not in our stars, but in ourselves
5/52: A movie in a foreign language
If you know me in real life, you know that I’m an amateur Russophile. I love Russian art, music, folktales, literature; I’m fascinated by Russian history; and I hope someday to fulfill my annual New Year’s resolution of finally learning the language, because it’s gorgeous. And yet, I’m not really up on my Russian cinema. I’m pretty lacking in world cinema, generally, and I do want to work on improving that. But when I think of what I’m excited to see, the contenders are usually German, French, Japanese, assorted Scandinavian, assorted African, and other various sundry. Why don’t I want to work on filling in the gaps in my Russian movie-viewing? What the hell kind of Russophile am I?
A bad one, obviously. Forgive me, please. Perhaps it’s because I tend to lose interest in the fruits of Russian culture after 1917. I’ve seen a few Eisenstein films, naturally; and even if I can see how important they are to cinematic evolution, I can’t see much farther than that, because it’s just aggressive propaganda. The U.S.S.R. overlapped pretty neatly with the rise of film as the world’s most popular art, of course. And so, even though I find Russia endlessly fascinating, and love its art and soul and culture, I tend not to think about its movies. Soviet propaganda interests me historically, not artistically, and I assume it’s all propaganda.
This is a very long-winded way for me to explain why I only saw Ivan’s Childhood for the first time today. I know: bad Russophile, bad cinephile, bad everything. I know, I know, I know. Please, Andrei Tarkovsky’s ghost, forgive me. And I hope the rest of you will forgive me as well, for missing most of Film History 101.
Sometime during World War II, somewhere on the Eastern Front, Ivan (Nikolai Burlyayev) dreams that he’s flying through a lovely forest. He sees his pretty, smiling mother, who offers him water to drink. When he wakes up, he’s alone in a rotting windmill. He sets out, laying low in a boggy part of the river, staying out of the Germans’ sight as they shoot flares overhead. Dirty, wet, and in a rather bad temper, he shows up at an army camp commanded by Lieutenant Galtsev (Evgeny Zharikov). Ivan makes Galtsev call headquarters to summon Captain Kholin (Valentin Zubkov). As it turns out, Ivan’s parents were killed by Germans, and he was sent to a boarding school – from which he escaped. He wants to avenge his parents’ death, and help the Russian army. Kholin wants to send him to a military academy, but allows Ivan to join him and Galtsev on a reconnaissance mission. Galtsev and Kholin, meanwhile, are in love with the same medical assistant: lovely, timid Masha (Valentina Malyavina). Kholin “courts” her aggressively – meaning he hits on her and kisses her by force, consent be damned – while Galtsev tries in vain to remain professional; and, when he realizes that he can’t and that the front is too difficult for her, sends her away to work in a hospital instead. Eventually, the war ends, but not without plenty of casualties and endless regret.
Ingmar Bergman was a great early fan of Ivan’s Childhood, and of Tarkovsky in general, and I think he summed it up best: “Suddenly, I found myself standing at the door of a room the keys of which had, until then, never been given to me. It was a room I had always wanted to enter and where he was moving freely and fully at ease. I felt encouraged and stimulated: someone was expressing what I had always wanted to say without knowing how. Tarkovsky is for me the greatest, the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream.” The film begins and ends with an actual dream, but even the events taking place in “reality” have a slow and languid effect/affect as well. However, it’s not simply a vacant-eyed meditation on loss and memory. Loss and memory are part of it, but so are more pressing concerns: namely, the human cost of war. Not simply in dead bodies – but in ruined souls.
Ah, yes. There are the Russians I know and love. Throughout Russian history, art, and literature, the most common thread is the knowledge that yes, things are terrible. Things are worse than ever. But tomorrow – tomorrow, they’ll get better. For all the gloom and dark and misery of the night now, the dawn will be golden and glorious. The tragedy of Ivan, and of Ivan’s Childhood, is that there’s no tomorrow and they all know it. For all their five-year plans, the Soviets didn’t much care for the future. Must have been counter-revolutionary.
That’s what surprised me most about the film: despite the fact that it was made in 1962, it’s not nearly as rah-rah-rah as I would have expected. It was at the height of the Cold War, too. What gives? I don’t know. I look forward to hearing from a more learned scholar than I. My impressions, for whatever pittance they’re worth, are that no one in the C.C.C.P. actually believed the lie anymore by 1962, and that they probably didn’t in 1942 either. Under Stalin, such doubts were certain to lead to the gulag in the best-case scenario; under Khrushchev, such doubts were still officially inadmissible – but tacitly acknowledged. How miserable to live under a government that knows it doesn’t believe in anything it once pretended to stand for. Oh, wait. Anyway, the Khrushchev Thaw permitted a certain amount of receptiveness to outside opinions, and therefore to a certain amount of honesty.
Even so, the film isn’t critical of the powers-that-were. It’s all about how war is hell, and how this poor kid – one who still dreams of his smiling mama, of remembering playing with a little girl his own age, of happy horses nibbling apples – doesn’t know anything else. This is his childhood: this mud, these bogs, this cold and this war. And that’s it. That’s all he’ll ever know. Even the grownups – Galtsev, Kholin, Masha – find their normal human tragedies obliterated by the war. What does it matter if they’re all killed by a sniper or hanged or bombed to smithereens? What hope do they have?
It occurred to me, after the film was over, that Russians never deal in petty problems. Go big or go home, you know? For all the monumental tragedy in Ivan’s Childhood, however, it is a movie of extraordinary beauty. It’s possible to watch it without feeling the pit in your stomach growing deeper; it’s possible to get caught up in the dream-socialist-state. Look at the shimmering flare light reflected in the river; at the furtive glances between Masha and Galtsev, pregnant with so much more; at that kiss that Kholin steals from Masha over a ditch; at Ivan’s memory of an exuberant run into the sun-spangled sea with his childhood friend. The rest will work its way into your heart and soul afterwards. Enjoy what you can when you can.
As a very shallow sidenote, why in the HELL did you people not tell me about how Zharikov is basically a Russian version of Alain Delon?
I mean, come ON, guys. You need to let me know!