The Greatest films of all time: 8. Ivan’s Childhood (1962) (USSR)



When it was thought that all had already been done in cinema with the innovative and great works of Eisenstein, Vertov, Rossellini, De Sica, Kurosawa, Kalatazov, Bergman and Antonioni, and nothing more to create, it comes another great filmmaker from Russia, Andrei Tarkovsky with his masterpiece “Ivan’s Childhood”. Surprisingly at age 28 his debut film stirred up not just emotions and awakenings around the globe, but vast discussions in the realm of philosophy, sociology and history that did not spare the great French philosopher and writer, Jean Paul Sartre to write a detailed letter to the editor of the Italian newspaper “L’Unita” in response to some critics of the film, that was an article. The film impressed the great Ingmar Bergman, the most prolific filmmakers of all time (even more than Chaplin) that he wrote: “My discovery of Tarkovsky’s first film was like a miracle. Suddenly, I found myself standing at the door of a room the keys of which had, until then, never been given to me. It was a room I had always wanted to enter and where he was moving freely and fully at ease.”


This great anti-war film, depicting heroism at the depth of loss and casualties of war with hatred and self-sacrifice was adapted from the short story of “Ivan” by Vladimir Bogomolov of 1957. Tarkovsky, the mastermind of the film who collaborated in the screenplay (but uncredited) with the author and Mikhail Papava. The great cinematographic work of Vadim Yusov who later on collaborated with Tarkovsky in his other films, perfected with the music score of the talented composer Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov who began composing from ager 9, depicted the horror and hatred of the war from an orphan child’s perspective who had lost all that he had by German Nazis. 


“Ivan’s Childhood” is such a visual or cinematic masterpiece that has to be detailed more than usual, though it could be discussed and taught frame by frame, but here a concise of what is minimum necessity will be discussed. At the end and before the conclusion, Jean Paul Sartre’s letter or article about the film will be first presented here in its almost totality with a brief review and discussion over it. The article from the great French and existentialist philosopher and writer of our modern time is important as he critiqued Orson Wells’ “Citizen Kane” negatively, despite being considered by many including AFI as the best American film of all time or one the top films internationally in many lists. 

A Cinematic Craft to perfection

The film right away without any titles, opens with magic surprise, the face and the look of a young boy, Ivan in a woods, with zoom focus on his face and eyes, then on the detail of the pine tree, moving up all the way, leaving the boy down in the background. The camera with a great fitting background score, examines and introduces the natural beauty of the surroundings, such as the look of a deer (like in the recent move of “Hannah”), then follows a butterfly flying around in the field, that the young Ivan follows with his eyes in joy and laughter. We see all these as we are present in the moment.


Then the camera pauses on the soil, later on the sun ray that blinds the Ivan’s eyes, until he notices his mother walking towards him when he runs to her in joy. He drinks water from a bucket that his mother carries and puts down for him. Then he raises his head and after two minutes of observation in silence in the film thus far, in the first dialogue Ivan tells his mother “There’s a cuckoo in the woods, Mama”. We learn soon that all these so far have been in the boy’s dream, when in the next scene he wakes up frightened in a dark place like a barn that we find out later, when he leaves that is a windmill. The visual magic of camera does not stop even for a moment with all its lighting and shades in black and white and an unmatched beautiful cinematography. Every frame and scene seems to be so captivatingly beautiful that one wonders they all in set, location, lighting, filming and cinematography have been designed calculatingly to impress the viewers. Tarkovsky seems to have achieved well the application of the Russian cinematic art, from Eisenstein to Vertov and Kalatazov all combined.


Soon after the showing of the film titles and credits, we find out that Ivan is in the war stricken and occupied Russia by Nazis in the second world war. Crawling through a river in the woods, he reaches to a military camp, where he was taken to a lieutenant, the head of the camp. The look and the face of Ivan, wet and in sweat is a shot to be framed. But Ivan Bandarev refuses to talk to the first lieutenant wondering who would be, and asks for the chief commander. After a while of arguments and not believing him, the lieutenant calls the commander who convinces him the importance of the boy as an agent of Soviet army. The boy is given pen and paper to write his mission report to be sent to the head quarter. Still this is not a simple story telling, but a powerful imagery on the screen that has been waited for long. When the boy still with the lieutenant after taking a bath and eating, dizzy and sleepy, the viewer feels his fatigue and dizzy spells when the light of the lantern blares off in his eyes and his head falls down.


Back in his dreams away from his mother, he sees himself with her looking down into a water well, telling his mother that he sees a star in the well. The mother tells him that while it is daytime for us, it’s night time for the star in the well, the film’s poetic symbolism is presented. Still in his dream, he goes down the well to catch the star, while his mama up above  suddenly falls and the bucket of the water falls on her and she dies. Ivan again wakes up in terror, asking the lieutenant who’s watching over his bed, if he was talking in his sleep and if the commander has arrived yet. By now and only minutes in the film, we know that while the film basically runs in the present moment of the time of war, it also runs in the mind and dreams of the little Ivan. While the reality of the present is beautiful like the heroism of Ivan and other soldiers in fighting for their countries against the Nazis’ invaders, and harsh and tragic for losses and casualties of the war, the boy in his sleep has also beautiful dreams and nightmares.  

Soon the commander arrives and he jumps in his arms out of joy and reports that Nazis are on the other side of the river bank and he had to swim all the way across, almost drowned to reach the camp. There is a moment of tenderness and affection between Ivan and the commander while in each others’ arms, looking like a father and son. When Ivan finds out that the commander plans to send him away from the front to the military school, he gets angry at him that he wants to stick around and be part of the assault on German forces, otherwise he would run away and join the partisans. Henceforth Ivan finally escapes from the camp, so not to be sent to military school as that and “home for children are the same to me” to join the partisans. The camera and cinematography continues with their visual magic at a time when there was no digital or fake special effects.


IVAN’S CHILDHOOD, (aka MY NAME IS IVAN, aka IVANOVO DETSTVO), Nikolai Burlyayev, 1962

When Ivan arrives into a farm house shattered by the Nazis’ assault, the frame shot of him walking through the wrecked is another visual masterpiece deserved to be framed. One wonders all these scenery, locations and objects were real and existed there or they were cleverly set in locations and designs to create such magnificent achievements in the art of filmography. The singing of a rooster of the farmer who jumps over the chimney while he is trying to bring him down, wakes Ivan up. The old man who has noticed him says “The stove and chimney will stand for ever”! The farmer asks Ivan to help him to find a nail that he has lost out on the field. When Ivan finds him a straight nail, the old man says “not this one”! This is another example of psychological symbolism to please the intellectual viewers, but also analyzing the truth of the mental states of a mourning mind, that is the farmer here. He asks Ivan then where his mom is and tells him that the Nazis killed his old woman (wife) as well. Then he tells him his recollection of the murder of his wife and still believing she will be back, while putting up a picture frame on the bare wall with the nail, as a step making the house ready for his wife’s return. So the film is not just a cinematographic achievement, but a success in depicting physical and psychological casualties of the war, reaching the depth of the hearts.

My Name is Ivan (1962 Russia) aka Ivanovo detstvo Directed by Andrei TarkovskyShown on right: Kolya Burlyayev

 Finally the colonel commander looking for Ivan, arrives at the farm in a military vehicle and takes him away, but Ivan while in the car driving away, stretches out of the car window and leaves the old man some food. In the vehicle, Ivan again argues with the colonel that big adult soldiers cannot do what he can do on the front, “they get killed easily, while I can get through anywhere and after all I have no family left behind”, while in tears. The next scene shows Masha a young lady medical assistant lieutenant in an army hideout in the middle of a white birch woods. The scene of the innocent, calm and beautiful looking Masha while questioned by a male comrade seemingly attracted to her with the background of the white birch woods is another frame shot of ultimate visual art. The male comrade keeps advancing on Masha who is ignorant of him, while walking after her in the woods, until when she is about to pass over a wide trench, that he grabs her in his arms. Standing over the trench holding Masha who is hanging over the ditch, he starts kiss her, as the camera shows them in this novel set design from a bottom up angle. After a moment of silence and still frame shot of the face of Masha being taken by surprise of her comrade’s action, she starts running in the woods while the camera runs after her in a staggering move.  


Ivan back to a military base that seems to be a church, is seen with a few comrades, including a young soldier who gives him an army knife before leaving for the front and all leaving him behind. While alone in the darkness of the place, he is flashed back of the Nazis’ invasion of their home, where his mother and sister were killed. In this sensational and horrifying scene, while awake and all not a dream, Ivan in tears talking to coat hanging on the wall as if a German soldier standing in front of him, saying that he will take the revenge and put him on trial. In another beautiful scene, the young soldier who gave Ivan his knife comes back to the church base and arguing with Ivan why he is not going back to school as war is not for the boys. The soldier’s reflection is shown in a mirror during the  conversation while Ivan is seen straight in the camera, upset by the comrade’s suggestion.

Soon the next scene shows another Ivan’s daydream back in time, recalling being with his sister on a farm truck loaded with apples, them sitting on the top of the load in pouring rain passing through the woods. This is the most beautiful never seen before imagery scene of a rainfall, lest with the human subjects of two siblings in their most delicate memories. Grabbing an apple and holding it in the rain with the joy in both faces of Ivan and his sister, is symbolic of life before the destruction by the war. This memorable scene ends when a bunch of apples fall off the truck and some horses on the field start eating their favorite fruit. Finally Ivan crosses the river with the aid of two comrades in the darkness of the night, then through a wooded marsh while under the enemy’s fire. This scene is real darkness with no use of dark lens filming in the daylight like in some other films, with the only light of the scene being the fires of the enemy at times. This scene has been one of the favorite scenes of Jean Paul Sartre that will be read later on in his letter or article on the film.


Back to the base the two comrades after a long silence sitting at a table, deep in worries about the fate of Ivan, they drink to him. The film ends with the victory of Russia in the war against the Nazi Germany in huge celebration by the soldiers and the Russian people. Then the body of a Nazi general who had killed his three young children then hang himself is shown. All these scenes, then searching and going through the German’s headquarter all shot in unbelievable cinematography, are beyond explanation and need to be seen. The young soldier, the friend of Ivan, walking in a Nazi’s prison, where he sees many hanging ropes, with pictures of the victims, as Germans triumphs, including the 12 years old Ivan. The final scene shows another dream or an afterlife scene of Ivan being on a beach first with his mother again drinking water from a bucket, then playing with some other kids and lastly playing hide and seek with his sister, running after each other on the beach when the film ends.     

The following is the letter or article of Jean Paul Sartre on the film in its almost entirety to the editor of the Italian paper L’Unita where a highly critical review of the film had been published that angers the French Philosopher who loved and praised the film. Some phrases’ emphases are by the writer of this post. 


“My dear Alicata,

I have remarked to you on several occasions about the great regard I have for your contributors looking after [the sections on] literature, plastic art and cinema…It is for this very reason that I wish to express a regret to you. How is it that for the first time in my knowledge the charge of schematism could be sustained against the articles that  L’Unita and other leftwing newspapers devoted to Ivan’s Childhood which is one of the most beautiful films I have had the privilege of seeing in the last few years? It was given the highest award, the Golden Lion, by the Jury: but that has become a strange certificate of “occidentalism” and contributed towards making Tarkovsky a petty bourgeois suspect with the Italian left seeing it with a bad eye. In truth, such distrustful judgements abandon to our middle classes, without real justification, a profoundly Russian and revolutionary film which expresses the sensibility of the young Soviet generations in a typical way.As for me, I saw it in Moscow, first in a private screening and then in public, in the midst of youth. I understood what it represented to those 20-year old heirs to Revolution, who did not doubt it for a moment and intended to continue it with pride: let me assure you that in their approval there was nothing that could be defined as a reaction of the “petitbourgeois”. It goes without saying that a critic is free to maintain all [sorts of] reservations about the work of art he must judge. But is it just to show such a defiance towards a film which has already been the object of impassioned discussion in the USSR? Is it just to criticise, without taking into account these discussions, or their profound meaning as if  Ivan’s Childhood were only an example of the current production in USSR? I know you sufficiently, my dear Alicata, to know that you do not share the simplistic vision of your critics. And as the regard I have, for them is truly sincere, I am asking you to let them know [the contents of] this letter which would perhaps reopen, at least, the discussion before it is too late.

They talked about traditionalism as also an outmoded expressionism and symbolism. Allow me to say that these formalist criteria are themselves outmoded. It is true that in Fellini and Antonioni, symbolism is sought to be hidden. But this only results in its becoming even more bright. Nor could the Italian neorealism avoid it any more. It would be necessary to speak here of the symbolic function of any of the most realist of the works of art. We do not have the time to do that here. Moreover, it is rather the nature of his symbolism that they wanted to reproach in Tarkovsky> his symbols would be expressionist or surrealist! This is what I cannot accept.Firstly, because they find here, as in the USSR, that the charge of a certain academism (on its way to disappearance) is levelled against the young metteur-en-scene. For certain critics there, as also for your better ones here, it would seem that Tarkovsky had hastily assimilated the processes superseded in the occident, and that he applies them without judgement.They reproach him for Ivan’s dreams: “The dreams! We, in the occident; have long since stopped using dreams! Tarkovsky is slow: That used to be fine between the war !” Here then is what the authoritative pens have written.

Tarkovsky is 28 (he himself told me; not 30 as certain newspapers have written) and, be sure of this that he has a very inadequate knowledge of the occidental cinema. His culture is essentially and necessarily Soviet. One gains nothing and has everything to lose in wanting to derive from a bourgeois process a “treatment” which follows from the film itself and from the material it treats.

Ivanis mad, that is a monster; that is a little hero; in reality, he is the most innocent and touching victim of the war: this boy, whom one cannot stop loving, has been forged by the violence he has internalised.The nazis killed him when they killed his mother an massacred the inhabitants of his village. Yet, he lives. But somewhere else, in that irremediable moment where he saw his neighbour falling. I have myself seen certain young, hallucinated Algerians, moulded by the massacres. For them, there was no difference whatsoever between the nightmares of the waking state and the nocturnal nightmares. They had been killed, they would have wanted to kill and to get used to killing. Their heroic determination was, above all, a hatred and escape in the face of unbearable anguish.If they fought, they fled the horror in the combat; if the night disarmed them and if, in their sleep, they returned to the tenderness of their age, the horror was reborn and they relived the memory they would want to forget. Such is Ivan. And I think it is necessary to praise Tarkovsky for having shown so well how for this child,pitched towards suicide, there is no difference between day and night. In any case, he does not live with us. Actions and hallucinations are in close correspondence. Notice the relations, he maintains with adults: he lives amidst troops; the officers — brave people, courageous but “normal”, who did not have to suffer a tragic childhood — shelter him, love him, would have wanted at any cost to “normalise” him and, in the end, to send him to school.

Apparently, the child could find, as in a Chekov novel, a father among them to replace the one he has lost. Too late: he no longer has the need for parents; still more profound [than the loss of parents] is the ineffaceable horror of the massacre [he has] seen which reduces him to his solitude.The officers end up by considering the child with a mixture of tenderness, amazement and painful distrust: they see in him a perfect monster, so beautiful and nearly odious, that the enemy has radicalised, who asserts himself only in murderous impulses (the knife, for example), and who cannot sever links with war and death; who now has the need of this sinister universe for living; who is liberated from fear in the midst of a battle and who would be carried away in the end by anguish. The little victim knows what is necessary for him: the war — which created him — blood, vengeance. Yet, the two officers love him;as for him, all one can say is that he does not detest them.Love, for him, is a route that has been barred forever. His nightmares, his hallucinations have nothing gratuitous about them. They are not about morsels of bravery nor are they about the surveys carried out in the “subjectivity” of the child: they remain perfectly objective, we continue to see Ivan from outside, like in the “realist” scenes; the truth is that for this boy the entire world is a hallucination and that in this universe this boy, monster and martyr is a hallucination for others.It is for this that the first sequence skilfully introduces us to the true and false world which is one of the boy and the war, describing to us everything from the real course of the boy through the woods to the false death of his mother (she is really dead, but that event — so profoundly concealed that we will never know it — was different: it never comes to surface except through the transcriptions which carry him a little away from his horrible nudity). Madness? Reality? Both of them: in war, all soldiers are mad, this child monster is an objective testimony of their madness because it is he who has gone the farthest. It is neither a question of expressionism nor that of symbolism, but of a certain manner of narration demanded by the very subject, what the young poet Voznessenski used to call “socialist surrealism”.

It had been necessary to delve deeper into the intentions of the author to understand the very sense of the theme: war kills those who make it even if they survive it. And, in a still more profound sense: history, in one and the same movement, demands [these] heroes, creates them and destroys them by rendering them incapable of living without suffering in the society they have contributed to forge.

They praised L’Uomo da Bruciare at the same time as they regarded Ivan’s Childhood with an unfavourable eye. They addressed their eulogies to the authors of the first film, also very worthy, for reintroducing complexity in the positive hero. It is true: they have given him the defects — mythomania, for example. They have shown at the same time the devotion of the character to the cause he defends and his authentic egocentricism. But, on my part, I find nothing truly new in this. Eventually, the better socialist realist productions have in spite of everything, always given us complex, nuanced hero; they have exalted their merits while taking care to underline certain of their weaknesses. In truth, the problem is not one of measuring out the vices and virtues of the hero but one of putting heroism itself into discussion. Not to deny it but to understand it.  Ivan’s Childhood puts both necessity and ambiguity of this heroism into light. The boy has neither the small virtues nor weaknesses: he is radically what the history has made of him. Thrown into the war despite himself, he is entirely made for the war. But if he causes fear amongst the soldiers around him, it is because he could no longer live in peace. The violence in him born out of anguish and horror, sustains him, helps him live, and pushes him to demand dangerous missions of exploration. But, what will he become after the war? Even if he survives, the incandescent lava within him will never cool down. Is not here, in the closest sense of the term, an important criticism of the positive hero? He shows him exactly as he is, sad and magnificent; he makes [us] see the tragic and funereal sources of his strength. He reveals that this product of war, perfectly adapted by the warrior society, is condemned by the same to become asocial within the universe of peace. It is in this way that history makes men: it chooses them, straddles them and makes them crack under its weight. Amidst men of peace, who agree to die for peace and make war for peace, this martial and mad boy makes war for war. He lives precisely for this, amidst soldiers who love him, in unbearable solitude.

However, he is a child. This desolate soul preserves the tenderness of childhood, but can no more experience it, and still less express it.Even if he gives himself to it in his dreams, even if he begins to dream in soft distractions from daily chores, one can be sure that these dreams, are inevitably transformed into nightmares. The images of the most elementary happiness end up by making us afraid: we know the end. And this brittle and repressed tenderness is nevertheless living every moment; Tarkovsky took care to surround Ivan with that: it is a world, a world in spite of war and even, sometimes, because of war (I think of those wonderful skies run across by the balls of fire). In reality, the lyricism of the film, its laboured skies, its tranquil waters, its innumerable forests, are the very life of Ivan, the love and roots that were denied to him, this is what he used to be, what he still is without ever being able to remember it, what the others see in him, around him, what he himself can no longer see. I know nothing more moving than this long sequence: the journey of the river, long, slow, heart-rending: despite their anguish and incertitude (was it just to make a child run all these risks?), the officers accompanying him are pierced by this terrible, desolate softness. But bound to earth and obsessed with the dead, the child remarks nothing, disappears: he is going towards the enemy. The boat returns to the other bank; silence reigns in the middle of the river: the canon has worn itself out. One of the military men says to the other “This silence, that is war…”

At that very moment, the silence explodes: cries, howls, that is peace. Mad with joy, the Soviet soldiers overrun the Chancellory of Berlin; running, they climb the stairs. One of the officers — the other? is he dear? — has found some booklets in a recess; the Third Reich used to be bureaucratic: for every person hanged, a photo, a name on the list. The young officer finds in one of these the photo of Ivan. Hanged at 12. In the midst of the joy of a nation that paid so harshly the right to pursue the construction of socialism, there is, among many others, this black hole, an irremediable, prick of the needle: the death of a child in hatred and despair.Nothing, not even future communism, will redeem that. Nothing: he shows us here, without an intermediary, the collective joy and this personal, modest disaster. There is not even a mother to confound the sorrow and pride: a dead loss. The society of men progresses towards its goals, the living will realise these ends with their own proper strength, and yet this little death, this minuscule straw swept by history, would remain like a question without a response, which compromises nothing but which shows everything under a new light: history is tragic.Hegel used to say that. And Marx also, who added that it always progresses through its worst sides. But we almost no longer wanted to say this; during the recent times, we insisted on progress forgetting the losses that nothing can compensate.  Ivan’s Childhood reminded us about all that in a most insinuating, soft but most explosive way. A child died. And that is almost a happy end, seeing that he could not have survived. In a certain sense, I think that the author, this very young man, wanted to speak of himself and his generation. Not that these proud and tough pioneers died but that, on the contrary, their childhood had been shattered by the war and its consequences.I would have almost liked to say: here then is the Soviet Quatre Cents Coups2, but only to underline the differences better. A child put into pieces by his parents: here is the bourgeois tragicomedy. Of the millions of children destroyed by the war, or living by the war, there is one of the Soviet tragedies.

It is in this sense that this film seems to us to be specifically Russian. The technique is certainly Russian, although in itself it is original.We, in the occident, know how to appreciate the rapid and elliptic rythm of Godard, the protoplasmic slowness of Antonioni. But the novelty is to see these two movements in a metteur-en-scene who is inspired by neither of the two authors, but who wanted to live the time of war in its unbearable sluggishness and, in the same film, to take a jump from one epoch to the other with the elliptic rapidity of history (I am thinking in particular of the admirable contrast between these two sequences: the river and the Reichstag), without developing the plot, abandoning the characters to certain moment of their life, for rediscovering them in another moment, or in the moment of their death. But it is not this opposition of rythms which give to the film its specific character from the social point of view. Those moments of despair which destroy a person, though less numerous, we knew them in the same epoch (I am reminded of a Jewish child of Ivan’s age who, on learning of his father and mother’s death in a gas chamber and their incineration in 1945, sprinkled spirit on his mattress, lay down, set it on fire and burned himself alive). But we have neither had the merit nor the chance to enable ourselves to embark upon a grandiose construction. We have often known Evil. But never the radical Evil in the midst of Good, at the moment, where it enters into conflict with Good itself.It is this that hits us here: naturally no Soviet can be said to be responsible for Ivan’s death: the only culprits are the nazis. But the problem is not there: Where does Evil come from, when it pierces Good with its innumerable needle pricks, it reveals the tragic reality of man and of historical progress.And where could that be better said than in the USSR, the only country where the word progress makes a sense? And, naturally, there is no place to derive from that any pessimism. No more than an easy optimism. But only the will to combat without ever losing sight of the price to be paid . I know that you know better than me, my dear Alicata, the pain, sweat and often the blood that even the last change one wishes to introduce in society costs; I am certain that, you will appreciate as much as me this film on the dead loss of history.And the regard I have for the critics of L’ Unita persuades me to ask you to show them this letter. I would be happy if some of these observations could give them the occasion to respond to me and to reopen the discussion on Ivan. It is not the Golden Lion that will go on to be the true reward for Tarkovsky but the polemical interest raised by his film with those who are struggling together for liberation of man against war.

With all my friendship and affection,

Jean-Paul Sartre”


In closing remarks “Ivan’s Childhood” one more time will be redefined based on the following criteria:  

  1. Originality:“Ivan’s Childhood” is not just original in its visual masterpiece of cinematography, but in artfully applying the technical achievements by then in the Russian cinema from Eisenstein, Vertov and Kalatazov to this debut film of its creator, Andrei Tarkovsky. To his predecessors’ technical armamentarium, Tarkovsky adds his own style of story telling, delving into psychological depth of his principal protagonist, not just in waking hours but in his dreams, nightmares, fears and hope. In this achievement, Tarkovsky is assisted greatly by the cinematographer Vadim Yusov and the talented classic composer Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov.
  2. Technicality:The technicality of “Ivan’s Childhood” as detailed above is in its magical beauty of filming and amazing cinematography, set design and location that makes the film a subject of the art of filmmaking study. The script, score and acting all complement the camera and editing work of this masterpiece.
  3. Impact Factor:The influence “Ivan’s Childhood” has been not only on great filmmakers such as Ingmar Bergman who still believes someone else creates better films than him, but also on outside the circle of cinema and on writers and philosopher such as the great Jean Paul Sartre, whose opinion could not be ignored.
  4. Survival:“Ivan’s Childhood” has survived well to this very day as it is still fresh, a delight to watch, learn and introspect of the many aspects of life, particularly the casualties of any war on the body, soul and the humans’ connections among others.

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