Ivan’s Childhood is Andrei Tarkovsky’s first feature film and he started his film career running; unquestionably he is a ‘poet’ of cinema. He went on to make a number of masterpieces, such as Andrei Roublev (1967) and Solaris (1972), and his elliptical visual style is evident in his debut. But what does it mean to be a ‘poet of cinema’?
Unlike some of his later films, Ivan’s Childhood has a straightforward narrative. The titular boy acts as a scout for the Red Army toward the end of the war. Although there is very little action, and there’s a tender middle section, without Ivan, where the young medic Masha is courted by Captain Kholin, the story is straightforward. There are, though, four heavily symbolic dream sequences; however, because these are dreams the poetry of the sections are motivated by the narrative. The reason, I believe, ‘poetry’ is an appropriate metaphor for his films is because the mise en scene isn’t simply at the service of the narrative. Takes will extend longer than necessary revelling in the extreme beauty of the image. These images do contribute to the narrative but break out of Hollywood’s hegemonic idea of ‘narrative economy’. This is aided by the extraordinary cinematography of Vadim Yusov, who was mimicking Sergey Urusevskiy’s work in the seminal film of the ‘Russian Thaw’, The Cranes are Flying (Soviet Union, 1957). In the second dream sequence Ivan suddenly finds himself in a well, his mother is standing next to the opening when she falls suddenly and water splashes over her. Proof that Tarkovsky uses the techniques of cinema brilliantly is the astonishing impact of the sequence that sounds bizarre in words.
Tarkovsky’s films are full of such moments and it is possible that Ivan’s Childhood benefits from its brevity (around 90 minutes); he later went for three-hour long epics that have their longuers (which, I hasten to add, are worth it). As it stands the compactness of this film makes it a devastating experience. If the stunning beauty, of often devastated landscapes, isn’t enough, the film ends with documentary footage concerning Goebbel’s suicide and poisoning of his children. Afterwards I needed to put my head in a bucket of ice.
A note on the ‘tender middle section’. I’ve seen it suggested that the Captain is on the verge of sexually harassing Masha. He asks how many boyfriends she has had called ‘Lennie’. She says ‘none’; in reply he says you have one now. On the face of it he is being over-bearing but the performances bely that simplistic reading. They are soldiers ‘on the edge of death’ and so sex was, no doubt, something that was urgent (it may be the last time). Masha isn’t simply a victim of the Captain’s forwardness; she is interested. The scene ends, in a shot that last about 10 seconds, in the clinch (see above) that is shot from a ditch, almost as if it is a grave. Once again, I felt my breathe exhaling at the beauty and dramatic impact of the shot and narrative.