June 24, 2015
Movie of the Week: “Ivan’s Childhood”
Since this is the week of yet another June 22 anniversary, it’s only natural that the movie of the week will be one the great Soviet-era films dealing with the Great Patriotic War, an unflinching and brutal portrayal of war pretty much devoid of official propaganda. I saw that movie for the first time when I was approximately the
same age as the main character–needless to say, it made a profound
impression. The movie, with English subtitles, can be found on the Mosfilm youtube channel.
The movie contains many of the regular features of Russian film-making. The main character is a prematurely grown-up young orphan (Brest Fortress follows that formula pretty closely) for whom the army becomes a replacement family. Notice, also, how often Ivan Bondarev (played by Nikolay Burlayev in his first film role) comes in contact with water, which is of course a metaphorical stand-in for…blood. There are innumerable such scenes, starting with the early scene in which Ivan looks up at his mother from a pail of water, his face wet, just before waking up screaming, which is meant to suggest he was spattered with his mother’s blood when she was killed. Most of the violence in the movie is like most of the violence in an actual war–not seen (because even the war’s participants see only a tiny fraction of it), but metaphorically implied and just as real.
The other major similarity between Ivan’s Childhood and Brest Fortress is the structure, in the sense that it ends pretty much as it began, and that both movies (including the Soviet-era Ivan’s Childhood) feature…an afterlife scene (also not exactly a rarity–it turns out at the end of Star that Captain Barazhkin’s narration comes from the afterlife, too). The final scene in Brest Fortress, where the young Sasha Akimov is once again surrounded by his fortress comrades, is not a flashback. The entire movie was a flashback, and the rules of movie-making say that once you return to the present, the next logical step is the future…In other words, it shows Sasha being reunited with his dead friends in the afterlife. The ending of Ivan’s Childhood, which at first glance looks like a continuation of the movie’s beginning, can be assumed to have a similar intent. The fact that the final scene occurs shortly after the examination of
German execution chamber, cutting very abruptly to Ivan rolling on the
floor before moving to the idyllic scene on the riverbank (almost making
it look like you are viewing the aftermath of his execution–no way
this was an unintended effect) similarly points to the afterlife
explanation of the final scene. Ivan is dead, and now you are watching him in the afterlife.
These seemingly idyllic yet menace-laden pre-war scenes which both frame and interrupt the “real” movie represent the movie’s biblical element (not exactly a rarity, either, for a Russian film–notice, for example, The Return has Andrey find the photos of his father in a book of biblical illustrations, next to a drawing of the Sacrifice of Isaac in this instance), and correspond to the Garden of Eden and the Heaven, respectively.
But what is the Russian afterlife like? Aside from the fact that the kids are playing at water’s edge (and we know what water means in this context…), is the movie’s ending supposed to comfort anyone??? The Brest Fortress ending represents something of a closure, at least for the now-elderly Sasha Akimov who looks forward to a heavenly reunion with his comrades even as he reminds his grandson that he, too, might have to do what his grandfather once did. But where is the closure in Ivan’s Childhood? There isn’t one that I can discern. The movie ends on a dark, discordant note just as it began, so much so that if Ivan were to wake up from another of his nightmares (each of which represents a sort of an expulsion from the Garden of Eden, this time with the Nazis playing the role of innocence-robbing serpent), the movie could have continued without skipping a beat. The recurrence of these “Garden of Eden” scenes suggests there is no beginning, middle, or end in history, there is just history repeating itself, and it will repeat itself again, at some yet-unknown point in the future. They also suggest that, just as the eponymous Brest Fortress is no protection against the forces of evil, neither is the Garden of Eden…