Though no glimpse of war is every pretty, Judge Bill Gibron was astonished by how visually vibrant—and emotionally devastating—this Andrei Tarkovksy masterwork remains, even some 45 years after it was first released.
An artist sculpting in time.
In all accounts of war, there is a fine line between authenticity and agenda. History is never channeled in a matter-of-fact fashion—instead, conclusions and themes are inserted into the mix, resulting in a troubling marriage of realism and revisionism. The standard sentiments usually surround questions of who was right, who was wrong, and why one side was victorious while the other imploded in defeat. And yet, buried inside such broad pronouncements, are the individual stories, tales told to give all conflict the perspective and the personality it needs to define its merit. During the Germans' devastating campaign against Russia on the Eastern Front, service to one's country became suicide, a guaranteed date with the Grim Reaper's scurrilous scythe. In such circumstances, bravery is measured in minor keys, in singular situations that help us better comprehend the pointlessness of such sacrifice. Thus is the case with Soviet auteur Andre Tarkovsky's pro-country, anti-conflict debut, Ivan's Childhood. Banned by his native land for the suggestion that children were used by the military to help defeat Hitler and his marauding minions, this stellar example of experimental effortlessness examines how desperation leads to decisions that many would find unthinkable—and, for one little orphan, crucial to his stability and survival.
Facts of the Case
Having barely survived his last mission, 12-year-old spy Ivan is lucky to be alive. His companions in the service of Mother Russia—Capt. Kholin, Lt. Galtsev, and Cpl. Katasonov—feel otherwise. They recognize the foolishness of relying on a child for their enemy intelligence, but Ivan is very good at what he does and seems determined to continue doing so. Even when they suggest he return to the children's home he escaped from—or worse, a military academy—for the rest of the war, he throws a considered fit. And so it's decided. He will go on one more assignment, a very complicated and dangerous crossing of a river overrun with Germans. As they prepare for this daring task, Ivan spends his time resting. There, he dreams of his mother and the idyllic life he once lead. His adult counterparts, on the other hand, spend their time plotting, as well as taunting the female nurses in service of the Corps. One in particular, Masha, catches Kholin's eye, and he aggressively pursues her. As the day of the deed draws near, nerves are frayed. The soldiers sense something is wrong, but Ivan, though scared, sees nothing but victory ahead. After all, why shouldn't he be optimistic? He braved equally fatal situations before, and lived to tell the tale. That's the key to the kid—survival. That's also the sad story of Ivan's Childhood during the last days of World War II.
Ivan's Childhood plays exactly like what it is—the dream experience of a first-time filmmaker finally allowed to spread his artistic wings and show what he's made of. After years of servitude under Stalin's stifling system, Russian director Andre Tarkovsky emerged from the government's aesthetic embargo to become the post-modern answer to the hallowed Sergei Eisenstein. It was a liberating, if often limited, experience. Hoping to express both the heroism and horror inherent in war, Takovsky translated Vladimir Bogomolov's short story about an adolescent spy working along the Soviet front against the Germans, and turned it into a polemic propaganda piece, one that illustrated the bravery of the everyday soldier while suggesting that, in the grand scheme of things, combat is counterproductive to any civilized situation. Mixing reality in the form of sensational stock footage and hyper-stylized fiction, he explored both the psychological and physical harms of battle, creating a blistering collage of courage, cowardice, companionship, and the confusion that comes with espionage behind enemy lines. That this was all viewed through the delicate, desperate eyes of a small little boy made the message all the more convincing. By accenting innocence corrupted by the selfish circumstances of maturity, Takovsky gave peace a chance while arguing that violence and subterfuge seem like the only way anything ever gets accomplished or gained.
It's important to note that the movie begins in fantasy—our young hero wandering the gorgeous monochrome countryside, dressed only in a pair of shorts, his tanned body complimenting a tussle of too-blond hair. After talking to a friend and exploring the woods, he winds up meeting his mother. She offers him a smile and a cool drink from her water bucket. He shares her happiness, and they prepare to go home for dinner. Suddenly, a shocking sound is heard, and we are aggressively thrust back into the truth—Ivan is an orphan. He escaped from a children's home and has hooked up with a combat company. Because of his size, his desire to please, and his developing sense of duty, the soldiers send him on suicide missions. Remarkably, he always makes it back and, during this opening salvo, we see the tricks he employs to make sure he doesn't get caught. When he finally arrives at his destination, the unknowing troops think he's a runaway—or worse, a beggar street urchin looking for a handout. Ghastly, face awash in a combination of earth and endless turmoil, Ivan demands contact with HQ. The local company chief scoffs. He even pretends to make the call. Belligerent, the boy presses the matter. Imagine the shock on the know-it-all officer's face when headquarters acknowledges the child and gives him priority over all other matters.
It's just the beginning of a whole cinematic circumstance filled with joyful and jaundiced juxtapositions, a movie which has, as its hero, a boy who's much tougher than his 12 years indicate, a child who's already lived his childhood, adolescence, and middle age. Later on, we are introduced to Masha, a nurse who's committed to her medical duties, but can't seem to keep the men she's supposed to serve from propositioning her. She hates the lack of respect. After all, she cleans their wounds, treats their sores, and, in some cases, saves their lives, and yet all she gets in return are come-ons, advances, and the standard military mashing. It's obvious from the way Tarkovsky sets up these scenes that he means us to sympathize with the unlucky lady. An otherwise decent fellow named Capt. Kholin, the man who watches over Ivan with a father's affection, is the worst of the sloppy seducers. The more Masha denies him, the more antagonistic he gets. The point being made, that even in the direst of circumstances, man will revert to thinking with his penis, is part and parcel of Ivan's Childhood's point. In order to explain how a small boy, ill-prepared for the evils of the adult world, can function so effectively within same, Ivan's Childhood suggests that deep down inside, no matter the age, all humans are identical. They all fear. They all fail. They all demand comfort and compassion. And when asked to do so in no uncertain terms, they will die or cause death for their country.
Tarkovsky takes Mother Russia to task as well, doing a slightly more subtle version of All Quiet on the Western Front for his considered criticism. A lack of supplies and other much-needed necessities is viewed as a major morale issue, thus resulting in irregular performance on the field of battle. When Ivan first returns and a German bombardment begins, the officers complain that the government will probably forget to send their rations this week, what with the racket. Unlike Western works that have the freedom to criticize and comment all they want, Tarkovsky had to answer to the Communist Party, so he made sure the disparagement was stated in good humor or by a soldier whose insubordination would lead to a narrative comeuppance. Yet when pushed against the wall, when faced with having to argue the tragic fate of his characters, the director pulls no punches. He exposes atrocities, making sure that all sides bear responsibility for what happens, and then, when you think the pain can't get any deeper, he drops the kind of emotional bombshells only the most gifted artist can get away with. One of the reasons Ivan's Childhood resonates so, even after some 45 years, is that Tarkovksy approached his picture as a kind of cinematic painting. Not only would the details and the truths about war and its aftermath be part of the canvas, but so would all the noble gestures and geo-political grandstanding that made the mass murder possible in the first place. It would all be there, presented as artistically and skillfully as possible.
As with any film that views conflict from the side of the enemy/ally, Ivan's Childhood is spellbinding in its detail. We see the amount of downtime that exists for the spy crew, how time is measured out in meals, or rounds of mortar fire experienced. Our diminutive hero, explaining how he managed the seemingly impossible on his last mission, brags like a veteran on shore leave. Yet his mind is always lost in thoughts of the family he'd never see again. There is lots of conversation between the soldiers about what to do with Ivan, adult responsibility trying to peek out and over the terrors of trench warfare. Some want to send him back to the home. There, they figure he'll have some semblance of normalcy. But the wise ones have already figured out that their underage charge is stained forever. For them, military school is the answer. There, he will follow in their footsteps, trained to properly and professionally serve the great Soviet state. Every once in a while, a conversation about adoption will occur, but none of these men can accept the possibility of outliving the conflict. To look to a future that may never come, especially with a boy who may not be alive when or if it ever does arrive, is too upsetting. They'd rather think about the things that seem realistic—another day on the front, another crappy army-issue meal, another defiant dance with death.
Underscoring all this pessimism and patriotism is the main narrative thrust of Tarkovksy's tale: Ivan's latest mission back behind German lines. Involving the crossing of a river, a trek through a bog, and other insurmountable obstacles, the director is setting his audience up. He wants us to witness the child's chilling process, the way in which he demands loyalty and allegiance even as he admits to being "sort of" afraid. Indeed, the main purpose behind this occasionally strident film is that, by utilizing his size and steely loyalty, the adults are dooming this boy. He may or may not die in their service, but it's almost impossible to imagine what his life will be like once an armistice is reached. Here's a kid who has been given importance beyond his ability to grasp, cunning he is incapable of controlling, and a sense of invincibility that couldn't be further form the truth. When we see Ivan disrobe to take a bath, we share the same startled look as the camp CO. The boy is so whisper-thin, arms like reeds and legs like sticks that we recognize the human illustration of the phrase "shadow of his former self." Ivan is indeed a ghost—a literal spook scouting out the enemy's position and remembering the information via the collecting and cataloging of rocks, leaves, and seeds. In Tarkovsky's mind, once the boy risked everything and refused the opportunity to regain his previous juvenile existence, there was only one path he could take—and very few, if any, ever reach the way station of safety at the end of the journey.
Jumping from genre to genre to satisfy his aims, Tarkovsky ends up delivering a devastating look at the various facets of life during, and in the middle of, wartime. We get the thriller elements of Ivan's missions, the comedy of seeing a small boy order around a group of grown men, the heartbreaking honesty of human fear, the horrors both on the battlefield and back in the barracks, and the mind-blowing magic realism meant to underscore and explain everything around it. There are indeed sequences in this film that defy description—Ivan's frequent dreams, including a conversation about falling down a well, a meeting with a barely alive old man, the failed seduction of Masha by Kholin in a wondrous white wood, the fascinating, fantasy-like finale—and yet there is a clear, concise method to Tarkovsky's motion-picture madness. By 1962, combat had been done to death. In order to find a higher, more potent, purpose, this directing novice had to unearth as many effective approaches as possible. His situation and his theme would tie them all together, just as long as he treated each facet with consideration and care. No one would argue that Ivan's Childhood is sloppy or segmented. Instead, it flows with a vision that many post-modern filmmakers would kill to obtain. Of course, coming from the man who would go on to make Andrey Rubloyov (about the 15th Century icon painter) and Solaris (a benchmark sci-fi epic), that's no real surprise. When imagination and innovation is locked up for so long, its release should be as explosive as it is effective. In the case of Ivan's Childhood, the results were seismic indeed.
As they do with all their important foreign film releases, The Criterion Collection does its best to supplement this title with as much corresponding context as possible. Here, we are witness to a wonderful video appreciation, featuring Vida T. Johnson, Tarkovsky scholar and author of a book on his films. Presented in a personable, matter-of-fact manner, our gracious guide lets us in on the director's early years, his approach to subject matter, and how Stalin's death affected all Soviet art. It's information confirmed in interviews with star Nikolai Burlyaez (who played Ivan, and remarkably, still looks the same) and longtime Tarkovsky cinematographer Vadim Yusov. Both men reminiscence and spill anecdotal evidence of their love for the late, great artist (who died in 1986 from lung cancer at age 54), as well as detailing the production of Childhood. We also receive an oversized booklet loaded with essays and appreciations for the man and his movies. About the only mandatory bonus feature missing here is a commentary track. It's too bad Johnson couldn't be convinced to do one. A film like this demands the kind of explanatory backstory that only a well-considered alternate narrative can provide.
As for technical specs, the movie looks absolutely amazing. The 1.33:1 full-screen black-and-white image is flawless, a perfect depiction of Tarkovsky's sensational shadow and light work. As for sound, there is not much that can be done with Dolby Digital Mono. The Russian comes across clearly, and the newly minted English subtitles are excellent—easy to read and never intrusive. Overall, this is another fine package from the premiere cinematic preservationists.
It remains the last great unanswered question in any war: is dying for one's country noble, or nonsensical? Of course, surrounding circumstances tend to dictate the answer (if it's to stop a despotic tyrant bent on taking over the world and forming a new Reich, the response is resoundingly easy, otherwise…), but the finality of it all can diminish even the most defiant act of valor. In the case of the Russian standoff against Nazi Germany, perhaps the bloodiest, most destructive campaign in all of World War II, it appears that no one really won. For the reality of keeping the Fuhrer further away from his goal, the results do speak for themselves. But in the number of lives lost—and, more importantly, ruined or rearranged—the final tally is still being debated. In the case of Ivan and his action/adventure upbringing, danger was better than aimless wandering. At least he felt connected and part of a faux family, something he could never have outside the service. You can question the Soviet need to use his underage services, but you can't take its meaning out of his heart. For this small child, war replaced wanderlust. As depicted by the astonishing Andre Tarkovsky, it was much more than a Childhood. It was a choice, as is all sacrifice, in the end.
Not guilty. A brilliant work by an equally exceptional talent. Court adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• Video Appreciation of Director Andrei Tarkovsky and Ivan's Childhood by Vida T. Johnson
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