b. April 4, 1932. Zavrazhe, Ivanono, Russia (now Belorus).
d. December 28, 1986. Paris, France.
Andrei Tarkovsky is almost certainly the most famous Russian filmmaker since Eisenstein. His visionary approach to cinematic time and space, as well as his commitment to cinema as poetry, mark his oeuvre as one of the defining moments in the development of the modern art film. Although he never tackled politics directly, the metaphysical preoccupations of films such as Andrei Rublev (1966), Mirror (1974) and Stalker (1979) provoked ongoing hostility from the Soviet authorities. Like many other artists in the Soviet Union, his career was marked by constant struggles with the authorities to realise his vision. Although this meant he completed only seven features in his 27 years as a director, each one is strikingly uncompromising in its thematic ambition and formal boldness. Whether or not he would have fared better under the capitalist film industry in the West is open to debate – Bresson and Dreyer, for example, both suffered frequent frustrations in creating their formally radical investigations into human spirituality.
Tarkovsky was born in 1932 in Zavrzhe in what is now Belorus. He was the son of noted poet Arseni Tarkovski and actress Maria Ivanovna. His parents divorced while he was still a child. His father’s poetry features in Mirror, Stalker and Nostalgia (1983) and his mother appears in Mirror.
Tarkovsky studied Arabic at the Moscow Institute of Oriental Languages between 1951 and 1954 and geology in Siberia, before enrolling in the famous VGIK Moscow film school in 1959. His teacher was Mikhail Romm. While there, he worked on a short piece for television There Will Be No Leave Today (1959). His prize-winning graduation short, The Steamroller and the Violin (1960), was written in collaboration with future director Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky who would also work on the Andrei Rublev script.
His first feature, Ivan’s Childhood (1962), was an adaptation of a war story by Vladimir Bogomolov. At its centre is an orphaned 12-year-old scout whose lost childhood is repeatedly invoked in a dazzling series of dream scenes. The rest of the film avoids action movie heroics in favour of an intense study of the tensions assailing a group of soldiers during the dead time between missions. Although Tarkovsky’s style is not yet completely developed, his haunting ability to capture nature is already impressively apparent. The lyrical but claustrophobic weight of the film’s forest setting is perhaps its most memorable element. One of the cinema’s great war movies, Ivan’s Childhood won its director notice in the West by being awarded the Golden Lion at Venice.
Andrei Rublev displayed an enormous advance in Tarkovsky’s technique. Although loosely based on the life of famous mediaeval icon painter Andrei Rublev, this episodic series of meditations on art’s survival and relevance in the face of harrowing historical circumstances was interpreted by many as an allegory for the plight of the artist under the Soviet regime.
All the characteristics of Tarkovsky’s visual approach were now in place. As he explained in his book of film theory, Sculpting in Time, cinema’s capacity for capturing time was in his view its most important feature. He favoured long takes that allowed the time flowing through an individual shot to take effect on an audience. His contemplative, imagistic style emphasised the integration of characters with the world around them, both through their positioning in the frame and through the slow, probing camera movements he frequently employed. Like Antonioni, he proposed a cinema based on the rapt observation of the present moment as opposed to a plot-driven preoccupation with what will happen next.
Vividly textured images of nature abound in Tarkovsky’s cinema, with the four elements – earth, air (in the form of wind), fire and water – highlighted time and again. Animals, especially dogs, appear frequently and often enigmatically, possibly representing another embodiment of the omnipresent forces of the natural world. Buildings are often ruined and decaying, always on the point of being reclaimed by nature. Even the still-occupied rural homes in Mirror and The Sacrifice (1986) are isolated in the countryside, vulnerable to the ever-present elements. This vulnerability is expressed in images like snow floating through the roof of a sacked cathedral in Andrei Rublev or rain falling inside the hero’s family home at the conclusion of Solaris (1972).
Tarkovsky’s choice of locations lend even his contemporary settings a sense of timelessness. Only three of his films feature a modern, urban environment. In Mirror the city is shown almost entirely through the interiors of apartments, courtyards and factories. Solaris, Nostalgia and The Sacrifice (during a dream) contain one brief urban scene each, but they are the only examples of the cityscape to occur in Tarkovskian iconography.
Another landscape important to Tarkovsky is that of the human face. Like Garrel and Pasolini, he is one of cinema’s great portraitists. His camera lingers on his actors’ faces, mercilessly probing the anguish of his male characters but usually regarding his actresses with an enigmatic distance. As well as these film ‘portraits’, Tarkovsky made prominent use of actual paintings in many of his films: Durer in Ivan’s Childhood, mediaeval icons in Andrei Rublev, Breughal in Solaris, Leonardo da Vinci in Mirror and The Sacrifice, Piero della Francesca in Nostalgia.
Andrei Rublev also marked the first time Tarkovsky juxtaposed colour and black and white film stock, a practice he was to continue and refine throughout the rest of his work. In Andrei Rublev the colour appears only in the stirring final montage of Rublev’s paintings, coming at the end of a series of often harrowing episodes of mediaeval life and death that follow Rublev’s transformation from an idealistic young painter into a monk sworn to silence in reaction to the suffering around him. It is only in the cathartic final episode that he is re-inspired by a young bell maker’s struggle to create his first church bell under the threat of death if he fails.
Tarkovsky’s favourite actor, Anatoly Solonitsin, who would appear in all the director’s subsequent Russian films, played Rublev. The cast also included Nikolai Grinko, another regular collaborator. Behind the camera, Vadim Yusov was Tarkovsky’s regular cameraman up until Mirror.
The release of Andrei Rublev was delayed until 1971. In the meantime, Tarkovsky worked as an actor and screenwriter before completing his next film, an adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s science fiction novel Solaris in 1972. Often compared to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), a film Tarkovsky judged as too cold and inhuman, Solaris tells of a scientist (Donatas Banionis) sent to investigate mysterious events on a space station orbiting the planet Solaris. Theories have been put forward that Solaris is made of conscious matter, functioning like a giant brain. Upon arriving, Banionis discovers the planet has been trying to make contact with the station’s inhabitants by reaching into their subconscious and creating living replicas of whatever it finds locked in there. In Banionis’ case, a replica of his wife (Natalya Bondarchuk), who committed suicide years before, appears to him and they embark on an intense affair.
Solaris is the only Tarkovsky film based around a love story. Ivan’s Childhood contains a romantic interlude, but the couples in Mirror, Stalker and The Sacrifice, all married or separated, have strained relationships with much bickering. Romantic fulfillment is always depicted as an impossible ideal buried in the past. Bondarchuk’s character in Solaris is not a real woman but the embodiment of Banionis’ guilty memory of a lost love. In Nostalgia, exiled poet Oleg Yankovsky is haunted by memories of his wife waiting for him in the USSR, and the most haunting images of romantic love in Tarkovsky’s work are the glimpses of the narrator’s parents in Mirror before their divorce, another affair that exists only in memory. Although it has been stated that eroticism is absent from Tarkovsky’s oeuvre, several of his dream and memory scenes in Solaris, Mirror and Nostalgia contain images charged with a memorable sensuality. Outside of that, sex is mainly symbolical: temptation in Andrei Rublev‘s pagan ceremony episode and the overtures Yankovsky’s beautiful translator (Dominiziana Giordano) makes towards him in Nostalgia; or rediscovery of the spiritual in The Sacrifice when the troubled actor hero (Erland Josephson) sleeps with a witch (Gudrun Gisladottir) in order to avert a nuclear catastrophe.
Like Tarkovsky’s other science fiction film, Stalker (adapted from Boris and Arkady Strugatsky’s novel Roadside Picnic), Solaris deals with self-confrontation. In Solaris, a tenuous communication is established with the planet and, having faced up to his demons, the hero attains a degree of peace with himself. Stalker is far more pessimistic, the attempt at self-confrontation botched and finally avoided. In the near future a strange, dangerous ‘zone’ of indeterminate origin has appeared on earth, within which anything can happen. At its centre is the ‘room’. To enter the ‘room’ is to be granted one’s deepest unconscious wish. Although the ‘zone’ is off limits to civilians, illegal guides known as ‘stalkers’ make their living by guiding customers through the ‘zone’ to the ‘room’. Stalker follows one of these ‘stalkers’, played by director Alexander Kaidanovsky, as he leads ‘Writer’ (Solonitsin) and ‘Scientist’ (Grinko) through the eerie, post-apocalyptic landscape of the ‘zone’. After much gruelling soul-searching, none of the three dare enter the ‘room’ and the ‘stalker’ returns to his distraught wife and his daughter, born crippled probably due to her father’s constant exposure to the atmosphere of the ‘zone’.
Between Solaris and Stalker Tarkovsky made Mirror, a non-narrative, stream of consciousness autobiographical film-poem that blends scenes of childhood memory with newsreel footage and contemporary scenes examining the narrator’s relationships with his mother, his ex-wife and his son. The oneiric intensity of the childhood scenes in particular is so hypnotic that questions of the film’s alleged impenetrability dissolve under the impact of moment after moment of the most visually stunning, rhythmically captivating filmmaking imaginable. Tarkovsky’s evocative use of nature is at its most elaborate and accomplished in creating the dreams and memories that we are asked to share with him here. The archive footage of big events that have occurred within the narrator’s lifetime are presented with the contemplative detachment of events considered but not participated in, a contrast to the extreme intimacy of the memories. This is thanks mainly to the extraordinary use of music and poetry Tarkovsky accompanies these ghostly, distant newsreel images with. During the present day scenes – spats with his ex-wife, phone calls from his mother, chats with his son – the narrator is significantly never visible on screen, preserving the audience’s sense of existing only within his subjectivity. Margareta Terekova plays both the unseen narrator’s ex-wife and his mother in younger days. If ever a film embodied the concept of cinema as a recreation of the human thought process, Mirror is it. Not only is it Tarkovsky’s masterpiece, but it is one of the high points in the development of modern cinema.
In the early 1980s, Tarkovsky left Russia permanently. The few remaining years of his life were plagued by a constant struggle with the Soviet authorities to allow his family, particularly his young son, to join him. His filmmaking career started again in Italy where he followed the television documentary Tempo di viaggio (1983) with his most accomplished film since Mirror, Nostalgia, written in collaboration with the distinguished screenwriter Tonino Guerra. A gracefully sustained mood piece, Nostalgia is as concentrated as Mirror was expansive. A Russian poet played by Oleg Yankovsky arrives at an Italian spa accompanied by his interpreter (Domiziana Giordano). He is in Italy to research a book, but in spite of the extraordinary visual beauty of the spa, he is afflicted with homesickness. He befriends a local eccentric played by Erland Josephson who locked his family up for years to await the end of the world. The almost plotless simplicity of the narrative allows the viewer full access to the atmospheric richness Tarkovsky and his new cameraman, Giuseppe Lanci, create. The most richly textured, almost tactile film by a director without equal in bringing objects and surfaces to life, it is no exaggeration to say that the ever-present moisture of the spa at times seems to seep through the screen. The film’s conclusion, an extremely long take of a dying Yankovsky trying to cross a pool carrying a lighted candle in response to a request by Josephson, could be the most wrenchingly moving scene Tarkovsky ever shot.
By the time Tarkovsky started work on his next and final film, The Sacrifice, he knew he was seriously ill with cancer. A Swedish production, The Sacrifice is an allegory of self-sacrifice in which Erland Josephson gives up everything he holds dear to avert a nuclear catastrophe. The use of Josephson and cinematographer Sven Nykvist indicate the influence of Ingmar Bergman, one of the few directors Tarkovsky wholeheartedly admired. Although a step down from the near-perfection of Nostalgia, The Sacrifice is nevertheless a fitting conclusion to a distinguished but difficult career.
Tarkovsky died in 1986 and is buried in Paris. His influence is visible in the work of several major contemporary directors. His friend Alexander Sokurov (whose Moscow Elegy  is a beautiful film essay on Tarkovsky) has often been perceived as his ‘successor’ and there is a definite affinity in their use of rural landscape and their spiritual preoccupations. However there are more differences than similarities and at worst the ‘new Tarkovsky’ label obscures the more versatile Sokurov’s very particular achievements. Sharunas Bartas’ impressive studies of incommunicability are Tarkovskian in their use of time and attention to the visual textures of objects, faces and buildings. But perhaps the most interesting ‘answer’ to Tarkovsky is the more recent work of Béla Tarr, most notably his masterpiece Sátántango (1997). Although he employs many of the same techniques as Tarkovsky with comparable authority, he could be described as the Russian’s negative mirror image. In the nihilistic vision of atheist misanthrope Tarr, the promise of salvation is a dangerous illusion often used as a weapon of power and frequently leading to confusion and violence. Even at its bleakest, Tarkovsky’s universe is suffused with faith and the idea of transcendence.
The Killers (Ubitsi) (short, 1958)
Extract (Kontsentrat) (short, 1958)
There Will Be No Leave Today (Segodnya uvolneniya ne budet) (short, 1959)
The Steamroller and the Violin (Katok i skripka) (short, 1960) aka The Skating Rink and the Violin
Ivan’s Childhood (Ivanovno detstvo) (1962)
aka The Childhood of Ivan, My Name is Ivan, The Youngest Spy
Andrei Rublev (1966 rel. 1971) aka Andrei Rublyov, The Passion of Andrei
Mirror (Zerkalo) (1974)
Tempo di viaggio (1983) TV documentary
Nostalgia (Nostalghia) (1983)
The Sacrifice (Offret) (1986)
De Baecque, Antoine, Andrei Tarkovsky (Ed. de l’Etoile, Paris 1989)
Le Fanu, Mark, The Cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky (BFI, London 1987)
Tarkovsky, Andrei, Sculpting in Time (Faber, London 1989)
Tarkovsky, Andrei, Time within Time: the Diaries 1970-86 (Faber, London, 1994)
Turovskaya, Maya, Tarkovsky: Cinema as Poetry (Faber, London 1989)
Articles in Senses of Cinema
Ivan’s Childhood by Fergus Daly and Katherine Waugh
Andrei Rublev: The Passion According to Andrei by Anna Dzenis
Solaris by Acquarello
Nostalghia by Acquarello
The Sacrifice by Gino Moliterno
Compiled by Michelle Carey
Next best thing to seeing his films if you are wanting to find out more about the man and his work. Regularly updated news, great graphics and superb writings. Features an extensive bibliography and web resources.
Andrei Tarkovsky’s Cinema of Spirituality
Referring to specific shots, dialogue and quotations, this essay examines the overt spirituality of Tarkovsky’s cinema.
Zarathustra’s Gift in Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice
Excellent essay by Gino Moliterno published in Screening the Past online journal.
Strictly Film School: Andrei Tarkovsky
Features reviews of Ivan’s Childhood, Andrei Rublev, Solaris, Mirror, Stalker, Nostalgia and The Sacrifice.
Museum of A. Tarkovsky
Home page for this museum situated in Tarkovsky’s birthplace, Yuryevets, Russia.
Tarkovsky at Film North
Part of a site devoted to the great film and theatre directors of the chilly north, this page is a good introduction to Tarkovsky, aiming for breadth over depth of information and sources.
Central Europe Review – Tarkovsky: The Long Take That Kills
Benjamin Halligan investigates Tarkovsky’s rejection of montage.
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