“My discovery of Tarkovsky’s first film was like a miracle. Suddenly, I found myself standing at the door of a room the keys of which had, until then, never been given to me. It was a room I had always wanted to enter and where he was moving freely and fully at ease. I felt encouraged and stimulated: someone was expressing what I had always wanted to say without knowing how. Tarkovsky is for me the greatest, the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream.” – Ingmar Bergman
A harrowing yet poetic account of war seen through the eyes of a twelve year old boy, Ivan’s Childhood aka My Name is Ivan (1962) was Andrei Tarkovsky’s first feature film and one that had a major impact on Russian cinema and the international film world (It won the Golden Lion at the 1962 Venice International Film Festival).
The film, based on a novella by Vladimir Bogomolov, traces the brief life of a young concentration camp escapee, working as a spy for the Russian army during World War II. Recently orphaned – his mother and father were murdered, his sister killed by a bomb – Ivan dedicates himself to revenge against the Germans and willingly accompanies two Russian soldiers into a ‘No Man’s Land’ between the two armies where they hope to retrieve the bodies of some dead comrades.
The ironic Russian title, Ivan’s Childhood, is actually the more appropriate one since Ivan has already lost his innocence when the film opens. Here is a young boy who has had his childhood stolen from him by a man-made calamity. In the title role, Nikolai Burlyayev gives a remarkable performance, his expressive features allowing him to appear as a hungry, wide-eyed waif one moment and as a confident, expert assassin in the next.
Equally unique is Andrei Tarkovsky’s direction, which resembles a stream of consciousness narrative, blending realistic action sequences with the visions, dreams, and memories of the title character. There are also numerous cultural references to art, religion, music, and poetry and the visual compositions of the film are often haunting and unconventional: a light above a table swings back and forth to the sound of shellfire, reflections of leafless trees in a lake resemble crosses, a sudden explosion destroys a wall to reveal an icon of the Madonna and child, tilted over at an oblique angle.
When Tarkovsky began work on Ivan’s Childhood, he was actually replacing another director – E. Abalov – on the project. While it was a difficult production for him – much of the production money had already been spent when he started – Tarkovsky was attracted to Bogomolov’s atypical war story that concentrated on the warped personality of the young military scout and downplayed the heroic military exploits.
The original screenplay, co-scripted by Mikhail Papava, gave Ivan a happy ending, allowing him to survive the war, marry, and raise a family. But Bogomolov protested this departure from his novella and Tarkovsky remained faithful to the author’s vision that Ivan remain a tragic hero who met the fate of most young Soviet scouts during the war.
Unlike the original story, Tarkovsky added four dream sequences and other visual touches to illustrate Ivan’s psychological state in the film which did not please the novella’s author. Some of his creative decisions were challenged by the studio which reviewed his work in a strict, bureaucratic matter, subjecting him to thirteen ‘editorial’ sessions, presided over by respected Russian artists from the literary and film community. At these, major and minor changes were requested such as the removal of the love scene or the graphic documentary footage featuring charred Nazi corpses (excised from the U.S. release) but Mikhail Romm, Tarkovsky’s mentor, effectively argued against cutting any footage.
When My Name is Ivan was released in 1962, it brought Tarkovsky international fame almost immediately. At numerous film festivals from San Francisco to Acapulco, Tarkovsky was recognized as an emerging poet of the medium and even many Russian critics saw the film as a major leap forward in contemporary Soviet cinema. But he still had to contend with some critical backlash from Soviet authorities who found the film too stylistically complex or overtly pessimistic.
In his book, Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema, Tarkovsky wrote: “Working on Ivan’s Childhood we encountered protests from the film authorities every time we tried to replace narrative causality with poetic articulations…There was no question of revising the basic working principles of film-making. But whenever the dramatic structure showed the slightest sign of something new – of treating the rationale of everyday life relatively freely – it was met with cries of protest and incomprehension. These mostly cited the audience: they had to have a plot that unfolded without a break, they were not capable of watching a screen if the film did not have a strong story-line. The contrasts in the film – cuts from dreams to reality, or, conversely, from the last scene in the crypt to victory day in Berlin – seemed to many to be inadmissible. I was delighted to learn that audiences thought differently.”
Ivan’s Childhood is often cited as one of the great Russian films of the 20th century and most film critics agree that it is a remarkable and audacious film debut that announces a major talent. Mark Chalon Smith of The Los Angeles Times best sums up the film’s unique qualities when he wrote that Andrei Tarkovsky “often said that music was the most effective of all art forms, simply because it evokes feelings in the most ineffable but far-reaching ways.Tarkovsky spent his career trying to infuse his movies with that quality… While the emotional weight of “Ivan” is clear from the first frames–Tarkovsky doesn’t stray from making us feel the pain of Ivan’s world–there is that sense of music the director is so intent on conveying. At the picture’s best, it ranges from brutal overtures to sensitive solos. His style is to link images, sometimes diverse, in a cinematic pastiche. He shifts from scenes of Ivan’s harsh experiences in the war to almost surreal scenes of better times, whether real or imagined…The images can be jarring and even obtuse. But the abstract sway gives “Ivan” a powerful resonance.”
Ivan’s Childhood has been released over the years on VHS, DVD and Blu-Ray by different distributors but those who want to own a copy should check out The Criterion Collection edition on DVD and Blu-ray which includes a new high-definition digital restoration, interviews with cinematographer Vadim Yusov and actor Nikolai Burlyaev and a video interview with film scholar Vida T. Johnson, who co-wrote The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue. *This is a revised and expanded version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.
Other websites of interest: