by Stephen Mullen
Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood begins with the sound of a cuckoo, and a shot of a boy standing behind a tree, looking up at us through cobweb. It ends with the same boy chasing a little girl along a beach, the two of them circling a dead black tree, that seems to keep forcing itself into the image. Both are dreams: the boy, Ivan, is in the middle of a war, dreaming of the world before the war, his childhood. He is still a child in the present of the film, but his childhood is long gone.
Ivan’s Childhood, like Germany Year Zero, is a war film about childhood that is also a childhood film about war, using each side of the equation to heighten the emotion of the other. Ivan is already a hardened veteran when Ivan’s Childhood begins – orphaned, a partisan, now working for the regular army as a scout. That is where he is when the film’s story begins – but that is not how the film begins. It begins with the dream, Ivan walking, running, flying, through fields and forests, coming to rest at his mother’s feet, drinking from a bucket of water. It begins with the childhood he has lost, before waking him to the war he is living in. But it is a very thin line between waking and dreaming. The difference may mean everything to Ivan, but it is very permeable for Tarkovsky’s filmmaking. In Ivan’s dream, Tarkovsky’s camera soars and swirls, almost gleefully defying gravity and rules of space. But when Ivan wakes in a ruined windmill and goes out, the camera remains as vertiginous as in the dream, swinging around, taking extreme angles, cutting up his experiences into flashes of imagery. Real life is immediately established as being as disorienting and strange as any dream.
As we come to know Ivan, we see that he thinks of himself as an adult, the equal of anyone around him – but he is still a child. In the banal outside world, he tries to be an adult, but he isn’t, and he remains at the mercy of the men around him. They try to force him to be a child, to go to school, to find surrogate parents, none of which he he thinks he needs. And Tarkovsky’s filmmaking emphasizes Ivan’s subjectivity, both awake and in dreams, in ways that show just how close he is to his lost childhood. Dreams and childhood push into his life, haunting him. Ivan isn’t always sure which is which – he worries that he is talking in his sleep, his dreams and memories escaping into the world where he wants to be treated as an adult. And apart from the dreams, we see that Ivan has a kind of psychic bond to the world around him. Much of the film is set in a house serving as headquarters for Lt. Galtsev’s unit, a house where 8 Russians, none over 19, were held before being shot by the Germans. Their last message is written on the wall – “Avenge us” they say. Tarkovsky emphasizes this graffiti throughout the film – and Ivan, when left alone in the room, is swept up into the story of those executed children. He hears them; feels them; sees them (and his mother, and himself). He seems to slip between his present and the past, theirs and his own, increasingly acting out their story. They are palpable ghosts for him.
It’s not just how Ivan sees the world, but how Tarkovsky sees the world that keeps the boundaries between reality and visions permeable. The camera work remains fluid and inventive throughout; the editing disruptive, jumping across time and space without connections. Things appear out of context, and Tarkovsky takes his time to reveal the context. For example, the first sight we have of Lt. Galtsev – a hand sticking up out of a blackness. A hand coming out of the ground? Out of the swamp Ivan had been wading through? No – eventually we see it is just a man, sleeping. But Tarkovsky delays the revelation. Similar imagery continues – isolated body parts (of the living or the dead); slippage between reality, flashbacks, visions and dreams; and the nature shots – vertiginous rows of trees, people moving through them; the earth disappearing under their feet. Some of this harkens back to other films – especially to Cranes Are Flying, another crucial Soviet war film. Tarkovsky’s camera work owes a lot to that film – the camera flying, spinning, moving, dancing, all of it in luscious black and white. As well as specific scenes and moments – particularly the scenes in a wooded swamp, referring to the death of the hero of Cranes Are Flying.
There are thematic parallels as well – the way human beings are swallowed by nature; the god’s eye views and worm’s eye views of the world. But we can see some of Tarkovsky’s obsessions appearing as well. Bells – pervasive natural imagery, the elements (earth water air and fire) – flying – memories, visions, dreams – and images and words on walls, seeming to come off the walls, into the minds of the characters in the film.
And in the end, Tarkovsky blurs all the lines of the film – between reality and visions, between Ivan’s subjectivity and others, between all the times of the film. The final sequence takes place at the end of the war, the Soviets going throught he ruins of Germany – Galtsev, the only survivor, going through old Nazi records, looking at the fate of their prisoners. He finds Ivan’s record – and it is as if he can follow the records into Ivan’s memories and dreams. He imagines/sees/feels Ivan’s death – rather, the film shows it, but shows it as if Galtsev were experiencing it. And Tarkovsky moves from the vision of Ivan’s death to another dream, children on a beach, Ivan and his mother again – in a way here that links Galtsev to Ivan’s mother, making identical gestures, reality and dream combining:
And so we end, with Ivan playing on the beach, running, laughing, with a little girl – though still haunted by the image of the war, that gaunt stark tree in the middle of the beach. (That reminds me, maybe incongruously, but maybe not, of the hanging tree in Budd Boetticher’s Ride Lonesome.) The kids play, but around that tree, that seems to keep intruding into the frame, and finally swallows them up.