After narrowly escaping Nazi troops during a reconnaissance mission, 12-year-old war orphan Ivan (Burlyayev) is returned to the headquarters of Russian Army Colonel Gryaznov (Grinko). Concerned for Ivan’s welfare, Gryaznov decides to send the malnourished boy, valued for his ability to cross enemy lines undetected, to military school. But Ivan’s committed to avenging the murder of his parents, and stubbornly insists on embarking on another perilous mission.
This austere portrait of war and ravaged innocence marked the film debut of Andrei Tarkovsky, later renowned for such masterworks as “The Sacrifice” and “Solaris.” The moral and emotional core of the story centers, of course, on Ivan, whose fitful bouts of sleep are punctuated by dreams of flying and idyllic reminiscences of his mother. But Tarkovsky, whose stylized imagery perfectly suits the haunting tone of this tragic story, also works in a coy subplot about Gryakov’s pursuit of a comely nurse (Malyavina). Taken together, it’s an ominous and ironic look at the landscape of war.