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This is a DVD to own. "Ivan's Childhood" is Tarkovsky's first and arguably his most famous film. Based on Vladimir Bogomolov's early novella, "Ivan" (that is, "John") (1957), the film achieved wide acclaim outside Russia. It was produced at the risky time when Premier Khrushchev's era was ending and fundamentalist Marxists were ascendant again, restricting freedom in the arts; it is, as one observer wrote, "one of the harshest, morally complex versions of the war in Soviet film." It won the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival. With this debut film, Tarkovsky established an international reputation that has influenced many other filmmakers.
Except for this novella, Bogomolov is not widely known outside Russia. However, it was translated and anthologized widely around the world. Look for Bernard Isaac's translation into British English. It has the atmosphere of reality. It is punctuated it with references to real places, the Dnieper River, the town Gomel, where Ivan was born, and the Trostyanets death camp; even official Red Army and SS documents have an authentic flavor.
The novella is told in the first person narrative of a Red Army lieutenant. Ivan is about 12 and a "scout", or reconnaissance spy, sneaking across the swampy Dnieper River into the night and behind German lines. The war made him an orphan and filled him with maddening hatred and desperation for revenge. He has been with partisans, in a death camp, and wounded by friendly fire returning from a mission one night. The soldiers are amazed he's been through so much.
There is the pun, of course: Ivan's last name is Bondarev, Ivan Bondarev, that is, John Bond. In the story, it's an intelligence cover name. However, Ian Flemming's first James Bond novels appeared in the early fifties before "Ivan" was published. It may be coincidental, and probably only of interest to Western readers.
Writers often insert their own lives and experiences into their writings, and Bogomolov served in the Red Army in World War II and in intelligence. I do not know if Bogomolov based Ivan on any real person that he may have met or learned about. I guess we can only speculate about Ivan, yet a child working as a war-time spy seems plausible to me. After all, in the desperate chaos at the close of the war, Germany mobilized the Hitler Youth and insurgent units called Werewolves. There is plenty of historical evidence pointing to child combatants throughout history as well as in current events. We recall that Baden-Powell, who created the Boy Scouts, was a former soldier and spy, and the crafts of scouting are important reconnoitering skills used in war. The world is as morally conflicted as ever.
Though he argued with Tarkovsky about the way his story was filmed, like all authors, I think Tarkovsky's approach was correct, considering the demands and possibilities of the cinemagraphic medium. This Criterion Edition of the film is cleaned up with a high definition digital transfer. There is a new subtitle translation. The highlight of the features is the interview with Nicholai (Kolya) Burlyaev, who portrayed Ivan. He reminisces how he was cast at 14 and how the film was made.
The film follows the novella closely, though it takes a more objective viewpoint and enters Ivan's troubled dreams, which make striking imagery. It is tragic poetry whereas the novella is matter-of-fact. Here, Ivan is somewhat bratty and hot tempered. Though he is a child scout, I think the film suggests that he may not be the only one. He knows his trade-craft and takes it very seriously. Still, no one seems overly concerned (in either film or story) that a child is a war-time spy. Frankly, he insists on doing it. Ivan's only friends are the soldiers who want to care for him (after the war)or send him to school but do not object to his missions.
The film, shot on location at the Dnieper River, is pregnant with dramatic, almost heavy-handed imagery and symbolism. There is the first metaphor of crossing the river. Then there is the metaphor of the dead tree. It's his extraction point where Sgt. Katasonov waits for him to bring him ashore to safety. But, Ivan misses the rendezvous because of German patrols and must swim further away. Here, one metaphor abuts another. At the end, following Ivan's last mission, Tarkovsky re-introduces the dead tree metaphor as Ivan races laughing on a beach, perhaps in whatever kind of dream that may have come for him. There are other interpretations, and this one satisfies me now. At the end of the day, we have Bogomolov's poignant story enhanced by Tarkovsky's uncompromising, haunting vision.