This year marks the 50th Anniversary of the first major work from a filmmaker who was destined to become one of the most profound artists of the 20th Century. Andrei Tarkovsky, who would have been 80 years old this year, made his international debut with the war film Ivan’s Childhood, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 1962, earning him the Golden Lion and launching him to worldwide acclaim. While later films in Tarkovsky’s canon like Andrei Rublev (1966) and Solaris (1972) may receive more critical acclaim, his auspicious debut is filled with Master Moments and indications of a budding genius.
The World War II set Ivan’s Childhood follows the titular character, Ivan (Nikolay Burlyaev), a young boy who, after his family was killed by Nazis, now performs covert operations for the Soviet army. Despite being an orphan, Ivan is cared for as a surrogate son by several high-ranking members of the Soviet army including the blithe Captain Kholin (Valentin Zubkov) and the stern Lt. Colonel Gryaznov (Nikolay Grinko). Fearing for his safety, both officers attempt to get Ivan away from the front lines and enrolled in military school. Having already witnessed a fair amount of the hardships of war, the stubborn Ivan refuses until he is granted another mission.
One of the major themes running through Ivan’s Childhood is the absorptive quality of war, especially when it comes to young people. The major characters in the film are young military personnel who feign authority, despite a clear lack of experience. The young Lt. Galtsev (Yevgeni Zharigov) makes ironic statements like “war is a man’s business,” even though he is barely past his teenage years. His declarations of authority are most often directed at Ivan, the youngest character at the military base, and Masha (Valentina Malyavina), the base’s only woman. Those two characters are constantly treated as inadequate by the officers. Ivan stubbornly fights against this treatment, but Masha seems incapable of resisting her position of inferiority.
Much to her chagrin, Masha is romantically pursued by the officers at the impromptu medical base. The young Lt. Galtsev is eager to order her around, but respectful of her space. Captain Kholin, however, is more zealous in his pursuance of Masha, either because he is genuinely infatuated by her particular beauty, or simply because she is the only woman around. This leads us to the Master Moment:
During a brief time of calm in the war with the Germans, Kholin leads Masha to an isolated part of the woods; a picturesque landscape that juxtaposes their dark military jackets with a forest of bright, white birch trees. Kholin treats Masha like a child, challenging her to climb a downed tree trunk and following her around like a bossy older sibling. After braving the climb, Masha prepares to jump across a small ravine, but before she can make the leap, Kholin steps across, grabs her in mid-air, and plants a forceful kiss while her limp legs dangle beneath her. Kholin then sets her across the ravine and she walks away with an ashamed look on her face, avoiding eye contact while Kholin continues his pursuit.
Tarkovsky creates a beautiful screen image when the kiss occurs, pulling the camera down into the ravine to give the viewer a glimpse from below. This creates two sharp angles – the V-shape of the ravine and the A-shape of Kholin’s straddled legs. This contrast between the two angles makes Kholin appear in opposition to the nature that surrounds him while Masha’s vertical position matches the birch trees that are behind them both. The camera lingers on the pair for an uncomfortably long time while Masha’s legs dangle subtly like a body that has just been hung from the gallows.
A lengthy kiss is usually used to portray passionate romance between two people, but Tarkovsky uses the Kholin-Masha kiss for the complete opposite effect. Not only does the director show Masha’s disinterest in the love of an older officer, but he uses the moment to articulate the unsightliness of war. Despite the fact that no combat is actively occurring, both individuals are still wearing their uniforms and distant gunshots are constantly audible in the background. Even Masha, a symbol for youth or femininity, is susceptible to the controlling power of war.
Tarkovsky replicates this moment throughout his filmography, often shooting characters from below in powerful moments. The kiss in Ivan’s Childhood, however, is undoubtedly one of his most masterful.
What is your favorite moment in a Tarkovsky film?