A twelve-year-old boy works for the Soviet army as a spy behind German lines during WWII.
Tarkovsky is a filmmaker that will come up if you talk to any cinephile long enough, and for good reason. He’s a very inventive director, and his stories are unique and filled with metaphor. I’ve only seen a few of his films. “Solaris” (1971) was slow but absolutely amazing; “Stalker” (1979) was good, but I had a hard time getting through it due to its snail pacing in the first act (though it is a film I want to revisit). Both “Solaris” and “Stalker” are well over two hours in length are methodical in execution; if you aren’t an arthouse fan already, I’d wait to build up to those. “Ivan’s Childhood”, however, is a perfect place to start for Tarkovsky. The film has moments of surrealism in it, but for the most part, it’s a very straightforward, compelling, and harrowing story. It’s Tarkovsky’s first film, and in it we can see hints of some of the brilliance he’ll show us in later films. His cinematography, set design, and dream sequences (for which is well known), are all incredible, but perhaps even more amazing in this movie is the performance Tarkovsky got out of our lead actor, twelve-year-old Nikolay Burlyaey.
(SOME SPOILERS IN THE FOLLOWING PARAGRAPH)
Ivan (Nikolay Burlvaey, “Andrei Rublev”) is an orphan living on the Soviet/German front during WW2. He’s small enough that he can sneak unseen across the borders; floating across rivers on driftwood, sneaking through swamps and barbed wire, under cover of darkness. When reporting back to the Soviets, Ivan runs into Galtsev (Evgeniy Zharikov, “Ya Ostayus”), a lieutenant whom can’t believe Ivan is working for them. Galtsev contacts Captain Kholin (Valentin Zubkov, “The Cranes Are Flying”), who tells Galtsev that indeed Ivan does work for them. The story follows Galtsev, Ivan and Kholin as they prepare to send Ivan across the lines once more.
Nikolay is absolutely spellbinding as Ivan, the little boy spying for the Soviets; he’s fierce and determined, he holds the cameras unwavering attention from start to finish. There are scenes that require enormous physical commitment; crawling through swamps and swimming across wide rivers, but there are also scenes that require him to be terrified or emotional. His performance in this film reminded me a lot of Aleksey Kravchenko’s performance in “Come and See” (1985). In fact, I wouldn’t at all be surprised if this film was a huge influence on Klimov’s similar WWII masterpiece.
Set design is something that stood out to me almost immediately. If you took any screenshots from this movie it could be mistaken for a surrealist nightmare; buildings are jagged and crumbling; the landscapes are muddy and churned up, at times, riddled with bodies; the living people look haggard, filthy and worn. In a way, this film is a beautiful nightmare. It reflects the tone of the overall movie in a wonderful way. Once of my favorite scenes in the film is when Ivan happens upon an old man who’s standing beside the ruins of his home, looking for a nail to rehang a picture on one of his remaining walls. The way the scene plays out turns the missing nail into a metaphor for something that is lost and cannot be replaced; there are tons of other small metaphors like this too. There’s another scene were Ivan tries to reach into a well to touch “the star” that lives at the bottom of the well. This too seems to be reaching out for something that isn’t there, or can never be regained.
Another thing I really liked about this film was the moral dilemma that the older officers face, particularly Galtsev, who seems to be the most disturbed by what they are doing. The film takes a real look at how these men feel about putting a child in harms way; they do their best to convince Ivan to flee the front lines, but he’s ridiculously determined. Another thing that’s great in this film is the way we discover Ivan’s motivation for doing what he’s doing. Through a dream sequence, which, again, feels nightmarish, we learn that Ivan is doing this because he wants to avenge his mother. The reason makes Ivan at once a more sympathetic character and one that is fiercer.
The cinematography is another thing that makes this film amazing. Tarkovsky’s shots always stand out as being impressive, though with “Stalker” and “Solaris” a lot of the shots were long and almost dreamlike. In this film, the shots are a lot shorter, but they are just as visually amazing. Even from the opening sequence, when Ivan sneaks back across the front, the shots are a sort of nightmarish homage to German expressionist films like “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”. Even dialogue scenes are shot with strange angles or interesting backgrounds. There isn’t a shot in the film that I’d consider boring.
See this movie.
Tarkovsky is a great arthouse director, but most of his films are ones that you really need to build up to. Not so with this film. This is a movie that I believe could be watched by most audiences, and if you like movies like this, it's going to open up a whole new world for you. The world of arthouse has plenty to offer, but this is a great place to start. It’s a film that has enough of a plot to feel like a normal movie, but it’s filled with layers of metaphor and deeper artistic meaning.
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