No one is expected to be great at something at their first attempt. Especially not in the arts. When parents buy their child a violin, it’s almost a guarantee that they will spend the next month or so plugging their ears at the cacophonous sounds they will be hearing at least an hour a day. Filmmakers are not exempt of this concept. We’ve seen the first films of the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese, and they’re not very good. Even the master Stanley Kubrick notoriously hated his first film Fear and Desire, going so far as to buy all prints of the film so no one could see it. However, every once in a while, we get someone who seems to have a complete understanding of their art in their first foray into it, like when Mozart first sat down at a piano and began placing notes on a ledger line. This is the case with the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky and his debut feature-film Ivan’s Childhood.
Ivan’s Childhood, sometimes known as My Name is Ivan, was made in 1962 and is a tale of a boy named Ivan who is used as a scout during World War II. It follows Ivan’s war-torn youth and the lives of the people around him as they all have to deal with the conditions this event puts them in. It is based on the short story “Ivan” by Vladimir Bogomolov. The film was, as previously mentioned, Andrei Tarkovsky’s first, astoundingly so. To get to the point, Ivan’s Childhood is a very beautiful film and although when it comes to Tarkovsky’s sadly small filmography, works like Stalker, Solaris, and Andrei Rublev are usually given the most significant attention (deservedly so, may I add), I believe Ivan’s Childhood is just as worthy of this praise and attention.
Tarkovksy’s near mastery of cinema is clear from the opening. We see Ivan in a forest. His face is shot through a spider-web as he gazes in wonder at the scene around him. He begins to run, and as he runs faster, he lifts off the ground and begins flying. Ivan laughs with absolute glee and wonder. He lands on the ground, next to his mother, who is gathering water from a well. Ivan drinks from a bucket, looks up at his mother, smiling, and tells her of the cuckoo bird he heard earlier. Ivan’s mother looks at him, smiles lovingly, and wipes sweat from her brow. Suddenly, her face freezes in a look of terror, a gunshot is heard, Ivan screams and wakes up inside a partially torn down windmill. The sun is gleaming through one of the gaps between the wood. Ivan looks around, checks his surroundings, and is off.
The rest of the film follows Ivan and the people around him. Ivan arrives at a Russian bunker after having to swim through a Nazi-occupied swamp. He encounters several people with whom he develops bonds: Captain Kholin, Lieutenant Galtsev, and Corporal Katasonych. Very little of the war is shown in Ivan’s Childhood. The film instead focuses on Ivan and the other characters in this bunker interacting with each other and attempting to cope with the situation they are in. Eventually, the captain, who acts as a sort of father figure to the boy, decides that Ivan should instead go to an orphanage or military school, much to Ivan’s resistance. Subplots form as we see Kholin and Galtsev argue, Kholin attempt to romance a nurse named Masha, and we see more tragic dream sequences as these people camp out in this bunker, patiently awaiting their next orders. Ivan’s Chilhood is not a traditional war film in most senses.
Ivan’s Childhood contains one of the better child performances I’ve seen in my life. Nikolai Burlyalev portrays Ivan very well, successfully showing a boy who knows nothing but war and wishes nothing more than to help his country in an attempt to have vengeance on those who are responsible for his parents’ death. However, perhaps Nikolai’s greatest weakness is that he is unable to portray anger effectively. In a scene where Lieutenant Galtsev is trying to convince Ivan to go to military school instead of continuing with his dangerous work as a scout, Ivan reveals a dark part of his past, but it is unconvincing as Ivan stares at Galtsev with a blank expression. Evgeny Zharikov, who portrays Lieutenant Galtsev, is probably the weakest actor. He never seems to have an idea of what’s going on as he speaks with a fairly flat tone of voice and sometimes has emotionless reactions. However, aside from these few weak moments from Nikolai and this unfortunately weak performance from Evgeny, this film contains some very subtle and subdued moments from the actors.
If you’re at all familiar with the works of Andrei Tarkovsky, it should come as absolutely no surprise that Ivan’s Childhood is absolutely gorgeous looking. From Tarkovsky’s slow camera movements, to the mise en scene he employs, and to the beautiful way light and shadow is played with, Ivan’s Childhood (and every Tarkovsky movie, really) is an absolute must watch for cinematography nuts. Tarkovsky loved painting and would often attempt to emulate the look with the way he photographed his films by trying to make his images look flat. You could truly pause at almost any moment in this film and it would look like a painting. There are some beautiful moments. Captain Kholin and the nurse Masha talk in a forest full of dead oak trees, Ivan, Kholin, and Galtsev tread carefully through a swamp at night, Ivan and his mother look down at the bottom of the well together with the camera placed underwater looking up at them. The images Tarkovsky and his cinematographer present are often incredible.
Overall, Ivan’s Childhood is an incredibly beautiful film. It’s astounding to think that this was Tarkovsky’s first film and it gives us an insight to the level this man’s expertise went. Although there are some weak performances, and it’s not for those who dislike slowly paced films, Ivan’s Childhood is great. I’d recommend this to anyone who truly loves film.