Monday, May 14, 2012

IVAN'S CHILDHOOD - FILM REVIEW (1962 - Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky)

“They sent me out by plane to a boarding school, but I ran away. You just eat up grain supplies while studying the importance of herbivores in man’s life.”
- Ivan

It is a poor state of affairs indeed when the majority of the readers of this review will not have ever seen a single film directed by Russian director, Andrei Tarkovsky. But this will likely be the case. Most people have simply never heard of him. And this is in spite of the fact that some of the oldest, most experienced and deepest thinking film critics will argue that Tarkovsky is the greatest director who ever lived in the history of filmmaking. At this point, it's a conclusion I would find it very difficult to dispute.

So, if you are like I was until fairly recently, then it is high time you remedied your shoddy film education and took a look at the works of Andrei Tarkovsky. The man only made eight films. Each of them are very special in their own unique way. Each of them captivate and linger. Watching eight films, with no actual time limit, should not be a very difficult assignment for any of us. And, while there is something highly challenging about all of Tarkovsky's films, it's the sort of challenge worth engaging.

Ivan's Childhood (1962) is Tarkovsky's first film. It was based off of the short story, Ivan , by Vladimir Bogomolov. In it, you see the beginnings of a genius that will mature into making Tarkovsky into the master that he is now considered to be. Andrei Tarkovsky, like one of his cinematic descendants - Terrence Malick, is a director consumed with beautiful images. Images, often more than dialogue, drive the plot, or even simply the experience of, the film. Here in Ivan's Childhood , we are given the stark and bleak images of an apocalyptic landscape (in black-and-white). This is a landscape of a reeling Russia, vainly trying to protect and defend itself from a crushing Nazi Wehrmacht invasion. The Nazis ("Fritz's" as Ivan calls them) are leaving a long trail of death and destruction in their wake (the winter of '41 had not driven them back yet). But these aren't the only images we are given. Tarkovsky is constantly contrasting the imagery of the destruction of war with the imagery of life as it is seen through the imagination of a child. I would suggest that it is in this contrast that the film possesses its power.

Child actor, Nikolai Burlyayev, plays the 12-year-old Ivan, and he is another reason this works. He's got all the childlike imperiousness of Peter Pan combined with the grown-up too fast ingenuity and adult friendships of Huckleberry Finn. He biting a bit of straw and daydreaming one moment, and then he is strongly demanding to be included in future military reconnaissance expeditions the next.

When we first see him, I could be wrong, but I get the impression that he's flying through the woods (again, just like Peter Pan). At the very least, the innocence of childhood is such that children tread much more lightly than adults. A little beam of light or a butterfly or a flower are studied more closely and considered more carefully by children in ways that they are never noticed by adults. But Tarkovsky's camera is interested in helping us notice these things. Like Merlin taught a young Arthur lessons in the enchanted forest in order to prepare him for manhood, when Ivan's Childhood begins, you begin to expect Tarkvosky to do the same sort of thing for Ivan. After all, Ivan is the sort of little fellow who, when he is told that there is a star resting at the bottom of a well, is interested in catching it.

The interruption is immediate and brutal. Whatever looked like the beginnings of a fairy tale is suddenly a deserted field strewn with smoking dead bodies. As Ivan tries to crawl his way through the sludge of a swamp, enemy flares are spiraling down on top of him and sections of ugly looking barbed wire loom over him. By the time he makes it to the Russian line, he looks more like a starved and drowned rat than a child.

"War isn’t for you, understand?"
- Lieutenant-Colonel Gryaznov

“The completion of ‘Ivan’s Childhood’ marked the end of one cycle of my life, and of a process that I saw as a kind of self-determination ... What attracted me to Bogomolov’s short story, ‘Ivan’? I have to say at the outset that not all prose can be transferred to the screen. Some works have a wholeness, and are endowed with a precise and original literary image; characters are drawn in unfathomable depths; the composition has an extraordinary capacity for enchantment, and the book is indivisible; through the pages comes the astonishing, unique personality of the author: books like that are masterpieces, and only someone who is actually indifferent both to fine prose and to cinema can conceive the urge to screen them.

... Other prose works are made by ideas, by clarity and firmness of structure, by originality of theme; such writing seems not to be concerned with the aesthetic development of the thought it contains. I think Bogomolov’s ‘Ivan’ is in this category ... A third thing that moved me to the bottom of my heart: the personality of the young boy. He immediately struck me as a character that had been destroyed, shifted off its axis by the war. Something incalculable, indeed, all the attributes of childhood, had gone irretrievably out of his life. And the thing he had acquired, like an evil gift from the war, in place of what had been his own, was concentrated and heightened within him.”

- Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time , pgs. 15-17

Lieutenant Galtsev (Evgeny Zharikov) wakes up to find that his men have discovered this little soaked and muddy urchin declaring that "I am Bondarev!" and that he, Galtsez, the commanding officer of that unit, MUST call No. 51 to tell them that "Bondarev" is there. Ivan delivers his orders and has such a confidence about him that the soldiers (and officers) believe him. Galtsez calls No. 51 and he and we both learn that "Bondarev" is a valuable asset to the Russian forces. He has his own system of code for himself (berries, nuts, shells, leaves, firs, stones) in order to count and identify the units and equipment of the enemy. He's a little 12-year-old who finds it easier to pass back-and-forth across enemy lines than the men do.

The kid is a walking paradox. There are times when he is clearly "playing at" war in the film. There are times when he is definitely not playing. And the line between the two is not clearly defined. It turns out, to Galtsez's bemusement, that the other men - Lieutenant-Colonel Gryaznov (Nikolai Grinko), Captain Kholin (Valentin Zubkov), and Corporal Katasonov (Stepan Krylov) - genuinely love Ivan and view him as something of a hero. It becomes evident, early in the film, that Ivan's family have been killed in the war. He has no one except for the Russian army, and he and the Russian army have basically adopted each other as family. The plan is for one of these men to adopt Ivan when the war is over.

While they seem to have the understanding that either Gryaznov or Katasonov will make the most responsible choices for Ivan's future, you begin to get the impression that Captain Kholin has the closest and most father-like relationship with Ivan. He is the one who the Lieutenant-Colonel criticizes for still needing to grow up. While Ivan is the child who has been forced to grow up by the war far too soon, Kholin is the man who refuses to let the war force him to "grow up" in any way that he doesn't want it too. He is the one in the group still most likely to smile or crack a joke. He is the one interested in wooing the pretty medical orderly, Masha (another innocent who is being changed by the war). And he is the one willing to risk his life for the sake of making extravagant gestures of defiance to the enemy (like re-taking the bodies of his friends from the Nazi's public display). He is the one to tell the somber Galtsez, who for all we know is still only 17 or 18 - “You’re too stern. You need a little tenderness inside.”

Captain Kholin personifies one of the reasons Ivan insists on doing what he does. He loves the soldiers like Kholin. When the men decide to send Ivan away from the front-lines to safety in a military school, Ivan cries and protests that that will get the men killed. They can't hide like he can hide because they are too big.

If Captain Kholin goes on a mission in Ivan's place, his chances of survival are lower than Ivan's. But that's what he wants. He doesn't want Ivan to go on any missions anymore. Because he and the rest of the men love Ivan, they've decided to send him away. Ivan's tearful protests and (actually logical) arguments have made them hesitate. This film is essentially the story of the couple of days during which they are hesitating. Ivan's fate is still undecided, just like Russia's fate. They are expecting the Nazis to advance farther into the country. The chances of the scarecrow outfit at this military outpost don't look good.

“Everything about the actress Valya Malyavina was at variance with Bogomolov’s portrait of the nurse ... But with all that she had something original, individual, unexpected, which had not been in the story ... The kernel of Valya’s acting persona was vulnerability. She looked so naive, pure, trusting that it was immediately clear that Masha-Valya was completely defenceless in the face of this war which has nothing to do with her. Everything active in her, all that should determine her attitude to life, was still in an embryonic state. This allowed the relationship between her and Captain Kholin to build up naturally, because he was disarmed by her defencelessness. Zubkov, who played Kholin, found himself totally dependent on his partner, and whereas with another actress his behaviour might have seemed artificial and edifying, with her it was utterly genuine.”
- Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time , pgs. 33-34

The picture that Tarkovsky paints with the camera in telling this story is something to behold. It's a study in contrasts. We go from the muddy narrow winding trenches to an ethereal birchwood forest to dark nights over a treacherous looking swamp, and then back to the earlier dreams and memories of Ivan. When the main characters crawl through the darkness at night, flares are constantly burning their way through the sky. If you haven't seen them in real life, and in complete and utter darkness before, it's hard to describe how sinister flares can really be. They look like little falling stars, but they buzz with the sign that someone, somewhere, is looking to kill someone else.

The contrast between the world of childhood and the world of war is one that Tarkovsky slowly and carefully studies at various angles through the camera. One moment we see a 12-year-old who takes pure joy out of simply hunting through an entire truckload of apples to find the perfect one to present to his sister. The next moment we see Ivan pretending that he's on a mission hunting a spy or a war criminal. The next moment we see Ivan fiddling and playing with Galtsev's dead friend's knife. At one angle he looks like any boy would look who has just been given the infinite number of useful possibilities that a large and sharp knife presents one with. At another angle he looks like a tortured soul who has just been given the means to finally murder his enemy.

“You know who rests during wartime? Useless people!”
- Ivan

“The next thing that struck me was the fact that this austere war tale was not about violent military clashes, or the ins and outs of reversals at the front. Accounts of exploits were missing. The stuff of the narrative was not the heroics of reconnaissance operations, but the interval between two missions. The author had charged this interval with a disturbing, pent-up intensity reminiscent of the cramped tension of a coiled spring that has been tightened to the limit. This approach to the depiction of war was persuasive because of its hidden cinematic potential. It opened up possibilities for recreating in a new way the true atmosphere of war, with its hyper-tense nervous concentration, invisible on the surface of events but making itself felt like a rumbling beneath the ground.

... In a non-developing, constant state of tension, passions reach the highest possible pitch, and manifest themselves more vividly and convincingly than in a gradual process of change. It is this predilection of mine that makes me so fond of Dostoievsky. For me the most interesting characters are outwardly static, but inwardly charged with energy by an overriding passion. Ivan turned out to be a character of this kind. And when I read Bogomolov’s story these things took hold of my imagination.”

- Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time , pg. 17

Ivan somehow mixes childlike curiosity and playfulness with a patriot's determination to fight to the death. He excitedly looks through the pictures that Galtsev has brought back, but then pauses at Albrecht Durer's etching of 'The Horsemen of the Apocalypse.' The horsemen, he explains, represent the Nazis. When Ivan sees that the horsemen are trampling people in the picture, he sees his family. That is what they did to his family. When Ivan plays a little war game with himself, he comes across writing on the wall of the old Russian house. The writing is by other Russians back when the Nazis had been there last -




In Ivan's mind, this is a message written specifically to him. He keeps remembering it throughout the film. This message, combined with what happened to his family, has turned him into a little Russian patriot.

The men love Ivan because his passion is their passion. They share their vodka with him and drink to each other's safety. Sometimes we forget how often young boys have historically fought in wars alongside the men. From armor bearers to drummers to naval midshipmen, it was not uncommon for 10 to 12-year-olds to be valuable assets to their military units. Tarkovsky captures this dynamic in Ivan's Childhood better than any film I've ever seen (except for perhaps Peter Weir's Master and Commander ). To the men, the child represents the soul of their military unit. To the child, the men are larger-than-life heroes that he passionately wants to be become.

“Now, more than twenty years later, I am firmly convinced of one thing (not that it can be analysed): that if an author is moved by the landscape chosen, if it brings back memories to him and suggests associations, even subjective ones, then this will in turn affect the audience with particular excitement. Episodes redolent of the author’s own mood include the birch wood, the camouflage of the birch branches on the first aid post, and the landscape in the background of the last dream and the flooded dead forest. All four dreams, too, are based on quite specific associations. The first, for instance, from start to finish, right up to the words, ‘Mum, there’s a cuckoo!’ is one of my earliest childhood recollections. It was at the time when I was just beginning to know the world. I was four. Generally people’s memories are precious to them. It is no accident that they are coloured by poetry.”
- Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time , pg. 29

When we first meet Lieutenant Galtsev, we expect him to treat Ivan harshly. And yet, he doesn't. He views Ivan more with astonishment than with anything else. He is probably the sternest and most humorless character at this solitary little outpost. Galtsev frowns often and deeply. He says boys like Ivan don't belong in war. He says girls like Masha shouldn't have anything to do with the war. And he at least implies, if he doesn't voice it directly, that jovial jokesters like Captain Kholin shouldn't be fighting a war either. What is left unsaid is that no one, not even Galtsev, belongs in this war. The war is taking vitally important things away from all of them, even from the melancholy Galtsev.

He acts selfishly and sometimes petulantly. But, as he watches Ivan interact with everyone, you suspect that you are getting just a hint that Galtsev is about to change for the better. Like the other men, he remains convinced that Ivan shouldn't be there. But, simultaneously, he starts to find that maybe there is still joy to be taken from Ivan's very presence. Ivan's childhood has been destroyed, but his love, integrity, loyalty and sympathy have not been. This is a boy who was intended for a beautiful and enchanted world who instead finds himself in a miserable and ugly one. It is only by little moments of kindness and concern for each other that these characters are still managing to rise above the dehumanization of their circumstances. And it is Ivan who brings out the good in them. It is Ivan who keeps risking his own life for them because, as he tearfully declares, the men are too big to avoid being seen by the Nazis.

How do I express all there is to express on this film?

When it comes down to it, this is not really something I'm writing because it is clearly laid out by Tarkovsky in the film. Instead, it's more the impression I get from the imagery - from Ivan's occasional smile, from Kholin's wink or from the tiny bits of still wonderment in the men whenever they hear a snatch of music from the gramaphone - not from the dialogue or linear plot itself. I've only seen this film twice, and the second viewing was far more meaningful to me than the first. I can only imagine the further and deeper impressions that I'll get watching it again for a third time. But this is what happens with Tarkovsky, and Ivan's Childhood is only the beginning.

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