Ivanovo detstvo (1962)

IVAN’S CHILDHOOD (Ivanovo detstvo) (aka: My Name Is Ivan)

(director/writer: Andrei Tarkovsky; screenwriters: Vladimir Mikhail Papava/Bogomolov/from the short story Ivan by Vladimir Bogomolov; cinematographer: Vadim Yusov; editor: Lyudmila Feiginova; music: Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov; cast: Nikolai Burlyayev (Ivan), Valentin Zubkov (Capt. Kholin), Yevgeni Zharikov (Lt. Galtsev), Stepan Krylov (Cpl. Katasonych), Nikolai Grinko (Col. Gryaznov), Valentina Malyavina (Masha), Dmitri Milyutenko (Old Man), Irina Raush Tarkovskaya (Ivan’s Mother), Vera Miturich (Ivan’s female playmate); Runtime: 95; MPAA Rating: NR; Russian Cinema Council Collection; 1962-Russian-in Russian with English subtitles)

“Leaves us with a haunting vision of war and what it does to children.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Noted visionary Russian writer-director Andrei Tarkovsky’s first feature is a conventional (at least by his standards) austere Russian wartime fable about the ‘Great Patriotic War’ (WWII) as seen through the lost childhood eyes of the 12-year-old waif named Ivan (Nikolai Burlyayev, schoolboy from Moscow who would be the bell-maker in Tarkovsky’s next film in 1967 Andrei Rublev). The film is set in the Ukraine, east of the Carpathians, where there are two rivers, the Dniester and the Dnieper (the shooting took place at Kaujen on the Dnieper, except for the love scene at the birch forest). This is Tarkovsky at his simplest (though visually it is loaded with poetic touches), not given to his usual religious bombast, love affair with the peasant folks and abstract philosophical musings, just trying to see if he’s fit to be a director and made before he began to take himself far too seriously. The result is a mixed bag: it doesn’t have the arty pretentiousness of most of his films from after Solaris, but it also lacks the depth of those films. What it does have is the filmmaker’s superb cinematic effects such as the beautifully realized lyrical black and white forestscapes, four enthralling surreal dream sequences (one that opens and another that closes the film), the war breathlessly played out in terms of life-and-death struggles, a wonderlike respect for childhood memories and his usual themes of angst and displacement. Cinematographer Vadim Yusov’ camera provides a special ‘air of freedom’ to breathe in the bleak landscape, whose arty camera work seems to be indebted to fellow Russian cameraman Urusevsky’s work in the “Cranes are Flying.” It won the top prize, the Golden Lion award, at the 1962 Venice Film Festival.

It opens by means of a flashback, as we view the twelve-year-old Ivan at happier times at age four as he runs to tell his smiling mother (Irina Raush Tarkovskaya, the director’s first wife) of the cuckoo song. But the dream is interrupted by the harsh sounds of gunfire in the dark hellish surroundings as the Holocaust-looking Ivan is making his way back to the Russian lines by swimming through a swamp after carrying out a dangerous reconnaissance mission at the enemy’s front lines. The high-strung and haughty youngster makes contact with a skeptical young Lt. Galtsev (Yevgeni Zharikov), who at first doesn’t believe the youngster is part of the mission until he makes contact with HQs and learns of the child’s importance to the company when he speaks to the company’s gruff commander Col. Gryaznov (Nikolai Grinko). Ivan is taken back to the bunker at headquarters by his battle-tested bachelor friend Captain Kholin (Valentin Zubkov) and we soon learn that Ivan’s border guard soldier father, mother and sister were all killed by the Nazis and that he’s lost his childhood innocence and has become filled with hatred and vengeance for the Nazis. Though returned to a school, the youngster ran away and threatened to join the partisans if not allowed to go out on missions. The wise colonel would like to send him to military school and ensure that he has a good military career, but Ivan threatens to run away from there also. The captain is dissuaded from adopting Ivan by the colonel, who finds him a bit rough around the edges and sometimes can act like a lout and sees that Ivan will not be helped much by having such a soldier father during peacetime. At the bunker Ivan happily reunites with the grizzled Corporal Katasonych (Stepan Krylov), who partners with him on these covert missions. While waiting for the next mission, we follow Captain Kholin as he shows a romantic interest in the attractive and vulnerable new company medic Masha (Valentina Malyavina), as he takes her out to the birch grove and tries to seduce her by chatting about fear and safety. She refuses his advances, but he forcefully grabs her as she crosses a trench and kisses her while straddling the trench. He finally successfully woos her but mysteriously decides not to after she seems willing to be seduced; the lieutenant also flirts with her but feels war is no place for a woman and arranges for her transfer to a hospital away from the front lines.

The film’s centerpiece action sequence has the captain, lieutenant and boy go out on what turns out to be their final covert mission by boat across the river to the German front lines, as the lieutenant takes the place of the slain corporal. The mission also calls for the men to rescue the corpses of the two Russian scouts found hanging from the trees by the river bank. The two men return unscathed, but Ivan will not be seen alive again and will be only discovered as a victim of a Nazi hanging by the lieutenant who accidentally discovers Ivan’s records in the bombed-out German Chancery at the war’s conclusion. The earnest lieutenant lives and takes the place of Ivan as the film’s hero and the hope of the new Russia, while the fierce captain dies in the battle of Berlin as symbolically do all the daring men of courage who sacrificed their lives for their country. Nothing more is made of Ivan’s death, except he died as just another casualty of such a horrific war. Tarkovsky even tries to compare Ivan’s death as an innocent vic with the death of Goebbels’ six children at the hands of their suicidal madman father. But there’s no love between Russian and German, as this is clearly brought out in one scene when Ivan is looking through the art book taken from the Germans of Durer’s “The Apocalypse” and can only see the Germans as killers.

The film’s ending dream sequence has Ivan happily chasing a little girl over the sands into the shallow sea and it ends on this dreamlike note of hope for a return to peaceful childhood memories, yet leaves us with a haunting vision of war and what it does to children.