Peter Green

Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-1986)

Source: Sight and Sound, Spring 1987, pp 108-109. All rights are reserved by Sight and Sound and The British Film Institute (BFI). The article is reproduced on with the kind permission of the Sight and Sound Publishing Manager. We are also indebted to Andrew Utterson and Nick Wrigley for tracking down the article for us.

With the shadow of his own fatal illness upon him, Tarkovsky, in his final film The Sacrifice (1986), has Alexander speak the words: "There is no death, only the fear of death." In the work he has left us Tarkovsky will live on; of that there can be no doubt. But with his going an epoch that began in 1962 with the showing of Ivan's Childhood in Venice has come to an end.

Andrei Tarkovsky was born on 4 April 1932 in Savrashye on the Volga, the son of Arseny Tarkovsky, a poet whose works met with considerable acclaim in later years, and Maya Ivanovna Vishnyakova. Both parents had studied at the Literary Institute in Moscow. The village where their son was born no longer exists. It now lies beneath the waters of a lake created when a dam was built in that area. But the places and images of Tarkovsky's early ears left an indelible impression upon him and were to have a profound influence on his work.

By 1935, when the family moved to a place outside Moscow, strains were beginning to show in the relationship between mother and father, leading to their divorce and the ultimate departure of the father. Andrei grew up in the company of his mother, grandmother, and sister, without a man in the house. In 1939 he attended a school in Moscow, but was later evacuated to relatives on the Volga during the war. With the outbreak of war his father volunteered for military service, in the course of which he lost a leg. The family returned to Moscow in 1943, where Tarkovsky's mother worked in a printing firm as a reader and corrector. For the boy the war years were filled with two main preoccupations: the question of survival and the return of his father from the front. When Arseniy Tarkovsky did finally come back, however, highly decorated with the Order of the Red Star, he did not rejoin the family.

It was the firm wish of Tarkovky's mother that her son should work in the field of art. Her own belief in the importance of art was reflected in his formal education. Having attended a school of music and later an art school, Tarkovky subsequently remarked that his work as a director would have been inconceivable without this training. From 1951 he studied at the Institute for Oriental Languages. These studies were, however, broken off on account of a sports injury, and Tarkovsky joined a geological research group on an expedition to Siberia where he remained for nearly a year and produced a whole series of drawings and sketches. In 1954, on his return from this journey, he successfully applied for a place at the Moscow Film School (VGIK), where he was to study under Mikhail Romm.

Tarkovsky's first feature film, and at the same time his diploma submission at the school was The Steamroller and the Violin (1960-1). The screenplay for this 46-minute film was the product of a fruitful collaboration with Andrei Michalkov-Konchalovsky, with whom Tarkovsky also worked on Andrei Roublev and Michalkov-Konchalovsky's own film The First Teacher.

Tarkovsky's first "full-length" film, Ivan's Childhood (1962), was, in contrast, the outcome of an extremely unpromising situation. The project had started under the direction of E. Abalov, but had been abandoned because of the unsatisfactory quality of the sequences filmed. Later the decision was made to salvage the film after all, and Tarkovsky was placed in charge of its completion. The fact that he was able to create a work of such emotional impact in these circumstances is testimony to his powers as a film-maker and his strength of vision. Despite its mixed parentage, the film is very much his child and bears the unmistakable fingerprints of his style. It describes the fate of a young boy prematurely aged and ultimately destroyed by the war. Tarkovsky denied the apparent parallels between his own youth and that of Ivan, remarking that the only things they had in common were their age and the circumstances of war. The film won the Golden Lion at Venice and established Tarkovsky's international reputation at a single stroke.

This was reinforced seven years later, when Andrei Roublev, completed in 1966, was finally given its first showing in the west at Cannes in 1969. Apart from the closing passages, the work was filmed in black and white at Tarkovsky's insistence and depicts a vast panorama of Russian medieval life and the experiences of the monk and icon painter Roublev. The outward events, however, provide a canvas for an apocalyptic view of the world that anticipates many themes in Tarkovsky's final film.

Solaris (1972) was based on the novel of the same name by Stanislav Lem. It is perhaps the least convincing of Tarkovsky's films and indeed the one he himself found least satisfactory. Like many of his works, it describes a journey (in this case a voyage to the planet Solaris) that at the same time can be regarded as an inward spiritual journey. Although the metaphysical dimension of the journey and the phenomena it describes (the materialisation of visions and memories) were themes that were evidently of great interest to Tarkovsky, he was unable to escape entirely from the trappings of the science fiction genre and penetrate to the human, psychological problems that were closest to his heart. The film is nevertheless far removed in this respect from Kubrick's 2001, A Space Odyssey (1968), to which Solaris came to represent a kind of Russian counterpart.

The Mirror (1974-75) was a film of quite a different quality, with strongly autobiographical elements and of an intimate visionary intensity. Allegedly, there is not a single invented episode in the film. It is Tarkovsky's most personal work and was much criticised, particularly in Russia, for its subjectivism; but its remarkable portrayal of childhood, its magical, child's view of the world provides us with a key to an understanding of the allusive technique of Tarkovsky's entire oeuvre.

With Stalker (1979) he returned, outwardly at least, to the world of science fiction. The film is based on the novel Roadside Picnic by the brothers Arkadi and Boris Strugatsky and again takes the form of a journey, this time into a forbidden "Zone." Here, however, Tarkovsky makes the material completely his own, describing a quest for belief through a landscape of industrial and spiritual ruin. Here too he develops the techniques articulated in earlier films and summarised in The Mirror, employing a wealth of iconographic images and a colour code to distinguish between different realms and states of consciousness.

His difficulties with the Soviet authorities led Tarkovsky to apply to make his next film, Nostalghia (1983), in Italy. Ironically, it describes the homesickness for Russia of a scientist who has come to research in Italy and who ultimately dies before he can return. It continues Tarkovsky's search for the roots of life and belief in modern society and is filled with those allegories and visual icons, shifts of time, person and place that one increasingly came to associate with this director. The self-sacrifice that Domenico makes in Nostalghia, in an attempt to find that point in our history where we had taken the wrong turning, is taken up again in Tarkovsky's last film.

Nostalghia was dedicated to his mother; The Sacrifice (1986), shot when he was marked by illness, is dedicated to Tarkovsky's son, and is a protestation of faith and hope for the future. The film, generally regarded as the outstanding work at Cannes in 1986 and expected to win the Golden Palm, was finally awarded the Special Prize of the Jury, which because of his illness, was collected on his behalf by his son.

Tarkovsky's reputation rests on a slender oeuvre of eight films made over a period of little more than 25 years. His final project, Hoffmaniana, based on a screenplay he first published in 1976, and dealing with the life and work of the German Romantic poet E.T.A. Hoffmann, remained unfinished. But this handful of completed works is individually of such weight and vision that each of them alone might have secured him a place in film history. It was his ambition to raise the art of cinema to a level achieved in the other arts; in literature, for example, by poets such as Dostoevsky or Tolstoy.

Childhood and war, the quest for belief, nostalgia as a yearning for home, as a sickness unto death, sacrifice and hope are not merely the epic and universal themes of his films; they are at the same time stations in his own life. Rarely can there have been such congruence between subject and object. The physical worlds in which his journeys in film take place are the interior realms of his spiritual quest

A successor to his own Roublev, a commentator on our modern condition, an icon painter in film, and a man of profound belief, it was Tarkovsky's aim to bring the inward spiritual world into a state of harmony with the outward, material world. Perhaps more than any other, he perceived the potential of film for charting the modern space-time dimension we inhabit.

Andrei Tarkovsky died of lung cancer in Paris on the night of 28/29 December 1986. His life's work is the tree he himself planted and that, if we tend it well, may be wakened to life in the future. In the end, it was as if he had been overtaken by his own images, by the white horse recurring in his films, and by his own preoccupations with the Apocalypse and the vision of St. John: "And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death." end block

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