Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-1986) was, arguably, the greatest filmmaker of his nation. While perhaps not the innovator that fellow Russian Sergei Eisenstein was, Tarkovsky nevertheless imbued each of his films with a poetry that embraced life and sought to reveal the myriad ways in which humanity manifests itself.
Andrei Arsenyevich Tarkovsky was born on April 4, 1932, in the Russian town of Zavrazhye, located on the Volga River, about 500 kilometers northeast of Moscow in the Kostroma Region. Members of the Tarkovsky family were members of the Russian intelligentsia. His father, Arseny, was a poet and a translator while Tarkovsky's mother, Maria Ivanovna, was primarily an editor at the First State Publishing House in Moscow and also an actress. Tarkovsky also had a younger sister, Marina, who became a philologist. Tarkovsky was four years old when his parents separated; they ultimately divorced. His father remarried twice, but his mother never married again. Their separation evoked a deep crisis in Tarkovsky that he later explored in his autobiographical film The Mirror. Tarkovsky and his sister lived with his mother and his grandmother and much has been made of the feminine sensibility that influenced Tarkovsky as a child. In their book The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue Vida T. Johnson and Graham Petrie revealed that, in contrast with the "official" version of his youth, Tarkovsky spent a good deal of time rebelling against this sensibility, especially during his teenage years. During World War II—called the Great Patriotic War in his native Russia—Tarkovsky and his family lived in the town of Yuryevets, but returned to Moscow at the war's end.
Like all parents of her class, Maria Ivanovna sought to instill a love and vocation for the arts and the intellect in her children. Tarkovsky initially studied painting, literature, and music; initially enamored of the classic Russian composers, he later came to love the Germans, especially Bach. As a youth he carried on his person the poems his father wrote, which poems were unpublished at the time. Though their meetings were infrequent, Tarkovsky felt a great affinity for his father that fueled his natural rebellion against the parental authority wielded by his mother.
After graduating from high school in 1951 Tarkovsky entered the Institute for Oriental Studies in Moscow where he studied Arabic, but left during his second year. Various reason have been cited for his leaving, ranging from poor health to lack of interest. Whatever his motives, after leaving school Tarkovsky spent time in Siberia working on a geological expedition, and while there he decided his career direction. When he returned to Moscow he entered the Soviet State Film School where he became 1 of 15 students from a pool of 500 applicants selected to study under noted film director Mikhail Romm. In 1957 Tarkovsky married Irma Rausch, a classmate who was also studying directing, but switched to acting. The couple's son Arseny was born in 1962.
As a student Tarkovsky was involved in two collaborative films: Ubiytsy (The Killers, based on the short story by Ernest Hemingway) and Segodnya uvolneniya ne budet (There Will Be No Leave Today), a docudrama airing on Soviet television in 1959. The first film for which he took full directorial credit was his 1960 diploma film, Katok i skripka (The Steamroller and the Violin), for which he received high marks. It is a fairly conventional film in the Soviet-Realist tradition—although at 46 minutes longer than the usual student film of that period—about the relationship between a young boy who is studying the violin and a steamroller driver who protects the boy from bullies and guides him toward manhood. Tarkovsky tried to enlist the services of internationally renowned cameraman Sergei Urusevsky, among whose credits is The Cranes Are Flying, but failed. However Urusevsky's cinematographer, Vadim Yusov, would work often with Tarkovsky. Overall, the Russian press lauded Tarkovsky's first solo effort.
Built on Early Success
Tarkovsky's first feature film was Ivanovo detstvo, released in the United States as My Name Is Ivan. Completed in 1962, it immediately brought Tarkovsky international fame. The film tells the story of a 12-year-old boy whose mother (played by Tarkovsky's wife, Irma Rausch) is murdered by the invading Germans during World War II and who subsequently serves as a scout for the Soviet army. Ivan's lost childhood, shown in idyllic dream sequences, is contrasted with the stark devastation caused by the war. The filmmaker's former teacher, Romm, not only gave the film his exuberant stamp of approval, but praised Tarkovsky to the audience and critics at the film's first official showing. Internationally Ivanovo detstvo was also a success, sharing the coveted Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival with Cronaca familiare. Overnight Tarkovsky's name became known to cineastes around the world.
After this success Tarkovsky chose as his second feature the epic film Andrei Rublev, having submitted the proposal for the film to the Mosfilm studio in 1961, even before completing Ivanovo detstvo. This was to become his general working procedure while in the Soviet Union. Tarkovsky and scenarist Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky— Tarkovsky's friend since his VGIK days and also a well-known director—worked on the script for two years before filming began. Nominally about the struggles of medieval Russian monk and icon painter Andrei Rublev, the film is also about the triumph of art in the face of barbarism; the function of art as an aspect of humanity's spiritual nature as personified by Rublev's spiritual journey; and the idea of art being integrated deeply into the lives of common people. The Soviet government did not fail to notice the allegorical critique that lay just below the film's surface, and Andrei Rublev was not released in the Soviet Union (or the USSR: Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) until 1971. Meanwhile, critics hailed it as a masterpiece: in 1969 it was shown out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival and awarded the Federation Internationale de la Presse Cinematographique (FIPRESCI) award, and two years later it was named best foreign film by the French Syndicate of Cinema Critics. In the film Tarkovsky made use of both black-and-white and color stock, the latter at the end of the film as the camera slowly pans on actual icons painted by Rublev in the 15th century. Grounding the film in reality provides a powerful ending to a dramatic story that reconnects art—and the film itself as a work of art—to its own spiritual beginnings.
While working on Andrei Rublev Tarkovsky separated from his wife, who played the part of the holy fool in the film, and began living with actress Larissa Pavlovna Yegorkina. Tarkovsky and Yegorkina were married in 1970, the year their son Andrei was born.
Science Fiction and Autobiography
During his five-year battle with the Soviet bureaucracy, Tarkovsky began working on his next film, Solaris, based on the science-fiction novel of the same name by Polish writer Stanislaw Lem. While Solaris is not the director's only science-fiction film, it is unique in the Tarkovsky oeuvre in that it features a love story, though it is slanted to reflect Tarkovsky's personal take on the subject. Set on a space station orbiting the planet Solaris, the film focuses on scientist Kris Kelvin, who has arrived to study the possibility of shutting down the station and returning its three inhabitants to earth. However one of the men, Kelvin's friend, has died and the other two are struggling with a force emanating from the planet that tests their sanity, as it will soon test Kelvin's. Solaris has the power to summon into actuality those who populate the memories—or perhaps the imaginations—of Kelvin and his fellow cosmonauts. In Kelvin's case it is his wife, who years earlier had committed suicide. Kelvin and his faux wife—he had been estranged from his real wife at the time of her death—renew their love in a manner that while physically gratifying is in reality an illusion. By the end of the film, through Tarkovsky's manipulation of time and narrative structure the camera pulls back to reveal that more than love is an illusion. In 1972 Solaris won both the jury Grand Prize and the FIPRESCI Award at Cannes.
Tarkovsky next embarked on his most personal film. In Zerkalo (The Mirror, 1975), he relives his own childhood and the dissolution of his family. Here the filmmaker goes beyond simply using color and black-and-white stock, incorporating other film clips to tell his story. Zerkalo actually begins with "found" footage showing a psychologist examining a young boy with a speech impediment who resorts to hypnotism to cure him. As the film continues, the filmmaker's subconscious seems to become unblocked and his filmic voice recounts the turmoil endured by a young boy old enough to be affected by the events of separation, family dissolution, and war. Zerkalo is intensely personal and few feature-length films have approached it in that respect, its subject matter and nonnarrative stream-of-consciousness structure more commonly the purview of experimental film-makers. In a bit of Freudian revelation, the actress who plays the mother as a young woman also plays the narrator's wife. Tarkovsky adds to the film's subjectivity—which critics have noted verges on being almost too personal and cloying but is never completely so—by having his own mother play the elderly mother in the film. Tarkovsky's father is also in the film: he reads his poetry as a counterpoint to the actual narrator. Tarkovsky also cast his second wife and step-daughter in the film. Not surprisingly, Zarkalo was another of Tarkovsky's films that ran afoul of the Soviet bureaucracy.
In 1977 Tarkovsky took a break from film directing to stage a version of Shakespeare's Hamlet that was poorly received by Moscow critics. This setback had little effect on his career, and he was soon immersed in his next film, 1979's Stalker. Based on the science-fiction novel Roadside Picnic, by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, Stalker proved to be Tarkovsky's most problematic film from a production standpoint and the finished film required no cuts from Soviet censors. In the film a stalker—a person licensed to enter a mysterious "zone" which is devoid of life and in which the physics of reality are reshaped—agrees to lead two other men, a skeptical professor and a cynical writer, into the zone. After journeying into the zone the trio reach a room at the area's heart but decline to enter, instead retreating to their more comfortable worlds.
Numerous complications dogged filming of Stalker, not the least of which was that in April of 1978 Tarkovsky suffered a heart attack. Furthermore, he was unhappy with his shooting script; worse still was the revelation that more than halfway through the shooting it was discovered that the film stock was defective. Tarkovsky received permission to reshoot everything and the Strugatsky brothers rewrote the script to suit him. Their efforts were worth it; Stalker won the Ecumenical Jury prize at Cannes in 1980.
Asylum in Western Europe
In 1979 Tarkovsky worked in Italy directing the television film Tempo di Viaggio (Time of Travel) . He also met with his friend, screenwriter Tonino Guerra, a colleague of Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni. Tarkovsky and Guerra had been planning a film for years, but little had come of it; now the two began planning what was to become the film Nostalghia (Nostalgia, 1983). New trouble with Soviet authorities arose when he applied for an exit visa for himself and his family to work in Italy: he and his wife were allowed to go but their son, Andrei, was denied a visa on the assumption that if they were together abroad the Tarkovskys would then apply for asylum. Nevertheless Tarkovsky would direct Nostalghia and when it was completed he did indeed decide to remain in Western Europe. Another battle with Soviet authorities ensued as he attempted to claim his son.
Nostalghia, cowritten by Guerra and Tarkovsky, is a personal film, though less intentionally so than The Mirror. The protagonist—also named Andrei—is a Russian poet living in the northern Italian province of Tuscany who is researching a biography of Russian composer and expatriate Pavel Sosnovsky. (The model for the fictional Sosnovsky was Maximillian Beryozovsky, an 18th-century Ukrainian composer.) Andrei, like Tarkovsky himself, finds that he is caught between two worlds: his homeland and his adopted land. Aside from Andrei Rublev, Nostalghia is considered Tarkovsky's most poetic film. At Cannes it was awarded the Ecumenical Jury prize and the FIPRESCI award, while Tarkovsky shared best director honors with Robert Bresson, director of L'Argent.
After Nostalghia Tarkovsky remained in Western Europe. He shot what would be his final film Offret (The Sacrifice, 1986), in Sweden with cinematographer Sven Nyquist. Offret revolves around a man's sacrifice to avert a nuclear holocaust, but Tarkovsky again plays with dreams and reality to keep the viewer off balance. At Cannes in 1986 Offret won the Ecumenical Jury prize, the Jury grand prize, and the FIPRESCI award, and went on to win a British Academy award for best foreign film two years later. Tarkovsky became ill during the filming of Offret, but it was not until after filming had been completed that he was diagnosed with lung cancer. Chemotherapy and other procedures failed to stem the disease, and, sensing the filmmaker's imminent death, Soviet authorities finally allowed his son an exit visa. Tarkovsky died in Paris on December 28, 1986, just a few weeks after his son rejoined him. He was posthumously awarded the Lenin Prize in 1990.
Tarkovsky's small body of work ranks among the world's greatest films, his greatest talent the ability to blend the natural into the unreal and vice versa. In many of his films Tarkovsky integrated classical art into the scene. In addition to the iconic art of Rublev, he filmed works by Breughel (in Solaris ) and Jan Van Eyck's Ghent alterpiece (in Stalker ). In Nostalghia Piero della Francesca's Madonna of Childbirth is seen in the opening sequence.
Tarkovsky has been described often as a poet of nature for his ability to capture the beauty and sometimes the horror to be found in the landscape and often employed the natural elements as visual metaphors. But if there is a single recognizable metaphor that runs through every one of his films it is water: Rivers, lakes, oceans, puddles, dripping water, rain—especially rain—in sudden torrents that seem to catch the characters by surprise. No filmmaker has been able to capture the movement—or the stillness—of water like Tarkovsky, and certainly none has used it so artistically throughout his career.
Johnson, Vida T., and Graham Petrie, The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue, Indiana University Press, 1994.
Tarkovsy, Andrey, Time within Time: The Diaries 1970-1986, translated by Kitty Hunter-Blair, Verso, 1993.
"Andrei Tarkovsky," http://www.senseofcinema.com/contents/directors/02/tarkovsky.html (January 28, 2003).