YOU would not be wide of the mark to describe the films of Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-86) as poetry in motion. Plot wasn’t really this director’s main concern. He sought to give audiences the means of unlocking an elegiac world that transcended whatever disquieting realities he very accurately observed.
Ivan’s Childhood (Cert. 12A), his 1962 debut feature, is the first of seven Tarkovsky movies being re-released at this time. It may not be quite in the same league as Andrei Rublev (1966), but was of high-enough quality to receive the Golden Lion Award at Venice’s Film Festival, and impress towering figures such as Ingmar Bergman, who said: “Suddenly, I found myself standing at the door of a room the keys of which had, until then, never been given to me.”
The film begins with the call of a cuckoo. Twelve-year-old Ivan (Nikolay Burlyaev) is delighting in the beauty of nature, whose luminosity is captured on camera by Vadim Yusov. It all turns out to be a dream, or at least a memory, before present reality shatters the idyll.
It is the time of the Second World War. The Soviets are defending themselves against the German army. Ivan is all alone: his family have been killed by the invaders. Revenge is uttermost in his mind; and he manages to get recruited by the army for reconnaissance purposes, and later by the partisans.
Long takes of the past, present, and future are key elements in the director’s work. (A book of essays he wrote about filmmaking is called Sculpting in Time). In Ivan’s Childhood, Tarkovsky uses a series of flashbacks and flashforwards to contrast the sadness of our aggressive tendencies with the goodness of nature surrounding us.
The boy’s childhood is sacrificed when it could and should have been otherwise. The darkness of human hearts signals for him the end of innocence. Yet the subsequent military missions that Ivan undergoes contain a sense of pilgrimage. They give his existence meaning: he has a reason to live.
One indelible image is that of a tree whose battle scars have brought it death. Tarkovsky doesn’t over-use symbolism, but there is no mistaking that this particular tree resembles the shape of a cross. That image, however, isn’t allowed the last word, but is superseded by another, one that transfigures the former.
Elsewhere in the film, Ivan is in great danger as he wades through a lake surrounded by enemy soldiers. There is the palpable feel that these waters of chaos simply ache for a divine moment when the Creation will be restored, even if that will be through hard-fought sacrifice.
Two things are going on at the same time in this film. The director is providing his political masters with a tale of Soviet heroism; but an underlying theme examines who we truly are meant to be. The war-film genre is subverted by a recurrent dreamscape chronicling humanity’s inadequate attempts to retrieve the paradise that has been lost.
An intuitive faith informs Tarkovsky’s vision. We are, like Ivan, children of God set in a beautiful world all too frequently failing to play its full part in the covenant of grace to which we are called.