The Cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky

The Russian director, Andrei Tarkovsky is perhaps one of the most influential film makers in recent times. George Clooney remade ‘Solaris’ in Hollywood, something that would have been unthinkable even in the 90’s! Directors such as Ridley Scott using the theme of dreams and death in The Gladiator is straight out of Solaris, where Russell Crowe’s character walks through fields of wheat with a focus on his hands as he caresses the growth. This appears in Solaris in the opening sequence where Chris walks through nature before his flight to Solaris. The idea of the Matrix is straight out of Tarkovsky “Stalker” down to the colour tones.

Much has been written about Tarkovsky’s work, to which many of us return time and again. His is succinct article on Tarkovsky, Maximilian Le Cain states that “even at its bleakest, Tarkovsky’s universe is suffused with faith and the idea of transcendence.” This is very much in keeping with the director’s work that was so rejected by the Soviet government as it endeavoured to use spirituality as his base for exploration into the human condition. Below is an extract from Le Cain’s impressive article.

Andrei Tarkovsky is almost certainly the most famous Russian filmmaker since Eisenstein. His visionary approach to cinematic time and space, as well as his commitment to cinema as poetry, mark his oeuvre as one of the defining moments in the development of the modern art film. Although he never tackled politics directly, the metaphysical preoccupations of films such as Andrei Rublev (1966), Mirror (1974) and Stalker (1979) provoked ongoing hostility from the Soviet authorities. Like many other artists in the Soviet Union, his career was marked by constant struggles with the authorities to realise his vision. Although this meant he completed only seven features in his 27 years as a director, each one is strikingly uncompromising in its thematic ambition and formal boldness. Whether or not he would have fared better under the capitalist film industry in the West is open to debate – Bresson and Dreyer, for example, both suffered frequent frustrations in creating their formally radical investigations into human spirituality.

Tarkovsky was born in 1932 in Zavrzhe in what is now Belorus. He was the son of noted poet Arseni Tarkovski and actress Maria Ivanovna. His parents divorced while he was still a child. His father’s poetry features in Mirror, Stalker and Nostalgia (1983) and his mother appears in Mirror.

Tarkovsky studied Arabic at the Moscow Institute of Oriental Languages between 1951 and 1954 and geology in Siberia, before enrolling in the famous VGIK Moscow film school in 1959. His teacher was Mikhail Romm. While there, he worked on a short piece for television There Will Be No Leave Today (1959). His prize-winning graduation short, The Steamroller and the Violin (1960), was written in collaboration with future director Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky who would also work on the Andrei Rublev script.

His first feature, Ivan’s Childhood (1962), was an adaptation of a war story by Vladimir Bogomolov. At its centre is an orphaned 12-year-old scout whose lost childhood is repeatedly invoked in a dazzling series of dream scenes. The rest of the film avoids action movie heroics in favour of an intense study of the tensions assailing a group of soldiers during the dead time between missions. Although Tarkovsky’s style is not yet completely developed, his haunting ability to capture nature is already impressively apparent. The lyrical but claustrophobic weight of the film’s forest setting is perhaps its most memorable element. One of the cinema’s great war movies, Ivan’s Childhood won its director notice in the West by being awarded the Golden Lion at Venice.

Andrei Rublev displayed an enormous advance in Tarkovsky’s technique. Although loosely based on the life of famous mediaeval icon painter Andrei Rublev, this episodic series of meditations on art’s survival and relevance in the face of harrowing historical circumstances was interpreted by many as an allegory for the plight of the artist under the Soviet regime.

All the characteristics of Tarkovsky’s visual approach were now in place. As he explained in his book of film theory, Sculpting in Time, cinema’s capacity for capturing time was in his view its most important feature. He favoured long takes that allowed the time flowing through an individual shot to take effect on an audience. His contemplative, imagistic style emphasised the integration of characters with the world around them, both through their positioning in the frame and through the slow, probing camera movements he frequently employed. Like Antonioni, he proposed a cinema based on the rapt observation of the present moment as opposed to a plot-driven preoccupation with what will happen next.

Vividly textured images of nature abound in Tarkovsky’s cinema, with the four elements – earth, air (in the form of wind), fire and water – highlighted time and again. Animals, especially dogs, appear frequently and often enigmatically, possibly representing another embodiment of the omnipresent forces of the natural world. Buildings are often ruined and decaying, always on the point of being reclaimed by nature. Even the still-occupied rural homes in Mirror and The Sacrifice (1986) are isolated in the countryside, vulnerable to the ever-present elements. This vulnerability is expressed in images like snow floating through the roof of a sacked cathedral in Andrei Rublev or rain falling inside the hero’s family home at the conclusion of Solaris (1972).

To read the full article.