: Tarkovsky


Andrei Tarkovsky would have been 70 this year. At a talk given recently by Layla Alexander, his assistant and translator on his final film 'The Sacrifice', Ms. Alexander showed the documentary 'Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky', yet she had great difficulty getting even a video copy of the work. The negative was stored by the Swedish Film Institute; they did not want their one-poor-print to go out, and did not want to spend any money on a new print either. Their response to Ms. Alexander's protests was: "No one's interested in Tarkovsky anymore". I don't think this is true; without doubt, for some film-makers a study of his ideas, as much as his film-making techniques, has been extremely influential. Tarkovsky's films have a sense of spiritual awareness, one might say, that - far from being passé since his death in 1986 - will continue to have a great effect on film-makers of the future.
Tarkovsky's first feature film - 'Ivan's Childhood' (1962) - confronts the violence in humanity head on - the destruction of war, the devastation of nature and of youth. The central figure Ivan is a 12-year-old army scout, his family wiped out by the Nazis. His consciousness is explored in what is both a very imaginative and a very realistic film.  
  From the film's opening, the director shows the environmental damage of the war - the system is destroying nature; the trees (always a key symbol) are dead or dying. They are flooded in stagnant water. Burnt out. We see the empty birch forests. We hear the voices of the dead; presences abruptly cut off without warning. To Tarkovsky's eye, the natural world (a world of dreaming) is alive, but twentieth century civilization is deadly.
Coming on board to the project late in the process, Tarkovsky broke down the fabric of the narrative of the original source novel and brought in some very personal aspects; his relationship with his mother as a child; his own dreams. This gives the picture a lot of its intensity. Horses graze on spilt apples in the sun by the seashore: a group of children fall in a children's game as if they are dead; Ivan and his mother gaze deep in to an immense well that ripples with light; the child flies in his dream of freedom, soaring to the call of birds.
  Against these dreams of innocence and beauty - which are within the child Andrei, within his subconscious - we have the stark horror of his everyday life, a living nightmare. Unburied corpses sit up at the waterside with signs saying 'Welcome' strung around their necks; an old man in a destroyed house searches endlessly for a nail to give to his deceased wife. The end for most of the child soldiers is death - hangings and shootings carried out by the Nazis with a bestial amorality. Yet 'bestial' is almost inappropriate; in Tarkovsky's films animals (especially dogs) are usually mute presences of companionship and goodwill. It is the human beings - not the beasts - who are the truly vicious. Towards the end of the film we see footage of the Russian forces liberating the Reichstag; the bodies of Goebbels and his wife and children lie on the ground. Black bullet-holes in the lifeless corpses of children murdered by their own parents.
Despite working within a rigid system, Tarkovsky is always questioning everything. Although all of his films up until his departure for the West in 1982 were made under the Communist system, and so, of course, his scripts had to be approved by a series of official committees - a process that took years, and led to long distribution delays, too - yet within the constraints of the system he was able to work with immense freedom. The impulse in his work is anti-authoritarian; it is the adults who corrupt the children, who are free only in their own dreams. Meanwhile the kindly adults who exist are either maimed (scarred physically as well as mentally) or - mostly - killed in 'Ivan's Childhood'. To use the terminology of Tarkovsky's later 'Stalker', twentieth century society, is a vast 'meat grinder'. It cares nothing for the thoughts or feelings of the individual; the system exists only to destroy whatever is most natural, most beautiful one could say, within the individual.  
In one of the saddest moments in the film, the Russian officers manage to get a record player working and try to enjoy some recreation; some peace; yet in such circumstances the beauty of music can only cause them pain. The more aware they are of the destruction and waste around them, the finer their feelings, the greater the sense of destruction within themselves. Communication is impossible, and the individuals are fated to remain locked in to their separate fates.
'Ivan's Childhood' was a massive - and completely surprising-success; in 1962 it won the Golden Lion at Venice, the first Soviet film ever to do so. This meant that Tarkovsky would be guaranteed immense resources for his next picture, and almost complete creative control - a situation almost impossible in the West.

The director chose to make a chronicle film for his next work, but his exploration of 13th century Russia in 'Andrei Rublev" continues some of the savagery and destruction of his first feature. Here the child-like spirit is the artist Rublev, who lives in a religious community while aspiring to be an icon painter. Once he leaves his safe community and journeys through the chaos of the outside world, the film becomes a vision of how an artist responds to the world around him. It is also a depiction of pure violence.
The film starts with flight, just like the opening slots of the child Ivan, here an anonymous early pioneer of flight soars briefly above the earth in a balloon before plunging down to death in the water. He has hastily escaped being attacked by religious zealots - the first appearance of a recurrent violence that permeates the entire film.
The film is idealized, but at the same time realistic. Time and again the sense of beauty comes despite, or even out of, cruelty and destruction. A group of masons build a beautiful mansion only to be blinded by the Prince who commissioned it to prevent them bettering it; a jester is imprisoned and maimed after entertaining some villagers during a storm. A city is ransacked and pillaged leading Rublev to murder an attacking soldier. A group of naked pagan revellers celebrating May Day in an orgy of sex and drink are tracked down and killed by Christian zealots. In an image cut from the final film (but detailed in the novella that was the basis of the script), a group of swans float beautifully on a secluded pool before being suddenly butchered by hunters, caught in nets, and savaged by dogs. Swans feathers float slowly through the air a dead swan falls from the branches of a tree and crashes in to the water.  
  'Andrei Rublev' above all centres on the struggle of the artist to create in what is a hostile environment. The monastic lifestyle had a lot of appeal for Tarkovsky, and here he shows that even in such a setting, people are driven by jealousy and disputes. Rublev himself survives the scenes of desolation he witnesses and goes on to produce great works of art; yet other monks who have tried and failed explode in to wanton acts of destructiveness - a dog beaten senselessly by a monk, for example, and we see the failure to create leading to jealousy and viciousness.
Some have seen 'Rublev' as Tarkovsky's finest achievement; Ingmar Bergman watched it 10 times. In few films is the religious symbolism so overt; not only is it totally true for the world of 1300 that he depicts, but it was also very much his own worldview in the twentieth century, as a reaching of his diary collection 'Time Within Time' shows. Yet this view of necessity underwent a subversive change in his sci-fi explorations 'Solaris' and 'Stalker', and for some admires these more contemporary pictures have the edge.
  Such was 'Andrei Rublev's' international acclaim (it won a prize at Cannes in 1969, although it was mainly seen 7 years after shooting in 1973) that once again Tarkovsky could chose an epic subject for his next picture, although he moved away from the chronicle form, feeling ultimately that 'Rublev' was 'unclear and disjointed'. For practical reasons, a view of the Soviet Union in space was very favourable to the authorities, and thus 'Solaris' was his perfect next vehicle.
'Solaris' was a picture that he himself always remained ambivalent about. At the time he really wanted to make a film about his own father and mother (the eventual 'Mirror' in 1974) but this was blocked by the authorities, and so he embarked (somewhat reluctantly) on a move in to science fiction. Stanislaw Lem, the Polish author of 'Solaris', was in the late 60s the highest-selling sci-fi author in the world, and the novel was acclaimed on publication as his finest work. The story of how scientist Kris Kelvin is sent to solve the mystery of what is happening on the space station Solaris, which has been poised in orbit above an ocean-planet for many years, the subject-matter clearly suits Tarkovsky's supreme talent for the mysterious, and for meaning that exists beneath the surface. In the 3 hours of the film, the viewer has to attempt to piece together what is happening, and why, in the same way that Kelvin does.
On the space station, the dead become alive. The forces of the planet exist as a vast imaginative resource, and, against the will of the individual, people are recreated who then - in a way - haunt the inhabitants of the station. For Kelvin it means that Hari (excellently played by Natalia Bondarchuk) his teenage mistress re-appears in his room in space as if she has just woken from a deep sleep. Yet she has died many years before. She had committed suicide as a result of the breakdown of her relationship with Kelvin. Yet the 'new' Hari, the re-creation by the planetary forces of what was Hari, cannot remember what happened to her. She receives her memories only from Kelvin's own memories. Kelvin is tortured by her re-appearance; he attempts to kill her, yet she is indestructible, her wounds disappear, her death replaced by the throes of a new birth.  
  Tarkowsky's great achievement in 'Solaris' is - despite the other-worldly subject matter - how timeless and moving the picture is. Despite a setting far in space, he has given a sensitive depiction of human emotions and the way the imagination works.  
  Interestingly, the sub-plot about Kris Kelvin's relations with his parents; the home movies he watches on the space station; and his final re-union with a synthetic re-creation by the planet of his own home, are nowhere to be found in Lem's novel. The director sublimated his intense desire to make a film about his own family life and channelled some of these feelings and images in to 'Solaris' instead. Despite Tarkovsky's own reservations, the picture works immensely well.
 The foreign success of 'Solaris' (Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, 1972) continued Tarkovsky's unique dominance of the Soviet cinema. To foreign audiences Andrei Tarkovsky was Russian Cinema,yet at home his work was poorly distributed, poorly advertised, and subject to endless delays in securing funds. Yet when his work did appear, Russian audiences responded intensely, although for some it was a violently adverse reaction. His decision to make a semi-autobiographical film led his long-time collaborator, cameraman Vadim Yussov, to go a separate way. Tarkovsky commented:

"There's something odd happening to Yussov. He was already terribly hard to work with on 'Solaris'. He was fed up with everything, and spiteful, kept offending everybody in a sly, vicious way. He drove everyone mad".
Tempers were frayed, and the making of 'Mirror' was to prove an ordeal, the structure of the picture as a sequence of flowing memories, reflections of light, ripples of water, the mind and the past and present, all as a flowing consciousness of film, was a difficult concept to explain to the uncommitted.
  By examining his own childhood, and his son's life, his mother's life, and that of his own wife (played by the same actress), Tarkovsky also considers what one might call the 'Russian soul'. He re-visits his World War 2 experiences; little boys on the firing range; historic footage of the Battle of Leningrad; the sense of barbarity having to be fought against and ruthlessly resisted. Above all, his relationship with his mother and father form the centre of the picture. As he himself commented:
  "It's patently clear that I have a complex about my parents. I don't feel adult when I'm with them Our relations are somehow tortured, complicated, unspoken For some reason it's far easier for me to relate to total strangers".  
For him his father was culture personified. His recurrent use of his father Arseniy's poems in his films give the pictures a characteristic stamp of personality, like a mirror reflecting his family back towards the viewer, a glimpse of a few moments. In 'Mirror' the gaze is always on that family and the events that made him what he was, the values that he cherished. Yet in the picture the extreme sensitivity suggests that he is part of the land too, part of Russia, and the unspoken fear is that, once these memories that have haunted him throughout his life have been committed to celluloid, he has in a sense lost them. When he went back years later to the countryside and his childhood home, he was disillusioned:
  "I have an appalling impression of the country people. Must leave as soon as possible".  
The past was a country he would not be able to return to.  
  'Mirror' was another great success at Cannes, and such was Tarkovsky's international high profile that by the late 1970s he began to be able to leave the USSR for longer periods through his connections with the Italian Communist party, even though he was not allowed to take his wife and son with him. The Soviet film system was a two-edged sword; despite the financial freedom it offered him when he was eventually permitted to make a film (it averaged once every 5 years), the distribution system made it impossible for him to live off his pictures. Something had to give; his chronic life-long ill-health (he had his first heart attack at 45) was worsening, and the only solution seemed to be escape, yet his bonds with Russia were so strong that such an escape could (literally) prove the death of him. Tarkovsky was well aware of this dilemma himself and - attempting to repair his physical and mental balance through explorations of yoga, spiritualism, transcendental meditation, and clairvoyance - it was fortunate that a long-held hope to make a film of the Strugatsky Brothers classic novel 'Roadside Picnic' presented itself in 1978.
Like Lem, the Strugatskys (Boris and Arkady) were phenomenally successful writers. One of the advantages of the Soviet system was that Tarkovsky and all the directors at Mosfilm, the state studios, did not have to compete for expensive film rights for bestsellers. Thus - potentially - the state film directors had instant access to all the best novels written in Eastern Europe, and that was a massive advantage for filmmakers. The moment that he read 'Roadside Picnic' on its publication in 1972, Tarkovsky knew that it would make someone a potentially great film. When production was given the go-ahead by the authorities in 1976 (a process that was to take well over a year) the director was to enjoy a fruitful collaboration with the Strugatsky Brothers, who wrote a series of shooting scripts, including the one eventually used. Yet, all-in-all, the shoot of the science-fiction film what was to be entitled 'Stalker' was a nightmare from beginning to end, and stands as a catalogue of almost everything that can possibly go wrong in making a motion picture.
To begin with there were immense personnel problems; Tarkovsky went through 3 cameramen on the picture as a result of bitter disputes; much shot footage had to be junked as it was unusable; then there was a gap of a year before production could re-start. Yet, technically, the film had a fluidity that encapsulated the director's desire to make a picture in as long a series of uncut takes as possible. The subject matter of 'Stalker' requires this shooting method, and the subject is that of a spiritual quest.  
  The Strugatskys' novel concerns a post-apocalyptic place called the Zone, which has been devastated after the landing of some extra-terrestrial (or supernatural) agency. Many people have been killed entering the heavy-guarded area since its inception, drawn there by the belief in the mysterious Room, which - if reached - has the power to grant the heart's desire. At the risk of your own death, anything you dream of can be yours. You only need to reach the Room to achieve that - and for that you need a stalker to guide you, one of the semi-criminals who make a living out of regular (illegal) trips in to the Zone to pilfer alien objects (detritus left behind by the extra-terrestrials, like random objects from a roadside picnic).
Characteristically, Tarkovsky makes his Stalker more of a religious acolyte than a cynical criminal, and he only made the 160 minute film out of the final 25 page section of the novel. He also introduces the characters of the Writer and the Scientist, representations of both the creative and empirical worlds, both of whom are searching for what the Room might provide.  
'Stalker' has a mysteriously hypnotic effect. The powers of the Zone are unseen - the ripple of long grass, the enigma of derelict buildings, flowers that have no smell - but they also suggest an enlargement in the perceptive powers of those who enter it. The Zone is a spiritual force field; entry in to it can change the minds - one might almost say the souls - of those brave or foolish enough to enter it. For the Stalker himself its deprivations are an obsession, one that has led (because of exposure to radioactivity) to his own child being born deformed; yet, able to move objects by the power of her thought alone - the deprivations of the body lead to a more powerful and enhanced spirit - a reflection of Tarkovsky's interest in clairvoyance and ESP. In 'Stalker' the mystical merges with sci-fi elements without the overt Russian Orthodox tenets of 'Andrei Rublev' and the later pictures. He came to think of 'Stalker' as his best film, and he was right. It was to be the last film he made in the USSR.
  Personal problems (he had endless difficulties getting his wife and son to be able to join him in Europe) as well as professional ones (the slick commercialism of Western film production came as a shock to him) plagued Tarkovsky once he made the move to Italy in 1983. Paradoxically, he had yearned for years to escape Soviet totalitarianism, but when he finally managed it, his stays in Italy, Sweden and Germany left him above all with a longing for home. It seemed to him as if it was impossible for a Russian to live happily away from the land of his birth.
'Nostalgia' (1983) was a frankly autobiographical attempt to confront his situation. To explore it. To try to find an answer to his dilemma; yet its setting in contemporary Italy also allowed him to be more overtly religious in a modern setting than he had ever been - perhaps with mixed results. From the opening of the film, where a female character is encouraged to kneel in church, and where a flock of birds issue forth from the robes of a saint, it is clear that his longing is not only for Russia, but for a return to religious mysticism. The central Russian character (played by Oleg Yankovsky) has gone to Northern Italy to research the life of an 18th century Russian composer; yet he finds himself affected by the same overwhelming sense of alienation and displacement that had affected the musician hundreds of years before. This feeling can only have one result, and the film is forever on the verge of death, the only (spiritual) hope being through self-sacrifice. An important sub-plot sees a Swedish eccentric (played by Erland Josephson, to be the lead in Tarkovsky's next picture) burn himself to death publicly in Rome; the Russian's last (dying) act is to carry a candle across the ancient Roman baths - a nine minute continuous shot - guarding its gentle flicker from the wind.
  Tarkovsky's last film - 'The Sacrifice' (1986) - is a companion piece to 'Nostalgia'. Although made in Sweden and in Swedish, its concerns remain the recurrent ones in his life, and it starkly shows his final emphasis on the apocalyptic.  
In 'The Sacrifice' the hero strikes a deal with God to save society from nuclear apocalypse by destroying his own house (by fire) and in effect his life. Those who knew the director well saw his picture as straight autobiography, and the view it presents is of an artist - and man - under extreme pressure. It is only through his relationship with his child (his son, Little Man) that he has any real emotional attachment; both his wife and her adult daughter from an earlier marriage are seen as uncomprehending and unsympathetic. Faced by a disastrous reality, the only way out for Tarkovsky seems to be in to an alternative (spiritual) reality, one that is almost too personal to be expressed totally successfully. As he commented: " my films should not be seen. They have to be lived through together with me, and who can possibly do that?"
In conclusion, it is hard to overestimate the impact of Andrei Tarkovsky's films on a certain strata of British filmmakers. In the alternative underground that neither wished to ape the Americans (a laughable task frankly given the lack of any Hollywood infrastructure in the UK) nor to simply make British TV programmes with a bigger picture (and popcorn), Tarkovsky presented a conception of cinema as cinema that was simply revolutionary. Ironically, long after Communism has gone, his ideas persist.

© Guy Byrne 2002