Darren Carver-Balsiger’s review published on Letterboxd:
Ivan's Childhood is a lyrical war movie, an emotional, poetic experience. It's about childhood and war, two aspects of life far apart but flung together in this world. It is not the most sophisticated Andrei Tarkovsky movie, nor the most moving or artistic, but it has an elegant simplicity to it. Ivan's Childhood is about nature and innocence, surrounded by the stink of war.
Ivan is a child of war, having had to live a difficult life and grow up quick. As a child though, this world overwhelms him and he doesn't quite understand it. Ivan is convinced he has to fight, he thinks everyone should, and this seems to be his way to cope with trauma. He wants revenge, to avenge those he lost. Ivan deeply loves his mother, as most children do, and he misses her. She's a dream that he clings to. He dreams of flying through nature to meet her. But memories and dreams can be painful, especially as we're often traumatised long after the pain ends. Dim torchlight ends Ivan's illusions, he rings a bell in an empty room, and he breaks down in tears. Ivan is shivering and wet, that's his life now. He desperately wants to be useful and to matter, because he's lost everything else. The soldiers are fond of Ivan, he's useful and likeable, and why should war just be for adults? Ivan's existence is tragic in Ivan's Childhood, and it ends on a final moment of joy - Ivan and his mother and his sister on the beach - but this isn't to provide a happy ending, but to instead show us a happiness that died.
Ivan's Childhood is a quiet war movie, one where war is ever present but still kept in the background. It shows us the side effects - a ruined land, civilians who have gone mad, a dying building filled with fluttering dirt - but it isn't just about lives disrupted by war. Love still finds a way to exist; a kiss above a trench, gunshots in the distance. There's romance hidden behind trees, and delirious movements between them. Everything in life is unexpected, and no one knows what the future will hold: love or death. Death is a key part of Ivan's Childhood but it reduces the horrors of war to a child's level where little is explicitly shown. Bodies build up, close friends die, but the enemy is a barely seen presence. The film is filled with indirect ways of learning about death, there's silent mourning because too many are dead and many more will die. Water splashing on a dead body, war returns us to the elements. Ivan's Childhood is a dark film in this sense, with death everywhere and dark visuals. This is a film of dingy rooms and nature shown in the starkest black. War breaks apart life and keeps it going until death, there's not much joy to be had in a world this unforgiving.
Andrei Tarkovsky loved to make films about nature, and Ivan's Childhood is no exception. The opening scene shows us a spider's web, a pine tree, a goat, and a butterfly. The use of nature in Ivan's Childhood emphasises the world war is destroying. The soil is dead, and the sun is blotted out by the smoke from explosions. Humanity and war has encroached upon nature, there's barbed wire between trees, flares through the forest, desolate waterscapes. Churches and nature are destroyed, war ruins the peaceful and harmonious. We see a cross that remains, the sun shining through it after the fighting. Ivan's Childhood is a beautiful film in a bizarre way, because it manages to find the beauty of the world even when mankind is at war. We see light through the leaves, drops landing in water, fire in the stove. Characters go wading through still water, they're lost in a thick forest where you can't see beyond the trees and there's something eerily beautiful about a place untouched by man. In Ivan's dreams, nature is still alive, there's horses on a beach and rain-soaked apples. Yet, like hands trying to reach the light that shines into water, this is dream that seems unable to be grasped. The film ends with a dead tree on a beach, this is a dying world and life and nature are going away.
Ivan's Childhood is spectacularly intimate and delicate, a little war film with a million beautiful aspects. It's painted with sadness and has a story of suffering, yet it's made with enough humanity to offset its depressing aspects. Ivan's Childhood finds joy, beauty, and innocence in the darkest of times, but it's also a reminder of the ways we forfeit those because we'd rather go to war.