After the death of Joseph Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev launched a process of de-Stalinization that became known as the Khrushchev Thaw. One of its artistic consequences was a series of war movies that eschewed the glorification of the Soviet victory and instead focussed on the consequences of the war for ordinary people. The Soviet Union lost somewhere in the region of 27 million people so there were plenty of stories to tell. It was at this time that a young Andrei Tarkovsky made his directorial debut. You know him for metaphysical sci-fi head-scratchers like Solaris (1972) and Stalker (1979), but Ivan’s Childhood was a commercially successful start to an illustrious career. This reviewer first saw it 30 years ago and it has stuck with him ever since.
Ivan (Kolya Burlyayev) is a 12-year old boy whose parents have been killed by the Germans. But Ivan is now part of the military and used for reconnaissance missions by Lt. Col. Gryaznov (N. Grinko). He’s small and the Germans aren’t looking for a child so it’s relatively easy for him to slip behind enemy lines. But that’s not to say he isn’t continually in grave danger. For all its brilliance, Ivan’s Childhood is not an easy watch.
The first thing you notice is that this so much more brutal than a Western war movie of the same era. We are repeatedly shown in surprising detail the bodies of two Russian soldiers who were caught by the (rarely seen) Germans while on reconnaissance and now hang together on the frontline with a sign round their neck reading “Welcome”. Not something that was ever likely to appear in The Longest Day (1962) or 633 Squadron (1963). But there’s also the horrifying fact that the central character is a child who is in danger not just because he is in a warzone but because he’s a combatant and the grown-ups put him there. To a Russian audience who’d only ever seen war movies that were Soviet propaganda, this must have been uneasy viewing. But is Ivan even still a child? He seems one in his dream sequences with his mother, but now he’s obsessed with his mission and getting his information back to HQ. When Gryaznov tries to get him out of the frontline to a military school, Ivan resists: he’s got work to do. The soldiers around him have become his surrogate family and they try to treat him as a child but ultimately they don’t know how to handle him as they ferry him across the marshes on another mission.
It’s a Tarkovsky movie and they’re never for the fainthearted. Expect some A-level film studies moments with long tracking shots and things appearing unexpectedly in the foreground, not to mention framing that never fails to unsettle. There’s even a documentary on the metaphysics of it all just in case we haven’t already put you off. Nevertheless, this a classic piece of Russian cinema that will stay with you right up to the horrific, unseen ending.
Special Features: Selected scene commentary with Film Psychoanalyst Mary Wild / Interviews / 36-page booklet
IVAN’S CHILDHOOD (1962) / CERT: PG / DIRECTOR: ANDREI TARKOVSKY / SCREENPLAY: VLADIMIR BOGOMOLOV, MIKHAIL PAPAVA / STARRING: KOLYA BURLYAYEV, V. ZUBKOV, YE. ZHARIKOV, S. KRYLOV, N. GRINKO / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW