Thoughts On: Ivan’s Childhood (Ivanovo Detstvo, 1962)
A 12-year-old Russian boy escapes from a Nazi prison camp, yet wants to turn back for vengeance.
Ivan’s Childhood is a masterpiece. The cinematography, the mise en scene, the sound design are… this is a film by Tarkovsky, and there is not much more to be said. For reasons I cannot fully articulate, Tarkovsky’s cinema and image hold such a tremendous atmosphere and an immersive tone that indisputably distinguish his features as films that exist in a realm of their own that is only ever approached by the likes of Bergman, Fellini, Kubrick, Dreyer and Deren (amongst a few more select others). With Ivan’s Childhood, Tarkovsky of course confronts war, essentially making a film about his hatred of the phenomena that, in many respects, reached its most dismal heights in the 20th century. Concerning his image and cinema in regards to the war film genre, what distinguishes Ivan’s Childhood from almost every other war film I have ever seen is the aesthetic quality and its ability to capture an alien world of unfathomable despair, destruction and futility. Without depicting the act of war, acts of murder and destruction, Tarkovsky then imbues the genre elements of this film with a unique emotional quality, that, as said, captures the alien aspects of a war-torn world like no other film I’ve ever seen. The only film that comes slightly close would be Klimov’s Come And See. In comparison to Ivan’s Childhood though, every other war film only captures some shade of a spectacle of sentimentality, horror and action that often does the philosophical and emotional implications of war an utter disservice. And though I recognise and even confuse myself in suggesting that the likes of Schindler’s List, Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now and Saving Private Ryan pale so significantly in the face of this film, no matter how much I think about it, this seems to be a stark truth. As films judged unto themselves, the mentioned war classics are tremendous, but when I think of Ivan’s Childhood, I stumble with dissonance.
What makes Ivan’s Childhood such a singular war-film masterpiece is not only its formal design, which can only truly be understood by immersing yourself in the film, but its heavily thematic narrative. As we then follow Ivan, a young boy whose family was murdered by German soldiers, as he seeks out revenge, brushing aside all notions of him sitting out the war and retreating from the Eastern Front to attend a military school, we are thrown into a whirlwind of ideas all encapsulated by the motif of war’s destruction. It’s this intention to communicate and depict all that war destroys in the human complex that raises the intense melancholy and overriding sense of loss that pervades the narrative of Ivan’s Childhood from subtext to plot as to surface through the mentioned aesthetic design. What then lies under this skin is an exploration of war’s promotion of inhumanity and its quashing of family, culture and the human glue that binds individuals into these collectives.
You will then see allusions to maternity, romance, naivety, art and callousness throughout Ivan’s Childhood. Primarily it is callousness that Tarkovsky uses to show what war does to the human nature. We see this in Ivan of course through the manner in which almost every one of his intentions and actions are motivated by little more than revenge; him joining the Russian army or partisans to somehow contribute to the destruction of the Nazi enemy for no other reason that he has nothing else to strive for. Nikolai Burlyayev’s sturdy and, in the present chronological scenes, unemotional performance captures this all-consuming will for revenge that ultimately leaves Ivan a brick wall; the subtextual implication of this being a question of, if Ivan was raised by such tragedy, just like so many thousands more have been, what will the rest of the world mature into? There is nuance and further tragedy added to this question when we consider the only chink in Ivan’s brick armour: his yearning for a father-figure that parallels his longing for his lost mother. Left with this emptiness in his life, Ivan strives for revenge as a means to a futile end. And with his to-be adopter’s death, later his own, the futility of such a melancholic existence is only emphasised. Ivan then becomes a martyr to futility and a calloused shell, packed until his seems stress with a hapless hope for some familial attachment to fill the void that will be left in his life by a successful security of the vengeance he seeks.
This stagnation that pervades all of Ivan’s actions, which is often brought to life by the constant act of waiting that makes up a significant proportion of this narrative, is always of course overshadowed by the looming notion of death (which eventually consumes him). Symbolised by the two hung soldiers, those that failed to followed Ivan onto the enemy banks before the narrative opened, this death is bound to the image of a rope – one that hangs. And of course, just like the dead soldiers that overlook this narrative, Ivan is eventually hung. We are left wondering, however, if it was only the Nazis that hung Ivan. After all, it is he who persisted, who wanted to join the war, against the advice and will of those around him. Then again, is his death not the fault of those that could not stop him? Or could we even begin to blame them? Does it come back to the Nazis? Is this march towards death just an inevitability of war? These questions change the noose that slips around the neck of so many soldiers, essentially asking the rhetorical question whose only purpose is to stun: who is to blame?
Reinforcing this unanswerable question and its inconfrontable symbol of a rope are further themes bittersweetness. We see this in the seemingly tangential cut-scenes in which two soldiers flirt, one more directly and forcefully than the other, with a nurse. Though these scenes, at a first watch, seem to have nothing to do with the narrative, they are moments which Tarkovsky uses to allow humanity – romance, love and aspiration – into the film. However, just like Ivan has his dreams that are doomed to hang, so is the romance. Moreover, so is the record in the record player – one that is never really listened to. What we are then seeing through these sub-plots are characters struggling to retain some level of norm and engage some of what makes life worth living, but failing due to the war around them that forces a more calloused, rigid and unemotional state of living in which romance and the arts can’t really exist.
The crux of this conflict between war, its calcifying effect on the human nature, and normal cultural being is signified, of course, by the title of this film: Ivan’s Childhood. For this to be the title of a war film is already a devastating enough juxtaposition, but we see Tarkovsky’s further commentary on this through theological symbolism such as the Virgin Mary cradling an infant Jesus as well as the cross. With the Virgin Mary, we have an archetypal image of maternity and protection, also purity and goodness. To juxtapose such an image with a cross in the context of a war is to draw attention to this dichotomy of protection and suffering for a greater purpose through Jesus (possibly Ivan too), and comment on the strain that these ideas are under in these times. The fact that both of these symbols are almost always partially destroyed in Ivan’s Childhood suggests that not only is there a tension in humanity between this archetypal protection and self-sacrifice, but that it has been strained to the point of exhaustion; to the point that all greater purpose begins to fade and erode out of view. In other words, war not only destroys the protected family unit (which is microcosmic of a larger community or country), but reduces suffering to a banal act of futility. With all of this fed through Ivan we are not only seeing him used as a figure meant to comment on how war corrupts human nature despite suffering, self-sacrifice and protection, but also how it tears it apart – again, in spite of all that is well-intentioned about humanity.
Tarkovsky’s disdain for war is then shown to be predicated on its utter destruction of life at its deepest roots. Not only will it suck the life out of countless millions, but also all existential reason out of those that remain in its aftermath. War then reduces humanity to a horde of calloused creatures, all acting on over-simplified impulses to destroy and self-protect – a mass cultural shift that has long-lasting effects. But, this can only begin to be recognised in its true profound scale when we realise that the very archetypes of human stabilisation, the mother, the father, the child, are shook to their core by the act of war in a way that will propagate for generations to come.
Simply remembering the time in which this movie came out, 1962, will solidify this narrative message and its intentions. Looking back a mere 20 years, Tarkovsky would be peering into his childhood and the WWII era. His father, looking into his childhood, would also be seeing world war. The 20th century, as said previously, is one of the most devastating decades of all of human history. Having been apart of generations that saw the worst of this, sometimes first-hand in his father’s case who was in WWII where he lost his leg due to injuries he sustained as a war-correspondent, we can only imagine through a film like Ivan’s Childhood the dismal perspective that those like Tarkovsky had of war. For him to use this incredibly dark contrast of all that can be stable in life with all that humanity can destroy encapsulates the precariousness of the whole world that must have been perceived by all of those living in these eras. Ultimately, it is because Tarkovsky articulates and captures this so well that Ivan’s Childhood is such an affecting and poignant masterpiece as well as a poetic insight into so much that we in the modern day can only comprehend as alien.
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