November 4, 2012

filmsgraded.com:
Ivan's Childhood (1962)
Grade: 69/100

Director: Andrey Tarkovskiy
Stars: Nikolay Burlyaev, Valentin Zubhov, Yevgeni Zharikov

What it's about. This war movie is set in the Soviet Union during World War II. The Germans have occupied portions of the nation, and at the front, a group of Soviet officers await enemy intelligence. They receive it from their youngest and bravest spy: Ivan (Kolya Burlyayev), as 12-year-old boy.

Ivan, whose family was murdered by the Germans, has returned from the enemy-occupied side with vital military information. He is seized by Russian soldiers and taken to the unit leader, young Lt. Galtsev (Yevgeni Zharikov). Galtsev can hardly believe it when his self-important preteenaged charge turns out to be a spy prized at the highest ranks of the Soviet Army.

Once debriefed, the child is to be sent again across the river that separates Soviet from German-held territory, to gather more intelligence or aid espionage activity. Two soldiers arrive for this purpose, Captain Kholin (Valentin Zubkov) and Corporal Katasonov (Stepan Krylov). Of the two, Kholin gets more screen time, partly because he begins an out-of-place romance with beautiful but innocent Soviet nurse Masha (Valentina Malyavina).

How others will see it. Ivan's Childhood was the first important film by Andrey Tarkovskiy, who eventually became the most celebrated Russian director since Sergei Eisenstein. Later, successful films by Tarkovskiy have kept attention on Ivan's Childhood, which at the time had only limited success in the West, though winning the Golden Lion at the 1962 Venice Film Festival.

Today, Ivan's Childhood, also known as My Name Is Ivan, has a respectable 9K user votes at imdb.com with an extremely high rating of 8.1. However, there is a drop in user ratings with advancing age, from 8.6 under 18, to 8.3 under 30, to 8.1 under 45, and 6.7 over 45. Women over 45, the key demographic because of its indifference to outside opinion, gives it only 4.4 out of 10.

How I felt about it. I can only assume that the naysayers see the same problems with the movie that I do:

  1. Masha is beautiful but her character is too innocent to be believed.
  2. The romance between Masha and Captain Kholin doesn't fit the story, which is about Ivan.
  3. Ivan is too heroic to be fully credible.
  4. The film has propaganda aspects, with the Germans cast as evil while Russians are heroes.
Of the four items, the one that really matters is #3. We say this because most viewers will feast on Masha's beauty and not fret whether she should get her own movie where she can fall in love for the first time some seven years after she should already have had the experience.

Also, the movie is about Ivan, and from his perspective, it really is a war between good and evil. It is particularly easy to condemn the Nazis. It has to be said, though, that the Soviet ruler, Stalin, was ultimately responsible for the murder of perhaps ten million people, which makes him nearly as bad as his arch-enemy Hitler.

#3 is more problematic. Ivan wants nothing more than to operate as a spy in German territory and report findings to Russian officers. He has no fear of loss of his own life, nor does he care about being cold, wet, tired, or hungry. All that matters is punishing the Germans for the grave injustice they have done to his family.

In other words, he's too good to be true. Captain Kholin would rather flirt with Masha than fight. Lt. Galtsev would rather his unit remain safe than fight. These are human characters, with human motivations and weaknesses. But Ivan is an allegorical figure, because he's not content to play soldier or simply follow orders. He will relentlessly fight the Germans until he dies, whether or not the Russian officers will aid his cause. He has no other life.