Ivan's Childhood (1962) *****
Dir. Andrei Tarkovsky
Starring: Nikolai Burlyaev, Valentin Zubkov, Yevgeni Zharikov, Stepan Krylov, Valentina Malyavina, Irina Tarkovskaya
Review By Greg Klymkiw
Before the war Ivan would walk down the streamAccording to a recent study published March 13, 2013 by the non-profit organization Save The Children, the ongoing Syrian conflict (now entering its third year) "has led to the collapse of childhood".
Where there grew a willow, no one knew whose.
No one knew why it loomed over the stream;
No one knew this was Ivan’s willow tree.
In his canopied raincoat, killed in combat,
Ivan came back to his willow’s shade.
Like a white boat, it floats downstream.
-"Ivan's Willow" by Arseny Tarkovsky, father of Andrei Tarkovsky
Though there are many situations that can lead to such a "collapse", war has invariably proven to be the most powerful assault upon a time in all lives wherein innocence should prevail.
The report, entitled "Childhood Under Fire", details how societal breakdown during this war is yielding strife in terms of malnutrition, sanitation, lack of medical supplies, no schooling, improper access to heat, shelter, clothing and, not surprisingly, constant physical assaults upon children resulting in both physical and psychological trauma and death.
Most sickening are the huge statistics revealing separation from family (including being orphaned), experiencing and/or knowing about the death of friends and loved ones and in many cases being recruited as pawns or active participants in the conflict.
This, of course, is one of just many conflicts happening worldwide - currently, recently or impending. Idiotically, all such conflicts are rooted in religious/cultural fundamentalism, economics or both. We all need to know it has to stop, but there is this overwhelming sense of being individually or even collectively helpless in the face of war and this becomes even more acute amongst our children - so much so that it instils an even more sorrowful response in them - the need to join the conflict if it can't be beaten.
Ivan's Childhood, the first feature by the acclaimed Soviet director Ivan Tarkovsky, is perhaps the greatest film about war and childhood ever made. Forming an almost Holy Trinity of international cinema devoted to the "collapse of childhood" during wartime (specifically, World War II), it joins two other great films that focus on this theme: René Clément's 1952 masterwork from France, Forbidden Games (Jeux interdits) and Steven Spielberg's 1987 adaptation of J.G. Ballard's Empire of the Sun.
Clement's is set on a farm wherein a recent war orphan and the boy who befriends her, seek solace from the horrors of war by building a secret graveyard for animals and stealing crosses from the local church cemetery to mark the resting places of all the creatures that have expired in the area (including the girl's little white dog).
Spielberg with the clarity of distance and imagination, delivers a near epic exploration of a young British lad's descent into madness when separated from his parents after the takeover of Shanghai by Japanese forces and subsequently falls in with a pair of unscrupulous American war profiteers.
All three films view the horrors of war through the eyes of children, but it is Tarkovsky who plunges into the deep waters of dream, memory and poetry - all of it tempered with a realism that veers from the muck and grime of warfare to backdrops tinged with bursts of expressionism. In Ivan's Childhood, the title character works prodigiously in the field of battleground espionage - driven by his hatred for Germany, an enemy responsible for the loss of his beloved parents to Nazi bullets - whilst amassing several lifetimes of experience on the fields of battle. He's not only good at his job, but because he's tiny, quiet and can slip into enemy territory unnoticed, he's become invaluable to the Russian battalion he serves.
The job becomes increasingly dangerous and his commanding officers become so wracked with guilt over using a child that they wish to ship him away to safe haven and enrol him in military school. This notion of being packed off does not sit well with Ivan. Yes, he is a child, but his sense of childhood has long since collapsed and he is - first and foremost - a soldier. His experience and prowess is equal to that of his colleagues - in some instances, he proves to have moved into a realm of soldiering that might even exceed that of many of the men in the battalion.
What little is left of Ivan's childhood is what remains in his dreams.
It's probably safe to say that no country suffered the horror of WWII more devastatingly than the Soviet Union. Nearly 3,000,000 children were orphaned in Russia and Ukraine. Doing the math on that in terms of the loss of immediate family, then tossing in extended family for good measure, represents a mere fraction of the loss of human life. That said, the sheer brute power and resiliency of the nations born from the ancient Kyivan Rus eventually made mincemeat of the Germans on the Russian front.
Russians and Ukrainians paid dearly, however, and the biggest losses were suffered by the millions of orphans who lived through the utter depravity of war. Tarkovsky was wise beyond his years when he made this film as a relatively young man. Using dreamscapes to counter the sheer terror of death and destruction allows the audience (and yes, even Ivan himself) the ability to experience - if only during sleep - what childhood innocence must be like.
There are moments in this film that are imbued with a heartbreaking beauty - both in reality and dream. None will forget the sheer romance of a young soldier and the woman he loves straddling a trench in a clutch of passion whilst surrounded by Russia's glorious birch trees. And in what is perhaps the film's most memorable dream sequence (and one that is probably one of the most indelible in screen history) involves a ride in the back of an apple cart in the rain. Tarkovsky creates such magic here that we soar like the children laughing in the piles of glistening apples.
Even then, though, all is never too sun-dappled since the dreams have the ability to morph into pure nightmare. And it is finally the nightmare of war that becomes the reality children have always had to face and that whatever respite dreams can offer are fleeting - especially when the dreams of childhood are ultimately death dreams.
The Criterion Collection Blu-Ray of "Ivan's Childhood" is a monumental must-own item. The film has never looked nor sounded so exquisite as it does here. There are a number of fine extra features including: an unparalleled Hi-Def restoration and my special favourite, an uncompressed monaural soundtrack. There are several worthy interviews with the likes of Tarkovsky specialist Vida T. Johnson, cinematographer Vadim Yusov and Ivan actor himself, Nikolai Burlyaev. The added booklet is lovely and features essays by Dina Iordanova and Tarkovsky himself.
To Download the PDF of the devastating Save The Children report entitled CHILDHOOD UNDER FIRE, click HERE