The film tells the story of orphan boy Ivan and his childhood during World War II. His family was killed by German soldiers. He escapes and is adopted by a unit of the Soviet army on the Eastern front. He is adamant to fight on the front line, and taking advantage of his small size, is able to get reconnaissance jobs that require him to cross the front line. Ivan's Childhood was one of several Soviet films of the late 1950s, such as The Cranes Are Flying and Ballad of a Soldier, that looked at the human cost of war and did not glorify the war experience as did films produced before the Khrushchev Thaw.
Ivan's Childhood was Tarkovsky's first feature film and won him critical acclaim and made him known internationally. It won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1962 and the Golden Gate Award at the San Francisco International Film Festival in 1962. Famous filmmakers such as Ingmar Bergman, Sergei Parajanov and Krzysztof Kieślowski praised the film and cited it as an influence on their work.
At the centre of the story is Ivan (Nikolai Burlyayev), a 12 year old Russian boy. Through a series of dream sequences and conversations between different characters it is revealed that Ivan’s parents and his sister have been killed by German soldiers. He however got away and joined a group of partisans. Sometime later the group was trapped in a forest surrounded by German troops. To keep Ivan out of their hands they put him on a plane. After the escape he was sent to a boarding school. But he ran away and joined an army unit under the command of Gryaznov (Nikolai Grinko).
In the army unit Ivan is adamant to fight on the front line. Taking advantage of his small size he is able to get reconnaissance jobs for which grownups would be unsuitable. Ultimately Gryaznov and the other soldiers want to send him to a military school. They give up their idea as Ivan resists being send away from the front line, up to the point where he tries to run away from the army unit and join the partisans. The film also reveals that the reasons for Ivan’s determination to fight is his desire to avenge the death of his family.
The film also depicts the lives of the soldiers that Ivan meets, and a subplot involves the romantic life of Kholin (Valentin Zubkov) and his hopeless advances towards the army nurse Masha (Valentina Malyavina). Much of the film is set in an army dugout where the officers await orders, fearing death, planning assaults and talking apparent trivia while Ivan impatiently and nervously awaits his next reconnaissance mission.
Towards the end of the film, the soldiers and Ivan attempt a dangerous reconnaissance over the front line. As Ivan goes ahead of the group he disappears without a trace. The final scenes of the film then switch to Berlin under Soviet occupation after the fall of the Third Reich. One of Ivan's former officer friends finds a Nazi prison where a document shows that Ivan was caught and executed by the Germans. As the officer reaches the execution room, we see a final flashback of Ivan's childhood: Ivan runs across a beach after his sister in beautiful sunlight. The film's final image is that of a dead tree on the beach.
Ivan's Childhood was Tarkovsky's first feature film, shot two years after his diploma film The Steamroller and the Violin. The film is based on the 1957 short story Ivan (Иван) by Vladimir Bogomolov, which was translated into more than twenty languages. It drew the attention of the screenwriter Mikhail Papava, who changed the story line and made Ivan more of a hero. Papava called his screenplay Second Life (Вторая жизнь, Vtoraya Zhisn). In this screenplay Ivan is not executed, but sent to the concentration camp Majdanek, from where he is freed by the advancing Soviet army. The final scene of this screenplay shows Ivan meeting one of the officers of the army unit in a train compartment. Bogomolov, who is not satisfied with this ending, intervenes and the screenplay is changed to the original version of Bogomolov.
Mosfilm gave the screenplay to the young film director Eduard Abalov. Shooting was aborted and the film project was terminated in December 1960, since the first version of the film drew heavy criticism from the arts council, and the quality was deemed unsatisfactory and unusable. In June 1961 the film project was given to Tarkovsky, who had applied for it after being told about Ivan's Childhood by cinematographer Vadim Yusov. Work on the film resumed in the same month. The film was shot for the most part near Kaniv at the Dnieper River.
Tarkovsky continued his collobaration with cinematographer Vadim Yusov, who was the cameraman in Tarkovsky's diploma film The Steamroller and the Violin. Nikolai Burlyayev had played a role in Andrei Konchalovsky's student film The Boy and the Pigeon. Konchalovsky was a friend and fellow student of Tarkovsky at the State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK), and thus Burlyayev was also cast for the role of Ivan. He had to pass several screen tests, but according to Burlyayev it is unclear whether anyone else auditioned for the role.
Tarkovsky made Ivan's Childhood in the social and political context of Stalinist purges (murders) being in recent memory. At the time of the making of Ivan's Childhood, the purges had been replaced by imprisonment for artists who exercised artistic freedom or freedom of speech. They were banished to gulags in Siberia.
Tarkovsky included overt political protest in the first instant of Ivan. Like Columbia Pictures in America, with its logo of the statue lady liberty and heroic music preceding each film, Soviet films started with the Mosfilm image of a cheap statuette rotating on a turntable, normally with equally heroic music. The Mosfilm rotating statuette (pictured at right) had a heroically posed male and female holding a hammer and sickle, as archetypal iconic Communists. The film begins with an idyllic forest scene, with coo-coo birds calling in the background. However, Tarkovsky began the coo-coo forest sound while the Mosfilm image was still rotating on the screen, before the corresponding forest visual image began, whereby a “coo-coo” sound was briefly superimposed over the icon of Communism.
Remarkably, Tarkovksy was not sent to the gulag, but was instead heavily funded for the making of his next feature film, Andrei Rublev, where his bold political protest continued.
Ivan's Childhood was one of Tarkovsky's commercially most successful films, selling 16.7 million tickets in the Soviet Union. Tarkovsky himself was not pleased with the film; in his book Sculpting in Time, he criticizes Nikolai Burlyayev and writes at length about subtle changes to certain scenes that he regrets not implementing. However, the film received numerous awards and international acclaim on its release, winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. It attracted the attention of many intellectuals, including Ingmar Bergman who said: "My discovery of Tarkovsky's first film was like a miracle. Suddenly, I found myself standing at the door of a room the keys of which had, until then, never been given to me. It was a room I had always wanted to enter and where he was moving freely and fully at ease.
Jean-Paul Sartre wrote an article on the film, defending it against a highly critical article in the Italian newspaper L'Unita and saying that it is one of the most beautiful films he had ever seen. Filmmaker Sergei Parajanov and Krzysztof Kieślowski praised the film and cited it as influence on their work.