Ivan’s Childhood’s major themes of sacrifice, fraternity and personal obsession with a single purpose—these ideas are the very stuff of the Soviet victory in the war—would become dominant topics in Tarkovsky’s oeuvre.
The generation of filmmakers that emerged in the Soviet Bloc in the years of the Khrushchev Thaw (early ’50s-early ’60s) had all come of age during the Second World War and its centrality in shaping their imaginations and worldviews is apparent in each of their work. This is not surprising; the war thoroughly devastated Poland, Hungary, Ukraine and the western-most one-third of Russia. This area was ground zero for the Holocaust and saw violence carried out by the Nazi occupiers, the Soviet Red Army and the various armed factions and partisans that arose to resist or collaborate with the two principal warring sides.
Andrei Tarkovsky is no exception. As with his generational peers, the Great Patriotic War is a central motif and foundational event in his filmmaking career. This is never more apparent than in his feature debut, Ivan’s Childhood, a film set right in the middle of the war as the Soviet Red Army prepares the counteroffensive against the Nazi invaders that would ultimately decide the war. Ivan’s Childhood’s major themes of sacrifice, fraternity and personal obsession with a single purpose—these ideas are the very stuff of the Soviet victory in the war—would become dominant topics in Tarkovsky’s oeuvre.
Ivan’s Childhood follows the eponymous Ivan, a 12-year-old boy and war orphan who works as an advance scout for the Soviet army. The Nazis murdered his entire family and the boy is hell-bent on vengeance as his personal way forward in life. When his commanders try to reason with him and send him away from the front to a military academy or boarding school, he refuses to listen and threatens to run away and return to the front to continue fighting. To his fellow soldiers, he is just a scrawny little child who should not bear responsibility for pursuing the war, but Ivan seems himself as the perfect military scout: stealthy, deadly when holding a knife and with no family to be aggrieved should he fall. The waking Ivan is ferocious and temperamental, but when the boy falls asleep, his dreams are full of nostalgia and hope, his mother and his sister and the future robbed from him by the war.
Much of the film is a contest of wills between these two perceptions of who Ivan is: ideal citizen-soldier versus cherubic innocent. It is a metaphor of the Soviet Union itself during the Great Patriotic War, as the country lost more than 20 million citizens (more than 40 times as many casualties as the US experienced), yet emerged from the war with a new sense of purpose and with the industrial base to become a global superpower. What Tarkovsky does with Ivan’s Childhood is ask about what was lost in the bargain: what did winning the war cost the Soviet Union and the Russian people? What future Russias were sacrificed so that the armed-to-the-teeth nuclear-power USSR could be created and the war won? Tarkovsky, obviously, does not suggest that winning the war was a bad outcome, but he does demand that the viewer consider what winning did for the national character. Look, he says, as little Ivan, the beautiful boy-turned-crazed-soldier and understand that he is a mirror.
Beyond establishing many of the principal themes that Tarkovsky’s career would focus upon, Ivan’s Childhood also showed off the director’s preternatural eye for camera placement and scene design. Interior scenes throughout the film are laden with sinister shadows that recall the German Expressionists of the pre-Nazi years and the exterior shots connote the epic scope of the war on the Eastern Front. His ability to forge details into humanizing moments is one that future war films would copy, as is seen in Spielberg’s homages—onions and phonographs!—in Saving Private Ryan. Ivan’s dream sequences feature a bouncing, whirling camera and jaunty angles, the sort of shots that cinephiles associate with Tarkovsky, his signature already apparent even in his first work. Finally, Ivan’s Childhood climaxes with a shocking time jump and a big-reveal ending, both of which would also become Tarkovsky trademarks.
As either war allegory or harbinger of the things to come for Tarkovsky’s illustrious career, Ivan’s Childhood is something of a paradigmatic film.