Sunday, August 14, 2011

Tarkovsky's War

This blog suffers from one mortal wound--its author's unfamiliarity with the Russian language--and dozens of lesser injuries, which include the author's unrelenting dilettantism in the dozens of fields related to Soviet intellectual history, including music and film. Nevertheless, Soviet Roulette has one merit: it doesn't use ignorance as an excuse for quitting. Thus, this entry, on Andrei Tarkovsky's first feature film, Ivan's Childhood, made in 1962, in the midst of Khrushchev's Thaw.

According to Vida T. Johnson, coauthor of The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky and featured guest in Criterion's Film Appreciation segment of the its DVD of Ivan's Childhood, the Thaw period marked a strong revival of Russian film-making. At the end of Stalin's life, film making was both heavily censored and heavily restricted to older men who had earned the Party's trust. In fact, in 1953, the year of Stalin's death the Soviet Union, only released about 50 or 60 films. During the Thaw, that number had been increased to over 100, with a corresponding increase in intellectual excitement over the industry's artistic and creative potential.

Tarkovsky's film, about a young boy who, reacting the massacre of his mother and and sister during World War II, seeks vengeance against the Germans before (spoiler alert) being tortured and executed in Berlin, maintains some of the elements of socialist realism. As Johnson argues, Tarkovsky's film, while highly inventive and subjective, retains some of the key socialist realist storytelling conventions, including heroism, Soviet patriotism, a clear moral message, and unsympathetic enemies. On the other hand, Tarkovsky, like some of his contemporaries in the Thaw period, was experimenting with different kind of war film than the grand, heroic films of the early 1950s.

In Ivan's Childhood, the war is personalized, and its searing trauma highlighted. Tarkovsky, Johnson reminds us, was about ten, roughly Ivan's age, during World War II. This film is therefore a very personal account of war's impact on the mind of a child who would have been representative of the millions of other Soviet children who lived through the war. Over time, Johnson tell us that Tarkovsky's unique style of film-making became more developed, revolving around complex narrative styles, pronounced subjectivity, dream sequences, cinematic poetry, moody images, and invitations to enter the director's inner world. But even in Ivan's Childhood the director was testing the limits of what a genre war film could be. His story (originally Vladimir Bogomolov's tale) is nonlinear, filled with innocent, light-filled dream sequences which are contrasted with dark, brutal, styled portraits of Ivan's horrific waking life.

The contrast, between life as it should be for a young boy, and life as it is, isn't particularly subtle, but it transforms an action story about a boy hero who risks his life to go on a scouting mission behind enemy lines, into a more intimate description of profound psychological loss. The child-killing enemy remains, and the film doesn't hesitate to use historical footage of the Soviet Union's ultimate victory celebration in Berlin; but Ivan's Childhood is ultimately successful as a result of its personal, subjective account of Ivan's damaged personality. Ivan, courageous and vengeful, is also beset by anger, sadness, loneliness, and, above all, loss. Of course, this mental landscape is beautifully rendered by Vadun Yusov's brilliant visual metaphors, including dark battlefields, ruined natural landscapes (see Yusov's interview in the same Criterion DVD), eerie birch groves, luscious apples, and pristine beeches.

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