on 16 April 2017
To the extent he had a childhood, Ivan’s was brutal. A child of war, his youth was stolen from him. At age 12 he was forced to fight by fate. But there was one saving grace — he was loved by his comrades and commanding officer, and thus shielded from the fiercest battles. He acted as a runner, dispatching vital intelligence.
He was also orphaned by the war, his father killed in it, his mother and sister murdered by it. The army is now his surrogate family.
To the extent it’s possible, a child should be made to feel welcome and happy in the world. But Ivan isn’t happy. In fact, he burns with rage and hatred, damaged by the savagery of the world. His squadron continues to advance. The year is 1943 and the Germans are being pushed back toward their homeland. The Russians come across abandoned German outposts. In one they find old German picture books. Ivan and a comrade leaf through the books. They look at Albrecht Dürer’s famous etching of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. “Who is he?” Ivan asks, pointing at an etching of a German man. “He’s a writer,” the comrade says. Ivan replies:
“The Germans have no writers. I saw them burning books in the town square. They threw petrol on the books and burned them.”
Knowledge, learning, books — all loathsome things to be destroyed by the savages. The child’s imagination cannot fully comprehend, so to it the Germans are not human. Inhumane and inhuman, they came to Russia to destroy it and us. They killed my family. Now I want to kill them too. They deserve my wrath.
Of course Ivan looks doomed. There is talk of the war ending and Ivan being adopted by one of the officers. But even if he physically survives the war, how can he survive it emotionally? At night he escapes it in dreams, in sunny reveries of the past. It’s summer and he plays with other children along a beach. They run in the sand and into the waves. They splash and laugh. They are young and beautiful, pure and innocent. They are also lovely to look at.
Make-believe and reality form and inform the world of the child, the divide between them thin and porous. Sometimes with his mates in his dreams we see Ivan playing soldier games, hiding behind trees and shooting, their rifles sticks or branches found on the floor of the forest. Play and reality overlap. Even now, caught up in a real war with authentic battles and bullets, Ivan is sometimes at play. In one of the Russian dugouts he pretends to fight a German soldier. There is no soldier, only the uniform of a German soldier hung up on a wall. He shoots at it, making the sounds of a firing gun.
His dreams are also memories. In one he sits in a horse cart full of apples with three pretty girls. Their hair and faces and clothes are wet in the rain. But they laugh, happy to be riding in the rain with the apples. The sun breaks through. The rain ceases. Their clothes are dry as they reach a wide sandy beach. Some apples spill onto the beach and other horses will eat them. All is beautiful and peaceful — the summer sun, the wide beach, the happy children, the tasty apples. Life is good. Ivan remembers. In the dream he relives this goodness.
He also sees his mother, the one who loves him most. She doesn’t need to tell him this. He knows by seeing her face, watching her move, her body filled with the language of protective love.
But the war comes and changes everything.
This film may be about war, but it isn’t a war film. Or not like most war films. Shells burst and flares light up the night sky. But we see no pitched battles and hardly a German soldier. Mainly we see Russian dugouts and ditches, burned villages, rutted and muddy roads, birch forests, rivers and swamps. Nature still dominates the land. Man is small compared to it. His bombs explode and trees shake. But in the long run nature will win and survive. It is man, perhaps, who must go, this badly flawed creature that will destroy itself.
What the film is really about is lost childhood. Tarkovsky himself, the director of the film, wrote this in his film memoirs about Ivan:
“The personality of Ivan moved me to the bottom of my heart. He was a character that had been destroyed, shifted off its axis by the war. Something incalculable, all the attributes of childhood, had gone irretrievably out of his life. And the thing he had acquired, like an evil gift from the war, in place of what had been his own, was concentrated and heightened within him.”
Apart from Ivan, there is another character who personifies innocence — a young nurse named Masha. Tarkovsky writes insightfully of her too:
“She looked so naïve, pure, trusting that it was immediately clear that Masha was completely defenceless in the face of this war which was nothing to do with her. Vulnerability was the keynote of her nature and age.”
There is a famous scene in the film where Captain Kholin, a sympathetic officer who admires Masha’s beauty and innocence, lifts her across a deep ditch in the forest. He stands on both sides of the ditch, his long legs splayed, spanning it. He holds her aloft, suspended above the ditch and kisses her deeply on her mouth. She does not resist. Normally this would be erotic, sexual. But the look on Masha’s face after this happens is neither of these. It’s a look of being happily protected. The strong officer has held her, embraced her, kissed her. Such a man, she knows, is the reason Russia will be saved. She looks at him with admiration, not longing. She sees him with pride. How many film directors could have achieved this, and so subtly, wordlessly? It’s why Tarkovsky, in this his first feature film, was already a great auteur.
Masha is innocent, like Ivan, a person so undeserving of this war.
In a book called The Thunder Tree (1993) the author writes this of childhood:
“…a ditch somewhere — or a creek, meadow, woodlot, or marsh…These are places of initiation where the borders between ourselves and other creatures break down, where the earth gets under our nails and a sense of place gets under our skin…Everybody has a ditch, or ought to. For only the ditches and fields, the woods and ravines can teach us to care for all the land.”
Ivan knows all this. He didn’t have to think or say it. He lived it as a boy. It made him who he was. He cared for the land, his family, friends, youth. He cared for his country and the life he had known. But the apocalypse came, as Albrecht Dürer said it would. It came and swallowed everything.
The film ends with the fall of Berlin. Russia has won the war. Soldiers drink and dance. Some are tossed in the air. Others sift through the soot and dust of burned-out buildings. Files and records are found. Not all the papers of the Third Reich were burned. Some gestapo dossiers are discovered. In one of them Ivan’s photo appears. He is dirty, tired, angry, defiant. He looks straight into the lens and seethes, mirroring the Nazi hatred back at itself, a perfect image of a perfect truth.
The white birch forests gleam in the sun after the rain. Nature carries on come what may, man’s madness now temporarily at an end. Youth and apple carts and pretty girls are gone. So is mother and the past. But Ivan lived and was real, and in the end we see him running again along a wet and sandy shore, his face beautiful in the summer sun. He chases a young girl with long brown hair. You think he will tackle her, roll in the sand with her when he catches up, but he does not. He passes her without looking and keeps on running — running as far up the beach as his legs will take him.