On an idyllic summer day, a 12 year old boy named Ivan (Nikolai Burlyayev) ventures into the woods and spots a cuckoo. He begins to levitate above the forest, rejoins his mother (Irma Raush Tarkovskaya), and begins to share his discovery. Then the peaceful reunion between mother and son is truncated by Ivan’s rude awakening to the sound of mortar firing. Suddenly, it is evening, and a hungry, weary Ivan awakens in the attic of an empty windmill. Like the opening scene of Andrei Rublev, the surreal episode proves to be an intangible dream. Resuming his reconnaissance mission, Ivan then crosses a treacherous swamp amidst enemy fire. Unable to rendezvous with his contact, Corporal Katasonych (Stepan Krylov), Ivan arrives at an alternate Russian bunker, where his credentials are immediately questioned by the ranking officer, Lieutenant Galtsev (Yevgeni Zharikov). Despite his skepticism, Galtsev calls Ivan’s superior, Colonel Gryaznov (Nikolai Grinko), who confirms his identity, dispatches Captain Kholin (Valentin Zubkov) to bring him back to headquarters. Gryaznov has taken an interest in the welfare of the young orphan, and has decided to enroll him in a military academy, reasoning that war has no place for children. Ivan refuses to leave, and argues that his age and stealth make him an ideal scout for their missions. Unable to persuade his superiors, Ivan runs away from the barracks, only to find a ravaged, desolate wasteland outside its walls. With nowhere left to turn, he returns with his superiors back to camp. However, despite the officers’ reluctance, Ivan is enlisted for a final mission as they prepare for another covert operation.
Andrei Tarkovsky presents an austere, bleak and haunting portrait of lost innocence in Ivan’s Childhood. Tarkovsky uses sharp, contrasting scenes of light and darkness to visually delineate between the idealization of a normal life and its seeming elusiveness in the hopelessness of war: the brightness of the sunshine during Ivan’s dream sequences and Kholin’s courtship of the nurse, Masha (Valentina Malyavina) at a birch forest provide a jarring transition from the dark trenches, murky swamps, and poorly lit barracks of the battlefield. Nevertheless, within the daylight sequences, Tarkovsky continues to reinforce a pervasive sense of entrapment and helplessness: the spider web on the opening shot; Ivan bathing in the well; Kholin’s stolen kiss from Masha while straddling a trench. What emerges is an ominous and incongruent coexistence of nature and frontiers, humanity and cruelty, youth and nihilism – a reflection of the austere and unnatural landscape of war.
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