“Mamma, there’s a cuckoo up there!”
‘Ivan’s Childhood’, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky in 1962, is one of his more accessible movies. It tells the story of Ivan, a young orphan during World War II who, after losing his mother, is recruited by the military to undertake reconnaissance missions. The story is told through a mixture of flashbacks, dream sequences and digressions into subplots concerning the soldiers Ivan works with. It’s shorter than Tarkovsky’s later films (Ivan’s Childhood is his first) but it still contains all of his preoccupations and go-to imagery. The war is presented brutally and the tone and content of the story reminded me of Elem Klimov’s harsh and unflinching 1983 movie ‘Come and See’, in fact a major opening scene showing Ivan struggling through a swamp to escape from the enemy seems to have been lifted wholesale for the later film. The swamp is a classic Tarkovsky moment though, water, fire, earth, all these natural textures are used to varying degrees. The director knows how to create an elemental atmosphere in his films and, although ‘Ivan’s Childhood’ is simpler than later films such as ‘Andrei Rublev’ and ‘Stalker’, it is still packed with these contemplative moments. Highlights of the film were the opening and closing fantasy dream sequences: nostalgic and romanticised, bringing the mud and fire of the rest of the movie into sharp relief – this is something ‘Come and See’ didn’t do – that film was unrelentingly grim, whereas ‘Ivan’s Childhood’ has moments of reprieve. As with Aleksei Kravchenko in ‘Come and See’, the performance of Nikolai Burlyayev as Ivan is also a strong part of the movie – he really convinces as a boy grown old before his time, masking his fear with a veneer of rage and the desire for revenge.
Would I recommend it? Yes – in a difficult and long double-bill with ‘Come and See’ followed by a course of anti-depressants.