Browse Tag by Andrei Tarkovsky
Russian and Soviet Films

The Mirror: a loose autobiographical work on memory, history, nostalgia and regret

Andrei Tarkovsky, “Zerkalo / The Mirror” (1975)

For most viewers, Tarkovsky’s “The Mirror” won’t be the easiest film to follow: the narrative follows a stream-of-consciousness structure and dives at will (and going back and forth between them) into three time periods representing its main character’s childhood, adolescence and current situation in which he, a poet, is in his 40s and dying from an unknown respiratory illness. In all of these time periods, he has unresolved issues in his relationships with both his parents (and his mother also has unresolved issues and conflicts with others), his ex-wife and his son. The ex-wife and the son have difficulties in their relationship as well, and a big part of that problem may stem from the difficulties each is having with the husband / father. Now on the verge of death, the poet (unnamed and not shown to viewers) looks back over his life and regrets the decisions he made and actions taken or not taken, and wants to make amends – but time and his failing health do not permit such atonement.

The plot relies heavily on aspects of Tarkovsky’s own life and that of his parents – as in the film, Tarkovsky’s father was a poet (and some of his poetry is quoted in the film) and his mother was a proof-reader. Scenes of the poet’s childhood take place in a beautiful bucolic countryside that could be close to Moscow – but already there are forebodings of dark events to come. A strange man claiming to be a doctor visits the poet’s mother and she seems to fall in love with him. The family barn bursts into flames and people stand by watching slack-jawed when fire destroys it – during a rain shower. Strong winds start up without any warning whatsoever, rippling over overgrown grass and knocking over tea cups and saucers on garden tables.

Scenes set during the poet’s adolescence take place during the Second World War (known as the Great Patriotic War in the Soviet Union and the current Russian Federation) and here the film starts to make connections between the poet’s personal life and the wider historical context in which he lives his life, and how major historical events impinge on people’s lives, taking away loved ones and thus setting off a cycle of actions by the poet and the people he associates with, the repetition of which the poet appears to recognise only when he is dying.

In keeping with the film’s dream-like world, the experiences of the poet’s mother and ex-wife (both roles played by the same actor, Margarita Terekhova) and their son Ignat (Ignat Daniltsev, who also played the poet as a young boy) are also very surrealistic, particularly in a scene where Ignat, left on his own at home in the apartment block, visits a neighbouring apartment and the woman there invites him in for tea, asks him to read from a book and then later disappears mysteriously, crockery and all. The rooms seem to change as well and we do not know if Ignat is back at home or still next door. Real or naturalistic scenes co-exist with scenes from the imagination; it may be that Tarkovsky is attempting to capture as much of the human experience in all its beauty, glory, pain and suffering (there is considerable historical archived film of the Spanish Civil War and the Chinese-Soviet border wars included) into a visual work that reflects back that experience.

Themes of guilt, regret, nostalgia and longing, desire, and the repetition that reinforces these emotions, along with how memory and history can cause or buttress them, are very prominent in this film. The natural world with its mystery and apparent randomness is a significant character to whom humans accommodate themselves. The poet’s mother accepts her place in the universe, having done what she could, and achieves a contentment her son has always sought.

Russian and Soviet Films

Solaris: a philosophical science fiction film investigates the nature of reality and humans’ relationship with the cosmos

Andrei Tarkovsky, “Solaris” (1972)

The great Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky was nothing if not consistent: he made beautiful, artistic, slow-burning films that are an immersive experience for viewers. We may not ever see his like again. “Solaris” is one such film but for its subject matter and themes of memory, guilt, the nature of reality as opposed to hallucination and the power of the human unconscious and how it may guide one to redemption. Psychiatrist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), in a morose mood and not on good terms with his father and aunt, is called by his superiors to travel to a far distant planet, Solaris, around which revolves a space station. It seems something mysterious has occurred to all the humans working there and he must investigate. Kelvin duly flies out there and finds only two survivors, Straud and Sartorius. It seems that the other crew members succumbed to hallucinations and other phenomena of a paranormal nature generated apparently by the station’s close proximity to the planet which is completely surrounded by an ocean.

Surprise, Kelvin himself finds himself affected by the planet in the shape of his wife, Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), an emanation extracted by the forces of the planet from his memory, which has repressed all conscious reminders of her as a result of the guilt he continues to feel over her poison suicide in the distant past. Initially Kelvin tries to get rid of Kari by sending her off in a rocket away from the station – but she resurrects from nowhere. Again he rejects her, she becomes despondent and commits suicide – again she comes back to life. She clings to him; gradually Kelvin’s guilt and reawakened love for his wife change his attitude towards the phantom. Straud periodically challenges Kelvin’s decisions and attitudes regarding Hari. Eventually Kelvin must decide whether to leave Solaris, having experienced for himself what the disappeared crew members endured, or to travel to the planet itself to discover more and communicate directly with the planet’s ocean which turns out to be a sentient life-form.

The pace is glacial, allowing viewers to absorb the film’s themes and issues concerning the way in which we perceive reality and how we decide who or what is real for us; the limits of scientific investigation, reason and rationality; and the incomprehensible nature of the universe. However far humans search for answers to the meaning of life and other major questions of existence, the truth, whatever it is, always remains out of reach and ultimately we must decide whether to continue searching or come to terms with what we can know and accept that we will never fully know.

Tarkovsky’s particular filming technique emphasises long slow panning and close-ups of still life, including nature and inanimate objects: this gives “Solaris” an epic quality appropriate to the conundrums it deals with. Judicious use of animation and sets – the film’s budget was small for its ambitions – manages to convey impressions of the planet’s giant, moody-looking ocean as its thick magma surface swirls slowly. The film is rather dated in its look but once Tarkovsky starts delving into Kelvin’s mind and repressed memories, the movie becomes absorbing. The cinematography is often very graceful and visually rich; characters sometimes appear as statues and scenes may be set up like dioramas.

Minimal acting is required but Banionas and Bondarchuk play their roles capably. Yes, there is a lot of talk and no action. The plot is threadbare with big narrative holes and at the end of the film, Kelvin is no closer to finding out what happened to all the crew than he was when he first landed on the station. Instead he finds new hope for living and has a chance to reform his relationship with his father in an unexpected way: the resolution has a religious connotation of a human rediscovering his/her faith and being reunited with God.

The film can be very pretentious: the science fiction aspects exist mainly as a setting for Tarkovsky’s investigations into human nature, feelings and motivations, and how humans might reconcile their reason with their emotion. The stretch can be tedious and over-long for many, and the narrative is chaotic at times. Viewers will often have to fill in narrative gaps – and there are several – with their own imaginations to make sense of the film. For all its imperfections, “Solaris” is not a bad film to watch.

 

Russian and Soviet Films

Stalker: immersive film of beauty and ugliness, self-doubt and renewal of faith

Andrei Tarkovsky, “Stalker” (1979)

For Western audiences used to fast action science fiction movies, “Stalker” is a very slow-paced post-apocalyptic mover with a barebones plot that symbolises humanity’s search for hope and faith. In a future world devastated by war, a man (Alexander Kaidanovsky) known only as the Stalker works as a guide taking people through a territory called the Zone in his country. The area is actually off-limits to the public and heavily guarded and fortified and both the Stalker and his wife (Alisa Freindlich) know his work is illegal – he has been imprisoned before. The reason for taking people through the Zone though is to reach an area called the Room where entrants will find their deepest wishes fulfilled. So the Stalker – we’ll call him S for convenience – continues doing his risky work in spite of the wife’s pleas and anger. At the film’s opening, S is preparing already to meet two new clients, the Writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn) and the Professor (Nikolai Grinko), at a bar. This part of the film unfolds slowly: the opening scenes, done in sepia tints, are much like early 1920’s expressionist silent films in their close focus on still objects in S’s room. The deliberate use of sepia and not colour calls attention to the drab, impoverished surroundings in which S’s family lives and S makes his living.

Entering the Zone is fairly quick if tricky – the trio must evade guards on motorcycle and in a Land Rover – and the men then ride an open railway carriage into the heart of the Zone. The landscape changes from bombed-out ruins and mud tracks to a lush and verdant paradise where abandoned buildings are scattered here and there. The filmstock changes from sepia tones to colour to emphasise the men’s crossing from reality to a place of non-reality. Normal laws of physics apparently don’t apply in the Zone and S advises his clients to follow him and do exactly as he says to avoid the invisible dangers that surround them. He tests routes through the Zone with metal nuts that he throws with slings. While they advance towards the Room, the men have philosophical discussions and reveal why they want to visit the Room. The Writer (W) needs new inspiration for his work and the Professor (P) wants to make a discovery that will win him a Nobel Prize. Sometimes in conversation S refers to his mentor, a previous stalker called Porcupine, who himself entered the Room, came into a lot of money and then hanged himself.

They walk through fields, go through a long dark tunnel and travel through a chamber called the “meat mincer” where long ago, Porcupine’s poet brother died. On reaching the entrance to the Room, P reveals his reason for coming is to blow up the Room with a bomb in his knapsack to stop the general public from hearing about it and clamouring to visit to fulfill their desires which more often than not might be base and selfish. W, who has been skeptical about the Zone and the Room for much of the journey, accuses S of exploiting people’s hopes and dreams.Quarrelling and fisticuffs follow during which the reason that Porcupine’s brother died in the mincer is revealed.

“Stalker” doesn’t seem much like a science fiction film at all though it is based on a novella written by two brothers, Boris and Arkay Strugatsky, who are famous in Russia for writing science fiction stories and novels, some of which have been adapted to film. In its early sepia-toned scenes, the film resembles a war movie with film noir elements inserted, thanks to the style of cinematography used which emphasises sharp contrasts of light and shadow to the extent that darkness may frame shots, and textures of walls, detritus on floors and scum in water are readily noticed. The camera often operates from behind a wall or a structure, peering into a scene where action is occurring. Scenes are very prolonged so as to draw viewers into the action, the mood and the atmosphere: an extended scene of rainfall through an open ceiling while the men sit on the floor just outside the Room conveys their indecision and perhaps a loss of belief and faith in themselves and what the Room may hold. When the camera moves, it often tracks slowly, forwards or backwards in the tunnel scenes; around actors close-up, showing off their haggard profiles; or upwards over objects and relics buried in mud or shallow putrid water. The film seems to meditate on a notion of a lost civilisation and religion whose knowledge and wisdom can never be brought back.

The men and their journey may be symbolic in themselves: W and P represent the artistic, creative aspect and the scientific, rational aspect of humanity while S represents the spirtual impulse and belief in faith that bridges creative imagination and down-to-earth investigation and materialism. The journey can be interpreted in different ways: it could be a journey from the conscious world – the one outside the Zone – into the subconscious, represented by the Zone. The invisible dangers in the Zone that force S and his clients to improvise their route through the tunnel and the mincer represent inner complexes such as phobias and repressed memories that prevent us from tapping into our subconscious for inspiration and purpose to life. P’s plan to bomb the Room might represent some individuals’ denial or desire to control what they see as their irrational impulses; the possibility that he may be working for the tyrannical government that rules his society might suggest that governments desire to control what people think and feel. W’s skepticism could reflect a loss of faith and belief in one’s abilities: at one point in the film he admits he hates writing and rants about the culture of criticism in society and how too often it seeks to pull down talented if eccentric people to the same level rather than judge and improve the quality and worth of their artistic output. The journey through the Zone might also be interpreted as a flight or escape from the struggle and pain of life: shallow ponds of water and mud in parts of the Zone have religious icons and syringes buried in them, showing the ways in which people try to cope with problems in their lives. Incidents throughout the journey which include P’s search for his knapsack containing the bomb suggest that W may be right about S: that S does manipulate people’s hopes and beliefs for personal gain and so in a sense S represents organised religion that manipulates people’s desire to come close to God through rituals and prayers that lose meaning over time. Or perhaps the Zone is simply a bridge between life and death and S is its psychopomps: an ominous black wolf-like dog appears in the Zone and befriends S. Maybe the Room itself is irrelevant and the journey through the Zone and what S’s clients get out of it is the important thing. Viewers are free to interpret what they see depending on where they are coming from in terms of life experience and knowledge.

Significantly S loses his faith in himself and in his life’s purpose but redemption is unexpectedly at hand in the form of his crippled child Monkey who, though deformed by the Zone’s influence, also displays an unusual psychokinetic talent. This suggests that what the Zone and Room represent can always be found around us or within us in spite of limitations we have and people don’t have to rely on external phenomena or travel to places to find creativity, inspiration or purpose in life. The Zone then doesn’t really exist as a physical phenomenon and in that form it is a figment of S’s imagination to give him a reason to live and to enable him to cope with the problems of daily life.

Actors Kaidanovsky, Solonitsyn and Grinko play their parts well: they are minimal in their movements, speech and actions but convey a wide range of emotions as they are forced to admit their real reasons for entering the Zone and wanting to enter the Room, and through their conversations and arguments discover, gain or lose something in themselves that radically changes their lives forever. The only piece of acting that’s overdone and irrelevant to the film is the frenzy S’s wife goes into when S leaves to meet W and P in the bar. This is one of a few flaws in the film; other flaws include the concept of the “mincer” which doesn’t come across on screen as very frightening or frightening enough that it could kill someone. The music by Edward Artemev is a bit of a mishmash of orchestral music, some ambient and strings influenced by Russian and Middle Eastern music styles and for a movie like “Stalker”, really needs its own identity. The suggestion that religious belief must underpin creative and scientific endeavour may be too facile given that S is revealed as a flawed priest or prophet conducting a pointless ritual.

At times depressing and uplifting, ugly and beautiful, this film is worth watching at least once and preferably a few times to immerse oneself in its atmosphere and scenes of post-industrial decay and of nature reasserting itself among dilapidated factory buildings and tunnels still filled with pools of polluted water and spilt chemical toxins. Tragically several people associated with “Stalker”, including Tarkovsky himself and Solonitsyn, died of cancer-related conditions which may have been caused in part by exposure to pollutants in the places where the film was made.

Russian and Soviet Films

Andrei Rublev: multi-layered film about art, faith and taking creative risks

Andrei Tarkovsky, “Andrei Rublev” (1966)

Loosely based on the life of the eponymous 15th century Russian icon painter, “Andrei Rublev” examines the relationship of an artist with his faith and what place he can make for himself in a society that doesn’t necessarily value faith or art. The movie consists of seven episodes bookended by a prologue and epilogue related to its themes; the episodes cover the years 1405 to 1425 in Rublev’s life. Each episode involves an event or incident, not necessarily historically accurate, in which Rublev is an observer or participant and shows the political instability, stagnation and spiritual corruption of mediaeval Russian society which made it vulnerable to foreign attacks. Criticism of the Soviet society at the time the film was made is implied. There is a definite linear narrative in which Rublev faces criticism from his fellow monks for wanting fame and renown, nearly succumbs to sensual temptation, has doubts about his skill as a painter, suffers punishment that severely curtails his ability and desire to paint, and finally finds unlikely inspiration to resume painting and renew his faith in God, himself as a person and in his art.

Most of the movie is filmed in black and white with only the epilogue, detailing some of Rublev’s actual works, done in colour: this most likely was done to emphasise that the artist himself is not that important but that his inner spiritual life, his beliefs and his doubts, faith and weaknesses informed his art and artistic journey, and what resulted from that journey is most important. (The black-and-white film is a convenience to first-time non-Russian-speaking viewers as well: it makes following the narrative, themes and dialogue subtitles much easier!) There is a mix of aerial panning shots, tracking shots, long shots and close-ups, all done very smoothly and gracefully, so the movie is as much about Russia itself at a particular time in its history when the country was struggling to throw off Mongol-Tatar rule and Orthodox Christianity was becoming a major force in Russian culture and society, though not without resistance from the common people. This is evident from episodes which include Rublev as an observer and near-participant in pagan fertility rituals, and as an observer of a Tatar raid on the town of Vladimir where he has been at work painting murals in the cathedral which the Tatars pillage and burn. Parts of the film, especially those featuring shots where the camera circles an entire scene where something significant is happening, have a disinterested, almost documentary feel about them that can be reminiscent of work done by German director Werner Herzog. Nature and weather are prominent in many scenes: Rublev and his apprentice Foma walk through a forest discussing Foma’s faults, walking over or along fallen branches; Foma later prods at a dead bird while Rublev converses with a monk; a naked woman swims in a river to escape her captors in an extended shot; Rublev and other characters comment on the singing of nightingales; and there are many shots of horses, some of which are very close to the camera.

As Rublev, actor Anatoly Solonitsyn doesn’t have a lot to do: in many episodes, especially the last episode in which a teenage boy called Boriska (Nikolai Burlyayev) oversees the construction of a bell, Rublev is only a minor character who reacts to incidents or is affected by them. Solonitsyn’s acting is very minimal and even his facial expressions give little away; by contrast, other actors such as Buryayev, Ivan Lapikov as Rublev’s fellow monk Kirill, Rolan Bykov as an animated jester and Irma Rausch as mute girl Durochka can be very emotional and their actions expressive in a naturalistic but not melodramatic way. The seven episodes emphasise Rublev’s quest for spiritual and artistic integrity and have the quality of parables. External events, his self-doubt, his weaknesses and the hypocrisies of the society he lives in, not to mention the compromises he is forced to make as a result, all complicate the quest. Even the ideal Rublev ascribes to – love of Russia, love of the Russian people, or agape (spiritual, selfless love as practised by Jesus Christ) – is tested by his encounters and his reactions: in one episode, he saves Durochka from being raped by killing her would-be attacker (a Russian soldier) while Tatars are plundering the cathedral where he and Durochka are sheltering. For this murder, Rublev must do penance by taking care of Durochka, being silent and refraining from painting anything at all. (This scene could also suggest that defending others unable to defend themselves can result in one being deprived of rights and freedoms of expression and speech in a repressive society; many other scenes in “Andrei Rublev” can be interpreted at different levels to mean different things.) In a later episode, Durochka “betrays” Rublev by accepting an offer of marriage from a Tatar soldier and riding off with him. Understandably this causes a crisis of faith for Rublev both personally and at a deeper level and he is unable to function at all as a painter for over ten years.

The supporting cast clearly represent the movie’s themes: Kirill as the monk lacking artistic talent who renounces monastery life and goes into the world, only to return to the monastery years later in spiritual and moral despair, represents an extreme example of what can happen to individuals when they lose faith and the torments they must endure to regain it; Boriska, who blusters his way through making his first bell and admits after making a perfect-sounding bell that he really didn’t know his father’s secret of making bells, represents youth, vitality and creativity buoyed by hope, hard work, belief in oneself or trust in God; and minor characters like Marfa (Nelly Snegina) and the jester represent aspects of a more sensual, natural though pre-Christian Russia which Rublev as a young man finds hard to resist.

Yes, there are scenes of bleakness, of unbelievable cruelty and violence (especially to animals: a horse is filmed falling down and through a wooden staircase, later to be stabbed to death, and a cow is set on fire) and of sheer pig-headed bigotry, all of which help to paint and embellish director Andrei Tarkovsky’s vision of Russia in all its contradictory glory. Tarkovsky’s love for his country and people is obvious but it is love tempered by knowledge of his society’s shortcomings. The film isn’t easy to watch: the pace isn’t slow but it’s fairly leisurely and viewers used to more conventional narratives in which a hero tries to overcome obstacles rather than simply endure them might find Rublev an unsympathetic and distant figure. Repeated viewings are recommended to understand the film’s messages more fully as it’s a many-layered creature. The episodic nature of the film lends itself to viewing in installments for those viewers of little faith as the episodes are fairly self-contained and only a minor incident in episode 7 refers to an earlier episode: in that regard, the important episodes to see are 2 (meetings with Theophanes the Greek) and 5 to 7 which cover the Tatar invasion of Vladimir, Durochka’s running away and the bell-making story.

The best and most emotional moment of “Andrei Rublev” comes near the close of the seventh episode (and the effective end of the movie) when the bell is finished and is made to ring: its resonant sound brings unspeakable joy to its young maker who sobs uncontrollably in Rublev’s arms and admits to the monk that all he had to go on was faith and sheer risk-taking bluff, only to realise he really did have the talent to make a bell. In that moment all the movie’s themes come together and Rublev experiences a rebirth: he is able to speak at last and resume painting. 

Knowledge of Russian history and of the real-life Andrei Rublev, of whom little is actually known, isn’t absolutely necessary to follow the film though viewers may find it helpful to know something of the Mongol-Tatar invasions and how Russian politics was affected: while there was some resistance among the Russian nobility, some princes did co-operate with the invaders and the political disunity perhaps allowed the Mongols to rule the country for as long as they did (over 250 years). While “Andrei Rublev” might not suit most Western audiences who prefer more dynamic narrative forms and active heroic characters, it is a rewarding film about art and the artist’s place in a less-than-ideal society.