Andrei Tarkovsky’s debut feature is on the one hand a fantastical escape from the horrors of war, but on the other a bleak, nightmarish vision of a young orphan faced with a hostile world. Young Kolya Burlyayev is exceptional as the young hero, forced to fend for himself on the unforgiving Eastern Front as a scout for the army. Hellbent on avenging the death of his family, Ivan refuses to return to the relative safety of military school, and instead finds his escape through his idyllic dreams.
As the Soviet Union was experiencing newfound artistic freedom following the end of Stalin’s rule, filmmakers like Tarkovsky experimented with surrealism and expressionist tendencies for the very first time. While making films for a new young adult audience, his focus inevitably turned to his traumatic youth, but the result here is, surprisingly, the director’s most accessible and enjoyable film, which although traumatic, is also a masterpiece of innocence and childhood wonder.