AT PLAY | Ivan's Childhood

Ivan’s Childhood is formed in the tension between the equally vivid and vital worlds of fantasy and reality. By Louis Rogers


Ivan’s Childhood seems at first to be a blissful one: the film opens with an idyllic picture of youth. A young boy – Ivan – runs through nature to his laughing mother, who has brought a fresh pail of water for them to drink. But the scene swerves, suddenly, and cuts to Ivan’s reality: asleep in a derelict windmill, in the midst of a dangerous spying mission. This sharp, shuddering cut is repeated throughout the film as it moves between Ivan’s sunlit dreams before plunging back into his awful reality. We might legitimately ask to which the title is referring: the carefree dreams of the childhood Ivan is deprived of, or, with dark irony, the terribly adult world he inhabits as a spy for the Russian army. Most likely, it points to both. Ivan’s Childhood is formed in the tension between the equally vivid and vital worlds of fantasy and reality, where Tarkovsky plays best.

It is, after all, through the negotiations of imagination and experience that we make sense of the world. The psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott suggested in Playing and Reality that play offers a simulation of reality in which we can experiment and develop: “It is in playing and only in playing that the individual child or adult is able to be creative ... and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self.” Ivan’s life is entirely lacking in play: he is prematurely mired in the mortally consequential world of adulthood. But it’s notable that his dreams are full of it – the film’s closing scenes, another dream, are a transporting depiction of Ivan and another child running joyfully across a beach for no reason at all. We also witness adults around Ivan engaging in their own forms of play: a destitute man shuffling around the ruins of his destroyed house, playing at its continued existence; a young couple playing flirtatious games in a forest as a proxy for direct entanglement. 

Subtly at stake in these different forms of fantasy is the film’s own identity as a work of fiction – and a lyrical, unabashedly poetic one. In the coupling of pungent fantasies – be they dreams, memories, or games – with the harshest of realities (even extending to the use of real footage of besieged Berlin), Tarkovsky makes a case for the significance of fantasy in defining our lives, framing cinema as a form of preciously child-like play.


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