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Growing Up Too Soon: "Ivan's Childhood" at the Russian Embassy

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Ivan's Childhood Dinner
Guests enjoy delicious Russian food before the film.

"The same question arose in every soul: ‘For what, for whom, must I kill and be killed?'"

In Leo Tolstoy’s epic War and Peace, the author sows this moral puzzlement in the battle-hardened consciousness of soldiers from opposing armies. To find this cold calculus transplanted into the mind of a 12-year-old is profoundly disturbing, and yet, still somehow logical for a Russian boy who has lost his entire family to the malicious cruelty of the Nazi regime. Such is the drama at the crux of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1962 film Ivan’s Childhood, which opened the 2019-2020 offerings of the Carmel Institute of Russian Culture & History at American University.

In keeping with the theme of this season’s Carmel Institute presentations — which will commemorate the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II — Ivan’s Childhood narrates the very personal war of a twelve-year-old orphan, Ivan Bondarev, turned Soviet Army scout and partisan. A risky and dangerous job, it gains young Ivan the respect of his fellow combatants — who admire his tenacity, effectiveness, and bravado — while they simultaneously struggle with the fact that he is still just a kid, one they feel the paternal need to protect.

Unsparing in its portrait of the physical and psychological ravages of war, Ivan’s Childhood was Andrei Tarkovsky’s cinematic litmus test; his attempt to — as he termed it — “establish whether or not I had it in me to be a director.” The result — by turns spare, poetic, and dreamlike — firmly established Tarkovsky as one of cinema’s most brilliant directors. Its innovative style — in both camerawork and narrative — earned Ivan’s Childhood the status of a classic. 

Ingmar Bergman was once asked who he thought the greatest living director was. “Tarkovsky is, for me, the greatest,” the legendary Swedish director replied. “One who invents a new language; true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection; life as a dream.”

Before the movie, students from several Carmel Institute universities — including American University, Georgetown University, George Washington University, the University of Maryland at College Park and at Baltimore County, John Hopkins University, and George Mason University — and other guests dined on a buffet of delicious Russian food. 

Once the audience was seated in the theater, the Cultural Attaché of the Russian Embassy — Ms. Daria Anisimova — welcomed them.

“In May 2020, we will celebrate the 75th anniversary of the victory over the Nazis,” Ms. Anisimova noted. She shared that Russians refer to World War II as The Great Patriotic War. “Why?” she asked. “That war carried away the lives of 27 million Soviet people. No other nation has suffered such incredible losses. Almost no family in the country was left intact. That historic memory will always stay with the peoples that fought to the death so future generations can live in freedom.”

This memory is not consigned to the past, explained Ms. Anisimova. “Every May, you can see on TV and on the Internet millions of Russians — and not only Russians — carrying portraits of their relatives who fought in that war, who are no longer with them. That sacrifice has left an indestructible imprint on our mentality,” she said. “So if you want to understand Russians, you need to learn about the Great Patriotic War, and the price that the Soviet Union had to pay for all of us just to live.”

“It was a fight for all generations,” Ms. Anisimova declared. 

The story depicted in Ivan’s Childhood is not fiction, either, Ms. Anisimova said. “Thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of children and youth worked day and night at the factories and helped the Army fight the enemy. They joined partisan and reconnaissance detachments hitting the Nazi troops.” 

The memory of allied cooperation — symbolized in the meeting of American and Russian troops at the Elbe River on April 25, 1945 — must be commemorated, too, said Ms. Anisimova. “That meeting symbolized the strength of the alliance and expedited the defeat of our common enemy,” she observed. “It was a good lesson for the entire world — and for our two countries in particular. Regardless of the political differences we must be united in maintaining global peace and security. Those historical lessons should never be forgotten.”

Prof. Eric Lohr — the Director of the Carmel Institute and Chair of the AU Department of History — said Ivan’s Childhood was the first film he chose to screen in 2011 for the then-Initiative for Russian Culture, since known as the Carmel Institute of Russian Culture & History.

Ivan’s Childhood is, Dr. Lohr shared, his favorite Soviet film. It is not, he noted, one that initially had an easy journey to the screen. The production was losing money, and its creative team was fighting amongst themselves. That is, until Tarkovsky took over. “He completed the entire film — from scratch — in eight months. Faster than they anticipated, and 24,000 rubles under budget,” Dr. Lohr said. Recognition and awards followed, and Tarkovsky soon became internationally known. 

“Tarkovsky produced this film in 1962,” Dr. Lohr explained, “toward the end of the post-Stalin era known as ‘the thaw’ — a time of cultural flourishing in the Soviet Union. He presented a powerful account of how the war destroyed a single childhood; a single life. The war that is portrayed is really a war within this 12-year-old child.”

The cast, said Dr. Lohr, is intentionally small, further focusing the dramatic action. “There are very few people in this film. There are many dreams and nightmares. The war is really offstage; it almost never makes an explicit appearance. So get ready for a slow and quiet film about a boy that somehow amounts to one of the most poignant, emotionally powerful war films of the 20th century.”

Dr. Lohr supplied the audience with a list of things to look for as they viewed the movie: how Tarkovsky uses the camera to depict emotion, especially in dream sequences; the theme of water (symbolic of the classical River Styx as the boundary between the living and the dead); the unfolding of the story through emotion rather than linear narrative; the survival of culture in the face of war; the definition of heroism; and what reality truly is — which is more surreal; the dream sequences of Ivan, or the “real” world at the front lines?

When the film opens, Ivan — who has been dreaming of sun-soaked vistas, his mother, and life before the war — awakens in the midst of a bleak, dark, and battle-torn landscape. He crosses a swamp and a river, where he is seized by Russian soldiers and presented to Lieutenant Galtsev. 

When Ivan demands that Galtsev call Headquarters to report his presence, Galtsev is skeptical. Who does this kid think he is? Eventually giving in, Galtsev learns from Lieutenant Colonel Gryaznov that Ivan is, indeed, an important military asset and personage. 

Flashbacks, dream sequences, and narratives fill in the recent developments of Ivan’s life: the death of his family; his enlistment with a band of partisans; his escape from a boarding school in order to join a Soviet Army unit under Gryaznov’s command.

Ivan not only wants revenge; he craves it. It is what fuels him; he positively burns with it. Graffiti scribbled in the makeshift barracks he occupies — "Avenge us,” urge the condemned prisoners who were killed there before the area was occupied by the Soviets — only intensifies Ivan’s desire. 

While Galtsev and Kholin understand this bitter yearning, they nonetheless want to keep Ivan from further harm — and both agree with Gryaznov’s plan to send Ivan to military school, ostensibly to keep him safe, while still giving due credence to his martial skills. When Ivan learns of their plot, he erupts in anger — and, feeling betrayed, tries to run away again to re-join the partisans. 

In the midst of destruction, however, there are brief episodes of romance. Captain Kholin and Lieutenant Galtsev are both attracted to a pretty Army nurse, Masha. This storyline is not simply a typical plot device; it instead re-affirms the existence of life and normalcy amongst so much death. 

A dizzying scene in a birch forest as both men pursue Masha — the pure vertical whiteness of the woods made even more intense by the black and white genre of the film — reinforces the idea of the disorientation not just of war and conflict, but of the urgency of human passion, especially when survival is threatened. The birch tree has traditionally been viewed a symbol of new beginnings, regeneration, and hope. Can these aspirations still have meaning in a world that has experienced the annihilating devastation and cruelty of war?

Realizing that Ivan will never settle for exile from the front, Kholin and Galtsev ultimately ferry Ivan across the river between the Russians and Germans at the front, to resume his partisan activities. They are taking him on a journey of death, as later becomes only too apparent. 

The Soviet Army advances; Kholin is killed in action; Berlin falls; and Ivan’s former comrades are seen grimly touring the Nazi Chancellery, conquering sightseers in a landscape scarred with the detritus of brutality: stacks and stacks of files meticulously detailing the various fates of the enemies of the Reich. 

“Shot. Hanged. Shot. Hanged. Shot. Shot,” a soldier intones, litany-like, as he examines the countless dossiers. When one slips from his hand and falls to the ground, Galtsev, with a flash of recognition and horror, retrieves it — seeing the haggard yet defiant face of Ivan staring back at him from a photo attached to the papers in the folder. A sinister voiceover — as the camera surveys the ruins of a prison — reveals that Ivan, too, was hanged.

Ivan served as a scout and a partisan, and he was executed for it. But was he a brave war hero? Or did he die as a terrified child, collateral damage to an adult conflict? The film’s ending — with Ivan happily running across a beach with a little girl, followed by the image of a dead tree, also on the beach — is ambiguous, leaving it to the audience to draw their own moral conclusions.

Tarkovsky refused to give in to the tidiness of a happy ending. “Everything in this film must be profound, terrible, and true. There’s no room here for romance and adventure,” he cautioned. “The boy must not be the pride and joy of the regiment. He must be its grief. They all suffer when he goes ‘over the river.’ It is the boy’s adult passion that makes them suffer with him.”

Ivan’s Childhood is an ironically poignant title that hints at innocent normalcy instead of the dehumanization and carnage of combat. Tarkovsky — who was the same age as Ivan when World War II began — stated that in making the film, he wanted to "convey all [his] hatred of war," and that he chose childhood "because it is what contrasts most with war." While the dichotomy is still there, the degree of original irony may have faded somewhat, given the proliferation of child soldiers in many modern conflicts.

Dessert and ice cream sundaes followed a question and answer session with Dr. Lohr.

Brough — a student at the American University School of Public Affairs — said he found Ivan’s Childhood “really incredible. It was such a different perspective on what war sort of does to both adults and kids. On the surface, it seems like a straightforward story, with just a couple of weird sequences,” said Brough. “But after thinking about it for just a couple of minutes afterward and talking with friends, I started making connections that I hadn’t seen before. So I think it’s something that you have to digest over time.” 

“I thought it was a great film as well,” shared Colin, an AU Economics major. “I’m definitely excited to see the rest of the series, as the 75th anniversary of the Patriotic War comes up, because in this film, we definitely got to see a lot about the impact of the war on children, and how it destroys lives — so I’m interested to see the next films in this series; their perspective on war.”

James — who is studying History at AU — said, “I thought it was very different than what I expected…it was very interesting how they used all the angles; just a lot of the thematic methods they used was very intriguing.” James felt the sometimes-disorienting camera and narrative shifts were “a good representation of how being in war — a situation like that — you might not know what’s going on; you might know a piece of the information. I thought that could really put the viewer in the place of the people.”

Additional photos from the film screening can be viewed on the Carmel Institute of Russian Culture & History Facebook page.