We’ve penetrated the center of this great director’s ouvre by gazing into his “Mirror” (1974). Might as well go wide now by contrasting his first feature, “Ivan’s Childhood,” (1962) with his final one, “The Sacrifice” (1986). From there, we’ll work our way back to the core.
It was not a totally random choice to compare Tarkovsky’s first film with his last. One is set in WWII, the other in WWIII. They both begin and end with a boy and a tree. “Ivan’s Childhood” opens at the base of an evergreen. A child walks out of the frame and the camera cranes upward along its trunk to the top. Tarkovsky’s final feature begins with practically the same image, except the boy doesn’t walk out of the shot; the camera leaves him. In another deviation from Ivan, with Sacrifice, the camera stops before we reach the top.
The film was dedicated to his son. I suppose that last shot was a self-portrait, of sorts, dreamed up by the poet and left behind to be remembered by. By the time principle photography on “The Sacrifice” had commenced, Tarkovsky was terminal with cancer and knew he would never attain old age. This barren tree, appearing late in his last opus is rueful, in the context of its prominence in the opening of his first film, when the camera floats all the way to the growing tip of a sapling with all promise of genius in full bud.
Experience accumulates and organizes itself as knowledge along great forked trunks and on down the branched, limbed, twigged networks in our minds. Tarkovsky’s camera conducts itself along similar lines. He employs very long takes, with camera in motion, inducing perceptual shifts, drawing us even deeper in with mirrors and other reflections, rooms within rooms, frames within frames, mimicking the natural paths of attention and accumulation of awareness.
For this filmmaker, capturing a passing moment with motion in space is sculpting in time. His cinematic chisel consistently modulates, like good music, between finite and cosmic. What a poet expresses with choice words, a composer does with appropriate musical instruments. Tarkovsky plumbs the possibilities of leitmotif with trees, wind, rain, water, milk, mirrors, snow, ash, stairs, ladders, mist, steam, smoke, fire, gravity, weightlessness and on and on. In his first film an expansive forest of birch stands like a great intersection of chords in a high mass. In his final one, a solitary tree soothes like a Japanese flute riffing in a solitary key.
The outcome of both is tragedy within triumph. In Sacrifice, an aging artist forfeits position and possession to reverse a cataclysm. In Ivan war orphan lays down his life behind enemy lines to repel the Nazi’s. But Ivan is not a common infantryman. He’s a scout, resigned to beat the enemy singlehandedly if necessary.
The boy soldier’s winning qualities are instantly recognizable in scene one when he behaves as if he outranks the officer assigned to interrogate him. In the quality of sheer bravery, he does outrank everyone. Our diminutive hero exudes formidable cheek and grit with anyone that threatens to stand in his way. He is so traumatized by war he can neither digest food, nor rest without reliving what’s lost in his past. He seems only able to counter it by leading the heroics.
His adoptive kin are all army officers trying to protect him. It just so happens the battalion could really benefit from some good intelligence, at the moment and Ivan’s age and size provide an edge.
Despite his sacrifice, Ivan’s not a Christ and this is not a passion play in military drag. We encountered that hybrid about a year ago in another Soviet era masterpiece, Larissa Shepitko’s “The Ascent.”
I’ve heard Tarkovsky criticized for wearing his religion on his sleeve. What religion? Nothing is entirely black or white in his works except some film stock. His complete works demonstrate that opening doors of perception is this filmmaker’s fascination, not deifying invisible entities. For example, during the transition to a flashback early in the first act, Ivan is tri-located for an instant. He is catching some rest in an army bed and he is waking up in the bottom of a well and finally, he is caught in the memory of standing over the well with his mother before she was killed.
“If a well is deep enough,” she tells Ivan, “you can see a star even on the brightest day.” “What star?” He asks. “Any star,” she answers. Notice that Ivan and his mother are gazing deep into the earth in search of something far out in space. Poetic inversions abound in Tarkovsky’s films. An exquisite communion of opposites is achieved with this one. Other than the veritable yin/yang symbol itself, what more all-inclusive vision could convey such otherwise unspeakable insights?
Almost immediately upon searching, Ivan declares he can see a star as he reaches down the mouth of the well. Suddenly is relocated there, caressing its reflection on the surface of the water. Here is an early bit of evidence of the boy’s exceptional gift for observation, so we can appreciate it is not just raw revenge that qualifies him for his vocation, but a child’s eye opened wide on the world.
For added fascination, notice the view down the well is not the reflection of a star as Ivan sees it but the POV of Ivan and his mother looking back at us. It’s a magnificent shot. Where’s the camera? We’re looking straight into it. The actors are too, right down the barrel of the lens, but we see their reflection backed by the sky above and encircled in the mouth of the well. The camera is looking at us as well, but from what position? This is just the first of countless fresh flourishes that supercharge Tarkovsky’s films, front to back.
The spell of memory is evoked by the artist with this deep yet simple scene, buoyed by equally evocative talk. “It’s daytime for you and me,” Ivan’s mom explains, “but nighttime for the star.” Every single sequence in Tarkovsky;s films seems embedded with counterpoint such as this. The image of star in full daylight is a kind of epigram. Tarkovsky is conditioning us for deep shifts to come. Our preconceptions will be subverted, time and again, with fascinating, alternate conceptions in abundant variation. Once again, I am reminded of the great Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte. Appreciate with me how paintings of his such as “The Enchanted Domain,” (1952), “The Kiss” (1951) and “The Blank Page” (1952) assist our senses in with radical realizations about reality.
“Ivan’s Childhood” proposes that children possess the courage that adults lack. Chimes play on the soundtrack while Ivan looks out over the prow of the rowboat on his final mission. The choice reminds us of the hero’s immaturity even as he is about to act.
While Tarkovsky’s movies distinguish themselves for being planned and executed with consumate craft, there are some scenes so uncanny, surely they must be a result of sheer luck. For instance, just as Ivan makes landfall, says farewell and slips behind enemy lines for the last time, an enemy flare lands in the background. It’s grey column of smoke remains perfectly slender and vertical like one of the trees as it drifts on an invisible draft like a silent bludgeon sneaking between scattered black trunks, on a rendezvous with Ivan. The convergence takes place just as he disappears in the dark.
In the end, we are told Ivan was hanged. The final shot tilts down out of the clear sky, descending a dead tree on the riverbank with Ivan, before the war, in the foreground. The last shot of the film refers back to the first. The camera tilts down the length of a tree, this time and fading out on a war scorched trunk.
This description may read like bad poetry but my feeble effort is to blame. If what I’m talking about could have been conveyed in writing, Tarkovsky would not have bothered to commit it to film Much like Ivan, Andre was a scout at heart; his films probe the frontiers of poetic potential. Ivan’s attitude and actions shame fellow soldiers for not showing greater courage. Andre criticized most filmmakers for not taking full advantage of their art form. Precious few heard.
It seems like I’ve heard “Ivan’s Childhood” mentioned less often than other motion picture child memoirs of the era such as Truffaut’s “400 Blows,” (1959) or Schlondorff’s “The Tin Drum” 1979. I’m not sure why, Ivan is every bit as compelling. It contains Tarkovsky’s most straightforward narrative with an unforgettable central character whose predicament is loaded with tragic irony and portrayed with deep humanity, boundary pushing style and heartrending detail.
I will leave a choice center-cut of this complex and beautiful film for you to form your own unfettered opinions and keep my analysis to its edges. Next up, “The Sacrifice” which comes in second, of all Tarkovsky’s films, with regard to clarity of story. The balance of his output plays checkers with structure. This coming November, at Open Channel Content, Tarkovsky contemplates nuclear winter.