Andrei Tarkovsky’s directorial debut opens with a dream, or is it a nightmare? Twelve-year-old Ivan (Nikolai Burlyayev) is sailing on the top of trees. Below his feet are nature’s bounty and his beloved mother. He snaps out of his vision in a cold and dark room, which reveals how far Ivan has travelled from his immediate past. His family is dead, but Ivan is frighteningly alive. One of the countless casualties of WWII, the precocious but disturbed child has made himself useful to Russian troops fighting the Germans by carrying out reconnaissance missions. A soldier keeps trying to enroll Ivan in a military boarding school, but the boy wants instant revenge against the “Fritzes”, as the Germans are derogatorily called.
Ivan’s Childhood, based on Vladimir Bogomolov’s novella Ivan, came after other Russian cinematic explorations of the emotional and psychological impact of WWII, notably Ballad of a Soldier (1959). Ivan’s Childhood is an early indication of the poetic humanism and mysticism that would result in such masterpieces as Solaris, Stalker and Mirror. Tarkovsky fills his non-linear narrative with surreal and hallucinatory compositions. Prose meets poetry in the realistic depictions of life in the Army barracks and trenches and the stylised dream logic that governs Ivan’s thoughts. Even an interlude involving a love triangle between soldiers and a nurse in a tree-lined forest becomes an experience of the ordinary.
An old man whom Ivan meets while wandering through the ruins of his house prophetically says, “No stove or chimney will ever burn down.” Ivan can never escape the power of his memories, and Tarkovsky’s eye ensures that nobody who has watched Ivan’s Childhood will ever forget the true meaning of war.
Nikolai Burlyayev’s indelible performance captures the confusion, abjectness and tragedy of WWII. The Germans are understandably the villains here, but Tarvoksky’s message is equally aimed at any government, authoritarian or otherwise, that willingly pushes its population into the jaws of death. After the war ends, Russian soldiers wander in shock through a German house of horrors, where prisoners of war and partisans have been hung from the rafters. Here, they find the starkest possible evidence of how they have failed Ivan, the boy who became a man far too soon.
The state-run Mosfilm studio that produced Ivan’s Childhood was flummoxed by the poetic flourishes, Tarkovsky writes in the book of essays Sculpting in Time. With his first feature, Tarkovsky was laying down the foundation for his directorial vision, one that is made up of dreams and visions, fragmented and associative imagery and the disruption of textbook linearity. “Isolated impressions of the day have set off impulses within us, evoked associations; objects and circumstances have stayed in our memory, but with no sharply defined contours, incomplete, apparently fortuitous. Can these impressions of life be conveyed through film? They undoubtedly can; indeed, it is the especial virtue of cinema, as the most realistic of the arts, to be the means of such communication,” Tarkovsky writes.