Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: Kolya Burlyayev, V.
Zubkov, Ye. Zarikhov, S. Krylov, V. Malyavina
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Audio: PCM Mono
Video: Full Frame 1.33:1
Features: See Review
Length: 95 Minutes
Release Date: January 22, 2013
War is never a pleasant experience for anyone, but imagine how hard it is on the child who lives through it. Such is the subject of Andrei Tarkovsky's Ivan's Childhood.
The film follows the...adventures might be the wrong word, but I'll use it...of a young boy in World War II Russia. The story is not told in a strictly linear fashion...in fact, it begins with young Ivan (Burlyayev) having a dream in which he's floating and laughing and calling out to his mother.
Reality is quite different...we learn later in the film that his mother was killed by the Nazis, and he is essentially orphaned. But far from a pathetic waif, Ivan is actually hot-headed and eager to serve the Russian army, taking advantage of his small size to serve as a scout.
He first arrives at an officer's quarters, looking quite worn out, but adamantly insisting the officer radio headquarters to alert them of his presence. Ivan's mission was a successful one, bringing back news on the enemy's location.
The officers, appreciative but feeling guilty, do not wish to continue using the child in such a dangerous capacity, preferring instead to send him safely to a military school. Ivan, however, has been in such a place before, and threatens to run away if the army doesn't let him continue to serve.
The film packs a tremendous sense of visual style (Tarkvosky would go on to make one of the great visual treats of Soviet cinema, Andrei Rublev), but considering its subject matter, somewhat light on emotion. This movie came out in 1962, after the death of Stalin, when Russian filmmaking was seeing a bit of a rebirth, and many pictures like this one focused on the personal tragedy of war rather than the normal state-sponsored patriotic breast-beating movies.
That being said, a lot of the movie is focused on talking...officers discussing the war and Ivan, and so on. Very little war is actually seen; instead, we see the obvious after effects in the scarred villages and landscapes. One has become a mountain range of stone ovens and chimneys; the only parts of the buildings that didn't burn down.
Somewhere in the plot is a distraction of a story featuring a pretty but capable nurse (Malyavina) and the military men who try to seduce her, seeing her more as an object of affection than a valuable part of the mission. This part gets lingered on for so long that one begins to wonder what Ivan was up to during that time.
As the story concludes, there is indeed an Allied victory over the Nazis that the Russians helped bring about, but the officers learn when exploring an abandoned German headquarters that Ivan, in his last mission, was captured and hanged. The final stretch shows Ivan playing hide and seek with other children; is this a flashback to happier times? Or is this Ivan's final resting place?
The film is a little disjointed and unfocused, but for a first effort, definitely showcases some of Tarkovsky's sense of visual composition and camera movement. The fact that it's a little hard to connect to emotionally is not necessarily a strike...in fact, it might be something of an achievement to tell a picture about a child suffering during wartime that doesn't rend the heartstrings...but it does force the viewer to observe in a way that is more passive than active.
Soviet cinema is often overlooked and yet filled with amazing gems by artists who managed to flourish and find signature styles despite the oppression of the state. Perhaps Tarkovsky had to step back from his subject a little...an outright anti-war film would certainly not be embraced by the Communist government. Still, he managed to create a unique film that finds a tone of quiet sadness rather than all-out grief.
BONUS TRIVIA: Burlyayev would go on to appear in Andrei Rublev as the young man who casts the bell.
Criterion scores yet again...this is an absolutely pristine and gorgeous high definition black and white presentation. You'd never think the film was 50 years old. Contrast levels are superb, and detail is clean and crisp all the way through. Remarkable!
The mono soundtrack is serviceable, with a smidgeon of dynamic range here and there. The movie is mostly dialogue-oriented though, and the track is fairly clean. No real complaints.
The extras include three interviews; one with film scholar Vida T. Johnson, one with cinematographer Vadim Yusov, and one with actor Kolya Burlayev. There is also a booklet featuring some essays, including one by the director, and a poem by the director's father.
Ivan's Childhood could have been the story of a tragic young character torn apart by war, and in one sense, it is...but it's more philosophical than emotional. It's a terrific looking disc, and an early sign of what would come from a brilliant director.