Jean Paul Sartre

Discussion on the criticism of Ivan's Childhood

The article being reproduced here was written by Jean Paul Sartre who, at that time, was living in Italy. It was in the form of a letter addressed to Alicata, the editor of L'Unita, and was in response to a highly critical article his paper had devoted to Ivan's Childhood after it had won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1962. Alicata decided to make the letter public and carried it in L'Unita of 9 October 1963. The translation given here follows the French text as reproduced in Situations VII [Gallimard 1965]. It may be mentioned here that the original French text of the letter was misplaced in Italy and the text published in Situations was itself a translation from the Italian text carried in L'Unita. English translation by Mr. Madan Gopal Singh. wishes to thank for allowing us to reproduce the article here.

My dear Alicata,

I have remarked to you on several occasions about the great regard I have for your contributors looking after [the sections on] literature, plastic art and cinema. I find that [in their writings] rigour and liberty coexist, which means that, in general, they can get to the bottom of problems as also grasp what is singular and concrete in a work of art. I may say the same in praise of Il Paese and Paese Sera: no schematism in the left, nor a leftist who is schematic.

It is for this very reason that I wish to express a regret to you. How is it that for the first time in my knowledge the charge of schematism could be sustained against the articles that L'Unita and other leftwing newspapers devoted to Ivan's Childhood which is one of the most beautiful films I have had the privilege of seeing in the last few years? It was given the highest award, the Golden Lion, by the Jury: but that has become a strange certificate of "occidentalism" and contributed towards making Tarkovsky a petty bourgeois suspect with the Italian left seeing it with a bad eye. In truth, such distrustful judgements abandon to our middle classes, without real justification, a profoundly Russian and revolutionary film which expresses the sensibility of the young Soviet generations in a typical way. As for me, I saw it in Moscow, first in a private screening and then in public, in the midst of youth. I understood what it represented to those 20-year old heirs to Revolution, who did not doubt it for a moment and intended to continue it with pride: let me assure you that in their approval there was nothing that could be defined as a reaction of the "petitbourgeois". It goes without saying that a critic is free to maintain all [sorts of] reservations about the work of art he must judge. But is it just to show such a defiance towards a film which has already been the object of impassioned discussion in the USSR? Is it just to criticise, without taking into account these discussions, or their profound meaning as if Ivan's Childhood were only an example of the current production in USSR? I know you sufficiently, my dear Alicata, to know that you do not share the simplistic vision of your critics. And as the regard I have, for them is truly sincere, I am asking you to let them know [the contents of] this letter which would perhaps reopen, at least, the discussion before it is too late.

They talked about traditionalism as also an outmoded expressionism and symbolism. Allow me to say that these formalist criteria are themselves outmoded. It is true that in Fellini and Antonioni, symbolism is sought to be hidden. But this only results in its becoming even more bright. Nor could the Italian neorealism avoid it any more. It would be necessary to speak here of the symbolic function of any of the most realist of the works of art. We do not have the time to do that here. Moreover, it is rather the nature of his symbolism that they wanted to reproach in Tarkovsky> his symbols would be expressionist or surrealist! This is what I cannot accept. Firstly, because they find here, as in the USSR, that the charge of a certain academism (on its way to disappearance) is levelled against the young metteur-en-scene. For certain critics there, as also for your better ones here, it would. seem that Tarkovsky had hastily assimilated the processes superseded in the occident, and that he applies them without judgement. They reproach him for Ivan's dreams: "The dreams! We, in the occident; have long since stopped using dreams! Tarkovsky is slow: That used to be fine between the war !" Here then is what the authoritative pens have written.

Tarkovsky is 28 (he himself told me; not 30 as certain newspapers have written) and, be sure of this that he has a very inadequate knowledge of the occidental cinema. His culture is essentially and necessarily Soviet. One gains nothing and has everything to lose in wanting to derive from a bourgeois process a "treatment" which follows from the film itself and from the material it treats.

Ivan is mad, that is a monster; that is a little hero; in reality, he is the most innocent and touching victim of the war: this boy, whom one cannot stop loving, has been forged by the violence he has internalised. The nazis killed him when they killed his mother an massacred the inhabitants of his village. Yet, he lives. But somewhere else, in that irremediable moment where he saw his neighbour falling. I have myself seen certain young, hallucinated Algerians, moulded by the massacres. For them, there was no difference whatsoever between the nightmares of the waking state and the nocturnal nightmares. They had been killed, they would have wanted to kill and to get used to killing. Their heroic determination was, above all, a hatred and escape in the face of unbearable anguish. If they fought, they fled the horror in the combat; if the night disarmed them and if, in their sleep, they returned to the tenderness of their age, the horror was reborn and they relived the memory they would want to forget. Such is Ivan. And I think it is necessary to praise Tarkovsky for having shown so well how for this child, pitched towards suicide, there is no difference between day and night. In any case, he does not live with us. Actions and hallucinations are in close correspondence. Notice the relations, he maintains with adults: he lives amidst troops; the officers — brave people, courageous but "normal", who did not have to suffer a tragic childhood — shelter him, love him, would have wanted at any cost to "normalise" him and, in the end, to send him to school. Apparently, the child could find, as in a Chekov novel, a father among them to replace the one he has lost. Too late: he no longer has the need for parents; still more profound [than the loss of parents] is the ineffaceable horror of the massacre [he has] seen which reduces him to his solitude. The officers end up by considering the child with a mixture of tenderness, amazement and painful distrust: they see in him a perfect monster, so beautiful and nearly odious, that the enemy has radicalised, who asserts himself only in murderous impulses (the knife, for example), and who cannot sever links with war and death; who now has the need of this sinister universe for living; who is liberated from fear in the midst of a battle and who would be carried away in the end by anguish. The little victim knows what is necessary for him: the war — which created him — blood, vengeance. Yet, the two officers love him; as for him, all one can say is that he does not detest them. Love, for him, is a route that has been barred forever. His nightmares, his hallucinations have nothing gratuitous about them. They are not about morsels of bravery nor are they about the surveys carried out in the "subjectivity" of the child: they remain perfectly objective, we continue to see Ivan from outside, like in the "realist" scenes; the truth is that for this boy the entire world is a hallucination and that in this universe this boy, monster and martyr is a hallucination for others. It is for this that the first sequence skilfully introduces us to the true and false world which is one of the boy and the war, describing to us everything from the real course of the boy through the woods to the false death of his mother (she is really dead, but that event — so profoundly concealed that we will never know it — was different: it never comes to surface except through the transcriptions which carry him a little away from his horrible nudity). Madness? Reality? Both of them: in war, all soldiers are mad, this child monster is an objective testimony of their madness because it is he who has gone the farthest. It is neither a question of expressionism nor that of symbolism, but of a certain manner of narration demanded by the very subject, what the young poet Voznessenski used to call "socialist surrealism".

It had been necessary to delve deeper into the intentions of the author to understand the very sense of the theme: war kills those who make it even if they survive it. And, in a still more profound sense: history, in one and the same movement, demands [these] heroes, creates them and destroys them by rendering them incapable of living without suffering in the society they have contributed to forge.

They praised L'Uomo da Bruciare at the same time as they regarded Ivan's Childhood with an unfavourable eye. They addressed their eulogies to the authors of the first film, also very worthy, for reintroducing complexity in the positive hero. It is true: they have given him the defects — mythomania, for example. They have shown at the same time the devotion of the character to the cause he defends and his authentic egocentricism. But, on my part, I find nothing truly new in this. Eventually, the better socialist realist productions have in spite of everything, always given us complex, nuanced hero; they have exalted their merits while taking care to underline certain of their weaknesses. In truth, the problem is not one of measuring out the vices and virtues of the hero but one of putting heroism itself into discussion. Not to deny it but to understand it. Ivan's Childhood puts both necessity and ambiguity of this heroism into light. The boy has neither the small virtues nor weaknesses: he is radically what the history has made of him. Thrown into the war despite himself, he is entirely made for the war. But if he causes fear amongst the soldiers around him, it is because he could no longer live in peace. The violence in him born out of anguish and horror, sustains him, helps him live, and pushes him to demand dangerous missions of exploration. But, what will he become after the war? Even if he survives, the incandescent lava within him will never cool down. Is not here, in the closest sense of the term, an important criticism of the positive hero? He shows him exactly as he is, sad and magnificent; he makes [us] see the tragic and funereal sources of his strength. He reveals that this product of war, perfectly adapted by the warrior society, is condemned by the same to become asocial within the universe of peace. It is in this way that history makes men: it chooses them, straddles them and makes them crack under its weight. Amidst men of peace, who agree to die for peace and make war for peace, this martial and mad boy makes war for war. He lives precisely for this, amidst soldiers who love him, in unbearable solitude.

However, he is a child. This desolate soul preserves the tenderness of childhood, but can no more experience it, and still less express it. Even if he gives himself to it in his dreams, even if he begins to dream in soft distractions from daily chores, one can be sure that these dreams, are inevitably transformed info nightmares. The images of the most elementary happiness end up by making us afraid: we know the end. And this brittle and repressed tenderness is nevertheless living every moment; Tarkovsky took care to surround Ivan with that: it is a world, a world in spite of war and even, sometimes, because of war (I think of those wonderful skies run across by the balls of fire). In reality, the lyricism of the film, its laboured skies, its tranquil waters, its innumerable forests, are the very life of Ivan, the love and roots that were denied to him, this is what he used to be, what he still is without ever being able to remember it, what the others see in him, around him, what he himself can no longer see. I know nothing more moving than this long sequence: the journey of the river, long, slow, heart-rending: despite their anguish and incertitude (was it just to make a child run all these risks?), the officers accompanying him are pierced by this terrible, desolate softness. But bound to earth and obsessed with the dead, the child remarks nothing, disappears: he is going towards the enemy. The boat returns to the other bank; silence reigns in the middle of the river: the canon has worn itself out. One of the military men says to the other "This silence, that is war..."

At that very moment, the silence explodes: cries, howls, that is peace. Mad with joy, the Soviet soldiers overrun the Chancellory of Berlin; running, they climb the stairs. One of the officers — the other? is he dear? — has found some booklets in a recess; the Third Reich used to be bureaucratic: for every person hanged, a photo, a name on the list. The young officer finds in one of these the photo of Ivan. Hanged at 12. In the midst of the joy of a nation that paid so harshly the right to pursue the construction of socialism, there is, among many others, this black hole, an irremediable, prick of the needle: the death of a child in hatred and despair. Nothing, not even future communism, will redeem that. Nothing: he shows us here, without an intermediary, the collective joy and this personal, modest disaster. There is not even a mother to confound the sorrow and pride: a dead loss. The society of men progresses towards its goals, the living will realise these ends with their own proper strength, and yet this little death, this minuscule straw swept by history, would remain like a question without a response, which compromises nothing but which shows everything under a new light: history is tragic. Hegel used to say that. And Marx also, who added that it always progresses through its worst sides. But we almost no longer wanted to say this; during the recent times, we insisted on progress forgetting the losses that nothing can compensate. Ivan's Childhood reminded us about all that in a most insinuating, soft but most explosive way. A child died. And that is almost a happy end, seeing that he could not have survived. In a certain sense, I think that the author, this very young man, wanted to speak of himself and his generation. Not that these proud and tough pioneers died but that, on the contrary, their childhood had been shattered by the war and its consequences. I would have almost liked to say: here then is the Soviet Quatre Cents Coups2, but only to underline the differences better. A child put into pieces by his parents: here is the bourgeois tragicomedy. Of the millions of children destroyed by the war, or living by the war, there is one of the Soviet tragedies.

It is in this sense that this film seems to us to be specifically Russian. The technique is certainly Russian, although in itself it is original. We, in the occident, know how to appreciate the rapid and elliptic rythm of Godard, the protoplasmic slowness of Antonioni. But the novelty is to see these two movements in a metteur-en-scene who is inspired by neither of the two authors, but who wanted to live the time of war in its unbearable sluggishness and, in the same film, to take a jump from one epoch to the other with the elliptic rapidity of history (I am thinking in particular of the admirable contrast between these two sequences: the river and the Reichstag), without developing the plot, abandoning the characters to certain moment of their life, for rediscovering them in another moment, or in the moment of their death. But it is not this opposition of rythms which give to the film its specific character from the social point of view. Those moments of despair which destroy a person, though less numerous, we knew them in the same epoch (I am reminded of a Jewish child of Ivan's age who, on learning of his father and mother's death in a gas chamber and their incineration in 1945, sprinkled spirit on his mattress, lay down, set it on fire and burned himself alive). But we have neither had the merit nor the chance to enable ourselves to embark upon a grandiose construction. We have often known Evil. But never the radical Evil in the midst of Good, at the moment, where it enters into conflict with Good itself. It is this that hits us here: naturally no Soviet can be said to be responsible for Ivan's death: the only culprits are the nazis. But the problem is not there: Where does Evil come from, when it pierces Good with its innumerable needle pricks, it reveals the tragic reality of man and of historical progress. And where could that be better said than in the USSR, the only country where the word progress makes a sense? And, naturally, there is no place to derive from that any pessimism. No more than an easy optimism. But only the will to combat without ever losing sight of the price to be paid . I know that you know better than me, my dear Alicata, the pain, sweat and often the blood that even the last change one wishes to introduce in society costs; I am certain that, you will appreciate as much as me this film on the dead loss of history. And the regard I have for the critics of L' Unita persuades me to ask you to show them this letter. I would be happy if some of these observations could give them the occasion to respond to me and to reopen the discussion on Ivan. It is not the Golden Lion that will go on to be the true reward for Tarkovsky but the polemical interest raised by his film with those who are struggling together for liberation of man against war.

With all my friendship and affection,

Jean-Paul Sartre

[ The French letters, no 1009 ]


  1. The reference here is to the first feature film by Taviani brothers, A Man to be Burnt [1962] about a unionist against the mafia.
  2. The reference is to Truffaut's 400 Blows.

"In any case, I do not consider it essential to be understood by all. If film is an art form — and I think we all agree that it can be — we mustn't forget that masterpieces are not consumer products, but climaxes which express the ideals of an epoch, both from the standpoint of creativity and of the culture from which they derive."

—Andrei Tarkovsky

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