Ivan’s Childhood(Ivanovo detstvo)Andei Tarkovsky(USSR 1962)Nikoli Burlyayev, Valentin Zubkov
Viewed Tyneside Cinema Newcastle 10 Sept 16; Ticket £8.25
embrace over the abyss
Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood, is a film made on two distinct tracks: the audio track and the visual track. The audio track carries the ethical stream of the movie with its opposing concerns: the subjectivity of Ivan’s determination to fight the Nazis and revenge the death of his parents; and the objectivity of the Soviet officers that Ivan must be sent away from the danger of the front to military school.Ivan’s youthful adolescent obduracy of purpose and selfjustifying ordinance overwhelms the protective instincts of these hardened soldiers.Of course the dialogue/audio ‘track’ of the film is superbly filmed by Tarkovsky’s camera, movingbetween Ivan and the officers, capturing Ivan’s defiant energy and the lesser conviction of the officers.The space between child and man.An ineffable unbridgeable space.
In the visuals however Tarkovsky explores and probes expressively the more deeply hidden more poetically evocative layers of the film, that comprise a metaphysics of death and destruction.Tarkovsky’s ability to create and educe symbolic ideas purely in the realm of the visual becomes his keynote and defines all his subsequent productions.
One shot in Ivan’s Childhood points directly to Tarkovsky’s vision of war. The Nazi’s as an example to the Soviet fighters of the fate of those who spy and scout, display the corpses of two hanged Russians. Paul Virilio writes, such displays of sacrificial victims are “ an act of internal war, a throw back to war’s psychotropic origins in sympathetic magic, the riveting spectacle of immolation and death agony, the world of ancient religions and tribal gatherings.” The insight in this quote explains something of Ivan’s immersion into the war, expressed solely as picture.An immersion that takes him beyond the purpose of retribution.Destitute and alone after the murder of his family, entering into the theatre of war releases Ivan from the purely personal, lifting him into a primordial originary collective world. Ivan becomes party to the delirium of war; war captivates him as he surrenders to the same forces that made the first primitive cave paintings. He gives himself over to the workings of fate, even so that fate has marked him out for sacrifice.
Tarkovsky’s exteriors shot over the front line of Russia’s rivers marshes forests capture war as a magical spectacle.An hallucination, war as a fusion ofexploding light reflected and refracted in nature, inducing an altered state of mind both at one with the spirit of life and with death, ecstasy and self destruction.
And right from the beginning of the movie Tarkovsky captures in Ivan this possibility of sacrifice.Dressed only in shorts naked from the waist up the first shot captures Ivan in a pristine landscape.We hear the cuckoo, we see the spider’s web, we see the land.At one with the land, merging with it.The lean white skinned boy imprints on the viewer’s mind an androgynous physicality: walking running drinking straight from the bucket of water his mother has drawn from the well.He has animal soul, animal energy, this boy.A vision of something pure, unsullied by calculation.The fate of his beauty is not to be tamed; not to be schooled; not to disciplined by life in the soviet union in agricultural college or a mechanics institute. The fate of his beauty is to be sacrificed, to be offered up to the war. Ivan is white virgin beautiful and in the maelstrom of war embraces his fate.Perhaps the soldiers also understand something of this as they cease to oppose his will and collude with the Ivan’s act of oblation.
Of course this is metaphysics not history, but strangely as the late Michael Herr also notes in Dispatches, metaphysics has its place on the battlefield. But not in history. History doesn’t do delirium.As a counterweight to Ivan’s delirium, the penultimate section of the movie is a series of shots depicting the capture of the Reich Chancellery by the Red Army.We see Goebbels’ dead children and Goebbels and his wife, their heads burnt to charred stumps, laid out on the ground for the Soviet photographers.The arch Nazi mythologist reduced to an all too real dead lump of matter.And inside the Reich Chancellery officers who had known Ivan find his file, and the prosaic fact that he had been captured and hanged by the Nazis.We see his picture. He is just another victim.
There is one famous shot in Ivan’s Childhood, a shot that is not apparently connected with Ivan.In a sort of subplot, an officer aggressively pursues Masha, a medical officer. In the disorienting setting of a birch forest, after an almost ritual chase he catches hold of her tightly round the waist pressing her hard into his body.The camera changes position and we see that he is straddling a deep ditch and that she, with her legs danlging in mid-air, is trapped between intimacy and the danger of a high fall.The shot works on its own narrative terms: the desire of men for women.But more strongly it stands as an analogy for the nature of war as experienced by those who fight: a mixture of forced intimacy and terror.