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My Name Is Ivan

My Name Is Ivan(1963)

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Watching an Andrei Tarkovsky film, you can hardly be blamed for thinking that the troubled Russian visionary was a cinematic world unto himself – a cosmic mise-en-scene Prometheus, conjuring bottomless metaphysical mysteries with a long-take aesthetic the likes of which film had never seen before. And you'd be half-right: Tarkovsky (in particular with his last three films, Stalker, Nostalghia and The Sacrifice) palpably evoked a world of pregnant enigmas, intellectual angst and rainy-landscape atmosphere that is his alone.

The half that you'd get wrong is thinking of Tarkovsky as a *sui generis* artiste. For solid precedents you can begin with Alexander Dovshenko's Earth (1930) and Sergei Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky (1938), two visually monolithic staples of a Soviet film school education by the time Tarkovsky arrived there in the late 1950s. More to the point, Mikhail Kalatosov, a veteran from the silent days, released his global hit The Cranes Are Flying in 1957, and herein lies the philosopher's stone at the heart of Tarkovsky's aesthetic. Kalatosov and his superhuman cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky (together they also made 1959's The Letter Never Sent and 1964's epochal I Am Cuba) devised a breathtaking visual vocabulary that stretched what cinema had been capable of, even in the hands of Murnau: dramatic single shots that would encompass characters as well as acres of landscape, deep-focus extremes in perspective, vertiginous movement and multiple points of view. Each Kalatosov/Urusevsky take is an trapeze stunt, an athletic exercise in seeing how much life and world and experience can be crammed into a single camera take.

This achievement's influence was tremendous, not only impacting on Tarkovsky but upon filmmakers all over eastern Europe, including the Hungarian masters Miklos Jancso and Bela Tarr, Greek epic-maker Theo Angelopoulos, Czech troublemaker Jan Nemec, and fellow Russians Sergei Bondarchuk, Alexei German, Larisa Shepitko and Alexander Sokurov. The interface with Kalatosov's films is so palpable in Tarkovsky's debut, Ivan's Childhood (1962), that the film comes off today as a product of the Khrushchev thaw fashion among Soviet filmmakers and not the work of a genius idiosyncrat – or, at least, the artist's formative launch into the feature-making industry. Either way, the film has a fascinating historical role to play, as the missing link between the typical-albeit-brilliant Soviet system drones of the day to the anti-state, pro-humanist, rule-decimating culture voice Tarkovsky would eventually exemplify.

Like many firsttimers, Tarkovsky walked into someone else's project – Ivan's Childhood was an adaptation of a novel already in development at Mosfilm, when Tarkovsky and Andrei Konchalovsky were asked to rework the screenplay. Tarkovsky did in fact see it as a test – was he, after only a handful of student films (including a faithful adaptation of Hemingway's The Killers), up to the demands of filmmaking within the Soviet machine? Ivan is a WWII tale (then and for a long time a reliable source of righteous outrage and drama for the Soviets), focused often impressionistically on the experiences of a war-hardened, Nazi-orphaned 12-year-old boy (Nikolai Burlyaev) who runs missions as a scout across the Western front. Haughty and demanding, Ivan gives his adult soldier guardians hell, and if he sees himself now, despite rosy memories of country life with his mother, as a war hero, the officers in charge struggle with the decision of sending him back into the combat zone or away to the safety of a military school.

Whenever Tarkovsky wrestles his characters free of an enclosed room and expository dialogue (all deftly handled in any case), his Kalatosovian wings spread: the compositions become alarming high-contrast, the shots grow longer and become mobile, the primal landscape stretches out indefinitely, a dazzlingly dense and optically disarming birch forest becomes more than just a setting but a cinematic visitation to another person's unforgettable experience. (Indeed, the film's key scenes, including the sadly beautiful climactic shot of a sun shower falling upon horses busy eating dropped apples on the beach, are reproductions of Tarkovsky's childhood memories.) Therein lies one of the film's most sublime orchestrations, whoever's style it might be derived from: a flirting Russian soldier and girl among the birches are shot on the move from close to the ground, and as they go to cross a trench, the camera dips down into the hole and gazes up at the couple, as the soldier catches the girl in mid-jump, his legs straddling the ditch, and kisses her.

Like most of what's memorable of Soviet films from the thaw, Ivan's Childhood is a deeply humanist film, unspoiled by earnest flag-waving and simplistic nationalism, in the vivid and poetic way established by Poles like Andrzej Wajda just a few years earlier. (It's an inheritance from the Italian neo-realists, but the Communist nations' versions were never necessarily realistic.) Even so, it remains, in fact, the only Tarkovsky feature you could comfortably call "Soviet" – his next film, the historical pageant Andrei Rublev (1969), was so faithful in its depiction of medieval Russia that it sat on the shelf, censored, for several years. After that, Tarkovsky made films for a global audience, and for the eyes of the divine – he left the petty, ephemeral matter of ideologies and governments far behind (and never gained the favor of the Politburo), his films voyaging into outer space, metaphoric territories and hermetic inner spaces. He eventually went into self-imposed exile, to Italy and then Sweden, before dying of cancer at the age of 54. Still, the essential "Sovietness" of Ivan's Childhood is hardly a burden (the Khrushchev-initiated Soviet New Wave was one of the era's most fecund), and the movie remains one of the best ever made about the fate of children in wartime.

For more information about Ivan's Childhood, visit The Criterion Collection. To order Ivan's Childhood, go to TCM Shopping.

by Michael Atkinson