Grading Historical Movies: Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Ivan’s Childhood” (1962)

Note:  Students in Stephen Norris’s HST/FST 252, History at the Movies, are grading historical films and offering reviews on how assigned films render the past.  The fifth film assigned in this Fall 2018 version of the course, which focuses on European films about World War II, was Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1962 Ivan’s Childhood.

Overall grade from 45 students: B

Review One

By C.J. Carney

Letter Grade: B

Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood illustrates the historical truth of war’s destructive tendencies and the emotional truth of how death impacts a child’s innocence. The film focuses on war’s destruction of childhood innocence as we see during Ivan’s dream sequences. The film’s emotional truth is delivered through the impact the war has on Ivan’s emotions, which turn from happiness to vengeance. We see Ivan’s intense desire to avenge his family’s deaths. We also glimpse Ivan’s happy childhood in his dreams, but that happiness is twisted by the destructive nature of the real world of war. Even the dreams have a dark undertone at the end of each sequence to show how that his childhood was lost because of the war.

Ivan’s Childhood tells the story of 12-year-old orphaned boy, who is all alone on the Eastern Front during World War II. The story is told in a non-linear fashion as throughout the film there are various flashbacks, with dream sequences, which provide details about Ivan’s childhood. Through the dream sequences and the conversations with other characters, it is evident that Ivan’s mother and the rest of his family were killed by the Nazis. As a result, Ivan joins the war cause in order to avenge the death of his family. Ivan is apparently a favorite spy for a Russian colonel Gryaznov, which is found out after Lieutenant Galstev interrogates him. As a result of this usefulness he become more involved on the front. There is also a subplot in the film between a military captain, Kholin and Galtsev’s affection toward one of the army nurses named Masha. In many ways this subplot interferes with the film’s historical interpretation: throughout most of the film it is very hard to get emotionally attached to the characters and the subplot with Masha doesn’t contribute to the message or the truth that the director is trying to convey. The central message of the film revolves around Ivan and his childhood experiences represented in his dreams.

With the non-linear plot, Tarkovsky’s message in the film can be interpreted in various ways. The plot starts with Ivan, then it shifts to the romance of Masha and the two Russian military officers, then it shifts to the Ivan preparing for a mission, then to the mission itself, and then finally to the war’s aftermath where we find out that Ivan was hung by the Nazis. However, the overall message that Tarkovsky is trying to convey is the war’s corruption of youth and its destruction on childhood innocence. Ivan’s innocence has been utterly destroyed by the war:  every aspect of a normal childhood has shattered. The film itself is therefore not a straightforward story as much as it is a compilation of images showing the war’s destructive tendencies. In the end, though, the basic message is clear enough:  this destructive war ruins childhood too.

Review Two

By Paige Ross

Letter Grade:  B-

Ivan’s Childhood tells the story of 12-year old Ivan Bondarev who has lost his entire family to World War II and is now in search of a way to gain revenge against the forces that destroyed his life and his childhood forever.

The four main characters struggle with what to make of Ivan and his role in the war effort as well as his desire to be a part of the front lines, a soldier fighting for his country. While the adults in Ivan’s Childhood are tempted to view the boy as nothing more than the lost and destroyed boy he is, Ivan’s trauma has aged him and creates a kind of warped maturity combined with a sense of stunted childhood innocence. The film illustrates the painful and all-consuming nature of wartime trauma on its victims and includes flashback/dream sequences to give the audience a glimpse of Ivan’s embattled mind and past. The film also provides a more extensive look at the trauma of war as inflicted on a child. Ivan’s Childhood is shot utilizing tremendously innovative cinematography, including long shots, close-ups, and leading lines, as well as a gritty landscape primarily shot at night or during periods of darkness. The desolate landscape of the front lines including elements such as barren and broken trees, swamps, and flatlands helps to further immerse the viewer in the destruction of war and the bleak atmosphere it creates. What Ivan’s Childhood does effortlessly, is to bring the conflicts and consequences of war into a physical realm, and one that seems somehow more realistic, uncomfortable, tangible, and “true.” Many of the most poignant moments in the film revolve around carefully crafted shots or strategic filming (i.e.: the motif of the wall in the church that carried the final words of those about to be shot by the Germans with the plea “Avenge us”).

While the film is shot beautifully and innovatively, in ways that even contemporary films often neglect to utilize, Ivan’s Childhood is a chaotic mixture of calm and disorder, with much of the film’s action revolving military pursuits and the internal drama of the soldiers, rather than focusing on the main subject: Ivan. Additionally, the flashbacks are disjointed and hard to follow, creating a kind of unintentional confusion for the viewer as to the events that transpired. Ivan’s Childhood also does not give the viewer any strong personal ties to the main or supporting characters in any real or emotional sense. While one obviously feels pity and sorrow for Ivan and his traumatic past, it is difficult to engage with him on a deeper-than-surface level. Lastly, some of the conflicts or subplots (i.e.: the pseudo-love triangle between Masha, Galtsev, and Kholin) included in the film provided nothing more than an extraneous distraction from the main subject (Ivan) and his thoughts, feelings, and significance and prevented further/deeper emotional engagement.

Review Three

By Sean Mullee

Letter Grade:  A-

Ivan’s Childhood, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, depicts the scarred life of an orphaned child scout who finds himself in the care of several USSR officers on the front line. As Ivan insists on helping with reconnaissance against the Germans who killed his family, the story interweaves with elaborate dream sequences painting a better picture of Ivan’s life.

This was Tarkovsky’s first feature film, and the story is based on a novella named Ivan. The film is strangely beautiful with loads of contrasting imagery all used to demonstrate the unease of the front and the difference between reality and what could be for Ivan and the other civilians of the war. The murky bog that Ivan wades through at the beginning of the film is starkly different from the almost magical shots of a birch forest. The camera work is also superb, with many interesting long shots and angles that were experimental for the time and helped to inspire generations of directors to come. The best example is during a scene in a birch forest involving Kholin, a Captain and father-like figure to Ivan, and Masha, a frontline nurse. The bright backdrop creates a deceptively positive aura around the scene, and as Kholin pulls Masha across the trench, the camera drops from eye level to within the trench and levels out as they cross to the other side. This shot is interesting not only to the eye, but helps create a sinking feeling as Masha is forced into a kiss she never meant to give. Countless other pieces of smart camera work, along with phenomenally acted characters, make Ivan’s Childhood a powerful film that captures history through a lens. By this point, war films are no longer just static images in greyscale, they have artistry to their shot composition and structure.

The film is also successful at portraying the war in an accurate and truthful. Tarkovsky was himself a child during the war, roughly the same age as Ivan, and used some of his memories as images in the film, including those in the dream sequences. The film also wrestles with some overarching truths from the USSR during the war, mainly responsibility and burden. For the entirety of the film, Ivan struggles to be taken seriously in his pleads to help the war efforts. Ivan feels it is his duty to help the USSR, calling those who do nothing during wartime “useless.” He also feels responsible for bringing justice to the Germans who killed his family and avenging their deaths. Meanwhile, Kholin and the other Soviet soldiers feel they must protect Ivan, sending him to school away from the frontline to be safe, reasoning that his fighting should be over and that he has served enough. These basic beliefs conflict and the characters toil to get their way, with Ivan ultimately being allowed to help as a scout. At a base level, each character feels they have a burden to care for, and their paths to carry them cross and create turmoil, reflecting the upheaval of war itself. Overall, Tarkovsky’s masterpiece is a shining collision of poetic artistry and historical significance.

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