The Russian front, 1943. A 12-year-old boy (Kolya Burlyaev), soaked and shivering, marches into Soviet headquarters and demands to speak to the top brass. The lieutenant on duty (Evgeniy Zharikov) starts to laugh – but something in the boy’s eyes makes him reach for the field telephone...
Anyone familiar with the dense, monumental later works of slow-cinema pioneer Andrei Tarkovsky (‘Solaris’, ‘Stalker’) might find his 1962 debut, reissued here in a restored print, surprisingly straightforward (not to mention brief, at a mere 92 minutes). The plot is relatively direct, following battle-scarred orphan Ivan and the men who use him – benevolently, but worryingly – to spy on the German forces huddled just across the swamp.
But ‘Ivan’s Childhood’ could only be a Tarkovsky film. No other director is simultaneously so precise and so otherworldly, so uncompromisingly bleak and so awake to the possibilities of joy. There’s a shot right at the start, as a dreaming Ivan finds himself lifted off his feet by a gust of wind, that’ll leave you gasping with delight – but by the final scenes, you’ll be inconsolable. Tarkovsky would go on to make grander, weightier, more iconic films, but it’s tough to argue he ever made a better one.