Tarkovsky speaks about...

Symbols vs. Metaphors

Some frequently asked questions in connection with Tarkovsky's movies are, "Does he use symbols?" and "what does it mean, or symbolize?" We will let him answer these questions himself. As you'll find out, he wasn't particularly fond of the concept of symbols. The quotes below are from the excellent work The Tolstoy Complex, edited by Dr. Seweryn Kuśmierczyk at the Polish Literature Department of Warsaw University. This book, currently only available in Polish, is a thematically arranged compilation of interviews taken from magazines from all over the world. The excerpts are reproduced here with the kind permission of the editor. The original translators' names are shown in square brackets following the references. English retranslation by Jan Bielawski, Nostalghia.com. Reference: Kompleks Tolstoja, Seweryn Kuśmierczyk (ed.), Wydawnictwo Pelikan, Warszawa 1989, ISBN 83-85 045-40-6.

We can express our feelings regarding the world around us either by poetic or by descriptive means. I prefer to express myself metaphorically. Let me stress: metaphorically, not symbolically. A symbol contains within itself a definite meaning, certain intellectual formula, while metaphor is an image. An image possessing the same distinguishing features as the world it represents. An image — as opposed to a symbol — is indefinite in meaning. One cannot speak of the infinite world by applying tools that are definite and finite. We can analyse the formula that constitutes a symbol, while metaphor is a being-within-itself, it's a monomial. It falls apart at any attempt of touching it.

Interview Le noir coloris de la nostalgie with Hervé Guibert in "Le Monde", 12 May 1983 [Pol. trans. Malgorzata Sporek-Czyzewska].

An image cannot be a symbol in my opinion. Whenever an image is turned into a symbol, the thought becomes walled in so to speak, it can be fully deciphered. That's not what image is. A symbol is not yet an image. Although image cannot be explained, it expresses truth to the end... Its meaning remains unknown. I was asked once what the bird on boy's head in The Mirror meant. But any time I attempt to explain, I notice everything loses its meaning, it acquires a completely different sense than intended, moves away from its rightful place. I could only say a bird would not come to an evil man but that's not good enough. A true image is an abstraction, it cannot be explained, it only transmits truth and one can only comprehend it in one's own heart. Because of that it's impossible to analyse a work of art by utilising its intellectual significance.

Interview Taiteen on jaloselettava katsojia with Risto Mäenpää and Jaakko Pyhälä in "Filmihullu" 1976 (8), pp. 7–11 [Pol. trans. Andrzej Stefaniak].

I am an enemy of symbols. Symbol is too narrow a concept for me in the sense that symbols exist in order to be deciphered. An artistic image on the other hand is not to be deciphered, it is an equivalent of the world around us. Rain in Solaris is not a symbol, it is only rain which at certain moment has particular significance to the hero. But it does not symbolise anything. It only expresses. This rain is an artistic image. Symbol for me is something too complicated.

Interview Ein Feind der Symbolik with Irena Brezna in "tip" 1984 (3), pp. 197–205 [Pol. trans. Adam Sewen].

I am constantly being asked what this or that means in my films. It's unbearable! An artist does not have to be accountable for his intentions. I did not do any deep thinking about my work. I don't know what my symbols mean. I only desire to induce feelings, any feelings, in viewers. People always try to find "hidden" meanings in my films. But wouldn't it be strange to make a film while striving to hide one's thoughts? My images do not signify anything beyond what they are... We do not know ourselves that well: sometimes we express forces which cannot be grasped by any ordinary measure.

Gideon Bachman: Att resa i sitt inre. Samtal med Tarkovskij, "Chaplin" 1984 (4), pp. 158–163 [Pol. trans. Katarzyna Górecka].

Mysterious elements in my films? I think people somehow got the idea that everything on screen should be immediately understandable. In my opinion events of our everyday lives are much more mysterious than those we can witness on screen. If we attempted to recall all events, step by step, that took place during just one day of our life and then showed them on screen, the result would be hundred times more mysterious than my film [Stalker]. Audiences got used to simplistic drama. Whenever a moment of realism appears on screen, a moment of truth, it is immediately followed by voices declaring it "confusing." Many think of Stalker as a science fiction film. But this film is not based on fantasy, it is realism on film. Try to accept its content as a record of one day in lives of three people, try to see it on this level and you'll find nothing complex, mysterious, or symbolic in it.


I never create allegories. I create my own world. That world does not signify anything unusual. It just exists, it has no other meaning. I think symbol and allegory rob the artist. Creator brings up images which express, reveal life the way it is. They are not Aesop's fables. This manner of working would be too primitive not only for the contemporary art but for art of any era. Artistic image possesses an infinity of meanings just like life carries an infinity of meanings. An image changed into a symbol cannot be analysed. When I create my images I use no symbolism of any kind. I want to create an image, not a symbol. That's why I don't believe in interpretations of supposed meanings of my pictures. I'm not interested in narrow political or social issues. I want to create images that would touch the viewer's soul to some degree. That's why in my films I tell precisely those stories and not the others.

It makes no difference to me how the public receives and interprets my films. I make films in such a way as to create certain spiritual state in the viewer. As a result he cannot remain unchanged after watching the film. But what the viewer thinks about my film's style is unimportant to me. Viewers search for meanings as if this was some sort of a charade. I know of no work of art whose meaning would be clear to the degree demanded by some. When they listen to music, read a novel or watch a play they frequently encounter fragments they don't understand. It's a normal state of the relationship toward a work of art. But when they go to the cinema — they demand complete clarity, total understanding. I am against discrimination in art. Clarity is not most important. The world created by an artist is as complex as the world that surrounds him.

Andrei Tarkovsky Talking, "Cencrastus" 1981 (2) [Pol. trans. Jadwiga Kobylinska].

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