Russia sucks. At least that’s the impression I get from watching Andrei Tarkovsky films. Every time I see Russia in a Tarkovsky film it’s either war-torn or a post-apocalyptic wasteland, both filled with liars and deceit. Is that just Russia? Or is that Tarkovsky’s view of Russia. If it’s worth anything Tarkovsky wasn’t a fan of the Soviet Union, particularly its censorship. There are rumors that Tarkovsky’s premature death at 54 was from being assassinated by the KGB. There are also rumors that Tarkovsky’s lung cancer was due to radiation he received from filming Stalker at an abandoned chemical plant. Either way, Russia sucks. Yet Tarkovsky finds a way to show the beauty in this totalitarian dumpster fire.
At a passing glance Ivan’s Childhood seems like it might be autobiographical. Though I’m sure Tarkovsky’s experiences growing up during WWII in Soviet-occupied Russia are reflected from his uncredited rewrite, Ivan’s Childhood is actually an adaptation. “Ivan” was an acclaimed 1957 short story by Vladimir Bogomolov. Mikhail Papaya adapted the story into a screenplay, attempting to lighten the end of the story, only for Bogomolov to change it back. The final version is a mix between Bogomolov, Papaya, and Tarkovsky’s screenplay.
The film is about Ivan Bondarev (Nikolai Burlyaev), a 12-year-old boy orphaned after his parents are killed by German soldiers. Ivan traverses a desolate wasteland of debris and jagged shapes, like, a lot of jagged shapes until he is picked up by Russian soldiers. We learn that after the death of Ivan’s family he joined a group of partisans, he was then sent to military school where he escaped and became a reconnaissance soldier for an army unit. Impressed by Ivan’s bravery and fortitude, the troops take a liking to Ivan and embrace him as one of their own. They like Ivan so much they want to make a better life for him and send him to military school. Dead set on revenge against the Germans, Ivan refuses their offer and insists he become a reconnaissance soldier for their squadron.
The story, which is primarily the troops discussing offensive strategies at their camp while Ivan observes, is intercut with flashbacks and dream sequences of Ivan’s earlier years. We get to see Ivan frolicking on the beach, chasing his mother, laughing. These flashbacks are accomplished with sweeping shots of the beachside vistas and artful camerawork. I can’t begin to explain how gorgeous the cinematography is in this film. Most striking is the film’s use of lighting. You could write a whole essay about shadows in this film. The dream sequences/flashbacks are the most sumptuous visuals the film has to offer I wish there were more. But I get it. You want to show the preciousness of life against the backdrop of suffering, and suffering we see.
The tone of the film is dark—name one European WWII film that isn’t?—but has its moments of levity. People are starving and injured and later killed but there are quieter moments. Apart from Ivan’s dream sequences, there’s a subplot between an officer (Valentin Zubkov) and a young nurse (Valentina Malyavina). Those scenes feel sweet, though it’s hard to say if there isn’t also a level of threat between the naive young woman and the older man.
I don’t want to spoil the film but I will say things don’t go well. Again, do things ever go well in films like this? At least we are left with a beautiful parting shot of Ivan running across the water on the beach, his mother watching nearby. I’m being scant on details but the film is sparse yet efficient filmmaking. Attributes that I wouldn’t associate with Tarkovsky’s later works. Though one quality that ties together all Tarkovsky films is his ability to find beauty in every aspect of life. Because life is precious and mustn’t be trampled over by the throes of man’s error. Russia sucks, but if Russia didn’t suck would Tarkovsky be the introspective filmmaker we know today? Nyet.