The Kids Stay in the Picture: Ivan’s Childhood, by Aaron Pinkston
Though comedian W.C. Fields famously said “Never work with animals or children,” the cinema is full of wonderful stories told through the eyes of the young. Films with child protagonists span every genre, generation, and film movement. “The Kids Stay in the Picture” surveys this interesting subgenre, following the School of the Art Institute and Gene Siskel Film Center film series “The Child in Cinema.” The series will cover the many historical and social contexts around why films centered on children are so integral to the landscape of world cinema.
Like all of the great Andrei Tarkovsky’s work, Ivan’s Childhood is a complex work that is difficult to confidently grasp, especially when viewed at the end of a long day of work. I don’t know if I could even recite much of a detailed plot—about 24 hours after watching the film, much of it feels like a dream (which may be by design). Based on a short story, the film takes place during World War II, where an orphaned boy briefly lives and works with a group of soldiers on a dangerous scouting mission. Like much of Tarkovsky’s work, the film is filled with narrative flourishes of dreams and flashbacks, here mostly shown to contrast Ivan’s life before and during the war.
The biggest sticking point of the film, and why it holds an important place in this series, is its place in the child-during-wartime subgenre. While you may not be able to think of many Hollywood films which directly deal with this subject, there are many great foreign films that have tackled it, the obvious reason for this discrepancy being a matter of where these battles get fought (i.e. not the U.S.). Even the most prominent Hollywood film of this type, Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun, involves a British boy under Japanese occupation in China during World War II. The films made everywhere else in the world are widely diverse, though most work with similar themes that are found in Ivan’s Childhood.
Perhaps the most major theme of all war films, whether or not children are involved, is the loss of innocence through battle and death; having a child at the center of the film doubles down on this. In Ivan’s Childhood, the titular child experiences dreamlike flashbacks of his mother and happier times playing with children his own age. It’s never quite apparent whether they are indeed flashbacks or fantasy sequences spurred on by terrible circumstances. Regardless, in the sequences Ivan’s mother is shown quietly smiling with a warm and comfortable presence, something like an angel. Ivan himself is changed a great deal between the present and past/reality and daydream; any semblance of a childlike state seems to have been washed away by the miserable conditions in which he must live. His soldier counterparts continuously say (four or five times by my count) that this world is not a place for kids. Ivan shows himself to be resourceful and able to hang with the older, more experienced men, but he is without a doubt a far cry from his natural state.
The film’s flashbacks/fantasies set another precedent for the subgenre: the descent into fairytale. In her book “The Child in Film,” author Karen Lury notes, “the presence of the child allows filmmakers to reflect on what can and cannot be said to create filmic worlds in which the child’s perspective is orchestrated via … the adoption of a mythic temporality.” The most prominent example of this is Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, a film that tips the scale so heavily on the side of fairytale that you might not even remember it as a war film. Iranian films like Turtles Can Fly and A Time for Drunken Horses similarly use whimsy to distract from the horrendous surroundings while elevating the poetic nature of war. It isn’t as direct a link in Ivan’s Childhood, but the tone and narrative structure certainly fit the premise. This is especially true at the end of the film. When the mission is at its most dire, we get the longest series of these sequences. Despite what we learn about Ivan’s fate, it almost provides a “happier ever after” vibe. The film’s otherworldly, gorgeous cinematography even plays into this idea, though loosely.
There is a particular distinction among war films that center on children, however, one that is seen in Ivan’s Childhood. Almost all of the films in the subgenre do not feature warfare, instead focusing on the repercussions on the periphery of society. This thematic and narrative shift was especially seen in Russia at the time, with notable films The Cranes Are Flying, Ballad of a Soldier, Fate of a Man, as well as Ivan’s Childhood moving away from violence on the battlefield. Ivan’s Childhood is probably even more war-oriented than most, as the child is directly involved in the war as a scout. Still, there are none of the large-scale scenes upon which the typical war film is built.
Ivan is played by Nikolay Burlyaev in his feature debut (interesting that this has been the norm, though this will change as the series continues). Burlyaev went on to a productive career in film and television, with 50 credits, though few of much renown. A few years following Ivan’s Childhood, he appeared in Tarkovsky’s grand epic Andrei Rublev as the bellmaker’s son in the film’s final part.
 Karen Lury, The Child in Film: Tears, Fears and Fairy Tales, pg. 6
 Dina Iordanova, Ivan’s Childhood: Dream Come True, The Criterion Collection