The debut feature of a cinematic icon can sometimes be jarring, particularly if their oeuvre is relatively small. After watching Tarkovsky's debut, the beautiful, moving Ivan's Childhood, I can think of no better example of this phenomenon. Solaris has such a fully formed, wholly unique voice - such a sure hand at its controls - that the development of that voice seem inconceivable. Surely Tarkovsky's vision sprung from his subconscious fully formed.
Yet here is Ivan's Childhood: a brilliant and moving debut - possibly equal to Solaris in terms of pure beauty - but one where the director seems much more reliant upon influences than his own perspective. Tarkovsky - like Bresson, whose similarly singular voice was not completely realized until his third feature, Diary of a Country Priest - seems so stylistically distinct within film history that its hard to remember that (and I know this sounds strange) he was a person, at one point a young man trying to become a filmmaker. Tarkovsky himself said he made Ivan's Childhood as an experiment to see if he could cut it as a film director. It's a good thing he agreed with everyone else who has seen the film.
But beyond this observation, Ivan's Childhood is an effective war film regardless of who directed it. The story is a much more literal look at the effect of war on children than Forbidden Games. Ivan's journey is moving and immediate - of the three major Soviet works in the collection from this era that deal with WWII (The Cranes Are Flying and Ballad of a Soldier being the other two), this is certainly the most realistic and intense with regards to showing the true horrors of war. This includes documentary footage Tarkovsky incorporates into the movie. Plus, as I mentioned above, it's incredibly beautiful - this might be some of my favorite black and white cinematography that I've seen under the Criterion banner.
I still have a handful of Tarkovsky films to watch outside of the collection (I'm not sure why all of his films aren't on Criterion, since most of his later work is either unreleased in the US or available only in poor transfers). I've been putting them off until I can see them in theaters, since his work is so much more rewarding in this format. I'm sure Ivan's Childhood would also be even more effective on the big screen, but the degree to which I enjoyed this viewing (not to mention how much I love Solaris, which I just purchased on blu-ray and resides in my all-time top 10 list) makes me think I can't afford to wait to take in the rest of his work. If you haven't seen his Criterion selections (his first three features), I highly recommend you do so, beginning with this early, budding masterpiece.