By Yash Thakur. Posted on June 06, 2015
"Art is born and takes hold wherever there is a timeless and insatiable longing for the spiritual, for the ideal: that longing which draws people to art." - Tarkovsky
One of the greatest filmmakers of Russia and a renowned artist in the world of films, Andrei Tarkovsky was more than just a director. Marred by turmoil in his personal and public life, Tarkovsky was able to make only seven films in his 27 years as a filmmaker. His pathbreaking approach to time and space in his films and his ode to cinema as poetry have made his oeuvre of films be recognised as modern art.
Though all his films garnered worldwide critical acclaim (all his films have played and won at Cannes), his home country Russia failed to see him as a visionary and condemned his style and approach. Like many other suppressed artists in the Soviet Union, his career had seen constant struggles with the authorities which in turn made his films a radical exploration of human spirituality and conscience.
Born in 1932 in Zavzhre (now Belarus) to famed Russian poet Arseni Tarkovsky and actress Maria Ivanovna, young Andrei was popular among his friends. His father left him at the age of five. The idea of filmmaking didn't occur to him until 1953, when he went on a year long expedition to Taiga. In the following year, he enrolled at VGIK, the State Institute of Cinematography in Russia. There, Tarkovsky realized the full idea of the auteur as a necessity for his creativity.
As a film student, he watched the work of directors like Bergman, Bresson, Andrzej Wajda and Mizoguchi, including many other Italian neo-realists and the French New Wave directors. He also met his first wife, Irma Raush there, whom he married in 1957.
In this feature, we shall see how one of the greatest directors in the world brought a new language to cinema, experimented with the medium and more importantly, what drove Tarkovsky to make films the way he did.
A rare interview with the master director Andrei Tarkovsky
In 1962, he came on board as the director for Ivan's Childhood after director Eduard Abalov aborted the project. The film (adopted from a war story) is about an orphaned 12-year-old scout whose lost childhood is repeatedly invoked in a dazzling series of dream scenes. Though his style was not yet fully developed, Tarkovsky's ability to capture nature was very apparent. His tryst with nature would continue throughout his career.
Using sharp, contrasting scenes of light and darkness to visually isolate the idealization of a normal life and its elusiveness in the hopelessness of war, he painted a haunting portrait of youth and nihilism in his first film. One of the cinema’s great war movies, Ivan’s Childhood first brought him into the limelight in the West by winning the Golden Lion at Venice.
His next film, Andrei Rublev, displayed a huge advancement in Tarkovsky's cinematic abilities. Loosely based on the life of famous medieval icon painter Andrei Rublev, this masterpiece is about the survival of art and its relevance in the face of terrible historical circumstances. Many interpreted it as an allegory for the condition of the artist under the Soviet regime. By the time his second film came out, all the characteristics of Tarkovsky's techniques were firmly in place. Though made in 1965 and screened at Cannes in 1969, the film wasn't released in Russia until 1971, after numerous cuts.
What is important to know is that in 1970, Tarkovsky divorced his wife, abandoned his young son Arseny and married Larissa Kizilova, a production assistant he met on the sets of Andrei Rublev. The decision altered his life. His friends were shocked by this, and they noticed a changed Andrei around his new wife. In a way, the move haunted him throughout his life; after all, his father had done the same thing.
Shunned by his own country, but revered by the rest of the world, the renowned director has influenced film theorists, filmmakers and audience in more ways than one. You can see his first short film (he made 3 in all - The Killers, There Will Be No Leave Today and The Steamroller and The Violin) made when he was in film school, here.
A motif is a recurring element that has a symbolic significance to the story. Through repetitions, the motif can help produce other narrative aspects such as mood or theme. For years, film theorists and audience alike have tried to decode the poetic messages in his visual motifs. Tarkovsky's films were riddled with motifs such as dreams, memories, childhood, trees, dogs and natural forces such as water and fire. He was also infamous for taking long shots, which later became a trademark style of Tarkovsky. His films also deal a lot with self-reflection. Bells and candles are frequently seen as symbols of light and sound in his films.
In an interview with Tonio Guerra in 1979, Tarkovsky drew attention to the recurring elements in his films, only as a form of personal motivation: "Starting with Solaris and then in Mirror and Stalker, there are the same objects, always the same. Certain bottles, old books, mirrors, various little objects on shelves and on windowsills. Only that which I would like to have in my home has the right to find itself in a shot of one of my films."
Levitation was another characteristic in his films, including the metaphysical. Most used in Solaris, Tarkovsky considered these levitation scenes to be of 'great photogenic value and surreal beauty.' Nature fascinated him. Be it the claustrophobic forest in Ivan's Childhood or the mucky, horrendous rainy plains in Andrei Rublev; through his long pans (a visual poetry some would argue), he captured the beautiful landscape, lending his films a serene spiritual texture. Check out the full levitation sequence from Solaris below:
Up to, and including his film Mirror, Tarkovsky focused his cinematic works on exploring one particular technique. He developed the theory of 'sculpting in time', which stemmed from his belief that cinema has the unique ability to take our experience of time and alter it. By using long takes and few cuts in his films, he aimed to give the viewers a sense of time passing, highlighting the relationship of one moment in time to another. Tarkovsky believed that 'cinema is an art which operates with reality' and not against it.
Editing played an important part in Tarkovsky's films. For example, in The Mirror, (his most complex film structurally) Tarkovsky fuses historical and personal time by inter-cutting childhood memory, and political and cultural history: the Spanish Civil War, Russia-Germany in WW2, the Cultural Revolution & the atomic bomb.
But the editing carefully combines these varying time capsules by matching the rhythm of the stock to the filmed one; to such convincing effect that many people believed the stock footage of Soviet foot soldiers crossing Lake Sivash was filmed by Tarkovsky! He also often used fire and water in his films, sometimes even at the same time; like in this clip below from The Mirror.
Tarkovsky’s beautiful use of nature is at its most elaborate and accomplished in the scenes depicting dreams and memories in Mirror and Ivan's Childhood. These moments occur when a character experiences either loss, grief, nostalgia, sacrifice or violence. This positioning of nature as a ‘comfort zone' occurs in all of his films. Tarkovsky also uses natural elements such as rain, water, trees, sand, and sunshine before key scenes or to establish a change in the moods.
The mountain 'tears' of the crucifixion scene in Andrei Rublev, the irony in Stalker that nature in any state of beauty is only found in the 'Zone' (which is in effect a ‘comfort zone’ for the titular character), or the fact that Solaris begins with a 45 minute prologue on earth (establishes the importance of home, family, and ‘mother’ earth to the protagonist, who is soon to leave for outer space) proves how nature is an important touchstone for Tarkovsky’s concept of time and it in turn changes the thematic perception of his cinema.
In Mirror the city is shown almost exclusively through the interiors, courtyards and factories. Solaris, Nostalghia and The Sacrifice contain one brief urban scene each, and they are the only examples of urban landscapes in Tarkovsky's films. Watch this spellbinding scene from Stalker, when they are just about to enter the 'Zone'.
In his book 'Sculpting in Time', Tarkovsky describes time in terms of human memory and life process. Rhythm, expressed by the time-pressure within a shot and not editing is the main element of Tarkovsky's cinema. The rhythm he speaks of, is predicated on the spontaneous rhythms of nature and its forces: water, rain, wind, fire, snow and vegetation. In most cases, like Andrei Rublev, The Mirror (slow-motion tracking shot which follows the right to left direction of a fierce wind blowing across bushes and toppling over objects on a table), Stalker and Nostalghia, the mise-en-scene works with and against the rhythmic flow of natural phenomena. Tarkovsky also expresses time as a lived experience.
As he states in his book, 'Time and memory merge into each other; they are like the two sides of a medal. Without time, memory cannot exist either'. His camera style is another important element of his time based technique. The unusual camera placement gives us a unique point of view. Tarkovsky uses this as a signifier of dream time and other subjective states as a way of alienating natural and everyday phenomenons.
The art of editing rests in gauging and correctly matching these rhythms. Recording time is a very important aspect of Tarkovsky's films. Listen to this podcast on Tarkovsky's metaphysical mastery and how he played with time and space:
After directing The Mirror, Tarkovsky announced that his work would focus on exploring the dramatic unities proposed by Aristotle. In his book Sculpting in Time, the director states, "I felt it was important for the film to observe the three unities. If in The Mirror I was interested in having shots of newsreel, drama, reality, hope, hypothesis and reminiscence all succeeding one another. In Stalker I wanted there to be no time lapse between the shots... I wanted it to be as if the whole film had been made in a single shot."
Watch this intriguing scene from Nostalghia, widely considered as one of the best scenes in film history:
Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset referred to man as a “conscious cosmic phenomenon”. What he meant by this is that there is at least one cosmic entity that is capable of self-awareness in the universe. For Tarkovsky, man was a spiritual entity, while art represented an ethical force. He continues to be celebrated for his moral stance as much as for his imagination and to bring forth the most intimate aspects about life. Unlike some filmmakers who know from the start that cinema is the right thing for them, Tarkovsky was initially eclectic and unsure. "Only later did I realize that cinema gives you the possibility of achieving spiritual essence," he confessed.
About Solaris, the director said, "Solaris had been about people lost in the Cosmos and obliged, whether they liked it or not, to take one more step up the ladder of knowledge. Man’s unending quest for knowledge, given him gratuitously, is a source of great tension, for it brings with it constant anxiety, hardship, grief and disappointment as the final truth can never be known." The greatest irony in the film is that Tarkovsky makes use, of what some have criticized as a too cerebral a form of filmmaking to emphasis the importance of life.
Stalker too, besides being visually stunning, has a distinct take on truth and faith; a reflection of Tarkovsky's own intepretations.
Tarkovsky’s seven feature films (shot between 1962-1986) often grapple with metaphysical and spiritual themes, using a distinctive cinematic style. Long takes, slow pacing and metaphorical imagery – they all figure in his films. Ingmar Bergman went so far as to say (and quite rightly so), “Tarkovsky for me is the greatest (director), the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream.”