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Andrei Tarkovsky is often considered to be one of the great auteur directors, making movies like Andrei Rublev, Solaris and The Sacrifice. His first movie was the war movie Ivan’s Childhood (My Name is Ivan in the US), a movie that won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and is now being re-released onto DVD and Blu-ray in the UK.
Ivan (Kolya Buryayev) is a 12-year-old who lost his mother and sister during the German invasion of the Soviet Union. He became a scout for the Army but as the missions get more dangerous Ivan’s superiors try to send him to safety, which Ivan defies, wanting revenge against the German officer who killed his family while he also struggles with his mental scars.
The Eastern Front was one of the most brutal theaters of the Second World War and had a profound effect on the Russian psyche. Russian cultural output also has a reputation for being dreary and Ivan’s Childhood is a gut punch – a grim look at the impact of war. Ivan’s Childhood is not a war movie for people who only enjoy more battle heavy war flicks like Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down – Ivan’s Childhood is a more sedated, small scale drama that has no action or battle scenes. It’s really a character driven art-film.
One of the great features of Ivan’s Childhood is its central character – hardly a surprise considering the title of the movie. Ivan was a brilliantly written character and a touchy role for any actor, let alone a child. Buryayev has to play Ivan as a boy who has seen massacres, is mentally and physically scared and has a burning anger against the Germans: wanting to see them suffer as much as the Soviet population has. Ivan is confident and well drilled when questioned by army officers, yet is still a child – he gets excited when he sees his father figure and runs away when adults try to make him do something he doesn’t want to. Buryayev also has to play Ivan having a happy childhood before the war shatters his perfect life. Buryayev gave a terrific performance as this complex character who has seen horrors of wars.
Ivan’s relationship with two officers, Captain Kholin (V. Zuhbov) and Second Lieutenant Galtsev (Ye. Zharikov) also plays a key part in the story. Kholin is the closest person Ivan has to a father figure but also the man most willing to put Ivan in danger. Galtsev ends up becoming a big brother to Ivan, being tender to the boy and he acts as the audience surrogate to find out information about Ivan’s past. He sees that Ivan is essentially a child with PTSD and he reluctantly agrees to help Ivan’s officers in a mission. One powerful moment is when Galtsev gives Ivan a book of German and the boy reveals his burning hatred for the Teutonic People.
Kholin and Galtsev also have a subplot involving an army nurse, Masha (V. Malyavina). Kholin is sexually aggressive towards Masha while Galtsev attempts to transfer her away from the frontline – seeing war as a venue for men. There are some parallels between Masha and Ivan with Galtsev wanting the nurse to avoid Ivan’s fate – yet that subplot could have been jettisoned.
Tarkovsky made a hypnotic film. Ivan’s Childhood sets out a bleak portrayal of war – this is obvious with the movie being centred round a child serving in the war and the psychological scars he suffers. One of the most powerful scenes is when Ivan goes to practice his revenge fantasy and it transitions into the horrific events showing civilians who had been rounded up and killed. The movie has a PG rating, but that does not mean that it lacks intensity – particularly the final shot.
The scenes set during the war show the countryside decimated, the landscape being baron and buildings have become nothing more than shells. Most of the movie is set in swamps, forests and cold bunkers. In contrast there are brightly lit flashbacks of Ivan’s life before the war where he explores the luscious countryside. These are highly romantic scenes to which they have purposely added a dream like qualities to them. The British war drama Testament of Youth took a similar approach, using a romanticism style (almost like paintings) when showing Britain before the First World War to a more drab look during the war. Tarkovsky had a classical framing approach when showing characters where there are talking and showing the landscapes: using long static shots for conversations – yet showing great ability to transition from scenes in the present to the past, blurring Ivan’s perceptions between fantasy and reality.
Come and See was another famous Soviet war film that has been praised for its brutal depiction of war. Ivan’s Childhood gave that movie its DNA – both are centred on boys joining the war effort against the Nazis, have commanders who try to protect them by trying to keep the boys away from the frontline and seeing atrocities, dehumanizing them. Both movies are set in same area – the forest of Belarus. Ivan’s Childhood and Come and See make interesting companion pieces to each other.
Ivan’s Childhood is an important war drama that is unafraid to venture into some very dark places. It has a terrific performance from Kolya Buryayev as he has to play a psychologically complicated role – as Tarkovsky navigates into his broken mind.