In college, I watched Tarkovsky's films Solaris and Stalker, but since then I have avoided his films. I have always felt that I needed a film degree to be properly qualified to watch his films. People write long analyses of the shots, the sense or lack-thereof of time, the shadows, the strange mysticisms, the meaning of snow falling through an open roof, etc, etc. Ivan's Childhood, Tarkovsky's first feature length, is no exception. A simple search on the web will turn up in-depth analyses of the "psycho-pragmatic links between dream and reality" and their representation in Ivan's Childhood. Ok...think I'll watch that another day... So it was probably a good thing that I didn't notice that this was a Tarkovsky film. It was a Russian film on a boy's experience in WWII based on a memoir and it was made in 1962, during a relaxation of artistic censorship that occurred after Stalin's death. For these reasons, I was curious to see it.
Young Ivan is a boy of 12. His family has been killed in the war and he working as scout for the army. He slips across the frontlines into German territory and collects information on troop locations. He then slips back across the lines and reports in. The work is extremely dangerous and gruesome. As the film opens Ivan is hiding near the shores of the Dnieper River. It is night and he is waiting for his pick-up which will take him back to the Russian side. But something has delayed him, and he misses the pickup. He finds a log and swims the swirling river in the moonlight. He is picked up by a group of Soviet soldiers who do not know who he is. Ivan insists on seeing the military commander. Ivan is brash and rough and seems a little demented, but utterly fixated on his job. He gets pen and paper and immediately begins writing a report. He is a hardened soldier. But then we watch as he strips to take a bath -- his scrawny chest is bruised and we can see his ribs. He looks like a featherless bird. The image is powerful. He is child who war has been turned into something very wrong.
In the late 1940s, socialist-realist war propaganda films showed the heroic Red Army soldier defeating the Nazi hordes -- and the glorification of Stalin. These were films like The Oath, The Fall of Berlin, and The Battle of Stalingrad. But then in the late-1950s, after Stalin died and Khrushchev came into power, there was brief period of more artistic freedom known as "the Thaw" 1953-1967. During this period, there were films that "moved away from combat and focused instead on the individual ordeals and suffering of those whose lives are irretrievably crippled by war". Important films from this era include: The Cranes Are Flying (1957), Ballad of a Soldier (1959), Fate of a Man (1959), Father of the Soldier (1964) and Commisar (1968).
Ivan's Childhood (1962) falls into this period of thawing, and it certainly doesn't paint a pretty picture of war. Nonetheless it is a beautiful and visually striking film. Well worth watching especially given that it is a rare flower that bloomed during a brief thaw in a long artistic winter (couldn't resist making that metaphor...). With Khrushchev's forced resignation in the fall of 1964, spring ended and an early fall arrived. Dissidents were arrested. Things got progressively worse until the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia brought back a deep freeze -- that was to last until the late-1980s and the fall of communism.
A book on this interesting period of Russian film:
A review of Russian film post 1920s