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  • Post last modified:November 24, 2022

Ivan’s Childhood: Dreams of Mother

Nikolai Burlyayev. Photo: Mosfilm

Sometimes you wonder whatever happened to a successful child actor. In far too many cases, their lives didn’t turn out so great, perhaps haunted by what they experienced as huge movie stars at a far too early age. In the case of Nikolai Burlyayev, his moral decline has been depressing to behold. In the 2021 parliamentary elections in Russia, he won a seat in the Duma where he supports Vladimir Putin and his war against Ukraine; he’s now sanctioned by the United States. Burlyayev has also embraced being labeled ”homophobe”.

But when we see him as Ivan in this film, he is (thankfully) an innocent child.

Grabbed by Soviet soldiers
During World War II, 12-year-old Ivan Bondarev (Burlyayev) is trying to make his way through a desolate landscape when he’s grabbed by Soviet soldiers and taken to Lieutenant Galtsev (Evgeny Zharikov). His interrogation of Ivan doesn’t go quite as he expected. The boy tries to order Galtsev around and insists he call headquarters and tell them where he is. Incredulous, the lieutenant finally makes the phone call and after some initial confusion, headquarters order him to give the boy pencil and paper so he can write his report.

We learn that Ivan’s family was murdered by German soldiers and that he ended up with a group of partisans. After being sent away to a boarding school, he escaped and joined an army unit where he became highly useful on reconnaissance missions due to his small size. Hardened by the war, the child dreams of revenge.

A worldwide arthouse hit
After learning how to make movies at a government institute in Moscow, Andrei Tarkovsky graduated with a 46-minute film called The Steamroller and the Violin in 1960, co-written by Andrei Konchalovsky and shot by Vadim Yusov. It was awarded the school’s highest distinction. Two years later, Tarkovsky had reunited with Konchalovsky and Yusov for another film that featured a boy in the lead, this time based on a short story by Vladimir Bogomolov, a decorated war hero who had joined the army during the war as a child. ”Ivan” clearly drew inspiration from Bogomolov’s own experiences and he protected his story fiercely. When a first screenplay was written based on it, the unhappy ending was changed, but Bogomolov wouldn’t have it. Tarkovsky became the second young filmmaker to give the story a try.

A fairly accessible portrait of the horrors of war and what it does to children.

Ivan’s Childhood ended up a worldwide arthouse hit, inspiring many filmmakers. Years later, Tarkovsky expressed dissatisfaction with certain elements of the movie, but it is to be expected from anyone reviewing their first film. Ivan’s Childhood is in fact one of his greatest, a fairly accessible portrait of the horrors of war and what it does to children. Told in non-linear fashion, the story is punctuated by dream sequences and flashbacks, informing us of what happened to Ivan before we met him; obviously, one of his warmest memories and dreams are those of his mother. We also learn a little bit more about the soldiers who make up the unit where Ivan now becomes a member, including Galtsev and Captain Kholin’s relationship with an army nurse whom they are both interested in.

The place where the soldiers are staying is grim, but our emotions soar thanks to Ivan’s touching story and Yusov’s outstanding cinematography that fits hand in glove with Tarkovsky’s feeling for the isolated locations that are such a critical part of his films. In those places, the sound design is just as important as the visuals, especially in Stalker (1979). Burlyayev’s performance as Ivan is powerfully grounded in the film’s antiwar message, culminating in a quietly devastating final sequence. 

Ivan’s Childhood 1962-Soviet Union. 94 min. B/W. Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. Screenplay: Vladimir Bogomolov, Mikhail Papava, Andrei Konchalovsky, Andrei Tarkovsky. Short Story: Vladimir Bogomolov (”Ivan”). Cinematography: Vadim Yusov. Cast: Nikolai Burlyayev (Ivan Bondarev), Valentin Zubkov (Captain Kholin), Evgeny Zharikov (Lieutenant Galtsev), Stepan Krylov, Valentina Malyavina, Nikolai Grinko.

Trivia: Original title: Ivanovo detstvo. Konchalovsky makes an appearance as a soldier.

Venice: Golden Lion. 

Last word: “Whenever the dramatic structure showed the slightest sign of something new – of treating the rationale of everyday life relatively freely – it was met with cries of protest and incomprehension [from the film authorities]. These mostly cited the audience: they had to have a plot that unfolded without a break, they were not capable of watching a screen if the film did not have a strong story-line. The contrasts in the film – cuts from dreams to reality, or, conversely, from the last scene in the crypt to victory day in Berlin – seemed to many to be inadmissible. I was delighted to learn that audiences thought differently.” (Tarkovsky, “Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema”)

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