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Ivan’s Childhood

Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky

USSR, 1962

Curzon Artificial Eye, June 2016

Ivan's Childhood

Set during the Second World War, the protagonist is Ivan, a lad loosely attached to a Red Army battalion, whose particular talent is that he can stealthily scout out German forces.

Ivan is small and lithe, gutsy and forceful, feral yet with a kind of aura, as of one marked out for martyrdom. The sanctity of childhood, you might call it, and here one naturally thinks of Andrei Rublev. There is a concern with the topography of forbidden zones, verboten territory and acts of transgression – a motif which came to fullest fruition in Stalker. The allusion to art, and specifically the art of the Northern Renaissance is present too. One recalls, from Solaris, Bruegel’s Winter Journey, while here Ivan rifles through Durer’s Apocalypse prints. How he happened to stumble upon them in the Soviet Union in wartime is never explained. What else? There is a horse eating apples; there are extended traum / trauma sequences, ending usually with Ivan’s reunion with his mother.

All of which is by way of saying that Tarkovsky’s first film is not simply a war-time drama, though it can certainly be enjoyed on that level. Rather, it is clear that his themes, iconography and cinematic stratagems were present from the start. Ivan’s Childhood is recognisably his own.

What marks the film out, perhaps, is an autobiographical element, or at any rate a direct confrontation with contemporary history, specifically a commitment to make a reckoning with the horrors of the war on the Eastern Front, that savage struggle of annihilation between the competing ideologies of Nazism and Stalinism. Later films were more allusive and opaque, altogether more distanced, and placed greater demands on the viewer.

Tarkovsky’s point of departure here may have been a photo taken by Walter Frentz, at one period Leni Riefenstahl’s cameraman,  which shows Himmler reaching out to pat the shoulder of a Belarusian boy. Three SS cronies stand by Himmler, two looking at the boy, one looking into Himmler’s blandly smiling face, eyes dead behind rounded spectacles. Sometime thereafter (the photo was taken in August 1941) Himmler would order the killing of Jewish women and children, a decision marking what Alex Kay has called the ‘transition to genocide’. Yet the Fuhrer Decrees of June-October 1941, since referred to as the Criminal Orders (verbrecherische Befehle), presaged the horrors of the Holocaust. Two of those verbrecherische Befehle, the Martial Jurisdiction Decree and the Commissar Order, required that the Wehrmacht commit murder – and they did. Civilians and prisoners of war were summarily executed. This was a war like no other.

Ivan’s Childhood, a portrait of inviolable innocence, shows us the triumph of art over horror. A Curzon Artificial Eye release, it is out now on DVD and Blu-ray, details here.