, following Criterion’s excellent version of Solaris and a pretty good release of The Sacrifice from Kino, both in 2011. The transfer is up to Criterion’s usual standards, exhibiting a broad dynamic range with tons of shadow detail and plenty of delineation in the midrange. It’s hard to imagine where whites might clip in Ivan’s Childhood, since the sky is rarely lighter than a dim grey even in the daylight exteriors, though I did notice what could be some blooming highlights in the background of shots where the sun is reflected on the water near the end of the film–but that’s a picked nit. In one or two shots, there may be the hint of digital edge-enhancement, or perhaps lens artifacts from the original shoot, but this is a finely detailed, film-like presentation that holds up extremely well in a home-theatre setting. The liner notes indicate that the movie was scanned from a fine-grain positive (possibly at 4K–the notes aren’t explicit about that) and cleaned up using the usual regimen of tools. It’s not absolutely perfect–bits of dust are occasionally visible, and a scene or two exhibits minor print damage–but it’s about 99 percent of the way there, and it’s especially nice considering the film’s age. The monaural uncompressed PCM audio was remastered from a 35mm optical soundtrack, and though it has the noise floor you’d expect, Criterion has kept it well in check with, again, the finest digital clean-up tools. I didn’t note any rough spots, and it sounds as good as you could expect a 1962 Soviet production to sound. Unless Criterion worked miracles, the source elements have been pretty well-treated.

Special features are just OK, especially by Criterion standards, and every last one of them is ported over from the company’s 2007 DVD. Vida T. Johnson and Graham Petrie contributed a solid audio commentary to Criterion’s Solaris, and Ivan’s Childhood taps Johnson again, but only for a 30-minute talking-head (upres’d to a soft 1080p from its SD origins). She opens with a discussion of the so-called “Khrushchev thaw” that followed the death of Stalin in 1953–a period in which Tarkovsky was positioned to take good advantage of the country’s move to more artist-friendly policies–then recounts the circumstances that led to Tarkovsky getting this directing job (he took over another director’s failed, more conventional attempt). She also takes a stab at describing Tarkovksy’s self-consciously poetic style and his reaction against rote symbolism, noting his deliberately elliptical narrative leanings.

In a four-minute piece, DP Vadim Yusov talks (in Russian, subtitled) about working on the film with Tarkovsky, specifically addressing how location and environments suggested specific ways to tell the story. He says, for instance, that the flooded forest that characters in the film sneak through represents the destruction wrought by war. It’s a curious fragment of a clip–a filmmaker Q&A that consists of only one question and one answer. Shorter still (less than three minutes, if you don’t count the included clip from Ivan’s Childhood) is a standard-def interview clip with Burlyaev, who observes (in Russian, subtitled), “In every frame of what I do, I see Andrei Tarkovsky.” He relates a single anecdote–about how Tarkovsky prepared him for a scene in which he’d have to cry–and that’s all, folks.

With on-disc extras like these, the booklet essays take on unexpected weight. Film studies professor Dina Iordanova contributes a piece that puts the picture in historical perspective, identifying its ancestors (The Cranes Are Flying, Ballad of a Soldier, Father of a Soldier, among others) and descendents (Loves of a Blonde, Underground, Dead Man) before looking at its dream sequences in some detail. Criterion has republished a tiny poem in four stanzas, “Ivan’s Willow,” written by Tarkovsky’s father Arseny, that seems to prefigure some of the imagery used in the film. But the most illuminating supplement, by far, is the second-billed essay by Tarkovksy himself, dating to 1962. The piece talks candidly about Ivan’s Childhood, then expands in scope to begin sketching out theories he would eventually explicate in detail in his book Sculpting in Time. He even makes what amounts to prescient reference to Ivan’s Childhood as his most accessible work, expressing regret that he didn’t jettison more scenes depicting “the direct passage of the plot” and replace them with “slow, nervous tension.” Now, that’s my Tarkovsky!

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