Tarkovsky (1932-1986): Profile


Unlike the films of other contemporary Soviet directors, those of Andrei Tarkovsky demonstrate a personal and original vision that placed him alongside Godard, Bergman, and Fellini as one of the major European filmmakers of our time.


British critic Ivor Montgu compares the striking images of Tarkovsky's films to Breughel's paintings (which are themselves quoted in “Solaris”), finely detailed compositions that have “beauty, harmony, and relevance. When one has seen any one of his films once, one wants to see it again and yet again.”


Tarkovsky's seven features and two shorts have each won numerous prizes at international festivals, including the Golden Lion at Venice, the Grand Prize at San Francisco, and at Cannes, the Special Jury Prize (twice) and the Grand Prize for Creative Cinema.


Andrei Tarkovsky was born in Moscow on April 4, 1932. His father, Arseni, was a well-known poet of the period. In Tarkovsky's own words, “During my high school period I attended the School of Music, and I did some painting.  In 1952, I enrolled in the Institute of Oriental Languages, where I studied Arabic. All this wasn't for me.” He left school to join 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. Then, in 1956, he entered the State Institute for Cinema (VGIK), to study under Mikhail Romm.


While at film school, Tarkovsky made a short, There Will Be No Leave Today, and, for his diploma, the hour-long ┬ĘThe Steamroller and the Violin, which, he notes, “was very important for me because it was there that I met the cameraman Vadim Yusov and the composer Vyacheslav Ovchinikov, with whom I have continued working.”


The script was by another school friend, Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky, who later wrote Tarkovsky's Andrei Roublev and went on to become an accomplished director himself (Siberiade, Runaway Train). The hero of The Steamroller and the Violin is a twelve-year-old boy who yearns to be a steamroller driver while he studies to play the violin. The film's themes of dissatisfaction with art as an end in itself, and a rejection of art as an elite occupation, reappear in the director's more mature works.


Ivan's Childhood


Tarkovsky's first feature, Ivan's Childhood, appeared in 1962 and was greeted enthusiastically around the world. Critics heralded the arrival of a great talent in the Soviet cinema after decades of creative stagnation. The Ivan of the title is a newly orphaned twelve-year-old who volunteers to fight the Nazis during World War II. His “childhood” is, instead, a perverted adult existence: Ivan serves as a spy who crosses enemy lines, and who one day fails to return. An epilogue reveals, through a file kept by the Germans in Berlin, that he was condemned to death and hanged.  Jean-Paul Sartre described Ivan's Childhood as “socialist surrealism,” and praised the remarkably complex and unsentimental approach Tarkovsky used for his melodramatic subject.


Andrei Roublev


His next film, Andrei Roublev, completed four years later in 1966, is considered by many critics to be the one indisputable Russian masterpiece of the decade.  Tarkovsky chose as his subject the life of Andrei Roublev, the great Russian iconpainter of the Middle Ages. Reliable historical information on Roublev is scarce, so Tarkovsky invented his own vision of the past, demystifying the reverence of popular legends. Shooting the film in widescreen black and white, he depicts Roublev as a despairing humanist in a brutal world. He observes shocking atrocities committed by feudal lords and invading Tartars, as well as an erotic pageant of uninhibited pagans, frolicking in the nude. In time, he abandons all hope, vowing to remain silent and to stop painting.


Many years later, when a local duke seeks a craftsman to build him a bell of unprecedented size, a young boy answers the call. Claiming to be the son of an artisan who taught him the secrets of the craft before he died, the boy (Kolya Burlyayev, who also played the role of Ivan) sets out to build his duke a masterpiece. Despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles, the bell is flawlessly completed, and it rings throughout his village. Overcome with joy and released anxiety, the boy confesses to Roublev that he had lied and that he had constructed the bell with no prior expertise.


A greatly moved Roublev, breaking many years of silence, comforts the boy and tells him that as artists they will work together. A montage of his icons, in vibrant color, closes the over-three-hour film. Andrei Roublev was held up for general release by the USSR until 1971, causing a scandal, and much speculation in the West. Some observers believe the Russian censors were shocked by the violence, eroticism, and the obsession with religion, all unorthodox for the Russian cinema of the day. In 1969, the film won the International Critics Prize at Cannes, and in 1973 it made its US debut in a cut version later restored and released by Columbia Pictures but presently no longer available at the New York Film Festival.

SUITE 503 ! 333 WEST 39TH STREET ! NEW YORK, NY 10018 ! LEPHONE (212) 629-6880 ! FAX Tarkovsky turned to a novel by Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem for his third feature, Solaris, released in 1972 (see separate section for full details).


The Mirror


Three years later, he completed The Mirror, a film more directly autobiographical than any he had made before or since. “It is the story of my mother and thus part of my own life,” he has said. “The film contains only genuine incidents.  It's a confession.” Tarkovsky's parents separated in 1935, and The Mirror has been seen as his way of exorcising repressed feelings from his childhood. Voice-over readings of his father's poems and other, unusually subjective associations lead the viewer through a labyrinth of scenes and images. Soviet authorities disapproved of The Mirror and its domestic release was restricted. While Western critics might point to the influences of Bergman and Resnais and their deeply introspective themes, or to Fellini's 8 1/2 as an example of a director's self-appraisal, Russian critics have no such vantage point within their national cinema.




Tarkovsky returned to science fiction in his next film, Stalker (1979), loosely based on a 1973 novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. The novel was set in North America; Tarkovsky transferred the story, without actually specifying its locale, unmistakably back to Russia. Taking place in the future, Stalker concerns a government-restricted, mystery-shrouded area known as the “Zone,” at the center of which exists a “Room” where wishes are fulfilled. The hazards of the unpredictable Zone can only be avoided if one travels with a “stalker,” who will illegally guide the uninitiated.

Living on the Zone's periphery, with dirty clothes, shaven head, and a decrepit family, Tarkovsky's stalker resembles a political prisoner in a work camp.  He is hired by two intellectuals, an unnamed scientist, and a writer, to reach the Room. “In the end,” critic Gilbert Adair writes, “the scientist, denouncing the false hopes the Room must encourage, toys with the notion of blowing it up, while the writer, who sought to spur his flagging creativity, contemptuously declines even to formulate a wish. To the wretched, by now half-demented stalker is left the Sisyphian task of sustaining a doubtful faith of which he is a humble priest but without which he is nothing.”


Tarkovsky's next film, Nostalgia, was to be his first with footage shot outside the USSR and his first collaboration with a non-Russian crew. In the end, because of difficulties encountered with the state agency Sovinfilm, virtually all of Nostalgia was shot in Italy. Tarkovsky's cultural hybrid was greatly assisted by veteran Italian screenwriter Tonino Guerra, who spoke fluent Russian and whose wife is Russian. The sometimes-elusive narrative concerns a Russian scientist (not coincidentally also named Andrei) who has come to research in Italy.


His travels across the landscape, in the company of his guide, a tantalizingly beautiful young woman, are inevitably suffused with a growing sense of spiritual melancholy and “nostalgia” for his distant homeland. He meets a perhaps-mad recluse named Domenico, played by Ingmar Bergman regular Erland Josephson, whose eerie, mystical pronouncements touch on the fragile nature of faith in the modern world, which he seeks to re-affirm in a shocking act of self-immolation. Andrei, both the protagonist and the filmmaker, attempt to emulate the spirit of Domenico's tragi-heroic act in a climactic scene of spectacular, severe beauty.


“The Sacrifice,” filmed in Sweden with Sven Nykvist behind the majestically tracking camera, and unveiled at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival, turned out to be Tarkovsky's last testament. Not unlike his previous film, its restless protagonist (again played by Erland Josephson) is confronted with the dilemma of just how strongly felt is one man's belief in his ideals–is he willing to act on them The onset of a nuclear war–not seen but overheard via radio announcements and the sound of planes and rockets overhead compels him to an act of “sacrifice” that tears at the roots of his considered, almost bucolic daily life, yet also stands as a protestation of faith and hope for its future.


Andrei Tarkovsky died of cancer on December 28, 1986. Among the many posthumous tributes was one by Sight and Sound critic Peter Green, which concluded: “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.”


Tarkovsky's Filmography


Sacrifice, The (1986)

Tempo di viaggio (1983) (TV)

Nostalgia (1983) (USA)

Stalker (1979)

Mirror, The (1974)

Solaris (1972)

Andrei Rublev (1966)

Ivan's Childhood (1962)

Steamroller and the Violin, The (1960)

There Will Be No Leave Today (1959)

Extract (1958)

Killers, The (1958)