Slate Movie Club, critic Dana Stevens felt the need to proclaim her dislike of the war film. That she would frame the argument in this fashion confirms the genre's centrality to current assessments of the state of cinema, and particularly its activist value. Indeed, in the present environment, anti-war films secure automatic vitality; they speak to us in recognizable slogans that most aficionados of "cinema" (as opposed to "movies" or heaven help us "flicks") readily endorse. War is hell. War wreaks devastation. War effects the poor, the weak, women, children and the elderly unduly.
Of course, with this rhetoric comes a visual imperative to show this hell, this devastation and this collateral impact. For contemporary combat films, Saving Private Ryan (1998) has become the template, satisfying the above through a style that mimics the photographic record of the Second World War, while offering a simulation of the visceral experience of war that makes extensive use of CGI. Saving Private Ryan and its followers are in short war films in the image of video games.
I am a fan of neither Saving Private Ryan nor of combat (or really any, save for golf) video games, so in this respect I would side with Ms. Stevens. Where I depart somewhat is in my appreciation of a second tradition in the war film genre, which I will admit is far from a major one: the war film as platform for transcendental or universal themes. Among films that belong to this sub-type, the major recent example is certainly Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line, the other great war film from 1998. (For my money, of course, The Thin Red Line is the only great war film of 1998, and indeed one of the finest American pictures of the decade.)
In a similar mode, I recently caught up with Andrei Tarkovsky's Ivan's Childhood (1962), which establishes, along with The Thin Red Line, the possibility of beauty in this ugliest of genres. While let me say now that there is a place for ugliness in the arts surely -- what would painting be without Grunewäld, Goya or Picasso's Guernica, after all -- a genre precluding beauty would strike me as a limitation. Not so for either Malick or Tarkovsky's films, which incorporate the beautiful through digressions from the generic topic of combat. In The Thin Red Line, it is the author's contemplation of the violence in nature that yields the beauty in nature above or against the ugliness in combat, whereas Tarkovsky establishes beauty through the subjective fantasies of the child protagonist.
Among these, one of the most startling is a sequence featuring the child Ivan (Nikolai Burlyayev) in an apple cart with a pretty young girl -- they are both what has come to be called "tweens." Tarkovsky shows the pair besieged by rain, before an obvious back-projection photographic negative image, thus confirming the distance between the sequence and the reality of the wartime Soviet Union. Further, Tarkovsky adds clear Biblical connotations to the scene -- that is of a prelapsarian Adam and Eve. However, Ivan will not live long enough to sample the experiences that this sequence prefigures. Tarkovsky, in other words, suggests the tragedy of war through the poetry and beauty of these images. In fact, he will return to this conflation of the water motif and Ivan's lost childhood in a sequence where we see the child cavorting with other kids on the beach, before he chases and then surpasses his girlfriend as they sprint through a stretch of extremely low water. In short, while there may not be any metaphoric meaning to the water, it serves to connect the scenes thematically. It is analogical, which is to say poetic, and as such essentially Tarkovsky-ian.
Of course this watery theme reoccurs in the indelible marshes through which the young Ivan passes in his work as a war spy, and in the puddling that surrounds a series of ruins that is likewise distilled in an image of a free-standing door and frame. With respect to the former, Tarkovsky again produces images of exceeding beauty, particularly when we see the reflections of the flares traced on the water's dark surface. These landscapes, it is worth noting, confirm the picture's Belorussian setting, as do the similarly gorgeous birch wood forests, which more specifically act as a symbol for Mother Russia.
In the final marshland scene, where Ivan and his two adult companions must cross the swamps without the Germans noticing, Tarkovsky eliminates all light, which significantly refuses the spectator any clear view of what is happening on screen. In other words, we cannot see whether or not Ivan is safe, and yet, in the irony of Tarkovsky's mise-en-scene, this cover of darkness protects our protagonists. In other words, we don't want to see our hero as this would make the boy visible to the Germans as well. Thus, Tarkovsky takes away the substance of his art and we as spectators are grateful.
As such, Tarkovsky has transformed his form according to the desires of his spectators. More often, however, Tarkovsky's style adheres to a baroque program: time and again, we see a figure blocked in the foreground, in medium close-up, who sets off additional figures behind he or she in the middle and deep distances. In many of these scenes, the director places his camera below eye-level with large visible shadows. In short, this is not yet the director who looks down on his subjects from a God's-eye view as Chris Marker noted in his 2000 documentary One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevitch. Then again, in the film's utilization of Biblical imagery, to say nothing of the situation of much of the film within a ruined church, Tarkovsky's Christianity is already apparent. As such, it becomes clear that Ivan's Childhood is about more than the devastation of war -- it is at once a condemnation of Stalin's ambivalence toward the loss of life in World War II (not exactly controversial at the time) and also a critique of the violence done to the religious life in the Soviet Union.