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Fearless, Vengeful, and Proud,
This review is from: Ivan's Childhood  [DVD] (DVD)
Andrei Tarkovsky was already thirty years' old when he completed his first full-length feature, `Ivan's Childhood', in 1962. It is probably the most accessible of his seven films, telling the story of a young Russian boy who acts as a scout to the Red Army as it repulses the forces of Nazi Germany during the Second World War.
Within the first three minutes there are already exemplary shots worthy of notice and praise, as it opens with a dreamy childlike pastorale. Witness the boy's birdlike imaginary descent to the ground, and the lonely windmill amidst the cut corn and the smoky sky. `Ivan's Childhood' may have been Tarkovsky's first film, but it already possesses many of his signature features. These include four dreamlike sequences that provide an idyllic pre-war contrast to the hell that has become the Russian Front, where ruin - both physical and emotional - is never far away.
The transitions between the dreams and the war scenes are expertly handled, but actually the war is never witnessed at first hand; Tarkovsky cleverly keeps its presence ubiquitous but relegates it to a background feature. For this is a film of mists and shadows; and of water, dripping water, another Tarkovskian trope. The director's equally well-known engagement with art is expressed through Durer's engraving of `The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse'. Ivan sees it in a book and points: "Look at this skinny one on a horse. I saw one just like him on a motorcycle. Look, they're killing the people here too."
Tarkovsky has a fine eye for landscape, evinced for instance in the marshes close to the riverbank that separates the German and the Russian forces. Meanwhile, a subplot takes us into a birch forest that seems to possess an eerie malevolent magic, as a young lieutenant called Masha copes with the jealousies aroused by her male suitors.
Ivan is an extremely precocious twelve-year-old, played by Nikolai Burlyaev, but Ivan's experiences in war have forced him to grow up fast. He is fearless, vengeful, and proud. This is a subtle film in its realism; Ivan is a hero, yes, but it's not a question of simple black and white, and the film is by no means a Soviet propaganda piece. The mission that Ivan undertakes is itself not really important. Indeed, it is striking for its very ambiguity and occupies barely twenty minutes of the film. And neither is this a maudlin film, its tragic ending being superbly handled. (It is notable that it features a dead but still upstanding tree at the water's edge - a vision that appears at the very end of Tarkovsky's final film twenty-four years later.)
Artificial Eye's presentations of all seven of Tarkovsky's movies come packed with extras. This one is no exception. As well as the usual filmographies and photos, there is an eighteen-minute Soviet film called `Children of War' about those boys and girls who served in what the Russians call The Great Patriotic War. Then there are modern interviews with three artists involved in the making of the film. Firstly, we have Evgeny Zharikov, who played Lieutenant Galtsov in the movie, who has much of interest to say over eighteen minutes about the film; secondly, composer Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov, talking for thirty-three minutes, but mostly of the work he did for other films and directors; and thirdly, the cameraman Vadim Yusov, who speaks for thirty-three minutes. This can all be hard-going with all the subtitles and monotonous voices, but much nevertheless is revealed about the production and the man. With a five-minute excerpt of Tarkovsky's graduation film, `The Steamroller and the Violin', this is a handsome package.