Ivan's Childhood (Ivanovo detstvo)

Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Screenplay: Vladimir Bogomolov and Mikhail Papava (based on the story “Ivan” by Vladimir Bogomolov)
Stars: Nikolai Burlyayev (Ivan), Valentin Zubkov (Capt. Kholin), Yevgeni Zharikov (Lt. Galtsev), Stepan Krylov (Cpl. Katasonov), Nikolai Grinko (Lt. Col. Gryaznov), Dmitri Milyutenko (Old Man), Valentina Malyavina (Masha), Irma Raush (Ivan's Mother), Andrei Konchalovsky (Soldier)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1962
Country: Soviet Union
Ivan's Childhood: Criterion Collection DVD
Ivan's ChildhoodEspecially in Western culture, the term “childhood” comes laden with heavy associations--particularly innocence, comfort, and a strong sense of safety. As the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay described it, “Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies.” Thus, it is telling that director Andrei Tarkovsky purposefully inserted the word “childhood” into the title of his debut feature film, Ivan's Childhood, which is about a 12-year-old boy who, having lost his entire family to the Germans, works for the Soviet army as a scout during World War II. The film is based on a short story by Vladimir Bogomolov that is titled simply “Ivan,” and the change in title draws our attention to the film's exploration of what it means to be a child when there is no time for childish things.

Ivan's Childhood was one of a number of important films made in the Soviet Union during the “thaw” of the late 1950s and early 1960s in which filmmakers and other artists were allowed to tackle more emotionally complex topics and use aesthetic approaches that would have otherwise been banned under the Stalinist insistence on “socialist realism.” While there had been numerous films made under Stalin about World War II, it wasn't until the mid-1950s that filmmakers like Mikhail Kalatozov (1957's The Cranes Are Flying) and Grigori Chukhrai (1959's Ballad of a Soldier) could tackle the topic from a more humane point of view, focusing on the effects of war on ordinary people, rather than simply glorifying the Soviet military. Similarly, Tarkovsky, who had recently graduated from the Gerasimov All-Russian State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK) and was determined to prove himself as a director, challenged the boundaries of Soviet filmmaking both ideologically and aesthetically in telling Ivan's story.

In a significant change from the source story, Tarkovsky structures his film around a series of dream sequences in which we see Ivan's (Nikolai Burlyayev) idyllic childhood prior to the war. The fact that the film begins in a dream sequence that is not explicitly marked as such is typical of Tarkovsky's approach, in which the boundaries between dreams and reality are murky and flexible. In fact, it is difficult to know how much of Ivan's dreams are reflective of actual memories and how much of them are fantastical or wishful. Again, the opening dream sequence is instructive, as it begins with typical images of childhood play--Ivan chasing butterflies, running through a field, drinking from a pail of water brought to him by his loving mother (Irma Raush)--but ends with him literally soaring through the air, one of the quintessential wishes of every child who has ever watched a bird fly.

Ivan's reality is far different from his dreams/fantasies. The bright, smiling, well-scrubbed young boy we meet in the opening dream is sharply contrasted with the dour, dirty, determined man-child we then see in the present tense. Tarkovsky underscores this distinction visually, presenting Ivan's dreams as brightly lit and painterly, while the war scenes are bleary and dark, filled with trenches, dank bunkers, and a seemingly endless swamp that threatens to draw the characters under. When Ivan is awoken from his first dream by a mortar explosion, it evokes the idea of war literally breaking into his childhood and destroying it.

The performance by Nikolai Burlyayev--who had starred in one of Tarkovsky's student films and, despite being 14 at the time, doesn't look a day 11--is magnificent and bold; he conveys a powerful sense of damage that has manifested itself as determination. With nothing left to lose, he is willing to do anything and scoffs at the notion that his age makes him unfit for military duty. The stark tones of his voice and the resolution in his eyes marks him as a scarred man in a child's body, a tragedy that works as a metaphor for the obscenity of war.

Unlike Tarkovsky's subsequent films, which began to rely more and more heavily on a minimalist approach and a reliance on long takes, Ivan's Childhood has an eye-grabbing visual aesthetic that makes excellent use of elaborate camera movement, canted angles, and almost surreal compositions. Tarkovsky is a master of arrangement within the frame, and Ivan's Childhood contains some of his most memorable images, particularly the one in which Ivan steps into the shattered remains of a burned barn and the blackened wooden planks, which have been fractured into sharp points, form a kind of frame of death around him. Similarly, Tarkovsky situates a romantic meeting between Ivan's beloved captain (Valentin Zubkov) and a nurse (Valentina Malyavina) in a forest of leafless birch trees that feels nothing if not otherworldly. While this brief romantic interlude feels somewhat misplaced in the narrative, its visual impact is undeniable.

War does terrible things to people, and Ivan is no exception. With no family to call his own, he has bonded strongly with a number of the Soviet officers, and his self-worth is firmly entrenched in his ability to be of use to them. Thus, when they try to take him from the front lines and send him to military school, he refuses. When told to rest, he retorts that only useless people rest during wartime. In another film, these could easily be read as propagandistic slogans meant to rouse the viewer to support of the military, but in Tarkovsky's hands they take on an edge of sadness. Having seen the life Ivan had (or could have) been living, his resolute bravery and determination to help the war effort is less exciting than it is despairing. War is no place for children, we are told, but history constantly tells us differently.

Ivan's Childhood Criterion Collection DVD

Aspect Ratio1.33:1
AudioRussian Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
Subtitles English
  • Video appreciation by Vida T. Johnson, coauthor of The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue
  • Video interview with cinematographer Vadim Yusov
  • Video interview with actor Nikolai Burlyaev
  • Insert booklet featuring an essay by film scholar Dina Iordanova and new translations, by Robert Bird, of “Between Two Films,” Andrei Tarkovsky's essay about Ivan's Childhood, and “Ivan's Willow,” a poem by the director's father, Arseny Tarkovsky
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJuly 24, 2007

    This one has been a long time coming. In fact, as I write this I am looking at an old Criterion DVD catalog, which came out back in 2001 when there were only 103 titles in the whole collection (there are now more than 400), and Ivan's Childhood is listed as “Coming Soon” (as are several other titles that have never made it to disc, including Diane Kurys' Cocktail Molotov, Jean-Charles Tacchella's Cousin, Cousine, and Akira Kurosawa's Dodes' ka-den). The wait has been long, but well worth it, as Criterion has delivered another outstanding transfer. Ivan's Childhood was transferred from a 35mm fine-grain master positive and digitally restored to near perfection. Contrast, black levels, and detail are all spot on. The monaural soundtrack, transferred at 24-bit from a 35mm optical soundtrack print, is likewise excellent. Tarkovsky's use of sound is crucial throughout the film, and the transfer maintains excellent fidelity without any ambient hiss or aural artifacts.
    There are only a few supplements on this disc, but they're well worth checking out. The half-hour video appreciation by Vida T. Johnson, coauthor of The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue, is an excellent analysis of the film and overview of Tarkovsky's career. Johnson does a good job of situating Ivan's Childhood within Tarkovsky's entire oeuvre, showing how it both differs from and presages the films to come. There are also two new video interviews, one with cinematographer Vadim Yusov and one with actor Nikolai Burlyaev, that give an intriguing picture of what it was like to work with Tarkovsky. The thick insert booklet features an essay by film scholar Dina Iordanova; “Between Two Films,” Andrei Tarkovsky's essay about Ivan's Childhood; and “Ivan's Willow,” a poem by his father, Arseny Tarkovsky.

    Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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