Sculpting in Time with Andrei Tarkovsky

This essay is by our guest writer, Vikram Zutshi.

When people first encounter the cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky, it can feel akin to a religious experience. Time seems to stand still and one beholds the world as if through new eyes. “My discovery of Tarkovsky’s first film was like a miracle. Suddenly, I found myself standing at the door of a room the keys of which had until then, never been given to me. It was a room I had always wanted to enter and where he was moving freely and fully at ease“ rhapsodized Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman. “I felt encountered and stimulated: someone was expressing what I had always wanted to say without knowing how” he said, adding that “Tarkovsky is for me the greatest, the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream.”

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Andrei Tarkovsky on the set of ‘Stalker’ © Sergey Bessmertniy

Born on April 4th, 1932 in the Yuryevetsky district of Russia, Tarkovsky made only seven films over the course of his career, cut short by terminal cancer on 29th December, 1986. Tarkovsky’s works Andrei Rublev, Solaris, Mirror, and Stalker are regularly listed among the greatest films of all time. After his death, some former KGB agents testified that the director did not die of natural causes but was poisoned to curtail what the Soviet authorities saw as production of anti-Soviet propaganda. The allegations were backed up his doctor.

Tarkovsky came of age as a filmmaker in 1950’s Russia, during a period referred to as the Khrushchev Thaw, during which Soviet society grew more accepting of foreign films, literature and music. He was able to see films of European, American and Japanese directors, an experience which influenced his own ouevre. He soaked up the films of the Italian neo-realists, French New Wave, and of directors such as Kurosawa, Buñuel, Bergman, Bresson, Andrzej Wajda and Mizoguchi.

His cinema is undergirded by metaphysical themes, comprising extremely long takes, and ravishing images. Dreams, memory, childhood, running water accompanied by fire, rain indoors, reflections, levitation, and characters re-appearing in the foreground of long panning movements of the camera are recurring elements. He once said, “Juxtaposing a person with an environment that is boundless, collating him with a countless number of people passing by close to him and far away, relating a person to the whole world, that is the meaning of cinema.”

One can find several scenes of levitation in Tarkovsky’s films, most notably Solaris. He used water, clouds and reflections for their surreal beauty as well as their symbolism, such as waves or the forms of brooks or running water.

Tarkovsky called his theory of cinema “sculpting in time”, which was also the title of his book, published shortly before his death. In it he writes about art and cinema in general, and his own films in particular. In his view the unique characteristic of the medium was to subvert or redefine our experience of time. By using unedited footage and long takes, he wanted to give the viewers a sense of the passage of time and the subtle relationship of one moment to another. It was perhaps due to the influence of the Japanese masters like Ozu and Mizoguchi who could elevate the simple act of slicing a loaf of bread or riding a bicycle into something extraordinary.

All of his films contain monochrome, and in Stalker’s case sepia sequences, while otherwise being in color. In a 1966 interview, Tarkovsky declared that color film was a “commercial gimmick” and claimed that in everyday life one does not consciously notice colors most of the time, and that color should therefore be used in film mainly to emphasize certain moments, but not all the time, as this distracts the viewer.

After making a short film, The Killers, adapted from an Ernest Hemingway story, he completed his diploma film, The Steamroller and the Violin at the State Institute of Cinematography, and in 1962, Tarkovsky directed his first feature, Ivan’s Childhood, telling the story of an orphan boy and his experiences during World War Two. In a 1962 interview, Tarkovsky stated that in making the film he wanted to “convey all [his] hatred of war”, and that he chose childhood “because it is what contrasts most with war.” The film won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and launched him into the international spotlight.

His next film Andrei Rublev (1965), was co-written with Andrei Konchalovsky and is loosely based on the life of Andrei Rublev, the 15th-century Russian icon painter. It is divided into seven episodes, with a prologue and an epilogue only loosely related to the main film. The film is set in 15th century Russia, a tumultuous era marked by fighting between rival princes and the Tatar invasions. The film’s themes include religious and artistic freedom, rejection of political certainty, autodidacticism, and creating uncompromising art under an authoritarian regime. Not surprisingly, it was banned from releasing domestically in the Soviet Union for many years after completion. A heavily edited version of the film was screened at the 1969 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the FIPRESCI prize.

Solaris is a meditative psychological drama based on Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 novel of the same name. The film is set aboard a space station orbiting the planet Solaris. The scientific mission has stalled because the skeleton crew of three scientists have been afflicted by individual emotional crises. Psychologist Kris Kelvin travels to the Solaris space station only to encounter the same mysterious phenomena as the others. Aboard the space station, Kelvin is haunted by a mirage of his late wife and memories of his home, and the suicide of a previous scientist casts its long shadow through the empty chrome corridors. “We don’t want to conquer space at all. We want to expand Earth endlessly. We don’t want other worlds, we want a mirror.” These words, uttered by the disillusioned and paranoid Dr. Snaut, paint in one simple stroke the existential core of Solaris.

Solaris premiered at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival and won the Grand Prix Spécial du Jury.

Tarkovky’s next film Mirror unfolds as a stream-of-consciousness narrative recalled by a dying poet (based on Tarkovsky’s own father Arseny, who in reality would outlive his son by three years) highlighting important moments in both his personal life as well as the political events in twentieth century Russia. In an effort to represent these themes visually, the film combines contemporary scenes with early memories, dreams, and newsreel footage. Its visual palette moves interchangeably between color, black-and-white, and sepia.

The film was blacklisted by Soviet authorities due to it’s content and its perceived elitist nature. Only a few prints were made and the filmmakers received no returns.

The last film directed by Tarkovsky in the Soviet Union was Stalker, with a screenplay written by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, adapted from their novel Roadside Picnic. The film combines elements of science fiction undergirded by deep philosophical and psychological themes, as in all his films. It depicts an expedition led by a figure known as the “Stalker” (Aleksandr Kaidanovsky) to take his two clients—a melancholic writer (Anatoli Solonitsyn) seeking inspiration, and a professor (Nikolai Grinko) seeking answers—to a mysterious restricted site known simply as the “Zone,” where there is a room which supposedly has the ability to fulfill a person’s innermost desires. The trio travel through unnerving areas filled with the debris of modern society while engaging in existential debate. The “Zone” itself appears sentient, while their path through it can be sensed but not seen. The film was completed in 1979 and won the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the Cannes Film Festival.

In the same year, Trakovsky began production on The First Day, set in 18th century Russia during the reign of Peter the Great. It was stopped in mid production by the Soviet film board when they got wind that it contained several scenes critical of the official atheism in the Soviet Union.

During the summer of 1979, Tarkovsky traveled to Italy, where he shot the documentary Voyage in Time together with his long-time friend Tonino Guerra. Soon after he returned to Italy to start shooting Nostalghia. He never went back to Russia.

Nostalghia was presented at the Cannes Film Festival in 1983 and won the FIPRESCI prize and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury. Tarkovsky also shared a special prize called Grand Prix du cinéma de creation with Robert Bresson. Soviet authorities prevented the film from winning the Palme d’Or, a fact that hardened Tarkovsky’s resolve to never work in the Soviet Union again.

During 1985, he shot the film The Sacrifice in Sweden. At the end of the year he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. In January 1986, he began treatment in Paris and was joined there by his son, who was finally allowed to leave the Soviet Union. The Sacrifice was presented at the Cannes Film Festival and received the Grand Prix Spécial du Jury, the FIPRESCI prize and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury. Starring Erland Josephson, it centers on a middle-aged intellectual who attempts to bargain with God to stop an impending nuclear holocaust. The Sacrifice was lensed by Sven Nykvist, a frequent collaborator with Ingmar Bergman. It was Tarkovsky’s third film as a Soviet expatriate, after Nostalghia and the documentary Voyage in Time, and was also his last, as he died shortly after its completion.

In Tarkovsky’s last diary entry (15 December 1986), he wrote: “But now I have no strength left – that is the problem”. The diaries are sometimes also known as Martyrolog and were published posthumously in 1989 and in English in 1991.

Tarkovsky died in Paris on 29 December 1986. He was buried in the Russian Cemetery in Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois in France. The inscription on his gravestone, which was ideated by Tarkovsky’s wife, Larisa Tarkovskaya, reads: To the man who saw the Angel.

Vikram Zutshi is a guest writer for Much Ado About Cinema. He can be found on twitter hereIf you would like to contribute your own essay or review to the site, please email muchadoaboutcinema@gmail.com, or use the contact form provided.

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