Olga Surkova

Tarkovsky vs. Tarkovsky

The following is an excerpt from the proposed English translation of Tarkovsky vs. Tarkovsky by Olga Surkova (originally published in Russian as: Tarkovskii i ya, Zebra E / Dekont+ / EKSMO, Moscow 2002, see our Bibliography entry). Ms. Surkova was a friend of the Tarkovskys for many years and is a co-author of what was eventually to become Sculpting in Time. Her position of being both a film critic and a close family friend provides her with remarkable insight into the great director's life and work, although her unique perspective may seem controversial to some. The book is currently being translated by Kirill Galetski to whom we owe this fragment.

The Preface,
which explains why it took such a long time to write this book
and why it was nevertheless written

It would seem that I should have written the first book on Tarkovsky. Who other than me, as they say, was dealt that hand?

I became acquainted with him during the filming of Andrei Rublyov. And then for almost twenty years we were connected through the most intimate of friendships between me and his second family — for a time he and I were even relatives. The relationship lasted all the way until the start of the filming of The Sacrifice. After Larisa, Tarkovsky's wife, I was the first to see the freshly completed screenplay.

It so happened that I was the only one who had the opportunity to observe Tarkovsky at work and the metamorphoses he underwent not only in the motherland, in Russia, but also in the West, where he and I were fated to end up at the same time, and there was a time when we both saw in this the "Hand of God."

What is most important is that all this time, I was privy to the "holy of holies" — his creative visions, hopes and disappointments, professional problems and flashes of intuition. This sharing was particularly generous when Tarkovsky offered for me to become the co-author of The Book of Concordances. Ten years on, this book appeared in the West under the title Sculpting in Time, revised and completed by me in accordance with his considerations and wishes.

Why was I nevertheless silent for so long, while works studying the phenomenon of Andrei Tarkovsky appeared one right after the other? Why was I getting by with small articles, essentially in a state of inaction, as if paralysed?

There are several reasons for this. Our relationship was simple and unambiguous only on the surface. Indeed, for many years I idolised him with childlike enthusiasm as a great and persecuted artist. Oh, how typical this is for Russia! Selfless and unflinching aid in the name of the triumph of Truth, entire and absolute. Tarkovsky was surrounded with such people, who, almost deifying him, were ready to serve not only him, but his family, for no particular reason other than in the name of 'holy art." There were ready to help him not only on the set, but at home, in the household, procuring "grocery lists" of items that were in short supply, inexpensive construction materials to build his country home, furniture on credit and running small errands. This gave meaning and enrichment to the life of every one of us who were admitted to the inner circle. All the more so for me since I turned out to be singled out from all these by the Master for the most honourable role, creative collaboration — I could not even dream of greater happiness!

However, in essence I gradually "grew out" of this image of a rapt schoolgirl admirer of a "great artist," with whom I became acquainted while a film school student. My "maturing" accelerated the more pronounced the contradictions between Tarkovsky's declamations of exalted and "selfless" spiritual values and his "day-to-day practice" became. It was then that I decided for myself to divide these two spheres of existence of the artist: to concentrate on his creative endeavours and disregard the mundane side of his life.

The time that is sculpted in his films holds traces of his difficult and often unsuccessful struggles with himself, his inability to cope with the corrosion that gradually ate away his soul, treacherously crawling over the screen. His films are truly and uniquely interesting as objective proof of this struggle.

For a long time I did not, could not or did not want to notice the signs of that erosion which is noticeable on screen and which fully elucidates Tarkovsky's unique artistic and human destiny to me. We were friends, or more precisely Tarkovsky endowed me with his friendship, and I wanted so much, turning a blind eye to everything, to simply believe and love the ideal — "Ah, deceiving me is not difficult; I myself am glad to be deceived..."

What is more, we worked together, and I doggedly tried not to notice sometimes very deplorable "trifles," never suspecting that everything was moving towards such a rapid and unexpected unraveling of not only our relationship, but alas, his entire fate... But let's not get ahead of ourselves — indeed, I've written an entire book on this subject...

Before writing, I had to definitively "cool down" and calm down, gain some "distance" from the events that affected me so deeply. I started writing a book about Tarkovsky right after what was for me a dramatic falling out with him in 1984, when it seemed that he was full of strength and had a bright future ahead of him — but that was a different book. I had to re-think and change my mind about everything from scratch, devastated as I was by his death. After all, at the end of the day, come what may, I so endlessly loved, and subsequently so bitterly hated all of what connected me to Tarkovsky, Larisa, their everyday lives, lifestyle and milieu. My soul had to be freed from many years of captivity; my thoughts had to become clear in order for me to be able, like the stuttering boy in the prologue to The Mirror, to have the confidence to say, "I can speak!"

The Book of Concordances, on which Tarkovsky offered me to work, was originally conceived together with the well-known film historian Leonid Kozlov as a dialogue between a film critic and a director, but the book did not come about with this co-authorship. In the process of working, it seems to me, I came to understand why their collaborative effort did not materialize. Tarkovsky was too authoritarian, so the prospective "dialogue between a film critic and a director" invariably turned into his monologue, which demanded a reformation of the criticism that would govern the undertaking. My intuition was correct, so the next manifestation of the book, rewritten by me yet another time, respecting Tarkovsky's wish to "have his own book," was Sculpting in Time and has one author on the cover. He not only could not accommodate a full-fledged co-author, but even a commentator and interviewer, which in essence I was in the Book of Concordances, illustrating and reinforcing his theoretical ruminations with examples from his own artistic works.

Tarkovsky was very mindful to comments, observations and formulations that "happened" to be in his ever more rigorously forming conceptualisation, which was developing, expanding and systematising his ripening ideas. He needed a midwife who would "deliver" and "nurse" these ideas.

It was evidently in this capacity that I suited him, for he never tried to rid himself of my co-authorship in Moscow and he asked me to come to Italy to finish writing the chapter on Nostalghia and the afterword when we had signed contracts for publishing The Book of Concordances in the UK and the Netherlands and... for some reason, Tarkovsky signed a publishing contract in Germany on his own.

It was not enough to say that through our years of interaction I learned to understand him through his utterances — I even understood his glances... My identification with his thought processes was so great that the following curious occurrence took place. When we were still living in Moscow, Tarkovsky really did not like to meet with journalists, even more so with Western ones, because he was afraid they would write "something wide of the mark and premature." One time he entrusted me to meet in his stead with an Italian journalist from Unità and answer all of the journalist's questions on his behalf. Tarkovsky did not even verify "his" answers — and so, obviously, the interview came out under his name.

However, if suddenly I were to express views that were diametrically opposed to his own, then Tarkovsky would fulminate and become vexed, like a child, at best perplexed: "What are you talking about? I don't understand you!" He would sum up his point of view with his habitual, "irrefutable" argument: "Why, it's only natural!"

He did not know how to debate, how to assemble an argument and make a case — he simply had no doubts about his own rectitude. He took any objection or even lack of understanding badly, and went immediately and aggressively on the offensive. This calls to mind one incident at a press conference at the Rotterdam Film Festival.

That evening, he talked a great deal about national culture, asserting that "culture cannot be translated into another language in principle." One could not say that this assertion was self-evident, all the more so for the Dutch, who take pride in their multicultural society. Therefore, it was with some bewilderment that they turned to Tarkovsky with a question, naively counting on his elaboration: "What, in your view, is «culture»?"

His reply was terse and exasperated: "If you came here and you don't even know what culture is, then I really don't know what I'm doing here talking with you at all!"

For me as a person who knew him and loved him, there was much that was touching and naïve about this single-mindedness, something childlike and helpless. Strange as it was, it was in times like these that I felt myself to be an "adult" with him, ready to immediately come to his aid, break out with commentary and clarifications, following, naturally, his inner logic in order to elucidate what it was he really meant. This helped with our work on the book and he really did need me for this. However, he was a capricious and wayward "child," often unsatisfied, convinced that everywhere and always he had to do everything "himself."

I reckon that by force of this same extended childhood he himself firmly believed that the Iskusstvo publishing house was about to publish our manuscript. I remember when he was hurrying me to complete the work, he suddenly was in a tiff with: "Well? Are we delayed? Well, I was told at the publisher's that they'll «green-light» the book."

Of course, I did not try to convince him otherwise, supposing that "blessed are those who have faith," but I did not myself believe in such a turn of events, not even for a second, firmly knowing that I was writing a manuscript "to be put on the shelf" and for the "history of cinema."

Owing to my collaboration with Kozlov, I inherited a file folder with a plethora of segmental, unsystematised writings from both Tarkovsky himself and Kozlov: here there were rough drafts of articles and notes of a biographical nature, some of which I have made public in this book. In what follows, I tried to collect and replicate all of what I heard from Tarkovsky, both from dedicated conversations with me and from other sources and occasions. All the more so since any Tarkovsky dinner table morphed into a podium for expression of his reflections on art, on the role of the artist in the modern world, on this world itself and the place of cinema within it.

However, a dialogue between Tarkovsky and me did not come about, even though the further our personal and professional relationship developed, the more adamantly the real necessity for one gelled in me.

So I regard this book, which is devoted more to biographical issues rather than to the creativity of Andrei Tarkovsky, as an outgrowth of our collaboration, as a discovery of an opportunity to enter into a dialogue with him after all, to speak my mind, unburden myself and address issues with a measure of the "earnestness" that he never tired to invoke. Truth be told, we are once again in inequitable positions — now I am carrying on a dialogue with a partner in conversation who, alas, is no more, but who is like one that continues to be next to me unto this day because our conversation has not ended.

In The Mirror, Tarkovsky admitted that he "kept having the same dream." Later, when the film came out, he lamented that this dream vanished without a trace, as if it had totally dissipated from his memory: the past became detached and went somewhere else forever, pitilessly and irrevocably.

In working on this book, I, on the other hand, cherished the secret hope that I would once and for all rid myself the agonizing burden of our shared past, which weighed heavily upon me and sometimes seemed more real than my real life. I will not lament that the book will possibly free me of certain recurring dreams in the hope that my eternally aching "sadness" about Andrei Tarkovsky will become ever more "bright," as his favourite poet once said.  end block

back navigation
[ Top ] [ Links ] [ Bibliography ] [ Documentaries ] [ Graphics ] [ Photos ] [ Diaries/Memoirs ] [ Topics ] [ News ] [ Home ]