Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky is one of the most subversive filmmakers in cinema history. He made just seven films before his untimely death to cancer in 1986. His dirty skills are prominent already in his first movie Ivan’s Childhood, made in 1962, as the directors subverts storytelling, film aesthetics and – perhaps more importantly – the glorification of the war machine. The latter is almost synonymous with the identity of his home nation Russia (the Soviet Union at the time).
The movie narrates the story of 12-year-old Ivan (Kolya Burlyayev), who escapes from a prison camp after the German destroy his village and kill his family during World War II. He crosses back over to territory under Russian control, under the care of Captain Kholin (Valentin Zubkov). The man wants to send Ivan to the relative safety of a military school. Ivan vehemently refuses the offer, requesting instead to use his powers of stealth to return to Germany in order to spy on the Nazis and avenge the killing of his family.
There is so much dirt in Ivan’s Childhood. Firstly, the film has a non-linear narrative with constant flashbacks, intertwined with dream and allegorical sequences. The multi-layered and fluid plots are present in all of Tarkovsky’s films, where nothing is as straight-forward as it seems. The directors plays mind tricks with the audience, reminding them that cinema can be complex, subjective and even deceitful – just like human memory.
Secondly, the film aesthetics are also filthy. Ivan’s Childhood is inundated with haunting images of war ruins and debris. Yet this rubble is the most solid and resilient element of war – because everything else has already been destroyed. At one point, a man waits for his wife to return home, but a door is all that is left of the house – in a sequence symbolic of the power of destruction.
Tarkovsky also uses abundant mirrors and reflections to outstanding results. Often the director films conversations between characters through a mirror, altering the dynamics of the action. Pictured above is Ivan taking to his mother (played by Tarkovsky’s wife at the time Irma Tarkovskaya), filmed through the reflection of water in a well. The director slants, deviates and subverts both the imagery and the dialogue with his lenses. He experiments with such artifices more profusely in his later film Mirror (1975), a movie that served as inspiration for this website – click here in order to find out why.
Finally, the director challenges the unthinkable: the war machine in which Russia takes so much pride. Russian identity is intimately linked to war affairs, both as a mighty empire and a resilient victim. In Ivan’s Childhood, the fall of the Nazis and the Soviet’s entry in Berlin is never glorified. Tarkosvky shows real footage of occupied Berlin, including the charred corpse of Goebbels and his family. Ivan’s shocking fate is also revealed. The denouement is far from rosy.
There is no innocence, no celebration and no glory in Ivan’s Childhood. Tarkovsky holds a dirty mirror to Russian/Soviet society and says: belligerence is ugly. The war machine is sad and futile, and victory provides no harmony and reconciliation.
Recently the Russian film the film Battle for Sevastopol (Serhiy Mokrytskyi, 2015) also dealt with the Russian war machine in World War II, but from a very romantic perspective – click here for our review of the movie. It is also worth pointing out that the child actor Kolya Burlyayev is still alive and he wrote a letter to president Putin supporting the Russian military intervention in the Ukraine. Perhaps Ivan is not dead, and he stills wants to avenge his family. He survives in the shape of a country that still has belligerence at its heart.
Ivan’s Childhood showed in many parts of the UK in 2018 as part of the season Andrei Tarkovsky: Sculpting Time – click here for more information about the event and also if you want to win a free poster.