Ivanovo detstvo (Ivan’s Childhood) is the story of boy’s life during World War II. Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky and screenplay by Vladimir Bogomolov and Mikhail Papava, the film is an exploration of a boy caught in the middle of war as he tries to come to terms with what he’s seeing. Starring Nikolai Burlyaev, Valentin Zubkov, Yevgeni Zharikov, Stepan Krylov, Nikolai Grinko, and Irma Raush. Ivanovo detstvo is an entrancing yet engrossing drama from Andrei Tarkovsky.
The film is about a boy named Ivan (Nikolai Burlyaev) who works as a spy for a group of soldiers as he ponders about what to do as the war is in its last legs. Throughout the film, he’s surrounded by three different men who care for his well-being in a young lieutenant named Galtsev (Yevgeni Zharikov), a kind and resourceful corporal in Katasonych (Stepan Krylov), and a captain named Kholin (Valentin Zubkov). Yet, they wonder why he’s in the middle of an upcoming battle against the Germans as their superior Lt. Colonel Gryaynov (Nikolai Grinko) hopes to send him to military school much to Ivan’s dismay as he would try to run away only to be retrieved as he has to sit behind while the other men prepare for battle.
Ivan wants to help in doing reconnaissance work yet the three men who care for him don’t want him in anymore danger after the loss of soldiers as both Lt. Galstev and Captain Kholin are also vying for a young nurse named Masha (Valentina Malyavina) as they see her as a companion for life after the war. It’s part of a subplot that explores the idea of war and its fallacies as it still revolves around Ivan who lost his mother (Irma Raush) and family by the war where he’s kept in this room surrounded by words of vengeance on the wall. Throughout the film, there’s flashbacks of a much less chaotic life where Ivan had a childhood that is very pleasant as he is often seen with his mother as these flashbacks would pop once in a while.
The screenplay explores war from the perspective of children as it follows Ivan around as he treks around his surroundings while the script also follows characters like Lt. Galtsev, Cpl. Katasonych, and Captain Kholin as they prepare for battle. While the Masha subplot and Ivan’s flashbacks does give the main narrative a bit of a break, it allows the characters involved to be fleshed out more as they all want to live a life outside of war.
The direction of Andrei Tarkovsky is truly mesmerizing as it would display many of the compositions that he would hone into later films that would be part of his trademark. Notably in the way he opens the film with a flashback of a peaceful time where the camera soars in the air for something that will seem peaceful and then it cuts into something much darker as Ivan treks around the river swamps hoping to evade the Germans. It is then followed by an interrogation scene where Tarkovsky’s camera is always directed at the protagonist as he reveals to this young lieutenant what he’s doing. It’s a very chilling moment that establishes more about who this boy and the young lieutenant who would eventually become one of the three who would care for him.
Many of the interior scenes would have Ivan observing the three men or if he’s by himself, pretend that he’s in battle just as the real battle is happening outside. Tarkovsky always ensure that it’s a war film told from a child’s perspective. Notably in the film’s third act when Ivan would do things to help out in the war where there’s a level of suspense that is engrossing in the way Tarkovsky frames the scenes and the tension that occurs. Scenes such as Captain Kholin’s conversation with Masha in the woods is among one of Tarkovsky’s highlights in his directing for the way he can create beauty in something that is so simple like the woods. Overall, Tarkovsky creates a truly astonishing yet harrowing film about war and the loss of innocence.
Cinematographer Vadim Yusov does spectacular work with the film‘s black-and-white photography from the evocative yet sunnier look of the daytime scenes to the more entrancing exteriors in the main narrative such as the scenes in the woods while the interior lighting is exquisite for the ominous tone it presents. Editor Lyudmila Feiginova does superb work by creating wonderful cuts to play out the suspense and drama that unfolds throughout the film.
Production designer Yevgeny Chernyaev does excellent work with the few set pieces created such as the trenches and the room that Ivan shares with Captain Kholin and Lt. Galtsev. The special effects work of V. Sevostyanov and S. Mukhin is terrific for the dream sequence Ivan has with a young girl to exemplify the world he wants to return to. The film’s score by Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov is incredible for its sweeping orchestral arrangements for the film’s flashback scenes with more suspenseful themes to play up in the darker moments that is filled with intense string arrangements.
The film’s cast is brilliant for the ensemble that is created as it features memorable small roles from Dmitri Miliutenko as an old man Ivan meets, filmmaker Andrei Konchalovsky as a soldier Masha knows, Valentina Malyavina as the army nurse Masha, Nikolai Grinko as the stern Lt. Col. Gryaznov, Stepan Krylov as the helpful and friendly Corporal Katasonych, and Irma Raush as Ivan’s mother in the flashback scenes. Yevgeni Zharikov is excellent as the young lieutenant Galtsev who becomes concerned for Ivan’s well-being after getting to know him while wondering about Captain Kholin’s ideas.
Valentin Zubkov is great as the caring Captain Kholin who ponders a life outside of war for himself as well as Ivan whom he treats like a son. Finally, there’s Nikolai Burlyaev as Ivan as Burlyaev’s performance is truly unforgettable for bringing a sense of realism and determination to a child wanting to help out but also be an individual as it’s really one of the great performances from a child.
The 2007 Region 1 DVD from the Criterion Collection presents the film in its original 1:33:1 full-frame aspect ratio with Dolby Digital Mono sound. With a newly-restored high-definition transfer, the film is presented with a richness that is true to the reputation of the late Andrei Tarkovsky.
The DVD features Life as a Dream, a 30-minute video appreciation about the film and Tarkovsky as told by Tarkovsky expert Vida T. Johnson who reveals a lot about Tarkovsky’s visual style. Even as she provides some historical tidbits on post-Stalin Soviet cinema where Tarkovsky would be a part of as the film was among a group of new wave Eastern European cinema that talked about World War II. Johnson also discusses the production’s history where even though it wasn’t meant to be a Tarkovsky film in the first place. She stated that it was the film where Tarkovsky felt he had finished his apprenticeship that would lead to a career of very personal and poetic films.
The DVD also includes a booklet that features essays and such relating to the film. The first is an essay by Dina Iordanova entitled Dream Come True discusses the history of late 50s Soviet cinema and how much the film made an impact not just for the country but also for international cinema of the 1960s. Iordanova also discusses Tarkovsky’s methods and how this film would really be a stepping stone for everything that he would do with his later films. The second essay Between Two Films is from Andrei Tarkovsky who recalls his memories on the film’s production and his ideas about creating scenes for the film. Notably to infuse poetic ideas to help tell a story as it’s an essay that is very interesting. The third and final text piece is small poem from Tarkovsky’s father Arseny entitled “Ivan’s Willow” that was considered to be an influence on Tarkovsky in his approach to the film.
Ivanovo detstvo is a mesmerizing war drama from Andrei Tarkovsky. The film is definitely not just a superb debut film from Tarkovsky but also one of the most engrossing films about the horrors of war. Thanks to a great cast and amazing technical work, it’s also a very hypnotic film for the way Tarkovsky presents the decayed beauty of war. In the end, Ivanovo detstvo is a tremendous film from Andrei Tarkovsky.
Related: The Short Films of Andrei Tarkovsky - Voyage in Time - One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich - The Auteurs #14: Andrei Tarkovsky
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