Visually garrulous and verbally unobtrusive, Ivan’s Childhood is perhaps the platonic ideal of the director-is-born image, a fully-formed debut for the ages. A film riddled with the ideas that would eventually molt into Tarkovsky’s future six feature films, a diminutive career (seven including this film) by any standards, Ivan’s Childhood lays the groundwork for Tarkovsky’s unmooring of the cinematic consciousness into realms both indescribably beautiful and thoughtfully revelatory. Then again, “eventually” doesn’t do justice to Ivan’s impossible grandeur and fractured intimacy; on its own terms, had the greatest director of the last fifty years not pursued a career in film at all and absconded from sight leaving only this singular mark of his trespass on our earthly realm, he would still be one of the definitive directors of the second half of the twentieth century.
Having stated as much through behind the scenes, Ivan’s Childhood is plainly a showcase for a young Tarkovsky, and the opening gambit is a primordial display of directorly beauty that transgresses the realist principle for a startling, nearly shocking, display of cinematic affect. Frolicsome and demented at once, a boy’s pastoral play is enshrined in a rapturous helicopter shot liberated from earthly stagnancy as though the boy is freed from his life, seemingly floating overhead. Until, of course, transcendent relaxation is transmuted into unbound terror as burgeoning childhood effervescence confronts sudden-onset fear when the shot hurtles toward an unclassifiable ground with frightening lack of inhibition. The shot evokes a child’s glee unwound until it is beset by almost animalistic pounce to kill, contorting the inescapable joy of play into a fast-approaching, malignant wraith. It might be the world out to get him for his innocence, or maybe the unraveling mind’s innocence contorting into the out-of-control monomania the boy will soon exhibit when the world enrages him. Either way, the specter of the mind dancing around in space is metastasized into a phantom, barreling down to earth in a haunting premonition of the boy’s soon-to-be subjection to his elderly soldiers and war. His liberation is curtailed and smoldered to ash.
For Tarkovsky, these visuals construct a mental trance of heightened emotional reflection and imaginative harmony with the earth. When the doldrums of narrative invade and the boy is more or less conscripted into a militaristic operation by his own will, the melancholy is not merely circumstantially, narratively distressing – the film doesn’t rest on the assumption that it is tragic that a boy is subject to scouting against enemy soldiers. Instead, it is stylistically distressing, since the film had until that point proposed a visually ricocheting alternative to the stately, wound-up world of narrative cinema. The shock is stylistic rather than merely conceptual, with the boy’s kaleidoscopic dance of primal emotion ringing out into the ether of the opening scene disrupted by something masquerading as social conflict; for the remaining early portions of the piece, the film pointedly forgets how to experience its senses because it no longer has time to open up to them. When the boy introduces himself to the military, requesting to scout for them in hopes of revenge against the German soldiers who kill his family, not only does his quest demarcate itself, but the very way by which he classifies perception and experience clots. His family is no more, but the visuals inform us that as tragic a casualty is his capacity for a horizontal relationship with the outside world, his ability to stretch outward into emotionally uninhibited sensory experience unmitigated by goals and quests altogether.
Tarkovsky’s vision is, in the theme he would advance for nearly a quarter century, that life isn’t merely a composite of human architecture and appended social signifiers sutured onto the world, factors which for Tarkovsky mollify the incandescent, free-associative mind and in doing so necessarily sacrifice and neuter some of the mind’s capacity for mystique. The boy, Ivan (Nikolai Burlyaev), is salvaged by the world for his military utility, and this sabotages a piece of his soul that Tarkovsky wishes to relocate, to reinscribe in the hearts and minds of people who, for instance, wage war rather than pause to imbue themselves with a modicum of the world’s wonders.
As the film trucks onward, the boy’s monomaniacal desire to assert revenge on the Nazis for killing his family narrows not only his moral mind but his experiential mind, siphoning off other perceptions until his desire is all he can see. Revenge as mortal terror is the most overbaked theme in the cinematic book, but Tarkovsky treats it as a starting point for a more philosophical question of how the mind perceives and how tapering off the mind restricts our capacity to truly experience the world. Rather than narratively confronting this vision of the mind, though, Tarkovsky’s film literalizes it – embodies it – in the visuals, slowly unfurling the film over time as we again confront the consternation of his conquest and the film allows us to leave our minds ajar for the bewildering wonder of a rain-soaked fantasia of nearly otherworldly, incandescent beauty with two fellow children. These tangents are the lifeblood of the earth for Tarkovsky, battling against the restrictions of creating always-forward human narratives.
What separates Tarkovsky from other filmmakers is that his theme isn’t within his film but it is his film. The contracting of the visuals after the intro and their eventual lively expansion to more translucent, fantastical mental states turns the actual breath of the film – the flow of the images – into the embodiment of its expression of how to regain the beauty in the world that is lost when the mind is thrown into worldly conflict, matured, ravaged, neutered, and can no longer see anything else. Ivan’s Childhood is a flower that wilts in the first five minutes and expends the next 85 rewatering itself with the lifeblood of perceptual experience.
Now, it’s easy to reject Tarkovsky’s claim as unpragmatic (as though it were a given that cinema ought to be pragmatic in the first place) and even amoral, that its flights of fancy are poetic rather than worldly, and that its sense of self is pitilessly unmediated by the needs of the here and now. In the quixotic however, Tarkovsky excavates the necessary. His deeply felt Soviet humanism fighting against the dying of (in this case natural) light is unparticular in its troubled mental quivers of loss, never seeking to blame anyone specifically. This isn’t a censure or a barking assault, but a restful paean to the power of the restive mind. Tarkovsky dares not to circumscribe his film with reality so that he confront a more open conception of reality beyond the pale of our usual mental structures, threatening the norms of forward momentum so essential to the Western cinematic project. It is a threat Tarkovsky delivers with effrontery and ebullience (the oxymoron and that paradox is key to the director’s work, always refracting emotions onto one another and discovering the links and the connections in things that seem mutually exclusive or perpendicular).
Rather than a blitzkrieg against simple narrative momentum, the film is an alternative, a correspondence with other films and an alleviation, a remedy, a call to arms to explore the demarcations of the diffuse, gossamer fabric of assumed reality and to bend them with the human mind, the greatest well and weapon of all for Tarkovsky. The director prays with an almost spiritual steadfastness that we humans confront the world as a prism of possibility rather than a penitentiary of the conflicts we make. His proposal isn’t a trade-off against thought but a reorientation or an addendum, an assertion to not only think but to bathe in the world. The basking, liquid, almost floating visuals suggest that we confront experience horizontally (experiencing things around us) rather than merely vertically (setting goals and pursuing them with obsessive dogmatism), as we Westerners tend to preface in importance at the expense of anything else.
For Tarkovsky, notions of post-Enlightenment volition – structuring art, the world, and human mental structures around narratives catalyzed by characters and their efforts to achieve goals – also catalyze an efficiency that forgoes the imaginative possibility of stepping back to explore the world and refresh the mind with new perspectives undiluted by these mental structures. This fresh, pristine cry for new experience fittingly speaks to humans in the frame but isn’t limited by them, the camera frequently spiriting away in showers of wonder when the human concerns (especially a three-way military romantic triangle) become a little petty. Thus, the film itself by its very visual structure – as horizontal prism rather than vertical shaft of narrative – embodies this critique.
The camera’s almost free-associative wafting outward doesn’t always easily conform to the mental psychology of the film’s characters either. Connecting the effusive camera to the necessities of a character’s inner-mind is not a fact-of-nature or a necessity in Tarkovsky’s film. Pacifying the camera’s exploratory eye by forcing it to either contort to realism or justify its expressive non-realism as a bout of irrational human longing is nearly de rigueur in most Western cinema, with our individualist mental structures coercing us to search for reasons to believe that every shot must intonate something about a character’s individual self. For Tarkovsky, it is the film, not the characters, that seems to breathe inward and outward, eventually infecting some of the people and beckoning them to heed its warning when they were earlier too circumscribed in their war to even notice. The film’s proposition to its characters is non-judgmental – it doesn’t excoriate them for failing to discover the potential of the world around them – but the film nonetheless exhibits an anxious flutter of need to adventure outward beyond the characters’ stories.
Within, meaning is charged aesthetically into a state of being, with the film resisting the stagnancies of mere foreshadowing and symbolism (although both are thickly inlaid, if that is your cup of tea). Tarkovsky’s films are too emotionally bold to be thawed out to intellectual totems; intellectualism strikes one as something his characters might attempt, while the camera’s mind is more impulsive and ungerrymandered, always fluxionally denouncing foretold emotion by emphasizing the movements rather than the fixed states or the destinations. In a style advanced by both Tarkovsky and Terrence Malick, that the camera may move sometimes without knowing where it’s going is the ultimate affirmation of its self, the source of its rejection of the contemporary cinematic regulation and ritual of finding a conclusion and of rushing from point to point as we tend to categorize our lives.
Even in its primordial state, Tarkovsky’s camera (equaled only by Renoir in the grace and heft of its portentous movement) swallows up verbs until we invent new ones to describe and clarify its actions. For Tarkovsky, this thought would probably be a prideful embrace, since his films are so unmitigated by compartmentalization and classification, so committed to invention and cosmic reflection found in opening oneself up to the earth in all its glory and desecration. His canon is maybe the only director’s canon that seems to confound mere human words.
Fittingly then, the film eventually concludes by incurring the wrath of its own exploratory mind, testing itself by wandering into irradiated swamp soil and emerging with a prophecy of still-refreshing possibility as the camera emphasizes not only the cloudy threat of malevolence around the characters but the visual fertilizer of the swamp’s illusory, alien beauty. Ultimately, it affirms us once again that we are amenable to experiences we don’t understand, even terrifying ones. The camera, submersed into the murk and mire of a swamp lit with iridescent flares, is alloyed with Tarkovsky’s sense of possibility, daring to discover beauty in what is ostensibly a no man’s land. Rejecting the assumption that he is merely invested in floating around in outer space, Tarkovsky overcasts this sequence with a squishy, palpably earthen immediacy. Rather than rejecting the world, Tarkovsky’s films flourish within it, contriving new sensory experiences that seem alien not because they are alien in fact but because the mind, unacclimatized to them, is graced and troubled with the omnipotence to imagine a wonderfully unknown alien space out of them. This imaginative sensibility can terrify as much as induce hope, but for Tarkovsky, these elemental emotions are the vital well of life itself.
For Tarkovsky, nature is not only tactile dimension before us but a trancelike object of incessant, never-abating wonder, the stuff of endless musing and dream-energy that Tarkovsky both absorbs and lingers on with grace to ensure we achieve not only the metaphysical implications but the no less meaningful resplendence of the physical realm. And how could you not absorb with a film of such beauty? Brazen and bodacious, this film is exotically alive as fetid swamps slide into perpetual limbos, both of which orgiastically energize themselves into a flurry of pure emotion in the conclusion that downshifts into a holocaust of a blasted-out nightmare that calls on the instability of documentary camerawork to crystallize the teetering human self amidst the terror of war.
The conclusion is tragic, but one final image casts a more ambivalent pall over the film. Ivan and a fellow child rush in unspoiled innocence and emotional freedom across a beach, a wide shot basking in the nature around them as they are tethered to the outside world. The camera ultimately slides into an unknown perspective, possibly Ivan’s viewpoint, before crashing full-stop into a deadened tree branch, perhaps a figment of the destruction of the earth and the innocent mind caused by mankind. Darkness engulfs the frame, less as symbol than as poetic closure that leaves the mind dangling in a state of suspended animation and melancholy. Even this finale though, with its contrast of disparate emotional spheres envisioned in nature itself, intimates that the possibility of an untrammeled mind will always persist and crave rekindling even in the face of danger.
Certainly, Tarkovsky’s film embodies this spirit of emotional directness and discovery. Anyone who feels like art cinema is too composed or too modulated for its own good ought to swim around in this director’s primeval swirl of perceptual experiences that feel thoroughly unpremeditated. Everything is insouciant again in a film that is, above all, an ode to insouciance and discovering it once again, the director’s first and most youthfully uninhibited film in a career all about the multivariate role of uninhibited visual perception in the world.