wed 24/07/2024

Ivan’s Childhood | reviews, news & interviews

Ivan’s Childhood

Ivan’s Childhood

A film master’s first steps: reappraising Tarkovsky

'A character created and absorbed by war': Kolya Burlyaev in the title role of 'Ivan's Childhood'

The 30th anniversary of the death of Andrei Tarkovsky – the great Russian director died just before the end of 1986, on December 29, in Paris – will surely guarantee that his remarkable body of work receives new attention, and this month distributor Artificial Eye launches a programme, Sculpting Time, which will see new digitally restored versions of his seven films being re-released around the country.

Tarkovsky is certainly not a figure whose reputation has ever fallen away, but it’s as appropriate a moment as any to reconsider his extraordinary talent, not least with the images of his work brought back to their true visual magic.

Its initial offering is, appropriately, Tarkovsky’s first full-length film, Ivan’s Childhood from 1962, the work in which the remarkable nature of his talent first shone through. Part of its fascination lies in appreciating the context from which the director emerged, the elements of surrounding convention against which he would strain throughout his short life (he was only 54 when he died). The Great Patriotic War film was – and remains to this day – an almost inexhaustible genre for Russian-Soviet cinema, and the climate of the Khrushchev thaw that had begun in the mid-1950s was allowing for much more personal interpretations of its subject matter, bringing in a new level of humanisation.

Ivan's ChildhoodThe degree to which Ivan’s Childhood (pictured right) goes beyond previous such works – even classics like Ballad of a Soldier or The Cranes Are Flying, from half a decade earlier – is highlighted by the fact that the project wasn’t actually initiated by Tarkovsky. Instead, he took over a script that had been developed by another director who was subsequently dismissed: he heard about the opportunity from Vadim Yusov, the cinematographer with whom Tarkovsky had worked on his Film Institute graduation project, The Steamroller and the Violin, the previous year, a work that looks surprisingly conventional in the light of what the director would go on to make. Tarkovsky was quick in reworking the script he received, in collaboration with his close friend, the young Andrei Konchalovsky (though both would remain uncredited); the team assembled – the two writers, Yusov behind the camera – would reunite for Tarkovsky’s first undisputed masterpiece, Andrei Rublev, five years later. Ivan’s Childhood was finished by March 1962, and went on to win the main prize at the Venice festival that year, as well as earning the director – a rare thing for Tarkovsky – both critical and popular acclaim at home.

It’s hard to judge now just what was more remarkable in the creative decisions that Tarkovsky took, the elements he left out, or those he added in. The conflict itself – the actual business of fighting – is almost all off-screen: we see instead its ruined landscapes, darkly framed like the pictures of classic Soviet war photographer Dmitry Baltermants. Narrative is sometimes haphazard: we never really discover quite what Ivan’s role is, especially in the final expedition from which he will not return. The addition of the character of Masha, the medical orderly who is the sole female presence in the ongoing action of the film, seems random enough, though it brings with it the glorious birch forest scene that is as hypnotic as anything the director would make.

Ivan's ChildhoodBut it’s the additions that are all the more distinctive, the things you wouldn’t expect to find in a Soviet war film of the time. Child actor Kolya Burlyaev has a premature, almost ruthless command as the 12-year-old Ivan, who has had all the vulnerability of childhood squeezed out of him: “this is a character created and absorbed by war,” Tarkovsky would describe him. The parallel childhood world, with its central attraction to the mother (one of Tarkovsky’s ongoing preoccupations), plays out in sun-filled riverbank scenes that stand out contrapuntally against the wartime gloom.

Dream, memory, or a combination of the two? Or simply the kind of poetic epiphany – the scene at the well, or the horse and scattered apples (pictured above) – that burns itself indelibly on the memory. “Poetry can teach us to communicate a large amount of emotional information with scant means and scant words,” Tarkovsky said in an interview in the year of the film’s release, catching beautifully his true accomplishment: the ability to sculpt with shapes and silences.

The Great Patriotic War film was - and remains to this day - an almost inexhaustible genre for Russian-Soviet cinema


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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