A boy, a war orphan, dressed in tattered clothing and shivering, is brought before a young officer, who tries to find out who he is. The boy insists that the captain alert his superiors and upbraids the captain for his scepticism, warning him of repercussions. Disconcerted, the captain finally gets through to the right officer and he is told to treat Ivan well, and that someone will pick him up. Ivan, apparently, is an asset and something of a hero. He is also the result of total war. His family has been killed in the conflict and his only function now is to help facilitate the military operations of the Soviet army. With his blond hair and ferocious and obstinate zeal he could just as easily be a poster boy for the Hitler youth, except that youth is a superficial accident with Ivan. In fact, the childhood of the title is problematic, a part of his life that seems as distant and unapproachable to Ivan as it is to any of the war-weary adults with whom he fits in. And yet he is still a child, who has dreams and on occasions nightmares, and who greets his officers, his handlers, with a hitherto unsuspected emotional warmth, leaping into Captain Kohlin’s arms when he arrives at the dugout.
It is the adults who define childhood for Ivan. It is the young captain who alone in the film (and then only at the beginning) treats Ivan like a child, doubting and scolding him and finally carrying the exhausted boy to his bunk. Ivan’s superiors are obviously emotionally invested in him, desperate that he be removed from the front to a military academy in the rear, a plan Ivan predictably has no time for. Ivan had joined a band of partisans earlier in the war, has witnessed a death camp and has run a number of missions across the river: what could a military academy possibly teach him about war? Ivan runs away when they appear intent on this plan. In a startling vignette, he meets an old man standing in the ruins of his house, looking for a nail with which to hang a picture. The futility of attempting to maintain ordinary life seems confirmed, and once Ivan is found, it is agreed he will be sent on another mission.
Ivan’s pre-war childhood is given to us in a series of dreams: a beautiful opening sequence of Ivan taking flight, his mother at a well, on an apple cart with a girl in ridiculously torrential rain, horses on the beach eating apples. Each sequence has an understandable oddness - the too heavy rain, his mother’s poetic story about the star in the deep well, ‘it’s day for us but night for the star’ - and the summery quality of the brightly lit imagery contrasts with the darkness and wintery grey of war. And yet, the uncanny nature of dream seeps into the portrayal of war, not least in Ivan’s own status as a hardened war veteran who the adults ultimately defer to. The dugout is a rag-and-bone shop of the soul, a place where men wait to go and die, bored, tinkering with gramophones and listening for the bombs. Outside, trucks lurch about in the mud, and flares are sent up and drift one after the other with numbing regularity. The quick stab at a romance seems half-hearted and desperate at the same time. Masha is in charge of the hospital, ineffectively in charge, according to the young captain who is obviously in love with her and looking for any excuse to send her away from the fighting. Captain Kohlin also makes a pass at her, kissing her as he holds her over a trench, her feet dangling. The wish for love is as forlorn as the wish for a normal childhood for Ivan or the old man’s search for a nail.
The culmination comes with the final crossing of the river, a sequence that takes on a mythological resonance. It is after all an actual Styx, with two dead Russian soldiers hung at the bank with a placard proclaiming ‘welcome’ in German. To this is added the mist, the flares that land ever closer, the relentless panning shot that accompanies the soldiers and Ivan in the boat, and Tarkovsky’s masterful use of sound. Throughout the film, sound has played a role; the dripping of rain water or the cracking of logs in a stove evoke not only place, but the heightened perceptions of men who are living every day as if it were their last.
Tarkovsky’s first feature-length film, Ivan’s Childhood established him immediately as a major new talent in Soviet and world cinema. It won prizes at several festivals as well as taking the top prize, the Golden Lion, at the Venice Film Festival where it premiered in 1962. Tarkovsky benefited from circumstance; a thawing of the political situation allowed for the film’s more critical depiction of the war, and an earlier version of the story had been abandoned, leaving the door open for him. In a way it was a false dawn for Tarkovsky, whose relationship with the Soviet authorities would become increasingly problematic, leading him to make his last film, The Sacrifice, in Sweden. Ivan’s Childhood remains a stunning debut, a moving and immersive film that both denounces war and evokes its dreamlike beauty.