Why do we watch films? For entertainment? To laugh, cry, jump with fear? For the satisfaction and amusement that comes from a well told story? Well, yes. These are crucial elements of a film to boost the box-office takings or to become a go-to relief on rainy afternoons. But this answer is incomplete, it condemns films without traditional plot structures or dramatic arcs as ‘unwatchable’ and it confines the medium of film to entertainment purposes only.
Ivan’s Childhood: poetry over plot
Director, Andrei Tarkovsky, largely disregards the prioritisation of entertainment value or storyline. His works do not follow any preconceived or recognisable structure; they demand a viewer’s full attention and consequently can be considered heavy-going. After his first feature film Ivan’s Childhood (1962), Tarkovsky’s particular cinematic style became a prominent influence to many European directors. Tarkovsky, along with later followers like Sharunas Bartas and Alexander Sokurov, was directing in an age where narrative-dominated Hollywood was, at last, taking a back-seat. The 1960’s were the time for breaking cinematic rules and experimenting with film as an art form. Ivan’s Childhood is the beginning of Tarkovsky’s respected auteur which is, remarkably, often described as poetic.
The atmosphere is sombre, slow and hauntingly beautiful.
Without explicit plot or rapid action, Ivan’s Childhood is an intensely captivating film. Shot in black-and-white the atmosphere is sombre, slow and hauntingly beautiful. Each scene is constructed as if it were a painting, with extensive use of reflection, water and sharp verticals usually provided by stark silver birch trees. The shots are long; a technique which adds tension and allows time for the aesthetics to be fully conveyed. It is also why Tarkovsky’s films are not your first choice family classic. Out of all Tarkovsky’s films however, Ivan’s Childhood is the most accessible, continue along his career to Mirror (1975) and The Sacrifice (1986) and these films get even more abstract, artistic, and even poetic. The poetry of these films derives from the way that imagery is used instead of plot to tie the film together. Whereas narrative based films present a succession of instances that make sense together, poetic film relies on similarities in imagery and execution to do the job. Plot is not totally disregarded in Ivan’s Childhood but its importance is not central to the film; we learn about Ivan’s life periodically, sometimes through dream sequences, and there is another unrelated sub-plot which begins and ends with no explanation.
Unbeknown from the title, Ivan’s Childhood is technically a war film. Ivan is a boy soldier. Because of the maturing effects of the loss of his family and his involvement in army intelligence missions, he appears similar in temperament to the soldiers three times his age. Tarkovsky directly juxtaposes scenes of wartime hardship with scenes of innocence; childhood memories that convey the hugely damaging effect of conflict. Ivan is played by fourteen-year-old Nikolai Burlyaev who was chosen specifically for the role. Although acting, like plot appear to play secondary importance in the film, the character of Ivan is portrayed perfectly by Burlyaev. Whilst still a boy Ivan argues, fights and talks like a man. The ending of the film is both shocking and poignant. It consists of two main contrasting images which sum up Ivan’s character: shaped by the responsibilities and suffering that changed his life and forced him to end his childhood prematurely.
Many of the shots in Ivan’s Childhood – the old man in the ruined house, Masha being kissed in the birch forest, horses eating apples on a beach – do nothing to further the progression of plot. Instead they further the viewers’ immersion into the atmosphere of the film. This style invites us to engage with the film subjectively; as we would with a painting. It is possible that, like any artist, Tarkovsky’s films mean more to himself than to his audience. Watching Ivan’s Childhood however is an intensely immersive experience, which could be a way of addressing our earlier question: we watch films because they are a way of experiencing something we could otherwise never encounter. Tarkovsky realises the potential of film as a subjective experience. Ivan’s Childhood, although not necessarily a good story in the traditional sense, is a memorable experience that will stay with you.
By Anna Whealing