The Films Of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Retrospective

The great Swedish director Ingmar Bergman famously intoned in his 1987 autobiography, “The Magic Lantern,” that discovering Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky’s work was, “A miracle. 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.”

In 1987, a few months after Tarkovsky’s passing Akira Kurosawa would praise his “unusual sensitivity [as] both overwhelming and astounding. It almost reaches a pathological intensity. Probably there is no equal among film directors alive now.” And experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage was practically smitten, chasing him down at the Telluride Film Festival in 1983 to screen his work and calling him, “the greatest living narrative filmmaker.”

Accolades for Tarkovsky, one of Russia’s most influential filmmakers, are generally glowing plaudits, inspiring an ardor that would find the cult director’s work examined and studied for years. But almost equally zealous are his detractors; audiences and critics who find his slow, languid, inscrutable work boring and impenetrable. Such wildly divergent adore-him-or-loathe-him opinions can only mean one thing: that Tarkovsky’s films represent the apotheosis of a certain kind of filmmaking and ultimately your predisposition to like that kind of film conditions your reaction to Tarkovsky. Even those who hate slow, meditative, dreamlike films cannot deny Tarkovsky’s mastery of the form. And with film history constantly in a state of revision, Tarkovsky’s work, like trickling water looking for an exit, always finds avenues for re-appreciation. This week, Kino International releases his final picture, “The Sacrifice” on Blu-Ray, and earlier this year in May, the Criterion Collection — which has three of his films in their catalogue — released his sci-fi classic, “Solaris” onto the Blu-format.

Endlessly fascinated by the spiritual, the metaphysical, the texture of dreams and memory, Tarkovsky eschewed conventional narrative and plot, and instead sought to illuminate the essence of the unconscious through a patient, enigmatic and reflective cinema that for many borders on poetic divinity.

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While their methods and aesthetics are distinctly different, one wonders why Terrence Malick’s films and similar big-picture meditations rarely come up in conversations about Tarkovsky. There does seem to be a certain kinship between their work, though it’s unlikely the Russian filmmaker would ever have deigned to include a voiceover that literally asks each metaphysical question aloud; it was more his style to pose these often existential riddles implicitly, letting the imagery do the work, quietly, dreamily.

Creating only seven features in twenty-four years, Tarkovsky allowed his films to breathe, and then some — they are often characterized by their exorbitant length (“Andrei Rublev” is 3 hours and 25 minutes), their unhurried pace and the use of extended tracking shots that could last from 7-10 minutes, all of which habitually lent his pictures a somnolent, hallucinatory, hypnotic atmosphere. Tarkovsky believed cinema was the only art form that could truly preserve the flow of time — which perhaps explains the length of his films somewhat — and while his mesmeric dream tenor and sedative pacing can send the average moviegoer off to sleep, his “sculpting of time” ethos (the name of his posthumous 1989 book) generally inspires awe, wonder and a sense of beautiful ambiguity in those with patience and curiosity enough to give themselves over to the experience. As John Gianvito put it in his 2006 Tarkovsky Interviews book, the corpus of his work is the “near-messianic pursuit of nothing less than the redemption of the soul of man.”

 “Ivan’s Childhood” (1962)
Not many filmmakers have been as dauntingly intellectualized as Tarkovsky, but wary novices take note: his expressive first feature, “Ivan’s Childhood” shows glimmerings of his trademark flourishes and themes, but finds the director at his most accessible, its almost-linear narrative coming in at an efficient 95 minutes. Ivan, played brilliantly by Nikolay Burlyaev, is a young Russian boy with an angel’s face and a lion’s heart who, orphaned by war, becomes a scout for the Soviet Army. He dreams, he makes-believe, he rebels against the well-meaning protection of his elders — in short, he is a child, in a time and place that has scant respect for childhood. The story is simple and devastating, but what the myth of Tarkovsky (his films are “difficult” and “worthy”) may not prepare you for, is the sheer kinetic joy to be gleaned from images which, through camera placement, choreography or the luminous lighting of a face, are unlike anything else you’ll have seen. To invoke the Malick comparison, this is, like “The Thin Red Line,” a war film apart, but ironically, considering he was working under a communist regime, it is Tarkovsky’s film that is the more individualistic and personal. Where Malick created a chorus, a collective wartime unconscious, Tarkovsky renders “Ivan’s Childhood” as a sharp, bittersweet portrait of one boy: his body, his face, his dreams, his memories and all the other things we lose if we lose just this one innocent. Because ultimately, it’s a film not about childhood, but about childhood’s end; in the form of Kholin, the dashing officer who befriends Ivan but has never himself grown up; or Lt. Galtsev, whose own boyish, handsome face becomes scarred and haunted; or little Ivan whose childhood ends, it seems, several times over, and possibly every time he wakes up. Beautiful and sad, and punctuated with images that linger in the mind, “Ivan’s Childhood” is perhaps most remarkable for being a debut that its young director would go on to top repeatedly, yet being, in itself, a wonderful film. [A-]

Andrei Rublev” (1966)
Considering that cinema is now firmly established as an art form, it’s curious that it doesn’t really deal well with art as a subject: films about writers, musicians, painters and even other filmmakers tend to be simplistic and reductive. The great (in every sense) exception is “Andrei Rublev,” which, across a three-hour-plus running time, episodically dramatizes the life of the great medieval Russian painter of religious icons. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that will mean the film itself is picturesque: the world Tarkovsky depicts is brutal, senseless and chaotic (the famous death of a horse scene ensures it’s not a film for animal lovers). But like his protagonist, the director finds beauty in the darkness, from the flight in a hot-air balloon in the film’s prologue, to the astonishing, unbroken wide shot of the bell being raised at the climax, the incident that convinces Rublev to return to painting. Most importantly, it’s a film about the role of an artist in the world around him: it’s clear from the arrest of a jester in an early scene that this is no happy climate for the creative type, and Rublev watches without complaint, but, after turning away from art for much of his life, he’s eventually persuaded that what he does has real value, that it is a necessity. And when the end of the film shows Rublev’s work (the only part of the film in color), no one could disagree. Unsurprisingly, the authorities weren’t happy with Tarkovsky’s finished film: it wasn’t released in the Soviet Union until 1971, in a cut-down edit, and only made it to the States two years later in an even more brutalized version. But the Criterion Collection released the original cut in 1999, solidifying the film’s reputation — The Guardian last year voted it the second greatest of all time. Fun, slightly baffling fact: co-writer Andrei Konchalovsky went on to direct “Tango & Cash.” [A+]

Solaris” (1972)
Tarkovsky’s follow-up to “Andrei Rublev” is rarely mentioned in a sentence without the word “2001” cropping up at the same time. But, aside from being a thoughtful, spiritual, meditatively paced science fiction film, based on a novel by one of the genre’s greats (Polish writer Stanislaw Lem), they have little in common: as J. Hoberman once pointed out in The Village Voice, the film in fact bears more resemblance to another critical darling, Alfred Hitchcock‘s “Vertigo.” There are no gadgets or CGI to be found, just people, in the story of Kelvin, a psychologist sent to investigate bizarre happenings on a space station that orbits the ocean planet Solaris, only to be greeted there by a manifestation of his late wife, who killed herself years earlier. For all of its fearsome reputation and running time, it’s a simple tale of grief and lost love, albeit one spiced up with sci-fi questions of identity, and the nature of humanity. Hari, Kelvin’s wife, is constructed from neutrons, but has all the memories, thoughts, and feelings of her deceased counterpart — does that not make her just as human? It’s a devastating tale (Hari’s second suicide attempt is truly wrenching), and arguably Tarkovsky’s most deeply felt story. There’s an argument to be made that Steven Soderbergh‘s 2002 remake is the superior film — at almost half the length, it’s a tighter, more focused picture, that doesn’t lose anything truly essential — but to cut down the original would be madness: as in all of his work, the best moments, like the languid, earth-bound opening, or the stunning zero gravity sequence, are near-transcendent. Soderbergh would later state he was adapting the novel, not remaking the film “Solaris,” and compared Tarkovsky’s picture to a “sequoia,” while his was “a little bonsai.” [A]

Mirror” (1975)
Working in a deeply personal, stream-of-consciousness fashion (a distant ancestor of Terrence Malick‘s “The Tree of Life” for sure, except without malicious dinosaurs), Tarkovsky’s penultimate Soviet film eschews traditional plot and instead works at its own rhythm and logic, directly correlating with the filmmaker’s sentimental beating heart. Shifting between three different periods (pre-war, war, and post-war) the film’s narrator looks back on his life while on his deathbed, dreaming of everything including arguments with his ex-wife and a rather stressful moment involving his mother at her proof-reading day job. Deemed incomprehensible and unreleasable by Gosinko, Russia’s state committee for cinematography, “Mirror” is an astonishingly affecting cinematic composition, a dense film surprisingly devoid of the difficulties that slow-moving minimalist narratives tend to require. This could be due to Tarkovsky’s knack for honing in on the essence of a particular moment, be it an odd televised seance involving a stuttering boy being cured of his impairment (which also has to be one of the best openings on celluloid) or the simple act of a maternal figure washing her hair in a basin. Or it could simply be the sheer mastery of the medium on display, as his “sculpting in time” cinematography and aural sound design (both the selection of classical music and attention to nature’s tunes) have never been better. This isn’t just someone’s soul captured on film stock, it’s life at its purest; a certified masterpiece through and through. [A+]

Stalker” (1979)
While “Solaris” is probably Tarkovsky’s most well-known film because of its genre associations and its 2002 remake, the post-apocalyptic setting of “Stalker” holds just as many genre trappings, but is arguably more successful (the filmmaker himself asserted as much). Set in a world that appears to be a post-nuclear-Russia (but this is only loosely implied), the film chronicles two men’s journey into the Zone — a strange, mystical, abandoned place guarded by barbed wire and soldiers, which houses a room which allegedly contains the opaque utopia of ones innermost hopes and dreams. Not bounded by the laws of physics and inexplicably and invisibly dangerous, the Zone can only be navigated with the help of a Stalker — an individual with special mental gifts who risks government imprisonment for taking the desperate, or the curious, into this forbidden area. Against his wife’s wishes, one particular Stalker accompanies a writer in an existential crisis and a quiet scientist into the zone, where, as the three men spiral down into the depths of the building each one of them faces moral, psychological, existential, philosophical and even physical questions and conflicts. As enigmatic and mysterious as any of Tarkovsky’s pictures, like in “Solaris,” the vague sci-fi-ish elements give it enough narrative to make it one of his most engaging pictures, yet it never compromises in grappling with the metaphysical and spiritual themes that haunt all of his work. Marked by tactile sound design, gorgeous brown monochrome sepia tones and a dilapidated atmosphere both decayed and waterlogged, it’s almost a miracle that “Stalker” came to pass, considering Tarkovsky worked for a full year shooting outdoor sequences with a different cinematographer, recording footage he eventually burned. One could argue the picture is a heart of darkness-like voyage into the unknown, albeit a much more surreal and metaphysical picture than Joseph Conrad’s story ever intended. [A]

Voyage in Time” (1982)
After years of facing untenable censorship in his homeland of Russia, Tarkovsky would defect to to Italy in 1982, making the the 1979-shot “Voyage In Time” documentary a formative snapshot of the filmmaker’s personal history. Visiting his friend, Italian screenwriter Tonino Guerra — the man responsible for Michaelangelo Antonioni‘s classic tetralogy from 1960-1964 — the documentary is part location scout for “Nostahlgia” (he eventually settles on the desolate countryside of Bagno Vignoi), part Italian travelogue and part free-form conversation piece between two friends discussing the art of cinema and life. The pair discuss Tarkovsky’s favorite filmmakers — Alexander Dovzhenko, Robert Bresson, Antonioni, Fellini, Jean Vigo, Sergei Paradzhanov — give advice to younger filmmakers and broach topics such as Italian architecture, poetry and the “fiction” of narrative and action. While the conversation is interesting, it’s not especially illuminating for those that aren’t devout Tarkovsky-ites, though there are a few minor revelations. Tarkovsky claims he doesn’t enjoy genre or commercial films and in that sense says “Solaris” — regarded as his best film by many — is his least successful because he “could not escape from the [trappings] of the genre, from the fictional details.” However, in the case of “Stalker,” he believe it works because he “got rid of all the science-fiction signs completely. That gives me great pleasure.” Like all of Tarkovsky’s films, the rhythm is slow and meditative which somehow lends itself less to the documentary format than to his fiction films. As such, it’s really for hardcore Tarkovsky complete-ists only. [C+]

Nostalghia” (1983)
A heart attack, an aborted feature, and egregious censorship, kept Tarkovsky from being able to work sanely in his homeland, but it was this, his first out-of-country production that confirmed his vehement refusal to return, a decision only strengthened when the picture machinations of the Soviet delegation successfully campaigned against his chances at a Palme d’Or win at the Cannes Film Festival that year. Co-written with Tonino Guerra (“Eternity And A Day,” “Blow-Up,” etc.), the film’s spellbinding eye follows a Russian poet in Italy (the locations captured in cinematography that doesn’t just love, but adores its subject). The poet is supposedly there researching deceased composer Pavel Sosnovsky, but instead he becomes enamored with a deranged vagabond he meets (Domiziana Giordano), and, filled with a longing for home and plagued by dreams in which he is the troubled nomad, he eventually commits to performing a spiritual ritual that will, according to the stranger, save the world from damnation. Abstract and opaque, still, there’s no denying how entirely it reflects the filmmaker’s inner conflict over abandoning country and family to work safely abroad. More than just a comment on some sentimental lust, the word “Nostalghia” means the same in both Russian and Italian, and so evokes the movie’s observation of how two separate elements can compound, to make a greater/more extreme “one.” This unity-from-duality theme is also evidenced by “Nostalghia” featuring not one surrogate for the director, but two — the homesick, yet rational, artist, and the lunatic; both impossibly dedicated to a single philosophy. It is the contrast between these two that directly mirrors Tarkovsky the family man vs. Tarkovsky the auteur, but in a duality, one side usually prevails and here, rationality loses out: the poet dies, and the filmmaker, in real life, leaves his family for his art. “Nostalghia” can certainly be seen as a melancholic longing for home, but it can also be read as a highly self-critical work, full of remorse and castigation for choosing artistic freedom over kin. Either way, it’s a gut-wrenching tour de force. [A]

The Sacrifice” (1986)
Completed shortly before his death from terminal lung cancer in 1986, Tarkovsky’s last film may be the apogee of everything he ever tried to achieve in cinema. Bergman’s fondness for Tarkovsky has been well documented and the feeling was mutual; the Swedish-set picture starred Erland Josephson — a key Bergman actor who led several of the Swede’s pictures including “Scenes From A Marriage,” “Autumn Sonata” and “Fanny & Alexander” — and featured the painterly cinematography of Sven Nykvist. Faith and the absence of spirituality were always central Tarkovskian themes and both are examined and tested in this hypnotic morality drama. Josephson plays a journalist and former philosopher whose birthday is interrupted by the news that WWIII has erupted and mankind is but a few short hours away from annihilation. A devout atheist, in his despair, Josephson prays to God, even offering up his son’s life if war can be avoided. He sleeps with a witch to show his fealty to God, but the next day all is well and it’s unclear if the preceding events were just a dream. Shot in Tarkovsky’s customarily long takes (some that reach almost 10 minutes) the film clocks in at just under three hours and is perhaps the filmmaker’s most dream-like, in a career characterized by hypnagogic films. A gigantic house was built specially for the production and when cameras failed to capture its incineration in one long tracking shot, the house was then faithfully reconstructed and once again burned down to ground — Terrence Malick and Jack Fisk would be proud. At the Cannes Film Festival that year, the film would received the Grand Jury award, and the FIPRESCI and Ecumenical Jury prizes. [A]

— Rodrigo Perez, Jessica Kiang, Christopher Bell, Oliver Lyttelton