The two great wars of the twentieth century would change everything for humankind once and for all; both materially and spiritually.
These wars formed the basis for diverse artistic depictions and found their way into various works both during the war, after the war and in peacetime when the artists could “recollect emotions in tranquility” – to borrow a phrase from Wordsworth. Of course, this recollection was not one of happy memories, but one of ravaged memories, of death, trauma and the loss of childhood innocence.
I shall consider two films haunted by the memory of war: Roberto Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero (1948) and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood (1962). While Rossellini’s film, Germany Year Zero is a neo-realist depiction of war-ravaged Berlin, exploring the landscape as seen through the eyes of a young and innocent protagonist, Edmund, Ivan’s Childhood is an exploration of the same war but set somewhere in Russia, and the protagonist is a young Russian boy, Ivan. Both films explore the Second World War as seen through the eyes of their extremely young protagonists, and whereas one was a neo-realist project, the other was a modernist treatment of the same subject.
Germany Year Zero
It is, perhaps, necessary to introduce the neo-realist project before we begin a journey into the landscape of childhood in Rossellini’s film, which depicts the realities of war-time Germany and the wreckage that stand for the ruination of not only physical space but also the desolate landscape of a child’s inner world. One of the aims of a neo-realist like Rossellini was to project reality as it was, without romanticizing it, using cinematic conventions. The neo-realists believed in the aesthetics of long-takes, with poetic orchestrated movements, as well as on location shooting. They also believed in the depiction of the lives of ordinary people which lent a documentary quality to the films. The neo-realist films were also located in the contemporary moment such that it almost seemed like journalistic reportage. The focus was on social struggles and hence social realities. The deep space composition was also a key feature of the neo-realist cinematic convention. The long tracking shots were meant to create space and not just present a merely flat spectacle. As one walks into the ruin one enters, experiences, and feels it as it were.
The opening pan across the ruins in Germany Year Zero is combined with a voice-over that explains the objectives of the film – to depict the plight of the 3.5 million living in post-war Berlin. The camera then cuts to a high overhead shot of what looks like a cemetery and thence to a shot of a young boy hard at work. The landscape around him is strange since he is the only young face set against a group of adults also at work. One of the jobs readily available in post-war Germany is that of a grave-digger but the boy is not allowed to work and shooed off. As we follow him through a long tracking shot, we eventually reach his world as he traverses the ruined city. The devastated space that Rossellini depicts in the film stands for the portrayal of the child’s psyche as well. Edmund, who along with his sister, tries to keep the family together even if it means subjecting himself to humiliation. He is unable to play like the other children and left only to contemplate how to earn or get something to take home to his family.
Edmund lives with his old father and two older siblings – a sister and a brother. The brother, an ex-Nazi soldier, is in hiding and it is the younger brother-sister duo that struggles hard to maintain the family. Edmund meets his old school teacher who gives him some work. But when Edmund returns a second time, crazed with hunger and worries, he is roughly pushed aside and told that it is only the fittest that survive – “Learn from the natural world. The strong eliminate the weak.” – something that he interprets as an exhortation to kill his old father. He does so by poisoning him, but unable to bear the reality of what he has done, jumps to his own death.
Through the figure of the child, Rossellini tries to hint at the derelict future of Germany, since in any society, the future rests in the hands of the young. There is no future for young Edmund, who doesn’t even go to school.
Edmund wanders aimlessly through the Berlin streets and is met with tension behind doors, in tenement flats and the crumbling city streets. A world of confusion, disillusionment, complications, rejection, dejection, fear and disturbance unfolds in the film. As the camera charts Edmund’s progress we see him running a hand over his face, wiping his hand with a handkerchief, distracted momentarily by the sound of a church organ and sitting in the gutter with downcast eyes, gazing at his feet, head in hands. Through this collage of profoundly disturbing moments, that are immensely difficult to watch, we see the trauma of the young child as he sits amidst the ruins. The debris all around him depict Edmund’s present and future. It is a future where Edmund will die, because he is unable to handle the sudden growing up that his situation demands, in order that the others in his world survive.
Children with the scars of war on their wide-eyed faces appear like shadows of human beings caught in an in-between world where feelings, memories and moments remain unresolved. The camera portrays a war-ravaged world of innocent child victims. After Edmund has administered poison to his father and is berated by his teacher who calls him a monster, we see him returning home, creeping into the building and sitting on the staircase with his face in his hands. Through a close-up we see his face cast in half-light, looking older, harder and more hollow.
Just moments before he dies, Edmund looks down from a decrepit building into the streets where he has walked, played and worked – a world that he has misjudged. With a painful sigh, he takes off his jacket, rubs his hand over his face and then plunges into space as it were. Rossellini’s camera focuses on the child’s crumpled pitiful body as it lies among the ruins, perhaps at home there finally, confronting us with the shocking but powerful image for a few seconds before the screen cuts to black.
This was perhaps Rossellini’s way of warning humanity, through the image of the child, of the impending danger of another such war and the inevitable ruin it will bring upon all of humankind.
Tarkovsky’s choice of cinematic language in Ivan’s Childhood is very different from Germany Year Zero. Tarkovsky stated that he was attracted to this atypical war story because of its avoidance of military exploits, and mostly by the warped personality and tragic fate of the young military scout. The film centres on a twelve year old Russian boy, Ivan, whose parents died at the hands of the Germans invading Russia during the Second World War. Striving single-mindedly to avenge their deaths, he lives the lonely life of an orphan. Sometimes he joins the partisans and at other times he is with the Russian army, but he is always adamant to fight in the front line and he takes advantage of his small size to get reconnaissance jobs for which grownups would be unsuitable. Passionate and yet helpless in a dangerous world he is doomed to die at the hands of the Nazis who execute him. Tarkovsky says in his book Sculpting in Time,
“this approach to the depiction of war was persuasive because of its hidden cinematic potential. It opened up possibilities for recreating in a new way the true atmosphere of war, its hypertense nervous concentration, invisible on the surface of events but making itself felt like a rumbling beneath the ground. A third thing moved me to the bottom of my heart: the personality of the young boy. 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 own, was concentrated and heightened within him.” (Tarkovsky 1986: 17)
The film in turn was to stimulate critical debate in the Soviet Union, but it was in keeping with the personal, non-heroic mood of Soviet war films of the period. For Tarkovsky, Ivan is more a victim than a hero. However, this is a war film with very little action. The actual fighting is merely hinted at and indicated through off-screen sound, signal flares, and ruined buildings. The landscape has a hallucinatory quality, suggesting a mental rather than a physical reality. Tarkovsky’s visual and aural presentation; his highly stylized and often expressionistic camerawork and use of sound to mark the character’s interior reality – through dreams and, generally, by creating a highly subjective external world – mark his films as distinctive, at the same time signalling a departure from the films of the Soviet “thaw” period and also from Rossellini’s treatment of the child subject.
Tarkovsky’s addition of the dream sequence in a way alters not only the way we view our tragic young protagonist but it also considerably alters Vladimir Bogomolov’s detached, realistic account, in his original short story, of Ivan’s heroic missions, his relationships with the four officers – Galtsov, Kholin, Katasonych and Gryaznov – and his eventual death. Tarkovsky establishes powerful visual and aural contrasts between the dream world and the reality. While Ivan’s shadow-less dream world is bright, clean, full of sounds and images of living nature, Ivan’s real world is dirty, dark, deeply shadowed, distorted and mostly silent – burnt and dead. For as Tarkovsky points out:
“it is crucial that mise en scene, rather than illustrating some idea, should follow life-the personalities of the characters and their psychological state. Its purpose must not be reduced to elaborating on the meaning of a conversation or an action. Its function is to startle us with the authenticity of the actions and the beauty and depths of the artistic images-not by the obtrusive illustration of their meaning.” (Ibid.: 25).
Clearly, Tarkovsky is at odds with the neo-realists, since for him an artist is one who is capable of creating…
“great spiritual treasures and that special beauty which is subject only to poetry […] without such perception, even a work that purport to be true to life will seem artificially uniform and simplistic. An artist may achieve an outward illusion, a life-like effect, but that is not all the same as examining life beneath the surface […] you can play a scene with documentary precision, dress the characters correctly to the point of naturalism, have all the details exactly like real life, and the picture that emerges in consequence will still be nowhere near reality, it will seem utterly artificial, that is, not faithful to life, even though artificiality was precisely what the author was trying to avoid […] instead of attempting to capture these nuances, most unpretentious, ‘true to life’ films not only ignore them but make a point of using sharp, overstated images which at best can only make the picture seem far-fetched. And I am all for cinema being as close as possible to life-even if on occasion we have failed to see how beautiful life really is.” (Ibid.: 21-22).
This then forms the basis of all of Tarkovsky’s films, as it does for Ivan’s Childhood. In his book, Sculpting in Time, he talks about the four dreams that Ivan has and their associations.
“All four dreams, too, are based on quite specific associations. The first, for instance, from start to finish, right up to the words, ‘Mum, there’s a cuckoo!’ is one of my earliest childhood recollections. It was at the time when I was just beginning to know the world. I was four.
Generally people’s memories are precious to them. It is no accident that they are coloured by poetry. The most beautiful memories are those of childhood.
Of course memory has to be worked upon before it can become the basis of an artistic reconstruction of the past; and here it is important not to lose the particular emotional atmosphere without which a memory evoked in every detail merely gives rise to a bitter feeling of disappointment. There’s an enormous difference, after all, between the way you remember the house in which you were born and which you haven’t seen for years, and the actual sight of the house after a prolonged absence. Usually the poetry of the memory is destroyed by confrontation with its origin.” (Ibid.: 29)
This unadulterated childhood memory finds its place in all four of Ivan’s dreams, but the last dream, in particular, strikes me as the most unique one, in which his dream world and reality merge. We see him dipping his head into a bucket of water which his mother has provided him with – we also see her bidding him goodbye, perhaps for the last time. She has a sad expression on her face. The scene then dissolves into one in which there are several children playing. They go into hiding, there is again a dissolve and in the next shot we see Ivan looking for the vanished children, then we hear innocent childish laughter along with the music on the soundtrack. This is how it was meant to be – the twelve year old should have been at play rather than dangling from a meat hook. Then we see the children race each other. With the help of close-ups Tarkovsky reveals to us the inner happiness reflected on their faces as they race along the beach. At one point Ivan outraces his sister and continues running as the camera tracks along his lone figure. He reaches out to touch the dead tree and the screen turns black. Perhaps that’s the run up to his death – here the reality and the dream worlds both end cinematically.
Both Rossellini and Tarkovsky strove to project reality as they saw it – in their own ways, from their own space and time. In documenting the reality of the war the two filmmakers gave expression to that wounded voice that would have otherwise remained unarticulated and unrepresented.
Devapriya Sanyal is a Ph.D student at the Centre for English Studies, JNU, New Delhi, where she pursues her doctoral work on Satyajit Ray’s films. She is the author of From Text to Screen: Issues and Images in Schindler’s List (2011). Her interests include world cinema, as well as Bollywood and Bengali cinema.
Tarkovsky, Andrei (1986), Sculpting in Time, Austin: University of Texas Press.