"Отомстит за нас."
Little Ivan (Nikolai Burlayayev) has been alone for a long time, working behind enemy lines on the Soviet front during World War II. With the Germans coming closer everyday it seems that the simple pleasures of good food and company are drifting further. Andrei Tarkovsky's first film, Ivan's Childhood (Иваново детство) tells a war story of life on the western front, and how so many who could have grown up saints left unnoticed.
Ivan's Childhood is a waking nightmare in which war is an effect inflicted on members of a lonely world. The enemy is never seen, and in fact it rarely seems like the enemy is composed of people at all — the war is an environment, and venturing out into it the characters are like animals cautiously avoiding the innumerable dangers of nature. The title is telling, because young Ivan at the center of the story is a product of this ceaselessly hostile world, whereas those around him have entered into it from a previous time of relative peace. Only some memories and a handful of other scenes show a society functioning on a larger scale — most of the film occurs in a space that seems like the world has ended, which when it comes to Ivan, is probably the point.
I don't know that I could piece together all the movie's plot points — not that they're especially complicated, but they kind of bounced off me while I watched. Through a series of flashbacks and a few moments that could either be dreams or memories, we see how Ivan's family was killed by the Nazis and his village destroyed. Now, slightly later in the war, he conducts reconnaissance and carries messages through enemy lines, with the few officers he regularly interacts with trying constantly to push him further out of harm's way.
That's really all the movie needs to set up the emotional conflict at its core: the officers are trying to protect Ivan — as a child a symbol to them of innocence and fragility — without understanding that his early wartime experiences have shaped his worldview in a way that is irreparably damaged. Tarkovsky's compositions are either close and claustrophobic indoor scenes where the characters sit in cramped quarters or barren outdoor landscapes where life was once but isn't anymore. Likewise, Ivan's world is a kind of shadow cast by his memories — rather than dense woods we get dead tree trunks jutting out of a swamp; rather than an active town square, he passes through half-standing foundations of unrecognizable buildings. And always vaguely in the distance there is gunfire.
The black-and-white cinematography here is beautiful in a hauntingly appropriate sense, and Tarkovsky moves from reality to memory seamlessly in a way that sometimes makes us uncertain of exactly what we're seeing or when it's taking place. In one brilliant sequence he connects a genuinely pure childhood moment with the murder of Ivan's mother through a series of shots that present multiple different events as one unbroken visual narrative. It's a bold way to create in the audience the same inner turmoil that propels Ivan, and the lack of any distinct breaks in time or space perfectly show the role of this event on the rest of his life — it isn't something that once happened, but rather a thing that's connected to every other moment, the horror of which could creep in unsuspectingly at any time.Tarkovsky’s work is going to reteach me how to watch films. I was terrified to look away from the movie, not because of the existential threats or bombed out landscape, but because I was afraid that if my eyes gravitated away from the screen at all that I would miss something. I was not ready for a work this dense after watching his student films last week. Now I’m even more excited to rewatch Solaris, because I have the feeling that there will be many other treasures to find.
In addition to the dream tone you elaborated on I’m amazed at how fluid and busy his frames are without losing any information. There’s one scene with the soldiers later where there are three or four different lines of action going on at the same time. The foreground has soldiers grumbling away, mid-line a stove barely keeping everyone warm, and in the back another group preparing to go out. It’s such clean division that requires painstaking preparation but flows so smoothly. I let my eyes dart around a lot during Ivan’s Childhood but this scene, much like the rest of the film, shows that repeat viewing looking at specific sections of the screen or a single plane would be well rewarded.
Even though the information is presented so cleanly, I was very disturbed by the direct emotional connection that Tarkovsky strives for. The way Ivan’s innocence has been perverted is hinted at in very small ways, like how he consumes food and drink like an animal during the opening sequence. Without his parents to mediate how he feels and thinks about the world he’s formed these direct connections with sensation. A smiliarly disorienting sequence later made me nauseous as he rings a bell to try to drown out the memories of the dead. But no matter what Ivan does, the calamity rings on, constantly reminding him of a failure he never even had the chance to commit.
This poor kid is a saint of war who never fulfilled the promise of divinity that his childhood lay before him. That final sequence puts a beautifully direct spin on it as Ivan, happily running on a pristine beach, finds himself gliding atop the water before running into death and then, for us, darkness. I liked the other reminders of his unfulfilled sainthood, like the crown of debris that seems to surround him no matter where he goes, a bit more. But it’s still a beautiful moment, one that still requires cautious unpacking, and signals a sign to tread carefully with Tarkovsky’s films or I might miss something wonderful.
While audiences at the time would undoubtedly have had a more political experience when watching the movie, I'm reacting to the emotional and psychological effect the structure and images had on my viewing. This seems to be at least the beginning of what Bergman was referring to when he said Tarkovsky “invented a new language, true to the nature of film.” So what are the characteristics of that language so far, and where can we trace its evolution to in terms of contemporary directors and films?
Right now one of the biggest things aspects is the way he plays with visual narrative vs. story. It's one thing to cut memories or dream sequences into a movie in a way that calls attention to the narrative break, or to use dramatic camera tricks to disorient the viewer — it's another entirely to merge sequences that have no literal connection in a way that makes it seem like they do.
Take the sequence with Ivan and his mother at the well, for example. First we see them at the top of the well in the daytime, with Ivan's mother telling him how you can sometimes look down to see stars reflected in the water. Tarkovsky then pans down the well to show hands playfully trying to cup the reflection of the sun in the water. The grammar of the scene would suggest that this is all one fluid moment until we realize that the hands are Ivan's. We've shifted in time but nothing about Tarkovsky's filming and editing suggests that, and the effect is dreamlike — we have to reason our way through it. The camera pans up to view the well bucket start to fall down toward Ivan/us, the soundtrack becoming more intense, and as the bucket hits the water Tarkovsky cuts to a view above, just outside the well, where water splashes up and over Ivan's mother's body on the ground.
Nothing about the “language” of the scene tells the viewer “this is a separate moment now, and here's another distinctly separate moment, and...” We experience it fluidly as one sequential series of events, and that makes sense because that's how it's occurring in Ivan's mind. By making our first experience of those memories one that instinctively links a wholesome, happy moment of childhood (his mother sharing something with him at the well) with intense sadness and destruction, Tarkovsky makes it impossible for us to view Ivan's childhood as anything but tragedy. We can't see him as an innocent the way the officers around him do, because unlike them we've shared part of his experience.
Right now the most obvious contemporary use and evolution of this technique that jumps out to me would be the recent Upstream Color. Shane Carruth is a director who seems, like Tarkovsky here, to be unconcerned with spelling out the relationship between various scenes plot-wise, instead using juxtaposition to create a steady visual narrative even where a literal one may not exist. The effect of that film is that common visual cues link shots into a continuous sequence in an effort to show connection between individuals who are separated by time and space. Tarkovsky here isn't calling attention to the technique the way Carruth does, but is using it to very quickly and powerfully create emotional associations across multiple times and spaces that may not be possible with traditional exposition.
Two films from our past projects are directly in debt to Tarkovsky’s images and handling of the material in Ivan’s Childhood. The first comes from my solo project on Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Decalogue, which paraphrases the last shot of Ivan’s Childhood. The image comes at the end of the first film of The Decalogue when a father is confronted with a symbol of the religion he previously disregarded. In front of him, the Virgin Mary begins to cry white tears as he performs a mixed communion, baptism with his wafer. Tarkovsky and Kieslowski alike turn to religion with skeptical minds and see a mixed blessing in the end.
The other is Oliver Stone's Platoon. The events in Platoon similarly never break away from the "real" world as the world that Stone's soldiers live in is a perpetual nightmare. The visceral effect is different, but the threat is almost identically existential. Both are interested in keeping whatever the characters fear off-screen, and Stone's moment when the Viet Cong soldiers emerge as though from a nightmare in the depths of the jungle is a near direct parallel to the moment where the German soldiers come from the swamp.
The emotional versus literal narrative plays very strongly into his use of music as with a gentle nod toward old romance films. This is why the parts involving Masha (Valentina Malyavina) were so intriguing. I'm not sold that she exists as anything other than a representation of the soldiers desire to go home. She appears in these seemingly picturesque moments that are still racked with danger, a confounding mixture of emotions that play both in the visuals, like when she dangles over the a sizable hole while being kissed. But she's accompanied by music that we would normally here during a late night rendezvous, perhaps involving Clark Gable. Instead it's in the middle of the forest, surrounded by all these barely alive trees, or alone in a cold bunker.
The waking dream is all these soldiers have. It doesn't matter when the flow of Tarkovsky's film goes from the real to the unreal because it's all the same to them. I understand why Bergman was so excited to discover what Tarkovsky was doing with film. He makes something as simple as a pan along a cliff face completely disorienting. We go along with the camera as we pan to the right, expecting to find something new. But there Ivan is, looking back, and with such a little twist on an old technique Tarkovsky poses a great question with his visuals. We see Ivan looking back, already I wonder what we missed that he's seeing? It's marvelous.