Ivan’s Childhood (1962 USSR 97mins)

Source: Film Alliance Prod Co: Mosfilm Dir: Andrei Tarkovsky Scr: Vladimir Bogomolov, Michael Papava from the story by Bogomolov Phot: Vadim Yusov Art Dir: V. Chernyaev Mus: Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov

Cast: Kolya Burlyaev, I Tarkoskaya, Valentin zubkov, Y. Zharikov

When I discovered the first films of Tarkovsky, it was a miracle. I suddenly found myself before a door to which I had never had the key.a room which I had always wished to penetrate and wherein he felt perfectly at ease. Someone was able to express what I had always wished to say without knowing how. For me Tarkovsky is the greatest filmmaker

– Ingmar Bergman

Ivan's Childhood

What was it in Tarkovsky’s first films – especially his first feature Ivan’s Childhood – that provoked such a response from an established master like Bergman? The Russian’s own writings collected in the volume entitled Sculpting in Time (1) provide us with a glimpse of the aesthetic and philosophical background to the making of Ivan’s Childhood. In cultural terms one can see that the film was released at a moment when it was no longer tenable for innovative young directors to work with the presuppositions and aims of their masters. An entirely new idea of what the essence of cinema involved was coming to the fore in the wake of Welles, Dreyer, Antonioni and the writings of film theorists such as Bazin. Most notably Resnais in the West and Tarkovsky in the East came to perceive that, in the latter’s words, “the cinema must master a completely new material: time.” (pp.113 ff)

The dominant presentation of time in cinema had been (and continues to be) as a succession of present tense ‘happenings’, interrupted only by such formulaic techniques as the flashback or the dream sequence, which almost always serve a pragmatic function dependant on the needs or interests of a character’s situational behaviour. As far as Tarkovsky and other young filmmakers were concerned, any attempt to capture the new temporal reality meant that cinema could no longer simply involve characters reacting to events and bringing about changed situations. Nor could cinema-going be reduced to the spectatorial identification that resulted from this. In order to look beyond the image’s representational aspect, one had to render narrative, action, character and psychology subservient to what Tarkovsky called “the pressure of time in the shot.” (p.117) For Tarkovsky, time is a non-chronological, multi-rhythmic phenomenon which, when encapsulated in the shots of a film, dictates its own pace to that work – this he opposes to the artificial rhythms created by montage and editing in general. Thus the cinematic image becomes a temporal reality as if (in his words) “crystallised . in a drop of water.” (p.93, 110) It is for this reason also that Tarkovsky’s images are not symbols as is often claimed. The falling of snow or the sudden appearance of an animal are not intended to symbolise anything – they should rather be seen as rhythmic elements.

This approach to filmmaking is already evident in Ivan’s Childhood, although the fact that Tarkovsky didn’t initiate the project himself (it had been passed on to him following a failed attempt by a fellow graduate to film the novella) and was under tremendous pressure to re-write and shoot the film in the shortest possible period of time, ensured that the film as a whole does not achieve the same level of creative consistency as his later works.

For Tarkovsky “the past is more real than the present.” (p.104) By this he means that the past is, in essence, preserved; it co-exists with each ‘passing’ present, and the artist therefore necessarily becomes involved in a “search for lost time.” (p.120, 179) This does not refer to the psychological time of personal recollection but rather to what Proust referred to as “a little time in a pure state.” (2) Without doubt the most important advance made by the director of Ivan’s Childhood was his success in severing the traditionally psycho-pragmatic links between dream and reality (one now no longer knows what is dream, what reality), so that the spectator is no longer in a position to impose any fixed chronological order on many of the events in the film. It is interesting to note that in the debate which took place in the Italian newspaper L’Unita in 1963 following the Venice Film Festival’s award of the Golden Lion to Ivan’s Childhood – a debate which became heated due to the Italian communists’ assertion that Tarkovsky’s film fostered a form of Western individualism which they found objectionable – it was somewhat ironically Sartre who passionately defended the film against their accusations. In particular he challenged their view that the film was a very personal psychological account of a childhood victim of war seeking solace in dreams of a carefree past. Sartre came much closer to the spirit of Tarkovsky when he insisted that the dreams and nightmares of the film did not spring from the child’s ‘subjectivity’. In his view the scenes in question “remain perfectly objective; we continue to see the child from the outside just as in the ‘realist’ scenes. The truth is that the entire world is an hallucination.and that in this universe the child is an hallucination for others” (3) (by this we take him to mean a vision of unassignable events in time and not an hallucination of figures in space). This also perhaps explains why newsreel footage can be so readily incorporated into Ivan’s Childhood and some of Tarkovsky’s later works, for example, Mirror (1974).

Time for Tarkovsky is a multi-faceted ground from which the spiritual dimensions of existence emanate. In the form of ‘the past’ it is what envelopes or ‘doubles’ each passing present moment. It is important to grasp that the Russian’s ideas, which often seem to verge on the mystical (especially in his interviews) find their foundation in a particular philosophical approach which he has towards the relationship between the ‘spiritual’ and the ‘material’ and to which his work testifies. These two levels of existence are presented as series originating in an ongoing bifurcation of Time (he sometimes says “the totality” or “memory” or “the infinite”); two lines of development emerging out of this cosmic or primeval ‘swamp’ that is Time (hence the appearance of swamps in Ivan’s Childhood, cesspools in Stalker [1979], the dredged swimming pool in Nostalgia [1983] – images which should be appreciated in their full and intense materiality rather than interpreted metaphorically). Correspondingly, throughout Tarkovsky’s films, from Ivan’s Childhood through to The Sacrifice (1986) there are at least two image-series within a film’s structure; on the one hand, images of nature or the ‘non-human’ very often portraying indetermination or dissolution, the unexpected or inexplicable; on the other hand, there is a human series conveying a more deterministic universe, the characters often driven by a colossal burden or destiny which cannot be shaken off (men or women trapped in war or exile, in apocalyptic or messianic zones or events). When indeterminate nature encroaches upon or envelopes this human world (the rain that falls inside a house in Mirror, the snow inside a church in Nostalgia, holy icons encased in a river-bed in Stalker, the flooded battlefields of Ivan’s Childhood), then one can no longer think of life in terms of the ‘real’ as opposed to the ‘dream’ or the ‘appearance’, but only in terms of an indiscernibility between series or sides of the multi-faceted temporal crystal that is Reality for Tarkovsky. We can see how Tarkovsky’s book Sculpting in Time greatly influenced Deleuze’s formulations in Cinema 2: The Time-Image.

One of the first principles of Tarkovsky’s ‘cinema of time’ involves the dismantling of traditional representations of space. Contrary to convention, and already in Ivan’s Childhood, locations become unspecified and the linkages between individually framed spaces are loosened and often abandoned. The distinctions which were traditionally used to focus the spectator’s interest, that is, distinctions between what is principal in the image and what is accessory, what is ‘figure’ and what is ‘ground’ undergo a process of decomposition and it is by way of this that Tarkovsky expresses his osmotic world out of which emerge fleeting but vaguely recognisable forms and objects. His cinema is often one of autonomous sensible qualities unattached to particular objects. In two important scenes in his debut feature, we perceive firstly Ivan’s emergence from and later disappearance back into the foggy swamp – his human form reduced to a mere ripple on the water’s surface.

Tarkovsky repeatedly uses many other cinematic devices to produce the peculiarly idiosyncratic effect of his films. Such techniques, many already present in Ivan’s Childhood but exploited more fully in his later work, include: the slow protracted shots over the earth, water and material objects (a parti pris he may have borrowed from Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu Monogatari [1953]); the unhurried dilation of time infusing everything the camera sees with spiritual life (in particular in the so-called ‘dream’ sequences in Ivan’s Childhood but also in the reconnaissance scenes and elsewhere); an abandonment of perspective and the promotion of a flat image (in the manner of another of his idols Dreyer), hence the surface of the image becoming more prominent and the flattening of figures and their surroundings onto a single plane (this is often achieved in Ivan’s Childhood through the use of telephoto lenses, a film in which we also see close-ups used to block out the image’s depth, especially in the scenes involving Masha the female doctor); the changed function of high and low-angle shots which cease to be psychological or expressionistic (as in early Welles) becoming in Ivan’s Childhood a means of subsuming the human figure in a near-geometrical construct.

As regards the immediate influence of Ivan’s Childhood, or its importance, one need look no further than the words of the great Georgian filmmaker Sergei Paradjanov: “I did not know how to do anything and I would not have done anything if there had not been Ivan’s Childhood.” Kieslowski made similar pronouncements and we can see how all three directors shared an obsession with the elements and with injecting objects with a magical epiphanic quality – preoccupations which can be traced back to Tarkovsky’s debut feature.

However, perhaps no other filmmaker can be said to have equalled the breathtaking beauty and cinematic genius of the opening sequence of Ivan’s childhood, the movements of the elaborate crane shots tracing the director’s inimitable signature, an example of his matchless skill at ‘sculpting in time’. (Needless to say, this scene was one of Tarkovsky’s additions to the script he was presented with).

This is a sequence dominated by heterogeneous facets of being, each connected by a fragile thread binding the individual pulsations of time in each shot. The cuckoo’s call heard even before the first image appears functions as the key into Tarkovsky’s unique time-world to which Bergman refers. In the first shot, which borders on the abstract, the boy’s face becomes a surface to express the pure quality of wonder. It becomes an almost inhuman screen blending in with other surfaces (the goat’s face, the trunks of trees, a spider’s web, the root-filled wall of earth). The cut which follows, from the goat to the boy’s face, provokes a sudden change of pace setting the entire world in motion. There is a new tension, a temporal stretching which, combined with the chilling laugh on the soundtrack, produces an astonishingly new and original cinematic affect. This affect, which remains overwhelming even after repeated viewings, is difficult to define but would seem to correspond to what Tarkovsky demanded of Art and of each filmmaker: “if he loves life, has an overwhelming need to know it.he must aim to co-operate in enhancing the value of life.”

The scene continues with the camera sweeping first left, then right, implicating more and more of the natural world, until the boy’s spoken words “Mama there’s a cuckoo”, combined with his recognition of the mother’s face, ends his hypnotic absorption within this elementary world, what Tarkovsky called “the world’s inside or essence”, a universe existing (co-existing with each passing moment) prior to any differentiation between the human and the non-human. This is echoed and inverted in the film’s last shots where we see the boy running along a beach with one arm outstretched until suddenly there is a cut to the dark imposing mass of a rotten tree-trunk. The frame becomes filled with this image, the screen goes black and we once again glimpse Tarkovsky’s primary world from which time and life evolve.

Endnotes

  1. Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema, The Bodley Head, London, 1986
  2. Remembrance of Things Past, vol. 3, Random House, 1981, p. 905
  3. Cited by Jean Delmas in “L’Enfance d’Ivan” in Jeune Cinema no. 42 Nov-Dec 1969