Sunday, 22 August 2010

Tarkovsky’s War

Ivan’s Childhood 1962 USSR
Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky
Artificial Eye DVD Region 2

Please note: I am reviewing Tarkovsky’s movie from the Region 2 DVD here because I saw it cheap in a sale and jumped at the chance to upgrade from my old VHS copy because I’d unfortunately forgotten that Criterion had released a version of it in the US. I can say, without having viewed it, that the Criterion edition is almost certainly the best option to go with and that I would have abstained from parting with my £7 and gone with the US version if I’d remembered its existence. The Artificial Eye version seems to suffer from the same problem that a number of foreign language films seem to suffer from over here in the UK - which is that you cannot remove the subtitles if you want to study the power and beauty of a shot without the typography getting in the way... a big setback for these kinds of films, especially on films like this which are shot in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio and therefore intrude fully over the shot.

Andrei Tarkovsky is one of my favourite directors (second only to Akira Kurosawa in my book) and richly deserved his reputation as the great poet of cinema. Ivan’s Childhood was his first feature length film and also one of his most commercially successful. It is based on a short story by Vladimir Bogomolov and tells the rather grim tale of Ivan, a 12 year old boy orphaned by the conflict of war who is used, guiltily, as a child spy against the nazis in World War 2.

Tarkovsky is one of those rare directors who’s mise-en-scene is so compelling that the subject matter really doesn’t matter. Each and every shot composition in his films look like an utterly beautiful still photograph... and Ivan’s Childhood with it’s sometimes dreamy, sometimes stark black and white photography is no exception. The opening shot of Ivan in a forest looking through a spider’s web is just for starters in the beauty stakes... it just is such an amazing movie to look at. Like all Tarkovsky’s films. This is the kind of movie that the home viewing medium of DVD was made for.

The sound design was a little alienating at times, not sure if this was deliberate or not but everything seemed quite uncomplicated and simple... there are two sound options on this disc... Dolby Digital or original mono... I obviously opted for the original mono. C’mon DVD companies! It wasn’t going to sound like Dolby Digital when it was released into cinemas in ‘62 so I’m damn well not going to watch it like that now. Next you’ll be trying to sell me heavily doctored Blu-Ray prints which lose the grain of the film and make everything look like a larger than life cartoon-like, piece of fluff, bad CGI experiment gone wrong instead of the original movie! Oh, wait...

Anyway, another slightly off kilter thing about this movie is the overscoring of certain scenes with music which is quite a bit overly dramatic and romanticised for both the subject matter and, indeed, for the way that subject matter is represented visually. I don’t remember how much control Tarkovsky had over the way his movies were presented but I’m guessing not very much apart from the two films he made abroad. Most of the film plays with no musical score but the only time it is really effective and appropriately chilling is when two characters ride a boat back from behind enemy lines.

But the weight and power of the visuals, the excellent performances and the fine script easily outweigh the film's musical and sound distractions. There are a few flashbacks and dream sequences which would normally be in stark contrast to the way the rest of the footage is presented, but everything is presented so beautifully that you will be into these sequences before you even realise you have broken off from the main narrative for a while... and maybe that’s the point. One such sequence where Ivan rides a cart full of apples with his sister uses back projection for the forest background, but no attempt is made to hide this as the back projection is printed as a negative image and contrasts surreally with the foreground footage. A neat little trick that I can’t, off the top of my head, remember being done in other movies (I’m sure that five other examples will suddenly present themselves to my memory five minutes after this review goes live).

Ivan’s Childhood is quite a simple little film for Tarkovsky... the texture and density of the narrative structure is nowhere near his later films. It’s all there in the shot, though. Texture and depth like you don’t see in many director’s works on such a consistent level (maybe Mario Bava). If you like the sheer poetry and beauty of the visual image presented to you in crisp and stunning black and white photography then Ivan’s Childhood should definitely be on your movie hit list.


  1. So far the only Tarkovsky film I've seen is Solyaris but I'm definitely interested in seeing more. Stalker was recommended to me since I love sci-fi, but this also sounds extremely interesting and beautiful. I'll certainly add it to my list!

  2. Solaris is fantastic. Definitely check out Stalker (for the phone call), Nostalgia (for the candle in the swimming pool) and possibly Mirror (for the ring of condensation from the phantom coffee mug) before you bother with this one.