One of the most assured debuts in cinema history, Ivan’s Childhood (1962) marked director Andrei Tarkovsky’s arrival on the world stage. Shot in stark black and white, it remains an almost flawless classic nearly 50 years later. Intermingling themes of innocence lost with those of the dehumanising effects of war, we witness the first dazzling creative flourishes of a director who, even through a relatively minimal output, would leave an indelible mark on audiences in the decades that followed.
Ivan (Kolya Burlyaev) is a 12 year old boy sent into the front lines as a scout extracting intelligence during wartime. Contrasting the idyllic opening – an alternate glimpse at a version of childhood annexed by the impending tide of battle – with desperate scrabbling in grimy, claustrophobic surrounds, Tarkovsky makes his distinction clear: there are no grey spots on this ruthless killing ground, especially in light of the consequences of a child being used as a pawn. Most saddening is Ivan’s riled-up enthusiasm for even more active participation, reciting his hatred for the Germans with the fervor of a battle-hardened general.
The cost of warfare is high by any measure, a potentially lethal exposure to a cruelty enshrined by death and dislocation. Though others around him – including soldiers barely out of their teens – try to placate Ivan and convince him of more time in a military academy, the boy decries their lack of foresight, demanding greater responsibility. But a sense of inevitable doom begins to worm its way into proceedings and with deliberate detachment the final scenes play out almost anti-climatically.
Startling visual creativity would become a Tarkovsky trademark and here he transforms the occasionally non-linear structure into an unnerving phantasmagorical dream. Little in the way of rugged warfare is externalized; rather, Ivan’s interactions and mental deterioration form the basis of much of the narrative. Gradually Tarkovsky mines deeper beneath the strata of the psyche of a boy coerced into participating in an horrific adult sphere, the innocence of childhood snatched from his grasp like a toy.
Unforgettable images appear with regularity through Tarkovsky’s lens: the opening crane shot as a beatifically contented Ivan imagines himself gliding over the land; Ivan’s view from within a well of his mother and sister’s murder; the ghostly white trees of the surrounding forests; and with greatest resonance – the fluid, impressionistic terror at the height of Ivan’s fever delirium, shot as a terrifying vision amidst the deterioration of his mind; here Tarkovsky and cinematographer Vadim Yusov meld the confined surrounds of a ruined church with a haunting of sights and sounds, both real and imagined, in what is surely the film’s most provocative and powerful sequence.
Tarkovsky’s extraordinarily expert grasp of cinematic language at such an early stage is matched by the towering performance of his miniature lead actor, young Burlyaev – surely one of the most remarkable by a child ever committed to celluloid. Though this important director would later progress to fully-fledged masterpieces like Andrei Rublev (1966), Solaris (1972) and Stalker (1979), films marked by their depth and maturity, Ivan’s Childhood is an impressive reminder of his stunning cinematic entry point.