From the very first, the films of Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-1986) stirred something more than appreciation in their admirers: “My discovery of [his] first film was like a miracle,” recalled Ingmar Bergman. “Suddenly, I found myself standing at the door of a room the keys of which had, until then, never been given to me.” This image strikingly anticipates the central Room of Stalker, one of the many catalysts for transfiguration Tarkovsky used to test the threshold of subjective impressions and observable reality. As with the icon painters he so admired, the Russian auteur is important not only for his actual works – seven features, each a monument – but for his ardent conviction in the spiritual nature of art, the moral burden of the artist and the personal nature of revelation. Tarkovsky finally conceived of the creative process of filmmaking as nothing less than a means of reconciling with Creation – “my prayer.”
While his later films would evince the strongest attachments to his father’s poetry and the pastoral dacha of his earliest childhood, Tarkovsky was primarily raised by his mother in Moscow. He enrolled in the VGIK film school in mid-1950s, studying under the famously freethinking director Mikhail Romm. It was an opportune moment for a young Soviet director, as Khrushchev’s Thaw resulted in a new willingness to allow for directors, in Tarkovsky’s own words, “to represent the general through the personal.” The young auteur pressed this advantage with Ivan’s Childhood, a largely interior treatment of the Second World War that immediately placed Tarkovsky in the front ranks of international art cinema. Not for the last time, however, Tarkovsky’s ambition outpaced his relative prestige within the Soviet industry. After watching Andrei Rublev, his years-in-the-making epic of the artist’s transcendence in the midst of abject violence and suffering, the Goskino bureaucrats promptly banned the film, only relenting five years later, nearly a decade after Ivan’s Childhood.
This struggle for creative control proved to be a recurring aspect of Tarkovsky’s career until finally, in the early 1980s, he felt it necessary to relocate to Europe. As a self-styled national poet, Tarkovsky perceived exile as a grave threat to his creative inspiration; and indeed, the search for meaning driving all of his films takes on a more pointed, desperate edge during his late period. Asked about the subject of Nostalghia, a film concerning a Russian poet facing existential crisis in Italy, Tarkovsky replied, “The impossibility of living, the absence of freedom” – a decisive shift in emphasis from his answer to a similar question about Solaris twenty years earlier (“The problem of overcoming, of convictions, of moral transformation on the path of struggle within the limits of one’s own destiny”). Shortly after finishing The Sacrifice, a film in which private crisis folds into global catastrophe, Tarkovsky was diagnosed with lung cancer. It was only as his death neared that the Soviet authorities finally began to show signs of reappraising his work – an irony all too familiar from Rublev’s life story. Certainly, though, by the end of his life Tarkovsky’s artistic significance had long since eclipsed the state’s imprimatur.
In an essay written just after Ivan’s Childhood’s release, Tarkovsky held that “[a] larger portion of the film must be devoted to the slowly passing minutes of anticipation, delays, and pauses, which are far from being ventilation holes in the narrative progression.” More than twenty years later, in his book Sculpting with Time, he offered a variation on this same theme: “I think that what a person normally goes to the cinema for is time: for time lost or spent or not yet had. He goes there for living experience; for cinema, like no other art, widens, enhances and concentrates a person’s experience.” Tarkovsky placed his trust in the idea that an essential experience of cinema would convey an essential experience of life, as both are made of these same “slowly passing minutes.” In each of his films Tarkovsky struggles to find the form that will hold time’s intimacy and mystery. If there is finally something quixotic in the notion of “sculpting with time,” it is, if nothing else, an idea that reflects a strong faith in the audience’s experience. “You are struck every time by the singularity of the events in which you took part,” Tarkovsky reflected. “The artist therefore tries to grasp that principle and make it incarnate, new each time; and each time he hopes, though in vain, to achieve an exhaustive image of the Truth of human existence.” For Tarkovsky, as for all seekers, the only necessary goal is the impossible one. His films live on in the spirit of that search, with all their extraordinary ambitiousness pointing to a finally unfathomable sense of purpose. – Max Goldberg, writer and frequent contributor to cinema scope
Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. With Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy, Alisa Frejndlikh, Anatoli Solonitsyn
Soviet Union/West Germany 1979, 35mm, b/w & color, 163 min. Russian with English subtitles
“A perverse replay of Solaris’s cosmic voyage, a remake of Rublev in a secular world of postapocalyptic misery, a premonition of Chernobyl and Soviet disintegration.” (J. Hoberman, The Village Voice). Arguably Tarkovsky’s purest articulation of the film as spiritual quest, Stalker develops a radically different attitude to time than the jigsaw of his previous film, Mirror. “I wanted it to be as if the whole film had been made in a single shot,” Tarkovsky wrote. In the event, Stalker is comprised of 142—each chiseled with the greatest precision. The basic outline of the plot derives from Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s novel Roadside Picnic: ascetic Stalker leads Writer and Professor, both figures of intellectual disenchantment, from a barren wasteland into the lush post-industrial environs of The Zone, a mysterious and forbidden territory believed to actualize desires. Tarkovsky identified with each of the characters but was especially drawn to Stalker as “the best part of myself, and also the part that is the least real.”
Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. With Nikolai Burlyaev, Valentin Zubkov, E. Zharikov
Soviet Union 1962, 35mm, b/w, 95 min. German and Russian with English subtitles
Ivan’s Childhood was one of many Soviet films to examine the catastrophic losses of World War II through the prism of childhood, but Tarkovsky’s debut was immediately singled out for its visionary aesthetics, winning the Golden Lion at Venice and the praise of prominent intellectuals. Ivan is a child of the war, orphaned and running dangerous intelligence missions for the Red Army. He has “interiorized [violence],” in the words of Jean-Paul Sartre, a point Tarkovsky accentuates by interspersing the boy’s vivid recollections and dreams with his quiet hours waiting with two soldiers in the shadows of combat. The director’s dramatic rendering of landscape is already richly apparent in the film’s celebrated “dance of birches” and the flares tracing lines of light over a sunken lagoon.
Directed byAndrei Tarkovsky. With Natalya Bondarchuk, Donatas Banionis, Yuri Yarvet
Soviet Union 1972, 35mm, color, 166 min. Russian with English subtitles
Mindful that a space odyssey might find better favor with the Soviet film authorities following Andrei Rublev, Tarkovsky reshaped Stanisław Lem’s metaphysical science-fiction novel to his own preoccupations with memory and sacrifice. A psychologist travels to a space station orbiting Solaris to explore rumors that the planet’s ocean may be a “thinking substance,” materializing the astronauts’ memories. “I’ve noticed,” Tarkovsky told an interviewer at the time, “[that] if the external, emotional construction of images…are based on the filmmaker’s own memory…then the film will have the power to affect those who see it.” In this sense, the extraterrestrial ocean can be understood a figure for cinema itself, the means by which one’s innermost visions are to be extracted and reengaged. Magnificent set design notwithstanding, Solaris is surely the most intimate of science-fiction epics, a journey into inner-space revolving more around heartsick regret for lost love than blind terror of the unknown.
Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. With Erland Josephson, Oleg Yankovsky, Delia Boccardo
Italy/Soviet Union 1983, 35mm, b/w & color, 125 min. Italian and Russian with English subtitles
“I wanted the film to be about the fatal attachment of Russians to their national roots,” Tarkovsky wrote of Nostalghia, his first production outside the Soviet Union. The story, co-written with frequent Antonioni collaborator Tonino Guerra, traces the alienation of a Soviet poet visiting Italian baths as part of his research on a long-deceased Russian composer. A film of stark symbols and mesmerizing long takes, Nostalghia’s nearly agonizing picture of personal loss is tempered by the painterly beauty of its compositions. Tarkovsky himself professed to be surprised at seeing how these images revealed “an exact reprint of my state of mind” during what was to be a permanent exile. “How could I have imagined,” he later wrote, “that the stifling sense of longing that fills the screen space in that film was to become my lot for the rest of my life?”
Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. With Margarita Terekhova, Ignat Daniltsev, Larisa Tarkovskaya
Soviet Union 1975, 35mm, b/w & color, 108 min. Spanish and Russian with English subtitles
“For the first time,” he resolved, “I would use the means of cinema to talk of all that was most precious to me, and do so directly, without playing any kind of tricks.” Tarkovsky needed twenty rough cuts before arriving at the film’s intricately interflowing system of flashbacks and archival footage, often interpreted as unfolding in a dying artist’s final rays of consciousness. While Mirror, like all Tarkovsky’s films, pays homage to painting, music, and poetry, it also makes plain that the Russian director understood Mnemosyne to be the mother of the muses. Being a poet, he sought not only to retrieve the past but to reveal its essence—and in so doing to redeem an inherently flawed present. “The story not of the filmmaker’s life,” observes Tarkovsky scholar Robert Bird, “but of his visual imagination.”
Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. With Anatoly Solonitsyn, Ivan Lapikov, Nikolai Grinko
Soviet Union 1966, 35mm, b/w, 185 min. Russian with English subtitles
Originally titled The Passion According to Andrei, Tarkovsky’s second feature remains a wholly original epic, a life of the medieval icon painter encompassing the full horror of history. The culminating vision of Rublev’s Trinity only emerges from the yoke of Tartar occupation, mystic rites, excommunications, and nearly unrelieved suffering. In attempting, as Tarkovsky told an interviewer, “to trace the road Rublev followed during the terrible years [in which] he lived,” the film is besieged with lucid visions of violence and cruelty—a panorama worthy of Brueghel. The Goskino authorities found Tarkovsky’s hallucinatory staging of history sufficiently dangerous to shelve the film for five years.
Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. With Erland Josephson, Susan Fleetwood, Tommy Kjellqvist
Sweden/UK/France 1986, 35mm, color, 149 min. English, French and Swedish with English subtitles
Tarkovsky’s final film is also one of his most overtly theatrical, a chamber drama drawn in characteristically virtuoso long takes. A philosopher celebrates his birthday by planting a tree with his young son on an otherwise barren landscape. Disgusted with modernity, he finds his calling after reports of an impending nuclear war, the reality of which remains occluded in dream. A yin-yang symbol emblazoned on the philosopher’s robe indicates the many structuring dualities of the film: personal crisis and public catastrophe, Christian atonement and pagan rites, redemption and madness, the hopefulness of a closing tribute to Tarkovsky’s son and the irrevocable vision of a life in flames. The film’s setting (the Baltic island of Gotland), cinematographer (Sven Nykvist), and leading actor (Erland Josephson) were all borrowed from Ingmar Bergman, but the central dwelling is of a piece with the many Russian dachas in Tarkovsky’s work—a final reconstruction pitched on the brink of destruction.
Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. With Igor Fomchenko, Vladimir Zamansky, Marina Adzhubei
Soviet Union 1961, 35mm, color, 46 min. Russian with English subtitles
Tarkovsky’s diploma film hews to social realism, but the unabashedly lyrical treatment of an otherwise conventional story of a young violinist’s friendship with a laborer is flush with the burgeoning auteur’s signature motifs: the rain-slicked reflections, a mirror in which a boy confronts his mother, and the implied yearning for a father figure. For all its intimations of a mature style, though, The Steamroller and the Violin is perhaps most fascinating for the opportunity to see the Tarkovsky’s treatment of urban space—a kaleidoscopic vision of Moscow evoking Vertov. The film’s cinematographer (Vadim Yusov), co-writer (Andrei Konchalovsky), and composer (Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov) would all continue to play instrumental roles in Tarkovsky’s subsequent features.
Directed by Tonino Guerra and Andrei Tarkovsky
Italy 1983, digital video, color, 62 min. Russian and Italian with English subtitles
Filmed as Tarkovsky conceptualized Nostalghia with famed Italian screenwriter Tonino Guerra, Voyage in Time is an exterior portrait of the Russian director’s creative process and a document of his dislocation. A relaxed atmosphere prevails as the denim-clad auteur reflects on his favorite filmmakers and Guerra reads from his poetry. They travel Italy together on a quixotic search for possible locations; after touring cathedrals and palaces, Tarkovsky finally responds most to a darkened hotel room. The documentary conveys the supreme importance of setting in Tarkovsky’s films, with the added poignancy that as the director comes to terms with the place of Italy in his upcoming film he is also struggling to understand his own place in Italy.