Tom Tykwer

Films of Tom Tykwer:
  • Heaven - Tom Tykwer (2002)
  • Cloud Atlas - Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, and Lana Wachowski (2012)

Andy Wachowski

Films of Andy Wachowski:
  • Cloud Atlas - Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, and Lana Wachowski (2012)

Lana Wachowski

Films of Lana Wachowski:
  • Cloud Atlas - Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, and Lana Wachowski (2012)

“Ivan’s Childhood” - Andrei Tarkovsky (1962)


Ivan’s Childhood (in the US aka, My Name is Ivan, 1962) was the debut feature film of legendary Russian auteur Andrei Tarkovsky; and even in this first work, one can see many of the provocative and moody stylistic flourishes that would characterize his entire oeuvre.

The story of the film is based on the 1957 short story “Ivan” by Vladimir Bogomolov about a 12-year-old orphaned boy who was totally dedicated to fighting the Germans during World War II.  Tarkovsky was taken with the story when he read it, and when an earlier initiative to film the story by his production company, Mosfilm, had run aground, he obtained agreement from them to let him take over the direction.  The resulting work brought immediate recognition to the young director, winning extravagant praise from critics, intellectuals, and established filmmakers, as well as the Golden Globe at the 1962 Venice Film Festival [1,2].  For example Ingmar Bergman commented [3],
“My discovery of Tarkovsky's first film was like a miracle. . . . Tarkovsky is for me the greatest, the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream.”
And yet despite all the acclaim, there seem to be different opinions as to what is the film’s message.  To many viewers Ivan seems to be heroic and pure – an innocent victim of war’s perfidy.  But we must also recognize that Ivan is single-mindedly devoted to revenge – that’s what he is about.  As Tarkovsky, himself, remarked, war had turned Ivan into something of a monster [4],
“He immediately struck me as a character that had been destroyed, shifted off its axis by the war.  Something incalculable, indeed, all the attributes of childhood, had gone irretrievably out of his life. And the thing he had acquired, like an evil gift from the war, in place of what had been his now, was concentrated and heightened within him.”
And how we view Ivan will have a considerable effect on the message we take from the film.  I will have more to say about this below.  For the moment, let us just note that there are actually three main characters in the film, and they serve as prisms through which we see their wartime experiences:
  • The titular protagonist, Ivan Bondarev (played Kolya Burlyayev, who would also have a prominent role in Tarkovsky’s next film, Andrei Rublev (1966)), is a broken child, not a hero.  He seeks only revenge.  But we can still sympathize with the agony of loss that he has suffered.
  • Lieutenant Galtsev (Evgeniy Zharikov) is conscientious, serious, and principled.  He is an introverted perceiver who reflects before he acts.
  • Captain Kholin (Valentin Zubkov) is prideful, passionate, and impulsive.  He is an action-taking extravert, but his actions, though genuine, can lead to trouble.
The story, such as it is, passes through five phases.  But Tarkovsky doesn’t offer us a normally linear plot.  As he remarked [5],
“I wanted to convey all my hatred of war. I chose childhood because it is what contrasts most with war. The film isn’t built upon plot, but rests on the opposition between war and the feelings of the child.”
He wanted to evoke feelings by means of his expressionistic mise-en-scene, about which I have commented further in my review of Andrei Rublev (1966) [6]. 
“. . . Tarkovsky constructed his films out of very long takes, which involved intricate and continuous tacking, panning, and moving crane shots in combination with carefully prescribed actor choreography. It was said that Tarkovsky typically would spend two days planning for a single one of these shots before the actual take.  Many of these continuously moving shots are about 90 seconds in length, with some lasting as long as three minutes.  Often a single shot will start in closeup on a particular character, then track far away to cover a more distant scene of many people, and finally close in on that same original actor as he moves into an entirely new location.  Tarkovsky’s moving crane shots were particularly dramatic, because they could have the somewhat unnerving effect of transporting the viewer into entirely new 'worlds' (contexts), all in the same shot.  As a consequence the viewer is sometimes cast into multiple subjective focalizations within the course of that single continuous shot.”
This included evocative shots of rain-soaked landscapes and wandering wildlife that establishes a mood of grim fatefulness.  There are also expressionistic dream sequences whose focalizations are unclear.  Are these supposed to be dreams of Ivan, as they initially seem to be.  Or are they, instead, displaced dreams of Galtsev, Tarkovsky, or (most probably) the viewer?

The five story phases, or acts, are as follows:
1.  Ivan returns from a lone mission
The film opens with imagery that turn out to be the first of the film’s four explicit dream sequences (besides those four dreams, the film also includes allusions to some other “dreamy” experiences). In Dream #1 Ivan is remembering idyllic moments wandering about in nature with his mother (Irina Raush Tarkovskaya, Tarkovsky’s wife at the time). But the boy awakens from the dream and finds himself in an abandoned mill.  He then stealthily makes his way across a swampy river to the Russian side of the war front and reaches a military station commanded by Lieutenant Galtsev, who is unaware that the boy is actually a spy for the Russian army. 

Despite his youth, Ivan arrogantly demands to be put in touch with “#51" , who we soon learn is Lieutenant Colonel Gryaznov (Nikolay Grinko).  The colonel confirms the boy's importance and is shown to have a fatherly feeling for Ivan.  But despite the boy’s value as a spy, the colonel wants to send him to the safety of a military school away from the front. Another fatherly friend of Ivan then appears, Captain Kholin, who works with the colonel. 
In this section, Ivan has another expressionistic dream sequence, Dream #2, this time more horrific, showing him and his mother looking down into a well, just prior to the death of his mother.

2.  Masha
The next section seems to be somewhat of a diversion, but it offers more of a picture of Galtsev and Kholin.  Masha is a beautiful young medic who operates an infirmary along the front line, and she draws the interest of both the romantically aggressive Kholin and the more reserved Galtsev.  Just as the Colonel and Kholin want to send Ivan away from the front, Galtsev wants to send Masha away, too.  For him, war is no place for women.  But Kholin hopes she will stay around.

This sequence includes a memorable scene showing Kholin and Masha wandering about in a picturesque beech forest, including a striking two-minute shot of the two approaching each other and a 55-second shot showing Kholin suddenly embracing the girl as she crosses over a ditch. Later Masha is shown via expressionistic imagery to be wandering alone dreamily among the beech trees.

3.  Preparation for the next Mission
Now the focalization shifts from Galtsev and Kholin back to Ivan. Although the Colonel and Kholin try to send Ivan back to safety, the boy stubbornly escapes his escorts and returns to the front in order to continue his fight.  So they prepare for one more  mission.  Ivan is resolute and has a fantasy in his bedroom of him using his knife on imaginary German culprits.  Later in his bed, he has another expressionistic dream from his childhood, Dream #3, featuring negative-image back-projection that shows him and his sister enjoying themselves on the back of an apple truck driving through the rain.  


4.  The Mission
Early the next morning the three principals set out to cross the river over to the German side in order to carry out clandestine operations, with the focalization returning to Kholin and Galtsev.  Ivan is supposed to go off somewhere on another spying mission.  Kholin’s mission, which is apparently unauthorized, is more a matter of national pride: he is intent on collecting the corpses of two Russian soldiers which the Germans been placed on the river bank as captured trophies (they need to be given “a proper burial”). After all, isn’t war mainly conducted for the purposes of dignity, revenge, and national honor? 

Amid heavy shelling, Kholin and Galtsev just manage to make it back to the Russian side of the river; while Ivan is presumed off somewhere on his own spying mission.  Later, in a brilliantly choreographed and in-depth shot lasting 3:18, Kholin and Galtsev are back at their station listening to a gramophone and thinking of Ivan when Masha shows up to say good-bye to them.  But as with much of life, the vital connection is not made, and she silently and moodily departs from the scene.

5.  War’s Aftermath
The scene shifts to the celebratory ending of the war, with stock footage showing the suicidal outcomes of Nazi leaders and their families. While sifting through the records of an abandoned Nazi prison, Galtsev is shown reflecting on why he survived the war but Kholin did not.  Then  he runs across a photographic record showing that Ivan was also captured and executed.

The final sequence (Dream #4) shows Ivan in another idyllic setting, running along a beach after his sister, wile his mother lovingly looks on.  After he overtakes his sister, he heads towards a dead tree, which constitutes the final image of the film.
Since the film’s concluding dream sequence is presented after Ivan has died, we clearly don’t have a linear storyline. And the film’s final message is bleak, but ambiguous, too.  Tarkovsky’s comments in this connection of meaningful interpretation are in accordance with my own view:  that the viewer constructs the real story (fabula) in his or mind based on what has been presented [7]:
“When less than everything has been said about a subject, you can still think on further. The alternative is for the audience to be presented with a final deduction, for no effort on their part, and that is not what they need. What can it mean to them when they have not shared with the author the misery and joy of bringing an image into being?”
Thus he offers in Ivan’s Childhood, not so much a story, but more something of a cinematic collage of war’s annihilating tendencies [8]:
“My opinion is that it’s necessary to afford the spectator the freedom to interpret the film according to their own inner vision of the world, and not from the point of view that I would impose upon him. For my aim is to show life, to render an image, the tragic, dramatic image of the soul of modern man.”
We don’t wind up with a perfect film out of this, but we do retain some of those memorable, evocative images, such as those of
  • horses nibbling on fallen apples in the rain,
  • Kholin and Masha in the beech forest,
  • their later lost-connection farewell, and
  • Ivan vainly looking for a star at the bottom of a well.
Ivan and Galtsev tried to operate within the confined rules of military procedures. Kholin, however, was willing to step over the lines to pursue his own ends.  But Kholin’s ends were still driven by dignity and pride, so none of them was truly free (the way Ivan was in some of the dream sequences).
★★★

Notes:
  1. Fergus Daly and Katherine Waugh, “Ivan’s Childhood”, Senses of Cinema (July 2001).
  2. Dina Iordanova, “Ivan’s Childhood: Dream Come True”, Film Essays, The Criterion Collection, (22 January 2013).
  3. "Ingmar Bergman - On Tarkovsky", Nostalghia.com, Calgary, Canada.
  4. Andrey Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema,  University of Texas Press Austin (1986, 2000), quoted in Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson (eds.), “Conversations About Great Films: Andrei Tarkovsky, IVAN’S CHILDHOOD (1962, 84 min)”, Goldenrod Handouts, Buffalo Film Seminars, (XXXI:6), The Center for Studies in American Culture, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY (6 October 2009). 
  5. Patrick Bureau, “Andrei Tarkovsky: I Am for a Poetic Cinema” (1962), from Andrei Tarkovsky Interviews, John Gianvito (ed.), University of Mississippi, Jackson, (2006), quoted in Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson (eds.), “Conversations About Great Films: Andrei Tarkovsky, IVAN’S CHILDHOOD (1962, 84 min)”, Goldenrod Handouts, Buffalo Film Seminars, (XXXI:6), The Center for Studies in American Culture, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY (6 October 2009).
  6. “Andrei Rublev”, The Film Sufi, (9/10/2015).
  7. Charles H. de Brantes, “Faith is the Only Thing That Can Save Man” (1986),  from Andrei Tarkovsky Interviews, John Gianvito (ed.), University of Mississippi, Jackson, (2006), quoted in Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson (eds.), “Conversations About Great Films: Andrei Tarkovsky, IVAN’S CHILDHOOD (1962, 84 min)”, Goldenrod Handouts, Buffalo Film Seminars, (XXXI:6), The Center for Studies in American Culture, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY (6 October 2009).
  8. Andrey Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema,  University of Texas Press Austin (1986, 2000), quoted in Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson (eds.), op cit.

“La Chinoise” - Jean-Luc Godard (1967)


To appreciate Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise (1967) today, we need to see it in the context of his artistic progression at the time, which extends over a period even before his filmmaking, when he was a strident young film critic for the “rebellious” film journal Cahiers du Cinema [1].

With his first feature film, Breathless (À Bout de Souffle, 1960), Godard had jumped from being a leading film critic to being the signal film director of the French New Wave (“Nouvelle Vague”), an iconoclastic movement reflecting the cultural turbulence of the time.  Besides Godard, the New Wave featured other young Cahiers du Cinema critics-turned-directors, such as Francois Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer, and Jacques Rivetter, as well as other emerging film artistes, such as Alain Resnais, Jean-Pierre Melville, and Louis Malle.  But Godard was the iconic figure of the movement, persistently innovating, provoking, and challenging the status quo of film narration.  Within a few years of Breathless, he had directed a string of hits, notably A Woman Is a Woman (Une Femme est une Femme, 1961), My Life to Live (Vivre sa Vie: Film en Douze Tableaux, 1962), Band of Outsiders (Bande à Part, 1964), A Married Woman (Une Femme Mariée, 1964), Masculin Féminin (1966), and Two or Three Things I Know About Her ( 2 ou 3 Choses que Je Sais d'Elle, 1967). 

All the way along, Godard was expressing his dissatisfaction with the way we conventionally romanticize our relationships within the world.  Thus, as I argued in my review of Breathless, Godard was a frustrated romantic and kept on venting his frustrations over his reluctant conviction that the narrative romantic narrative that pervades our culture is ultimately false. 
"In most of Godard’s movies, starting already with Breathless, there is a depiction of the romantic narrative being crushed by an unfeeling world ruled by capricious, uncontrollable forces.” [2]
True, he seemed to be saying, there are short-lived romantic fantasies that sometimes capture our fancy, but in the end they are all doomed to fail. 
   
This frustration with a capricious, unmanageable, and unfeeling world also extended to – perhaps it even underlay – Godard’s interest in radical politics.  Over the course of the 1960s, Godard became more interested in sociopolitical issues  –  reflected in his Le Petit Soldat (1960 ), Les Carabiniers (1963), and Alphaville (1964) – and more fervently attracted to leftist politics, particularly Marxist-Leninist communism.  Here again, though, there were frustrations emerging over the yawning gap between the communist ideals and the miserable progress that had been made towards achieving those ideals.  So by the latter 1960s, Godard was not only a frustrated romantic; he was a frustrated social activistLa Chinoise represents his expression of that sociopolitical frustration.

La Chinoise concerns the activities of five leftist student radicals who are struggling to clarify and advance their revolutionary aims.  The title refers to the emerging split at that time between  Russian Marxist-Leninism and Chinese Maoism that was accentuated by the recent (May 1966)  launching of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. The student radicals in this film prefer the extremist notions of the Chinese version of communism.  Thus, like Godard, these earnest revolutionaries have become disaffected with the conventional communist narrative and are looking for something more.  But Godard’s scepticism on this front is what comes across.

The main characters are loosely based on those from Dostoevsky’s novel The Possessed (1872), though the story, such as it is, wanders off in a somewhat different direction.  The principal characters are
  • Véronique (played by Anne Wiazemsky, who had starred brilliantly in Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) and was soon to be Godard’s wife, 1968-79).
  • Guillaume (Jean-Pierre Léaud, a Nouvelle Vague favorite since his debut in Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959)).
  • Henri (Michel Semeniako)
  • Yvonne (Juliet Berto)
  • Kirilov (Lex De Bruijn)
Now one could attempt to analyze La Chinoise to see how far it represents a modernization of Dostoevsky’s tale, but I don’t think that is a useful path to follow. Godard’s focus here is different – in some ways it is more politically acute, but at the same time it is dramatically deficient.  And the dramatic deficiencies are ultimately too much for the film to bear.

As for the political ideas, we note that in any cinematic presentation of this type, there has to be some opposed “differences”, even conflicts, that generate interest.  In La Chinoise there are two such conflicts:
  • the different directions envisioned by pragmatic Marxist-Leninism and radically revolutionary Chinese Maoism.
  • the opposition between words and action.
It is the latter opposition that is Godard’s most interesting point, but his presentation of the stasis induced by an over reliance on words is narratively self-defeating.  The entire proceedings become soporific without a progressive narrative movement.

Much of the action takes place in a Parisian apartment, where the five students are discussing their Marxist philosophy stances.  This is presented in long, static monologues, with the characters looking directly into the camera and giving their accounts of themselves.  Their principal concern is that
  1. The only way to cure the world’s problem is to have the working class undertake a full-scale, world-wide revolution.
  2. The only way this revolution can be launched is for there to be a capitalist crisis.
  3. There is no capitalist crisis in the foreseeable future.
So they are determined to carry out terrorist acts in order to generate such a crisis.  What attracts them in this regard is Chairman Mao’s perceived sincerity and violence.

As the long monologues (and occasional dialogues between Guillaume and Véronique) proceed, it becomes evident that these people are obsessed with the verbal articulation of their theoretical ideals.  Many of the shots last more than three minutes, and one wonders if these characters really know what they are saying.  Or are they merely wallowing in their own reflective self indulgence?

In one of her monologues, Véronique says, “If I were brave, I’d dynamite the Sorbonne, the Louvre, the Comedie Francais.”  But still she espouses study and theory.  Later she tells her romantic partner Guillaume that she doesn’t love him anymore, but she says it in a coldly analytic fashion.  She has decided not to love him.  For Véronique and her friends, radical terrorist activities are abstract and disconnected from reality. 

A little further on Henri, who is the most pragmatic member of the group, is purged, because he disavows contributing to their proposed goal of a terrorist act of violence.  Then we come to the most intellectually interesting sequence in the film, which is at the same time the most static.  It is a 13-minute scene showing two people in a railroad car facing each other, Véronique and real-life philosopher Francis Jeanson, are talking about Véronique’s upcoming plans to carry out an assassination.  Jeanson, in fact, was a real-life activist and had been actively involved in aiding the Algerian FLN during the Algerian War of Independence [3]. Although he is a man of action, he is shown to be a pragmatist, who does things for reasons that are part of carefully thought-out plans – in stark contrast to Véronique’s abstract dogmatism.  For Véronique there are no sociopolitical narratives, just decisive acts of violence that bring about a supposed endpoint.  Clearly Jeanson’s views are presented by Godard in a sympathetic light.

At the end of the film, Véronique’s intended act of terrorism, the assassination of rhe Soviet Minister of Culture, which is supposed to help incite a revolution, serves as an ironic reminder of how an overemphasis on text and symbols can be crippling.  She goes to a hotel where her intended victim is staying and mistakenly misreads the hotel register to learn his room number.  Since she is looking at the register upside-down, she reverses “room 23" to be “room 32" and proceeds to kill the wrong man. Because symbols have no intrinsic connection to what they represent, a dyslexic reading can bring about disaster.


This is the problem that the film presents, but it struggles to overcome its single-minded attention to words.  Godard and his cinematographer Raoul Coutard try to liven things up by various means.  There are many brightly-colored flash shots of provocative text – and the color red dominates almost every interior shot. The principal characters are shown play-acting various brief political psychodramas. There are several interjected cinematic self-references to the filmmaking, itself. And the performances of these characters, particularly those of Anne Wiazemsky and Jean-Pierre Léaud, are curiously sensuous, sincere, and innocent all at the same time. But it isn’t enough. The power of cinema to overcome the dead weight of words has not been effectively utilized in this film. And so the final result is a curiosity, but ultimately a disappointment.
★★

Notes:
  1. Jean-Luc Godard, Godard on Godard, Tom Milne (ed., trans.), The Viking Press, New York, 1972.
  2. Breathless", The Film Sufi (17 September 2015). 
  3. Rosa Moussaoui, “An Insubordinate Named Francis Jeanson”, l’Humanité in English,  (translated by Kieran O’Mear – original title in l’Humanité: “Un Désobéissant Nommé Jeanson”, which appeared on 4 August 2009), (3 September 2009).