Blu-ray Review – Ivan’s Childhood
Diving into the work of the famous Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky is something I’d always meant to get around to. His is one of the names bandied about by cineastes, he is often heralded as one of the “great” filmmakers, and he is an important name in world cinema. Fortunately, the Criterion Collection’s new Blu-ray release of his first film, Ivan’s Childhood, has provided a great starting point.
World War II is raging on, and Ivan is a stubborn, haunted 12-year-old boy. When he sleeps, he has idyllic dreams about his dead mother and family, who were killed by the Germans. In his impressionistic dreamscape, everything is natural and beautiful. But when he’s awake, the harsh realities of war make up his daily life. He works as a scout for the Russian army. His is among the most dangerous jobs in the war, since he must cross enemy lines to gather information and report it back to his country’s troops. The soldiers that make up his surrogate family keep talking of sending him to military school far away from the fighting. But Ivan is driven by the memories of his dead loved ones to keep fighting and being useful.
Most of this film is shot from a child’s perspective. Highly stylized, it almost seems the camera never raises above a child’s head level. Lots of shots are shot upward to heighten emotion. Sometimes the setting reflects how Ivan feels. As he walks through the ruins of a bombed-out residential house, we see him framed by a collection of timber that forms a harsh circle around him with extra pointy boards. The opening shot in his dream is of a spider web. The motif of that web reoccurs in one form or another throughout the film. Also, the intrusion of war on natural surroundings is prevalent. Identical limbless trees form an endless forest of stark upright shapes. Wading waist-deep across a river in a very natural surrounding while bombs and guns go off over head makes an impression. One could picture Terrence Malick being influenced by this film while making The Thin Red Line.
Russian, black-and-white meditations on death during wartime: I know, I know. This sounds like a dreary homework assignment. But this film is surprisingly accessible, as Ivan is engaging. This is one of those kid performances that’s startling in how powerful and adult a child can be. On occasion the film does show its ’60s roots with the oddly dated musical cue or “trippy” image during its longest dream sequence. But for the most part, it is a very watchable journey into the Russian mindset in the post-war era when that country was still healing from the scars of war.
I doubt that Ivan’s Childhood has ever looked better than it does here. The high definition image does great service to the haunting black and white imagery. For a film from Russia in 1962, this movie is virtually without grain or fading. It looks crisp and fresh. Since much of the power of Ivan’s Childhood depends on imagery, this video presentation is probably the best thing Criterion could have done for an early work by an acknowledged cinematic master.
Keep in mind, this is a Russian film from the sixties with a monaural soundtrack, so don’t expect this release to blow out your surround speakers like a recent summer blockbuster might. But this audio presentation is clean and listenable. Sounds are free of distortion. Certain scenes have whispers that can be made out distinctly. Considering the source, this is an adequate sounding disc.
This movie comes with three interviews that are holdovers from a previous 2007 DVD release. The first is a roughly 30-minute interview with film scholar Vida T. Johnson, who has written about Tarkovsky’s career. She provides very interesting context for the film. She is able to help place this movie in relation to what it meant for Russian filmmakers as well as the director’s career itself. Very interesting.
There is also a short interview with Nikolai Burlyaev, the actor who played Ivan. He has a good story about how Tarkovsky talked him through his big crying scene in the film. Lastly, there is an interview with the cinematographer Vadim Yusov.
These interviews made me want to send a notice to all the producers of DVD extras out there. Criterion really knows what it’s doing. They select knowledgeable people to talk on point and keep their comments to a digestable length. Often we get supplements that are a two and a half hour commentary on the making of Saw 6 or Transformers 13. Do those movies really deserve that extensive coverage? And is there really that much interesting material to cull through there? Granted, no one is forcing you to listen to it. But still, Criterion really keeps on point with relevant and engaging commentaries on important subjects.
There is also a booklet with a few well-written essays on the film.
Ivan’s Childhood has made me eager to discover more of Andrei Tarkovsky’s work. He went on to create the well-known Andrei Rublev and the classic original Solaris. This early wartime tale is supposedly more realistic and accessible than some of his later films. A strong child performance at its center makes this movie a standout.
Overall Release Rating: B+