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It’s hard to believe that Ivan’s Childhood was Andrei Tarkovsky’s first feature, so technically assured is its direction. Tarkovsky had received promising notices for 1961’s The Steamroller and the Violin, his forty-six-minute thesis film from VGIK (the Gerasimov All-Russian State Institute of Cinematography), but Ivan’s Childhood, which had its world premiere in Moscow on April 6, 1962, and would go on to win the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, was the announcement of a major talent’s arrival. With this movie about the surreality and violence of war, from the point of view of a twelve-year-old who has lost his entire family, the thirty-year-old director introduced to the world the arsenal of formal strategies and mannerisms that would reappear throughout his amazing career, in such films as Andrei Rublev (1966), Solaris (1972), and Stalker (1979).
His landscapes are the stuff of dreams as much as of harsh reality; in Ivan’s Childhood, it’s those unforgettable, poetic images of serene birch trees and rain-soaked horses, and the transcendent, balletic camera work he employs that makes the world feel just this side of unfamiliar. In this clip from a supplement on the Criterion edition of the film, scholar Vida T. Johnson, coauthor of The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue, explains that very Tarkovskian split between the real and the imagined.
For a glimpse of the visual audacity of Tarkovsky and his cinematographer, Vadim Yusov, watch the delicate acrobatics of this famous sequence, in which a military captain, Kholin (Valentin Zubkov) seduces a young nurse, Masha (V. Malyavina), amid those seemingly infinite birches. Note how the camera elegantly dips below ground level when he embraces her over a gully before swooping back up again in one graceful crane shot.