Andrei Tarkovsky’s first film began life as a respectful adaptation of an autobiographical story about a child’s experiences working as a military scout during World War II. The story had already been translated into over twenty languages as well as critically acclaimed both at home and abroad but the studio’s first choice to direct the film had somehow managed to bungle the project resulting in nothing but thousands of feet of wasted film and a sizeable number of debts. After firing the director, the studio reached out to his classmate and offered him the project on the understanding that we would need to deliver a completed film as quickly and as cheaply as possible on the grounds that another man had already burned through the reserves of patience and good will that were usually accorded to novice filmmakers.
As with a number of Tarkovsky’s films, the production of Ivan’s Childhood resonates with many of the same issues as the film itself. For example, just as Tarkovsky had been denied a professional adolescence by the mistakes of his classmate, the film’s protagonist finds himself plucked from childhood and forced into premature adulthood where the world offers no protection from the consequences of his actions. Equally spooky is the way that the protagonist of Ivan’s Childhood is forced to run across minefields for the sake of those who follow just as Tarkovsky was forced to fight for the idea that directors should pursue their own artistic visions rather than contenting themselves with adapting the visions of others.
Setting aside the somewhat uncanny details of the production process, Ivan’s Childhood remains an impressive piece of filmmaking. Beautifully acted, astonishing to look at, and thematically rich, the film explores the interlocking boundaries between childhood and adulthood, dreams and reality, as well as between conscious and unconscious thought.
The film opens with a vision of Eden where a perfect and beautiful child runs, jumps, and plays under the benign gaze of his equally perfect mother. In this world, the smiles are as radiant as the sun and it’s only when the child appears to float over the side of a cliff that we realise its dreamlike impossibility. Wakefulness reunites us with the same child albeit stripped of that beatific grin. Miserable, cold, and lost in a deep, dark forest, the child clambers over abandoned artillery positions in a desperate attempt to make it home.
These opening scenes set the tone for the entire film as while the contrast between the two scenes does serve to set up a tension between the sunlit innocence of dreams and the cold dark realities of life as a child soldier, the film’s ‘real’ world actually appears no less psychological than that of the protagonist’s dreams. For example, while the opening sequence features a child levitating about the ground, the landscape above which the child floats is actually more true-to-life than the supposedly prosaic reality of a forest where the trees pulsate with gothic majesty and the ground produces objects that could have been stolen from the minds of dying soldiers. Ivan’s Childhood may explore the boundary between dreams and reality but Tarkovsky’s boundary is porous enough to allow significant two-way traffic.
The third scene presents us with yet another set of fragile oppositions as a young lieutenant is woken by the arrival of our child soldier. The fact that we move from a pair of dream-like realities to a far less ambiguously ‘real’ world invites us to question the origin of those opening dreamscapes: Was the happy, floating child a product of the miserable, damp child’s unconscious or did both dream-like vistas escape from the mind of the slumbering officer?
No sooner has the child-soldier arrived in the lieutenant’s room than Tarkovsky begins playing with the relationship between adults and children. For example, while the lieutenant is undoubtedly an adult in a position of responsibility, the child soldier appears to know significantly more about army business. The lieutenant tries to interrogate the child but the child impatiently responds with a string of code letters and instructions to contact a specific staff officer at a specific telephonic extension. Having undermined the idea that adults necessarily know more than children, Tarkovsky further muddies the waters by allowing the lieutenant to assume a parental role and look after the child soldier while they wait for the arrival of his handlers.
After being bathed, clothed and fed, the child falls into an uneasy sleep where he dreams of being trapped at the bottom of a well with his mother at the top. Far darker than the film’s opening dream sequence, this scene further complicates the film’s relationship between dreams and reality by forcing the child to relive the death of his family at German hands. This not only provides the audience with details as to the child’s background and motivations, it also complicates the film’s attitude to dreams by suggesting that they can communicate objective facts about the world as well as following the psychoanalytical tradition of using metaphorical imagery to express hidden emotional truths.
Ivan always dreams of lost innocence except when his dreams confront him with the hardships of reality. Ivan is a child except when he thinks and behaves like an adult. These different states may appear to be mutually exclusive but Ivan’s Childhood is a film in which nothing is permanent and everything flows endlessly into everything else until the film introduces an unexpected island of ontological certainty.
Though most of the film’s characters struggle not only with the hardships of reality but also with the emotional hardships involved in maintaining their adult personas, the child’s handler is the bedrock against which the shifting of their personalities and worldviews become most visible. Played by Nikolay Grinko with a hefty dose of swagger, Lieutenant-colonel Gryaznov is ready, willing, and able to assume the role of patriarch: As soon as the child soldier arrives in his office, he announces that the boy will be sent away from the front to a military school where he will be forcibly reunited with his childhood. Aside from serving as a parental figure to the child soldier he also slips into the role of the more experienced older brother who gives advice to the young lieutenant before successfully seducing his girlfriend.
The reason why I have skirted around the names of the child soldier and young lieutenant characters is that I believe them to be expressions of each other. Indeed, while the child soldier looks like a child and moves between acting like a petulant child and behaving like a supremely competent soldier, the young lieutenant looks like a fully-grown man but behaves alternately as an incompetent commander and an emotionally stable adolescent. The ambiguities surrounding the young lieutenant are most evident when he tries to discipline a female medic only to wind up stammering like a teenager on his first date. The young lieutenant’s arrested development becomes particularly evident when his behaviour towards the female medic is contrasted with the slick patter of the more experienced lieutenant-colonel Gryaznov.
The slipperiness of the characters’ identities is further explored in a wonderful scene in which the child soldier decides to run away from the base and make his own way to the front lines. On his way to the front, he comes across a ruined house inhabited by an old man who behaves not only as though the house were still intact but also as though his family were still alive. Here Tarkovsky presents us with another gloriously complex opposition as the young man forced to live in adult reality comes face-to-face with an old man who lives in a childlike dream. What makes this juxtaposition so complex is the fact that the old man suddenly snaps back to reality and talks about the death of his wife before seamlessly reverting to his more palatable fantasies.
The film’s relationships between dreams, reality, childhood, and adulthood are further explored in a scene when the child soldier is brought back to the base and told to prepare for a journey across the river into German territory. Left to his own devices, the child soldier begins playing with a knife and torch in a way that can be read both as childish escapism and adult preparation. Here, the child is playing but his play serves the grown-up purpose of helping him rehearse the techniques that will keep him alive once he returns to the hardships of the field.
The blurred lines between childhood, adulthood, dreams and reality start to make a lot more sense once you realise that Ivan’s Childhood is not so much a film about a specific child as a film about playing the role of an adult. Both the child soldier and the young lieutenant find themselves trapped between adult personas they cannot completely inhabit and childhoods they left unresolved and unfinished.
The characters’ profound ambivalence towards making the transition from childhood to adulthood is reflected in the symbolism of the river demarcating the line between Russian and German territories. Rather than simply crossing a bridge or advancing with the rest of their peers, the characters sneak across the line under cover of darkness only to spend their time on the other side fretting about how they will get back. This sense of irrational paralysis is echoed in the fact that while none of the characters really wants to be in German territory, they all turn down chances to stay behind. Like teenagers mired in the swamps of puberty they are driven hopelessly forward only to be sucked helplessly backwards.
The film ends with another succession of real and fairy-tale images as a now more mature lieutenant guides his men into bombed out German buildings during the fall of Berlin. As in Mirror, Tarkovsky anchors us to the real world with the use of footage shot on the frontlines before retreating into the subjective and the impressionistic.
Visibly scarred, the young lieutenant stands in the ruins of a German prison with official files piled up at his feet. His soldiers scramble down into the basement through a hole in the floor and return with documents cataloguing every execution and atrocity perpetrated by the Nazi war machine. The Freudian mechanics are obvious in so far as the soldiers are delving into the basement of the unconscious only to present the lieutenant with all sorts of unwanted and long-buried truths, including details of the child soldier’s execution at German hands.
Watching Ivan’s Childhood, I was struck by its extraordinary resemblance to Charles Laughton’s peerless The Night of the Hunter. Rubbished at the time of its release, Laughton’s only film took inspiration from German Impressionist cinema and presented its audience with a highly-stylised visual reconstruction of its characters’ subjective realities. This desire to recreate a child’s point of view explains why the film is so steeped in the gothic imagery of fairy tales.
Tarkovsky follows Laughton in choosing to represent the no-man’s-land between childhood and adulthood as overflowing with gothic menace. What Tarkovsky adds to Laughton’s analysis is the idea of adolescence as a temporary resting place that exerts both a push and a pull on the people whose ages surround adolescence. Thus, the child soldier is lured into adolescence when childlike innocence is wrenched from him by the horrors of war while the young lieutenant reverts to a simplified state of adolescence by virtue of his inability to cope with the hardships of adult life.
The closing images of Ivan’s Childhood explore these themes with considerable power as the battle-scarred young lieutenant physically descends into his own subconscious only to be confronted with images of nooses and guillotines imbued with the same gothic majesty as those Russian forests from the opening scenes. As he imagines the child soldier’s head rolling across the floor, the young lieutenant is plagued by feelings of guilt born of the realisation that his decision to accompany the child back across the river and into German territory resulted in the child’s death. The river represents not just the ever-shifting lines between childhood and adulthood but also the one between dream and reality. By accompanying the child across the river, the young lieutenant was forcing the boy back into pre-mature adulthood and onwards into death and fantasy. Now dead, the child lives on only in the young lieutenant’s dreams as he is visited by a sunlit beach not all that different from the one in the opening scene. The only difference between the sunlit beach dreamed of by the child and the sunlit beach dreamed of by the young lieutenant is that the young lieutenant’s beach is littered with gnarled pieces of wood that rise up out of the sands like the gun emplacements from the opening scene. Having seen too much and advanced too far towards adulthood, the young lieutenant cannot even fantasise about the kind of sunlit innocence that once haunted the child soldier’s dreams. In the mind of the young lieutenant, innocence is born flawed and destined to run screaming into darkness.
Great review. I have been meaning to rewatch this for years – must do so now. I had not thought before of the similarities to Night of the Hunter, but they are definitely there now that you mention it.
There’s one image of a cobweb in front of a human face that apoears in both movies but I couldn’t find it without going through both film withs a fine-toothed comb. Striking resemblance though :-)
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