Ivan’s Childhood (Blu-ray)
Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1 1080p AVC codec
Running Time: 95 minutes
Audio: PCM 1.0 Russian
MSRP: $ 39.95
Release Date: January 22, 2013
Review Date: January 26, 2013
Many young boys spend their carefree days playing army with their friends. They choose sides, they identify their objectives, and they stage mock battles either among themselves in the outdoors, with their toy soldiers, or with their computers or video games. (Quite a few adult men do that, too.) Young Ivan Bondarev (Nikolai Burlyaev) is involved in war games, too, only his aren’t play, and the stakes are much higher: his life. Ivan is a twelve-year old boy who after losing both of his parents to the Germans during World War II joins the Russian army as a spy. His youth, size, and fearlessness are major assets as he carries out daring scouting missions for his country. Part of the brilliance of the film (scripted by Vladimir Bogomolov and Mikhail Papava) is that we don’t actually see Ivan’s actual work. We see him returning from a mission, starving and brutally injured, but eager to go out again to help wreak his vengeance on the enemy. In fact, much of the film finds the two men closest to him, father figure Captain Kholin (Valentin Zubkov) and Lieutenant Galtsev (E. Zharikov), trying to dissuade him from tempting fate on another scouting mission so soon and instead imploring him to go back to school for the remainder of the war. Ivan will hear none of it.
Tarkovsky’s lyrical way with a camera finds stunning uses in several dream sequences that Ivan has while sleeping or allowing his mind to wander. We see idyllic scenes with his mother and with his sister riding on an apple truck that take us away from the hellish dirt, lice, blood, and death of war and place us in pastoral surroundings making Ivan’s wretched life as a soldier all the more ironically tragic. Ivan’s actual childhood couldn’t be more desolate and depressing, and his stoic acceptance of his lot is heartbreaking. First time feature director Tarkovsky couldn’t resist some rather obvious symbolism that’s sledge hammered into the frame repeatedly: the bunker where these three Russians are sequestered before their last mission was once a place where Germans held Russian prisoners of war before shooting them. Scrawled on the walls are the invectives “avenge us” which he references over and over. There’s also an unnecessary romp in the woods with the captain and the stunningly beautiful medical assistant Masha (V. Malyavina), but it does give Tarkovsky the chance to stage a gorgeously composed shot of the captain straddling a large ditch while holding the swooning Masha in his arms over the chasm and kissing her. (Yes, the need for love is present even with imminent death all around.) There are also some rather self-conscious spinning camera moves and some negative printed rear projections which are flashy but are stopped and dropped later, thus showing the director’s experimenting with the toys of his first big movie experience.
Tarkovsky’s eye for detail and his exquisite ability to capture astounding imagery are what distinguishes Ivan’s Childhood from most directors’ first films. The bodies hung by the Germans as a warning for the Russians, the flares shooting overhead casting an eerie glow as the enemy searches for the partisans in their territory, a forest of white birches cathedral-like in its majesty: all are caught on film in moments that take one’s breath away. And the director gets a wonderfully robust and feisty performance from Nikolai Burlyaev as Ivan. There’s really no doubt that this energetic, determined youngster would fight with his dying breath to avenge the murder of his parents the only way he can. Valentin Zubkov and E. Zharikov give very effective performances as the adults in Ivan’s life that he looks up to and depends upon.
The film’s original 1.33:1 aspect ratio is delivered faithfully in a 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. The black and white photography is mostly very sharp with decent but not outstanding black levels. The image is crisp and clean apart from some scratches in vintage footage used at the end to set the scene of the German defeat. Whites in the grayscale are under control except in spots where they’re meant to bloom: vivid sunlight streaming in through a window, the use of negative printing in the rear screen photography of a dream sequence The white subtitles are easily read. The film has been divided into 17 chapters.
The PCM 1.0 (1.1 Mbps) audio mix has been considerably cleaned up from the previously released DVD. Hiss that was present then is now absent. Though typical of its era, the mono track doesn’t have much in the way of a low end, so fidelity in the reconnaissance sequence with overhead bursting flares and rifle fire doesn’t have much kick to it. Still, one gets so caught up in the way sound has been mixed to deliver a most unusual soundtrack that it’s easily forgotten. And some well recorded music (especially some thumping sounds and a screeching violin during the last dangerous mission) aids greatly in keeping one’s attention riveted to the screen.
All of the video featurettes are presented in 1080i.
“Life as a Dream” is a 30 ¾-minute interview with film scholar Vida Johnson. Her video essay covers all of the positives and negatives of the movie with ample clips to illustrate her points. It’s presented in a 4:3 aspect ratio and is indexed with 7 chapters in case one wishes to return to any specific points of the lecture.
Interviews with two important participants in the film are given separate segments on the disc. Star Nikolai Burlyaev speaks enthusiastically about his work as a child actor on the movie in five segments. Cinematographer Vadim Yusov has a more halting interview as he describes working several times with the well known director in four segments. Each of these interviews has been broken down into small segments of comments which must be accessed individually from the menu. There is no “Play All” feature, so one must constantly make selections after each comment segment for each participant. They run from 1 ¼ minutes to 4 minutes in length.
The enclosed 29-page booklet is another welcome addition to the set, and this one features a lengthy appreciation of the movie by film professor Dina Iordanova, several most illuminating pages of comments by director Tarkovsky about the choices he made while bringing the story to the screen, and the brief poem “Ivan’s Willow” written by the director’s father Arseny which might contain an indirect reference to some of the water images in the movie. Of course, there are also stills from the film in the booklet as well as the chapter listing and the cast and crew lists.
The Criterion Blu-rays include a maneuvering tool called “Timeline” which can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc and the title of the chapter you’re now in. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.
4/5 (not an average)
So many things about Ivan’s Childhood make it a war tragedy well worth experiencing and remembering, and it’s quite obviously a film which will gain much more poetic power from repeated viewings. The Blu-ray features a much improved video and audio transfer from the earlier DVD release plus all of the bonus features carried over from that package. Recommended!