The Genius of Andrei Tarkovsky

Alan Pavelin

Talking Pictures alias






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I came late to Tarkovsky. Some 15 years after falling in love with European cinema I caught Solaris (1972) one Sunday afternoon on TV in 1982 (long before the ‘dumbing-down’ of TV began), and immediately recognised something special whose wavelength seemed to chime with my own. Over the next five years I became familiar with all his features, and even now I can watch any one of Andrei Rublev (1965), Mirror (1974), Stalker (1979), and The Sacrifice (1986) and feel afterwards that it just has to be absolutely the greatest work of art ever committed to celluloid. There is surely no other director of more than two or three films with such a high proportion of undoubted masterpieces.

Tarkovsky studied at the Moscow State Film School from 1954-60, his graduation film being the 46-minute The Steamroller and the Violin (1960). He went on to make his seven features over 25 years, the first five in the Soviet Union and the last two in Italy and Sweden respectively. He was always frustrated at what he saw as the obstructive methods of the Soviet film authorities, the decisive break coming in 1984 when he renounced his homeland and settled in Italy. He died in Paris in December 1986, at the time when The Sacrifice was being released around the world.

What is at the root of Tarkovsky’s appeal for me, and for so many others? To a large extent it is his seriousness, the fact that he uses his films to say exactly what he wants to about the human condition, unencumbered (as far as possible) by considerations of money, censorship, or commercial appeal. Other directors can be equally serious, such as Bergman and the little-known Bela Tarr, but, leaving aside Robert Bresson, in my view they are simply not in the same pantheon as Tarkovsky.

With his Russian Orthodox background Tarkovsky presents an unashamedly religious view of the world, firmly in the tradition of Dostoevsky (whose novel The Idiot was one of his failed film projects). The figure of the "holy fool", a common motif in Russian literature, is clearly represented by the eponymous Stalker, by Domenico in Nostalgia (1982), and by Alexander in The Sacrifice, and slightly less obviously by Ivan in Ivan’s Childhood (1961), Andrei in Andrei Rublev, and (I would suggest) Kris in Solaris. At the same time this spirituality is deeply rooted in the material, especially in the solid Russian landscapes, the shots of ordinary household objects, and the recurring elements of fire and water.

An account by the Polish director Zanussi of a meeting with American students provides a key insight into Tarkovsky’s thinking. A young man who obviously regarded the Russian as some kind of guru figure asked him what he should do to be happy. Tarkovsky became very angry at this question, saying that the purpose of life is not to seek happiness, but to discover what one has been put on the earth for and to pursue that destiny. This is how Tarkovsky saw his role as a film-maker, and it is clearly expressed in most of his films.

In no way is Tarkovsky simply a Christian polemicist (indeed he occasionally deviates from Christian orthodoxy, for example in his apparent interest in seances and telekinesis). The spirituality which inheres in all his films comes from a passionately-felt concern, amounting at times almost to despair, at what he saw as the state of his beloved Russia and of the world. Andrei Rublev, on the face of it a biopic of a saint (except that the events portrayed are almost entirely fictional), can be seen as a plea for faith and hope to emerge from a "dark night of the soul". So, in a somewhat different way, can The Sacrifice, which so perplexes many viewers. Stalker asks us to be honest in confronting our deepest desires, while Nostalgia, though primarily about homesickness, again demands an act of faith "to save the world", expressed through two clearly disturbed characters. His three other features are less obviously "religious films", but Ivan’s Childhood contains several examples of Christian symbolism (which the director apparently had to fight for, as they were not in the original novel), Solaris is essentially a meditation on love, memory, and resurrection, while Mirror includes poems about resurrection and eternal life by the director’s own father and a very specific reference to Pushkin’s view that Russia should remain Orthodox rather than become Roman Catholic.

Cinema being essentially a visual medium, it goes without saying that the hypnotic images Tarkovsky creates are essential to his films’ greatness. Every film contains numerous unforgettable shots; one could instance the crossing of the river in Ivan’s Childhood, the motorway sequence in Solaris (stunning on the wide screen), the breathtaking Brueghel-like scene in Mirror following the rifle-range episode, or the arrival of the Tatars at the start of the episode entitled "The Raid" in Andrei Rublev. In his later work Tarkovsky increasingly relied on exquisite long takes, whether the trolley-car journey in Stalker, the crossing of the pool in Nostalgia (at over 9 minutes the longest take in all his work), or the bravura house-burning scene of The Sacrifice. Recurring motifs include scenes of levitation, rain indoors, hysterical outbursts by women characters, paintings by Leonardo, Brueghel, or Durer, music by Bach, dream sequences, characters who begin to speak after long periods of dumbness, and the ever-present fire and water.

Tarkovsky had his favourite actors, usually from a theatrical background and chosen for the brooding intensity of their looks. Anatoly Solinitsin was his particular favourite, appearing in the four films from Andrei Rublev to Stalker, and he would have had the central role in Nostalgia had he not died. The gangling figure of Nikolai Grinko featured in his first five films, Erland Josephson (familiar from Bergman films) starred in his last two, and one cannot overlook the astonishing Nikolai Berdyaev as the child Ivan and, four years later, as the young bell-caster in the wonderful final episode of Andrei Rublev. Actresses seldom appeared more than once except in tiny roles; the exception is Tarkovsky’s first wife, Irma Rausch, who plays Ivan’s mother and the simpleton who attaches herself to Andrei Rublev. Tarkovsky is particularly good with children, who feature in all his films; he once wrote that children understand his films better than their elders do.

Like all the great film-makers Tarkovsky is fond of ambiguity, of unexplained happenings and actions, and never explained anything, always emphasising that the viewer should simply watch and experience. I should like to discuss this briefly in relation to The Sacrifice, which on a "realist" level is utterly bemusing, and is better seen as a fable. (I assume the reader to be familiar with the narrative.)

What is clear is that there is at least one dream, and possibly dreams within dreams. The only indisputable point of entering or leaving a dream is when Alexander awakes on the morning after the traumatic night, and finds that all has returned to normal. What is ambiguous is when does this dream begins: is it before or after his visit to Maria? I see The Sacrifice as a very "open" film, which (deliberately?) leaves us with at least four interpretations, depending on our own religious or other belief. There is a Christian interpretation, that God has indeed answered Alexander’s prayer. There is a pagan one, that the "good witch" Maria makes everything come right. There is a rationalist one, that the averting of the war was nothing to do with Alexander whatsoever. And there is a psychological one, that the whole thing is a dream (except the beginning and end of the film). We interpret it how we wish, and there is no "correct" interpretation.

As with The Sacrifice, so with all his films. They are there to be experienced, not to be explained as some kind of intellectual puzzle. And they will last, because they are about universal themes.

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