Michal Leszczylowski

Remembrance — A Year with Andrei

The following article by the editor of "The Sacrifice" was published in 1989 in Poland and in a slightly abbreviated form in 1987 in England. The version presented on this page is based upon the English translation with the omissions inserted back in from the Polish version. We are greatly indebted to Mr. Michal Leszczylowski and to the editors of "Sight and Sound" for granting us their permission for publication in English of the extended version of this moving tribute. The article is © 1987 Michal Leszczylowski. Thanks also to Andrew Utterson and Nick Wrigley for tracking down the English (Sight and Sound) version for us.

Incomplete list of references: (a) Wspomnienie, in "Film na swiecie" 1989 (363–364), pp. 84–93; (b) A Year with Andrei, in "Sight and Sound" Autumn 1987, pp. 282–284; (c) The Andrei Tarkovsky Society Japan Quarterly, No. 4, March 1, 1989, pp. 10–15; (d) Andrey Tarkovsky File pamphlet, Cable Hogue CO LTD Japan, March 18, 1989, pp. 16–19; (e) "Positif", No. 2, 1988. (Japanese version based on "Positif" version, translated by Hironobu Baba); (f) Included in "O Tarkovskom", compiled by Marina Tarkovskaya; Moscow: Progress, 1989.

Sight and Sound - Autumn 1987

There is no remembrance of former things;
neither shall there be any remembrance
of things that are to come
with those that shall come after.

Ecclesiastes 1:11

The darkness was so intense that July night that it seemed impassable and time might have stopped. Only the music streaming from the car radio and the monotonous sound of the engine were proof that time did flow.

I found the Chalons-sur-Marne railway station in the nick of time. Clutching the book I was taking to Andrei and my small backpack, I got into the carriage with a sigh of relief. I asked the conductor to wake me at Stuttgart and began reading the other book I had with me. It was Buñuel's autobiography, and I wanted to report on it to Andrei. I fell asleep after acquiring the information that the old Buñuel used to cheat, taking his second Martini before the hour appointed for this ritual. Trifles of this sort appeased the lust for laughter which had been such a feature of the year of my collaboration with Tarkovsky.

Stuttgart in the morning light was mainly glimpses in the rear view mirror. I was in a hurry to reach Andrei, to embrace him, and in that joyful haste came memories of our drive across West Germany in September 1985. We drove so fast that it was hardly sensible, the car saturated with the music of Bach, Armstrong and Stevie Wonder, while we talked about faith, about politics, about all that had brought us closer together. After five months of hard work in the cutting room, we could afford to be carefree during our week's trip from Stockholm to Florence and the Autobahn served us as a salon in which the Master — having found a grateful and eager listener — reflected on the subjects of art and life, sometimes blurring the line dividing the two. Among other things, we talked about Conrad, who in the preface of one of his books deals with the tasks of art. He said there that the actual beginning of a work of art means severing the ties between the merciless rush of time and the transient phases of life, to waken in the heart of readers an awareness of immediate community, the mystery of all our origins, and the uncertainty of life. This task the artist should carry out rigorously, diligently, and conscientiously, so the slice of time be described as faithfully as possible. I began reflecting upon this subject during my work with Andrei who was so precise in his descriptions of characters, their relationships, the environment they lived in, the nature, the light that accompanied their days and nights, their aspirations and moral needs. Andrei then remarked that one ought to submit to two main goals of art, namely truth and generalisation of ideas — without forgetting, however, that truth of reality is not always the same thing as truth in art.

So wasting as little time as possible I was hurrying to meet Andrei. I reached the sanatorium at 9:30 a.m. full of joyful anticipation of the long meeting that awaited me. The buildings were "modern," as Andrei defined them disparagingly, for he could not stand them. The whole place was like a barracks for young, highly disciplined pioneers whose lives were deprived of any better designs. Everything was functional, in that range of drab plastic hues. The comforting thought was that the sanatorium had a good reputation for its medical care and must have been helpful in improving the patient's condition.

When I reached his room, the Master was in bed and was, of course, talking on the telephone to his chief doctor, Professor Schwartzenberg in Paris. He smiled, waved me to a chair and invited me to help myself to a piece of cake. In his illness, his features were entirely dominated by the eyes: black as coals, with an impish spark, always moving, very lively. The moment he put down the receiver, a torrent of embraces, kisses, and my questions: how are you feeling, anything you need, have you got anything to read. I was glad to talk to him face to face and to see him again.

I took the book out of my pack: Tarkovskij, tanken på en hemkomst (Tarkovsky, Thoughts on Homecoming), a new anthology on his work that had been published just before I left for holidays. He didn't know about the book and was very happy to see it. Andrei was not one of those conceited collectors of press cuttings, but I could see that he got satisfaction out of a book like this, and the awareness that his work was perceived and understood. He didn't pay much attention to maintaining good relations with the mass media, he very rarely gave interviews carefully selecting the journalists as he found their pompous and pretentious questions plainly upsetting. One exception to this rule were interviews about the situation of the Tarkovskys as parents who for four years have been separated from their child. Tarkovsky terribly missed his son Andryushka and dedicated The Sacrifice to him.

I hurriedly reported my battles with the French laboratories to ensure adequate quality for the prints of The Sacrifice destined for the French-speaking market. Andrei was highly demanding and precise about artistic and technical quality, even during the bad periods of his illness.

I remember the last three months of our collaboration, when he had to leave us to complete the soundtrack according to his design. He had been present during the dubbing of all the actors, except for the main female role, which was a particularly difficult one. The original was done in English by Susan Fleetwood. The Swedish dubbing would not have been too much of a problem, except for a scene of hysteria — sobs, choking cries, inarticulate screams rendered at such a pitch that it proved impossible to do the scene again at the same "temperature" with another actress. Andrei had found an actress whose voice resembled Susan Fleetwood's, which allowed us to use at least part of the scene's original soundtrack.

He didn't, alas, have time to direct that actress. We did it on our own and in a great hurry, so that by mid-January 1986 the whole synchronised dialogue of the film could be shown to Andrei. It was then in Paris that, for the first time, we met him bedridden. He was obviously crushed by his illness, but the moment we started discussing the film and put the video on, the Master propped up his pillows and resumed his professional role. Tides of energy suddenly surged in him. We were all glad to see him in a good psychical condition. In that 10-hour working day he gave us all the briefing for the next stage of the work.

Back in Stockholm, after talking with Erland Josephson, I decided to telephone Andrei and suggested having the role taken by another actress. His decision was matter-of-fact and immediate: whenever there is an opportunity for improvement, it should be taken unhesitatingly. So the dubbing of this part involved three actresses. And even I can't be sure now which cue is done by whom: they have all melded into the character of Adelaide.

We went to Paris four times in all, showing the results of our work to our Master, racing against time to complete the film. His illness had come suddenly; none of us was prepared for it, none of us had even considered anything so tragic. I did know that in December 1985 he had not been feeling well and had had a thorough medical examination, but I was surprised when on Christmas Eve, before leaving for Florence, he asked me to take him to the airport. On the way, he began dictating the final version of the synchronised soundtrack, what should be the space and contrast in the sound image. He told me to change the dedication of the film: "To my son Andryusha, whom I am leaving to fight in this manner," it should read.

He ignored my questions, simply saying that in all probability he would not be returning to Stockholm after Christmas and instructing me to see to the film's completion. "Bring it to me in Italy," he said. The day after Christmas, I learnt that Andrei had cancer.

We mobilised all our resources to finish the film precisely as Andrei instructed us, to have it ready to show him so that it was wholly and indisputably a Tarkovsky film.

But on that July day in 1986, in Germany, he seemed cured, with a period of recovery in front of him. We were in high spirits, joking as in the old days. I told him some gossip about Buñuel, whom Andrei admired and had always wanted to meet. In my halting Russian, I translated for him the passage on being old, in which Buñuel deplores the loss of appetite and the resignation as experienced from the perspective of a long life left behind. Andrei reached for the Bible which he kept on a little table by his bed and read from Ecclesiastes:

...Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.
What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?
One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.
The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.
(...) the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.
The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.
Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us...

"Tekst sovsem ne slabyi, ya tebe skazhu" [Not at all a bad text, I tell you] — the Maestro said. To my earthly-minded response that the text tended to tune me to a minor key and that sometimes our presence on earth seemed to lack any purpose Andrei's riposte came back lightning fast that our life here was not so simple that we could classify and position it in this one perspective. He went through some more pages and resumed reading:

...Truly the light is sweet, and a pleasant thing it is for the eyes to behold the sun:
But if a man live many years, and rejoice in them all; yet let him remember the days of darkness; for they shall be many. All that cometh is vanity.
Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth; and let thy heart cheer thee in the days of thy youth, and walk in the ways of thine heart, and in the sight of thine eyes: but know thou, that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment...

Religion played an important part in Tarkovsky's life and he was always eager to meet religious people, to discuss with them problems of faith. One subject we frequently discussed was the life and faith of one of my aunts. During the period of his illness Andrei drew a lot of strength from her worldly-wise outlook on life. Her spiritual support and religious reflection have left a distinct mark on Andrei's psyche. After the film was finished I received from him a poster with a dedication to my aunt. He gave it to a woman he had never met but who he knew had devoted many prayers to him. Andrei believed that people nowadays have lost the ability to pray and that this was a proof of our spiritual poverty.

He often felt the urge to make a film based on biblical texts, but thought himself too small a man to dare such a colossal endeavour. Who else, however, could have attempted it?

We came to consider our future. Andrei's next film was to have been Hoffmanniana, from an old scenario which he had written in the USSR. Most of the completed scenarios Tarkovsky had written while still in the USSR. During twenty years, he was allowed to make only five films there, devoting the rest of his time to teaching at the Film School and writing scenarios. We had planned to start Hoffmanniana in autumn of 1986 — and Andrei was working at the same time on a Hamlet script.

He was a giant for work. He was eager to work hard and to work efficiently. He was aware of his genius but he used to say that genius is one per cent talent and ninety-nine per cent work. He was a highly disciplined man who hated disorder which he considered distracting in his work, and would only come on the set after much preparation. I am myself in a reasonable shape but quite often I found it strenuous to keep up with this pace — which is not to say that Tarkovsky made inhuman demands on his collaborators, but to give an idea of his rhythm and that the whole team were happy to follow it.

Tarkovsky's genius was not limited merely to the artistic matters. It was also manifest in the professional-technical sphere which is very important in film production considering its heavy technological slant. Tarkovsky possessed practical and theoretical knowledge of scenography, he knew that set design was of fundamental importance in creation of one's own language of images. His decisions concerning set design were made after periods of deep concentration and many discussions with Anna Asp. His colaboration with Inger Pehrsson who was responsible for costume design testifies to Tarkovsky's similar attention to actor's wardrobe. It was an arduous search for final shapes and colours. The common denominator of all those efforts was the intuitive aim for materialisation of one's vision, a dynamic subordination to the new ideas as they occur.

I could watch the system at work during the editing. The Sacrifice contains a mere 120 cuts, but each one was subject to deep critical scrutiny. Editing the film did not mean blindly following a pre-arranged set of concepts. It meant a creative work carried out between the axis of a fixed vision and the inner dynamics of the material. Maintaining this axis was a condition for obtaining Tarkovsky's artistic vision. The number of cuts gave no indication of the range of difficulties faced in the process. At the first projection, the film was 190 minutes. Further work reduced it by 40 minutes. But the only scene wholly eliminated was one in which Alexander is writing a letter to his family. Other cuts were done in scenes that remained in the film.

Tarkovsky held that film is the only art which can render reality on the dimension of time, taken literally. A film is a mosaic of time, and against this structure the rest of the film's elements are cast, the choice being arbitrary on the part of the film-maker. Andrei was present at all times during work on set design, costume and editing, leaving nothing to chance.

The same detail characterized his collaboration with Sven Nykvist. The composition of the picture, length of shot, the actor's movements within the frame, the movements of the camera, etc., were largely Tarkovsky's realm. He was the first to operate the camera and correct the actors' roles in the light of what it showed him. For Nykvist, this meant a new way of working, and he told me that it caused some conflict with the director until he realized that precise tracking of the camera image did not amount to any vote of no confidence but was genuinely Tarkovsky's working method. It is also an illustration of the kinds of demands Tarkovsky made on himself — which did not in any way affect his recognition that The Sacrifice depended on teamwork.

We talked about the problems of the film, about film-makers and about the American cinema. I told Andrei about a dinner party given by our French co-producer Anatole Dauman where I met Elia Kazan and Roman Polanski. My impression was that the films made by those two great directors were clear reflections of their personalities. Thus Polanski would cleverly and humorously tell anecdotes, both real and invented while Kazan would from time to time stately recall and analyse the greats of the film world. Andrei listened to all this news with interest.

Naturally we began discussing American cinema. He did not consider himself its admirer. He was a European conscious of his roots. Andrei had been to America but had never felt comfortable there, he disliked commercial film-makers and never treated film as a commodity. To him, film was art, young and free from any burden or any ossified traditions, and he felt sorry for the talented American film-makers exposed to commercial pressures. In his opinion only a few — Kazan, for example — were able to resist that pressure. Tarkovsky's European roots could not survive that kind of artistic emigration. In the literary aspect of his work Andrei was a heir to Dostoievsky, Chekhov, Tolstoi, and Pushkin. For his visuals he sought examples from Rublov, Theophan the Greek, Leonardo, or Piero della Francesca. Tarkovsky is a link in the chain of the great European culture. He also looked for inspiration to the poetry and music of the Far East and dreamed of going to India and Japan. Andrei was very particular about his reading and the works of art he surrounded himself with. He was concerned about the cultural pollution which continued to flood us daily with mountains of rubbish. His judgment was less severe only in the realm of film and he did watch a lot of them although his evaluation of them was strict. The creative minds he talked about most often were Bresson, Antonioni, Fellini, Kurosawa, Wajda, Zanussi, and Bergman.

In this connection, I remember an incident in November 1985, when Andrei and I were looking at an exhibition of film posters at the Film House in Stockholm. I spotted Bergman — whom Tarkovsky had never encountered, though they had wanted to meet — coming out of one of the film theatres there. This time, a meeting looked so natural that it was almost unavoidable. The two men could see each other at a distance of about fifteen metres. What followed staggered me: each made an about turn, as sharply as though following some elaborate drill, and each made off in his separate direction. They have never met again. Thus the two great ones of this world passed by without touching.

Returning briefly to the train of thought interrupted by this recollection: being so particular about selecting the elements of his surroundings guaranteed the quality of the spiritual experience. Such communion with great artists through their work allowed for a dialogue and contributed to Andrei's fertile imagination. These elements constituted a lens through which he could see the reality he was both describing and creating at the same time.

Reminiscences of this kind kept us busy for the rest of that July morning. The sick man was served a lunch of greyish soup, with some greyish cereal and a piece of overcooked meat. Andrei gave me a conspiratorial wink and smile from under his neatly trimmed moustache. When the nurse had gone, he resignedly waved his hand over that nourishment which could in no way be called a meal. With a final gesture, he pushed the dishes out of sight. It was with a mixture of sadness and hope that I suggested our going to France, only sixty kilometres away, for a decent steak. Andrei's eyes sparkled, but he suggested that in the circumstances he could ill afford such an extravagance. As if to make up for the wasted lunch, we took to remembering the raw fish sashimi which we used to enjoy at a Korean restaurant in Stockholm.

The "culinary orgies" were part of our free time while working together, as much as our schedules allowed it, reaching their zenith in Italy where finding a good though simple restaurant was no problem. Part of the editing happened to be done in Florence. The Master, an honorary citizen of that city, treated it as his new home, and the cutting room was in the building where the Tarkovskys were staying. Meanwhile, his wife, Larissa, was controlling the practical aspects of their life, having the house prepared for them to move in when their long-awaited son Andryusha was able to join them. Larissa is an extraordinary woman. Her inexhaustible energy helped the couple overcome obstacles both before and after they left their homeland. Larissa did everything she could to help the Master in his work. Andrei appreciated her spirit's strength which supported him during their twenty five years together. Their home bore the marks of their feeling for art. Some of their shared experiences found their way into Andrei's films — witness the finding of a home by Alexander and Adelaide in The Sacrifice. It is the story of the Tarkovskys' dacha, which they had left behind in the Soviet Union.

The afternoon stroll round the sanatorium was a ritual for Andrei. In the course of it, we talked about the complex nature of love described in the Book of Job, love put to such tests, such suffering, and at the same time a love that generates pain and misery.

The walk took about fourty-five minutes, during which we covered some 300 metres, stopping to rest on the benches scattered about the grounds. It was only then that I realised how weak Andrei had become. The illness itself at that stage was not alarming; it seemed that the danger was over, and the detail of the plans Andrei was making for the future encouraged optimism about the state of health.

Exhausted by the effort of walking, Andrei lay down and reached for the Bible, reading again from Ecclesiastes:

To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven;
a time to be born and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to pluck up that which is planted...
a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance;
a time to cast away stones and a time to gather stones together...

"Do you remember," Andrei asked, "that I wanted our film to carry the title, «A time to cast away stones and a time to gather stones together»? It somehow didn't sound right in Swedish." Tarkovsky lay there looking at the icon on the wall of his sanatorium room. The humming of the forest and the sounds of swallows replaced the sound of his words. After a time, he resumed his reading:

A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.
What profit hath he that worketh in that wherein he laboureth?
I have seen the travail, which God hath given to the sons of men to be exercised in it.
He hath made every thing beautiful in his time: also he hath set the world in their heart, so that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end.

Andrei set the Bible aside, pulled up the blanket, pedantically smoothed it, and silence fell again. It was not the silence of a void; it was a silence full of deep reflection.

We sat in silence for a few moments. The entry of the nurse, bringing tea and biscuits with Andrei's medicine, brought me back to the sad reality moving to the rhythm of its own existence. She took away Andrei's discarded soup, wished him goodnight, and asked in the same breath whether he needed anything — all in a mixture of German, Italian and English. Andrei nodded, and at the same time said in Russian to me that the only thing he needed was to go to Italy, the rest being unnecessary.

It was getting dark when the time came for me to leave. We embraced and kissed, saying "See you soon in Italy." And that was our last meeting, on 26 July 1986.

...Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth (...)
Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern.
Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.
Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher; all is vanity.

On the day of his funeral, in the Church of St. Alexander Nevsky in Paris, we were holding candles and bidding farewell the the great artist. The priest lit his candle and forwarded its flame to the people standing in the front row. They in turn passed the flame on, so that finally all the candles crowned with small dancing lights made a chain of our memory of Andrei Tarkovsky.  end block

Stockholm, 26 January 1987

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