Home Video Hovel- Ivan’s Childhood, by Tyler Smith
Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Ivan’s Childhood is beautiful and tragic and funny and suspenseful. It’s all of these things and more. Much more. In what is in many ways a straightforward war drama we find a strangely intangible quality; something bigger that we can’t quite put our finger on. It makes us want to weep, yet also creates a desire for stoicism. I felt like I wanted to stay strong for the sake of the characters in the film. It is a deeply human movie, in which the characters desperately try not to lose sight of their feelings and values, even in the midst of a brutal war and a ruthless enemy.
The story revolves around a young boy named Ivan, whose family has been killed. Now on his own and not yet even a teenager, Ivan finds his usefulness within the Russian army, being sent out on reconnaissance missions. Being small and sneaky, Ivan is able to slip past the enemy where ordinary soldiers cannot. As we first see Ivan, he is floating down a river on a log. He is soon picked up and brought in to see a young Russian lieutenant, who is immediately taken aback when Ivan snaps to attention and starts barking orders, reciting codes and information that some random kid just shouldn’t know. The lieutenant first thinks that the boy is crazy, but soon learns that he plays a crucial role on the nearby battlefield.
There isn’t much that happens beyond this. The soldiers try to plan out their next move, all the while telling Ivan that he has done his duty and it is time for him to start attending military school. Ivan refuses, wanting to be of service to his country, fighting against the enemy that has murdered not only his family, but countless others. We follow Ivan as he meets a grief-stricken old man, still sitting in his destroyed home, which has been reduced to a doorway and a chimney. The man rambles on about how he will rebuild, though it is clear that he has lost much more than his house in the bombings. We see Ivan read messages written on the wall of the church that currently houses the soldiers. It would appear that this church was previously used by the Nazis to hold their prisoners, before eventually executing them. These prisoners wrote messages on the walls, ending in the words “Avenge us.”
Between these images and the flashbacks to Ivan’s idyllic family life, we get a portrait of a boy torn horribly in half. On one hand, he is still very much a child, jumping into the arms of his fellow soldiers with the joy of a son reunited with his father. On the other, we see what Ivan is turning into: a battle-scarred cynic whose existence is constant uncertainty. As Ivan, Nikolay Burlyaev is tasked with conveying these two incompatible aspects of the character’s personality, often within the same scene. He pulls it off flawlessly, and is positively magnetic. Whenever he was on screen, I could not take my eyes off of him.
By the end of the film, we are treated to some haunting images of the horrors inflicted on the innocent during wartime. Russian, German, British, American, Japanese, whatever. When we’re dealing with children, it just doesn’t matter. They all just want to have fun and be loved. When faced with the story of Ivan and the sadness of watching a clever, energetic young boy get his inner joy and light systematically ripped from him, we find that Ivan’s Childhood is one of the most effective anti-war movies of all time.
Criterion’s Blu-Ray release of the film is gorgeous. Tarkovsky creates some truly dreamlike images, like a vast forest of birch trees, bare and white. Or the jagged edges of a war torn town creating an unsettling effect that seems to echo early German Expressionism. The transfer is one of the best I’ve ever seen. See this movie as soon as you possibly can.