The following article was published in N-SPHERE April 2011 issue.


Andrei Tarkovsky is the kind of director who makes great demands on the viewer’s patience due to his loose narratives and very slow pace. But this is not to say that that they are without an interest or importance.

Tarkovsky was born in 1932 in Zavzhe (now Belorus), the son of the poet (and translator) Arseny Tarkovsky and the actress Maria Ivanovna, who also appeared in his film Zerkalo. Fragments from his father’s poems appeared as well in Zerkalo, Stalker and Nostalghia. I pointed out this biographical detail because it is easier to understand his style and themes using this as a starting point. Tarkovsky was not an ordinary director, even for arthouse film–making.

Generally a film, no matter the genre, either sends a clear set of ideas, either has a fascinating story/great characters, or it toys with the viewer’s emotions and so forth. Tarkovsky did none of those; his films aren’t about the ideas one can extract, his characters are pretty much the same in all of his films, the plot is generally vague and minimal; as for emotions, one would rather say that his works are toying more with patience than emotions. Yet, trying to judge his movies from these coordinates would be simply missing the point.

However, we can perceive his films more like poems because poetry has a specific way of resonating with its reader (and/or the other way around). Like his films, poetry is not about narratives or message (read Stéphane Mallarmé’s works if you do not believe me), but it is about creating a space of its own, a space you walk into rather than take for granted and claim it as yours. In this context, his films make more sense, because they, as well, remain in a space of their own. In the light of all these aspects, his slow pace makes more sense: in real life, when you watch an event, there is no fast forward option, nor is it there when you are wandering confused some abandoned road.

Sadly, today’s films are more about the fast–forward process, about the things we see, we know or like to hear, not about what escapes us. However, the film (as an environment) is not about that – if you want stories, there are plenty books to read, if you want convenience, then you have dozens of sitcoms and standup comedy shows either on the web, or on your favorite TV channel – it is about being able to bring life on screen. Yes, everyone will agree with that, but there are only a handful of films that do it. The rest is just entertainment, well done entertainment occasionally, but still too artificial to be really believable. Slowness has its own role as well: it is like capturing time in there; I am not saying all these just for the sake of wild–guessing, but because Tarkovsky considered the capture of time at its most significant instance to be at the center of film–making.

Tarkovsky’s first feature Ubiytsy (The Killers) (1956) was a short film based on Ernst Hemingway’s short story with the same name which was met (and still is) with an overall positive (even if restrained) feedback. (Indeed, it was not only his feature, as the writing/directing credits were split between him, Aleksandr Gordon and Marika Beiku). Three years later, he made another short – Segodnya uvolneniya ne budet (There Will Be No Leave Today) . In 1961 he made his school diploma short film Katok I Skripka (Steamroller and the Violin) , which, of all three, is closest to what his later works would aim at. One year later he shot his first feature, Ivanovo Destvo (Ivan’s Childhood) which takes the war–film pattern and infuses it with dream sequences and dazzling images. The result was a bleak, unusual haunting film that would set many of Tarkovsky’s coordinates.

Four years later he would resurface with what many consider to be his masterpiece: Andrei Rublev (1966). The film is loosely based on the life of the famous medieval icon painter Andrei Rublev and the interesting aspect here is that the film itself has some sort of an iconographic plot structure. There is no real protagonist here, but there is a certain tone and a certain vibe that holds the movie together during its daring 204 minutes (original) length. Here, the idea of a time–sculpture is strongly underlined. The long takes allowed the time to flow through individual sequences so that they can take effect on the audience. While some may consider this film tedious and meaningless, one thing cannot be denied: that every new thing Tarkovsky has ever brought to cinema had its roots here.

In 1973, Andrei Tarkovsky helmed Solyaris, an adaptation of the Stanislaw Lem’s novel with the same name and also as a reaction to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A space Odyssey which he found to be too cold. However, there is one thing the two films have in common: Solyaris is as much your daily SF movie as 2001:… is. On other notes, Solyaris maintains the contemplative tone of its predecessor, but with a far greater effect and, if some things passed unnoticed on Rublev on the date (delayed due to conflicts with soviet authorities), now they became clearer. On the one hand, Tarkovsky was a great portraitist: his camera lingers onto the actors’ faces, surprising key emotions and also – why not? – giving his characters’ credibility. On the other hand, there is a certain distance to be noticed when it comes to the female characters.

The landscapes in Tarkovsky’s films have an outlandish quality of their own, as if they lent a sense of timelessness. Vivid images of all the four elements (air, earth, fire, water) abound in his films as well, giving the whole output a mystical resonance (not to mention that most of his movies have a religious touch). Animals (dogs in particular) appear very often in his films, very probably as being entities or embodiments.

Now returning to Solyaris (and drawing a parallel to Stalker, as well) one could notice that for a science fiction film, it has barely anything to do with any technological gadgets. The science fiction attribute is just coined to make some certain things possible (believable). There is a post–apocalyptic tone, especially in Stalker and Solyaris, but the amusing aspect is that, on a second glance, one could notice that appearances can be deceiving. Tarkovsky was neither a nihilist, nor a man without hope. In his films nature seems to be an active force so the post–apocalyptic tone may actually suggest a symbiosis.

Moving on, Mirror and Nostalghia both had a pronounced auto–biographical note. In 1986, well aware of his illness (lung cancer), Andrei Tarkovsky helmed what would be his final project: The Sacrifice. The result was an interesting blend between Tarkovsky and Bergman (the latter’s cameraman, Sven Nykvyst, was involved).

There are many more things to tell about Tarkovsky’s films, but becoming too detailed about this particular topic is not helpful because, outside some important considerations, there nothing about his films I can tell you that you couldn’t figure out yourself. There are many interesting dialogues and symbols and themes, but they are easy to spot (the self–confrontation in Stalker is a good example). The difficulty in his films doesn’t come from misunderstanding their signals, but from not being able to sit them through. However, those being able are rewarded with some of the most stunning cinematic experiences ever recorded on the celluloid.

Good night and happy stalking.

Movie still: Andrei Tarkovsky. Ivan’s Childhood.

by Shade

Full article here.