Among the great filmmakers who would create an impact in the 2nd half of the 20th Century through only seven feature films. Andrei Tarkovsky gave the cinema interesting ideas on spirituality and philosophy would make him the most influential filmmakers to come out of the Soviet Union during the age of the Cold War. Yet, his films were often deemed too controversial for his country where he was able to find an audience outside of the world till his death on December 29, 1986. Since then, he’s considered to be one of the great filmmakers in the world as even the late Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman called him one of the greats.
Born in Zavrazhye, Russia on April 4, 1932, Andrei Tarkovsky grew up at the Yuryevets up until World War II where he evacuated the area with his mother and sister to live with his maternal grandmother while his father was volunteering during the war. In 1943, the family returned to Moscow where Tarkovsky went to art school in his teenage years that would shape his outlook into the world as it would influence many of his films in the years to come. After returning from a research expedition in 1954, Tarkovsky attended the State Institute of Cinematography where he would meet his first wife Irma Raush.
During the years at the State Institute of Cinematography under the director program, Tarkovsky would discover the international cinema that was emerging from Japan and Europe as it would shape his outlook into what he wanted to do as a filmmaker. In the late 50s, Tarkovsky would co-direct two student films that would later be seen publicly after his death. The first was an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s short story The Killers while the other was a suspenseful post-war film called There Will Be No Leave Today as Tarkovsky would collaborate with Aleksandr Gordon for these two films.
Along with writing an un-filmed script called Concrete, Tarkovsky would later collaborate with another future filmmaker in Andrei Konchalovsky where the two would collaborate on many projects including Tarkovsky’s first solo short film The Steamroller and the Violin where Tarkovsky would also work with cinematographer Vadim Yusov who would become a regular of Tarkovsky’s in his early film career. The 1960 short would be Tarkovsky’s graduate film as it was later played at student film festival in New York a year later winning first prize.
Tarkovsky’s first venture into feature-length filmmaking came in when his cinematographer Vadim Yusov told him about a project that needed a filmmaker after issues forced its original Eduard Gaikovich Abalyan to flee. It would be an adaptation of Vladimir Bogomolov’s novella Ivan about a boy who serves a reconnaissance scout for the Russian army during World War II. It was a project that co-screenwriter Mikhail Papava wanted to tell as its production was supposed to begin in 1960 but due to issues with the art council during the production. It was aborted and then later re-started as Mosfilm studios was looking for a new filmmaker to helm the project.
Through Yusov, Tarkovsky was asked to take over as he would input a few ideas into the project. Though wanting to remain faithful to the screenplay, the new ideas Tarkovsky decided to put were dream sequences involving Ivan’s pre-war childhood with his mother, who was played by Tarkovsky’s then-wife Irma Raush. Though Bogomolov wouldn’t like the additions that Tarkovsky made to the story, it would prove to be effective in the way Tarkovsky wanted to tell a war film that was told by from the perspective of a child.
The film would feature a few people who would be among Tarkovsky’s early collaborators that included editor Ludmila Feiginova and cinematographer Vadim Yusov. Other early collaborators in the acting front in whom Tarkovsky would work with is Nikolai Grinko who played the role of Lt. Colonel Gryaznov and in the role of Ivan, a young boy named Nikolai Burlyayev who was cast after Tarkovsky saw him in a short film directed by his friend Andrei Konchalovsky called The Boy and the Pigeon.
Wanting his film to stand out more than just a portrait of war from a child’s perspective, Tarkovsky decided to employ an array of images that would contrast the childhood Ivan missed where the camera work was more free-flowing in the dream/flashback scenes. For the rest of the film, Tarkovsky went for a more stylized approach to his compositions by adding a few religious imagery in the background of certain scenes as it would later play to the themes he wanted to explore about faith. Other scenes such as Captain Kholin trying to win over a young nurse in the middle of the woods as the images in the forest would be among the many images that future filmmakers would try to replicate in the years to come.
Despite issues with the censor board to release the film, Ivan’s Childhood came out in April of 1962 where the film was a commercial hit in the Soviet Union. Months later at the Venice Film Festival, the film was submitted for competition where it won the festival’s top prize in the Golden Lion. Its success at Venice would raise Tarkovsky’s stature with the burgeoning international film scene. The film also would attract the attention of one of the world’s great filmmakers in Ingmar Bergman who praised the film as he would later cite Tarkovsky as one of his favorite filmmakers.
During the production of Ivan’s Childhood, Tarkovsky had a meeting with the people of Mosfilm about a project that was to be about Russia’s most celebrated painter Andrei Rublev. It would be an extremely ambitious project in comparison to Ivan’s Childhood yet Mosfilm would approve the project as Tarkovsky worked with Andrei Konchalovsky to create a script that would two years to write due to research on Rublev and the period where he created his work. Knowing the complexity of Rublev’s life, Tarkovsky knew that the film would have to explore themes of faith and art as it stray from a lot of the conventions of Rublev’s life.
With Nikolai Grinko and Nikolai Burlyayev playing key parts of the film along with an appearance from Irma Raush, playing the role of Andrei Rublev would be Anatoli Solonitsyn. Solonitsyn was just a theater actor who had never worked in a film as he would become one of Tarkovsky’s key regular actors. With a cast expanded to include Ivan Lapikov as Kirill and Nikolai Sergeyev as Theophanes the Greek, the film would a bigger than Tarkovsky and Mosfilm would anticipate as the budget was shortened to around a million rubles.
Shooting began in April of 1965 as Tarkovsky chose to present the entirety of the film in black-and-white with Vadim Yusov serving as cinematographer. The production was turbulent due to some bad weather late in 1965 as Tarkovsky wanted to maintain a sense of authenticity for the film. Notably as he shot in vast locations in Russia that were damp and chaotic to establish a world where Rublev is dealing with changing times that would test his faith and art. Particularly as the film’s first act has Andrei traveling as a monk where he would encounter various events around him that would test his faith.
Tarkovsky’s fascination with faith would be one of the key components to what he wanted to tell in the film as Tarkovsky opened the film with a key scene of a man trying to create something only to fail. The opening prologue would establish all of the trials and tribulations of Rublev as Tarkovsky wanted the film’s first half to be about Rublev’s struggle with the world as it’s changing around him. In the second half, Rublev takes a vow of silence following a raid. Since the film is also about artists who hope to do something great that they will be remembered for.
The film’s third act has Rublev watching a young bellmaker (Nikolai Burlyayev) trying to make a bell for the Grand Prince where it would lead to a big moment that would finally Rublev break his silence and come to the aid of this young bellmaker. It’s a moment where it reveals all of the sacrifice those who create unveil as Rublev comforts this young bellmaker who makes a startling confession prompting Andrei to say something that would reconnect with his faith. Tarkovsky would end the film with colored images of Rublev’s icons to emphasize the work that he made as well as his importance to Russia.
The film was completed in July of 1966 with a running time of 205 minutes but officials from the Soviet Union demanded cuts over its length, violence, nudity, and other themes deemed to be subversive. While it got a screening later that year, it was followed by controversy as a planned screening for the 1967 Cannes Film Festival was cancelled. It would finally play at Cannes two years later out of competition at a legendary 4 AM screening where the film won the FIPRESCI prize as it was finally played in the Soviet Union in a shortened 186-minute cut in the fall of 1971. Though the 186-minute cut was Tarkovsky’s preferred version, it would be its original 205-minute cut that would finally be seen the light of day in the mid-1990s as the film’s editor Lyudmilla Feiginova kept a copy of that cut. The film would further establish Tarkovsky’s stature in the world of international cinema.
Following the completion of Andrei Rublev in the mid-1960s, Tarkovsky’s next project would be another ambitious film that would set him apart from the rest of his contemporaries. Being a fan of Stanislaw Lem’s work, Tarkovsky decided to adapt Lem’s 1961 sci-fi novel Solaris as his next project. The book was the story of a psychologist who travels to outer space to evaluate a tense situations involving two astronauts as he sees his dead wife at the space station. The story explored themes of death and its many circumstances as it also revels into ideas of memory and regrets.
Knowing it would be a more ambitious project than Andrei Rublev, Tarkovsky wanted to make a film that was more dramatic than the usual sci-fi films that had been coming out in the mid-1960s. While Tarkovsky, like many, would see Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 sci-fi film 2001: A Space Odyssey, Tarkovsky was impressed with the visual effects that Kubrick created but wasn’t a fan of Kubrick’s ideas on outer space. Wanting to standout from Kubrick’s film, Tarkovsky decided to incorporate his fascination with mysticism and death by bringing it back down to Earth as he took a different approach to Lem’s story by infusing his own ideas with co-screenwriter Fridrikh Gorenshtein.
With Vadim Yusov and Lyudmilla Feiginova on board along with actors Nikolai Grinko and Anatoly Solonitsyn on board. The casting for the film would be very different from his previous experience as Donatas Banionis was cast in the role of the film’s protagonist Kris Kelvin. For the role of Kris’ wife Hari, Tarkovsky wanted his then ex-wife Irma Raush for the part but she wasn’t able to as Tarkovsky even approached Bibi Andersson for the role as she was eagerly willing to play the part. Eventually, it would be Natalya Bondarchuk who would take the part as she had originally auditioned for Tarkovsky in 1970 but Tarkovsky felt she was too young. After seeing her in Larisa Shepitko’s You and I, Tarkovsky decided that she would play Hari.
The production for Solaris was an uneasy one as Tarkovsky decided to shoot the film in color for the very first time as he and Vadim Yusov argued over how to create scenes. Tarkovsky also had a hard time working with Banionis over Tarkovsky’s methods into directing actors though Tarkovsky was still content with Banionis’ performance. It would be Natalya Bondarchuk who would impress Tarkovsky and the rest of the cast as she was only 18 during the film’s production. Notably as she provided a lot of the film’s emotional moments in a film that was mostly quite restrained.
While the film was shot largely in Mosfilm studio, Tarkovsky also shot many of its exteriors in Zvenigorod for the film’s opening section while he also traveled to Japan for the film’s famous highway sequence. Not wanting to emphasize on visual effects other than the exteriors involving the planet Solaris, Tarkovsky was able to use the budget he was given to create a film that wasn’t entirely a sci-fi film. Instead, he created a movie set in outer space that featured men discussing death and such while this dead woman appears to them as if there is something going on around this strange planet.
Adding to the film’s unique presentation would the music of Eduard Artemyev’s music as his electronic-driven score added a serene melancholia to the film. Notably the film’s opening credit music that was a take on Bach’s Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ (BMV 639) that was played on an organ. Though Tarkovsky wanted to use music sparingly, Artemyev would create sound textures that some believed would be the early ideas of ambient music. It would be one of the many things that would make Solaris stand out from everything else Tarkovsky had done as Artemyev would become one of Tarkovsky’s key collaborators.
Despite another round of meetings with Soviet officials over what to cut, Tarkovsky was able to premiere the film at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival where it won the second place Grand Jury Prize as well as another FIPRESCI prize. A year later, the film came out in the Soviet Union to a limited release where it was well-received with a shortened American release in 1976. Though Tarkovsky wasn’t impressed with the final results of the film, it would give the filmmaker a higher visibility with the world of international cinema as his fan base started to grow outside of the Soviet Union.
After two back-to-back ambitious projects, Tarkovsky took a break following the release of Solaris to return to a much more personal project that he had been developing since the early 1960s. After it went through various drafts and was rejected at first in the late 1960s, the clout he got after Solaris would allow him to make the film he wanted. While a lot of it was based on Tarkovsky’s own childhood, the loosely-autobiographical film would also be one of his complex projects of his career.
The project would be more intimate in terms of the stories Tarkovsky wanted to tell as the film would relate to not just themes on death and faith but also memory as the film would be a much more reflective story based on many events. Especially as the film would be told largely in the fragmented mind of a dying man as he reflects on moments in his life. In creating something that was personal and reflective, Tarkovsky aimed to create a narrative that was very loose where there would be flashbacks and other memories as if everything feels abrupt and such.
With editor Lyudmila Feiginova and music composer Eduard Artemyev working with Tarkovsky along with actor Anatoly Solonitsyn. Tarkovsky gathered a new crew while the ensemble cast he worked with were new to the director. Though he wanted Bibi Andersson for the role of the mother, Margarita Terekhova was cast in the role as the mother as well as the part of the wife to play up the idea of memory. For the lead role of Alexei, the character would largely be unseen except as a boy in order to maintain the unconventional tone of the narrative and its presentation.
Some of this presentation would include strange images that involved levitation as it was already part of Tarkovsky’s trademark. For this particular scene, Tarkovsky would play up the idea of fantasy as if he was recalling some lost memories that impacted him. It would be among some of the many moments that Tarkovsky would create for the film as he opens it with a boy turning the TV on to see a report that would be followed by an array of images including violent ones involving the Sino-Soviet border war of the late 1960s and images of World War II. All of it shot from the perspective of an adult Alexei just before he’s about to die as he would then reflect on his childhood.
Part of the film’s unique approach to the narrative was the fact that film featured narration Innokenty Smuktonvsky who plays the role of Alexei as it also featured the poems of Tarkovsky’s father Arseny who also narrates. It would emphasize Tarkovsky’s own relationship with his father as Tarkovsky would play to Alexei’s sense of loss and issues as a father as the character would become estranged from his wife. Even as the character would have fears for what his son would face as an adult as the film represents a lot of Tarkovsky’s own fears about the world ahead as many called it his most personal work of his career.
After some delays and another round of battling the Soviet officials over the film, The Mirror was finally released in the spring of 1975. Though it was on a limited release due to a few available prints, the film drew rave reviews as well as being a modest hit in the Soviet Union. The film also helped continue to establish Tarkovsky as one of the key filmmakers working at the time though he would still be battling his country’s top leaders over what to release.
A four-year break would follow the release of The Mirror where Tarkovsky worked on various unreleased screenplays that included a project about German writer E.T.A. Hoffman. After helming a stage play of Hamlet in 1976 with Anatoly Solonitsyn in the role, Tarkovsky decided to work on an adaptation of a project that would return him to the world of sci-fi. This time around, it would be a smaller project that wasn’t set in outer space and relied more on decayed locations as if the world had fallen apart.
The project was based on a novel called Roadside Picnic by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky who would collaborate with Tarkovsky on creating a screenplay that would take their story into a more provocative territory. Entitled Stalker, the project would center around this man who would take two different man into a world as they hope to fulfill their desires. It would be set in a world where the Soviet Union was in decay and there’s this strange world called the Zone that is forbidden with claims that aliens had taken over the land. It would be unlike anything Tarkovsky had done while it would carry themes of faith and humanity.
The production would begin in late 1976 where it would be mired in lots of trouble due to various things including improper film negative developments as it would lead to a fallout between Tarkovsky and the film’s first cinematographer Georgy Rerberg. After getting a new cinematographer in Aleksandr Knyazhinsky, shooting would progress despite some of the problems Tarkovsky had in the production as he would also suffer a heart attack in 1978. While shooting the film, one of the locations they shot at was near a chemical plant where some claimed that it would later play to the deaths of Tarkovsky and some people involved in the production in the years to come.
With collaborators Anatoly Solonitsyn and Nikolai Grinko both playing the role of the two different men who enter the Zone each hoping to get something from the mysterious land. Playing the role of the Stalker would be Aleksandr Kaidanovsky as he would represent this man who would guide these two different men into this strange world. He would be the character that would be the voice of everything he sees and knows as Tarkovsky would often follow the character who hopes to please his clients by bringing them into this world. What would happen is a troubling aftermath that would feature themes of disillusionment over humanity.
With a film that doesn’t have a conventional plot nor a directing style that is synonymous with most films. Stalker is clearly a film that is about a journey into the unknown as Tarkovsky creates something that is unlike anything from the brown monochrome sepia in the film’s first and last 30 minutes to the long takes that he shoots. Armed with Eduard Artmeyev’s exotic film score and Vladimir Sharun’s sound design, it is a film where Tarkovsky creates something almost has an air of suspense in the atmosphere these three characters create. With an ending that really plays to the ambiguity of humanity and its presentation, the film would be a major stepping stone to what Tarkovsky wanted to say about the world and humanity.
Though it was released in May of 1979 and was able to play at the Cannes Film Festival a year later where it won the Ecumenical Jury Prize. The film had a difficult time being released due to the objection of Soviet officials who found the film to be very slow in its pacing. The film would eventually be the last project Tarkovsky would make in the Soviet Union after a project with Andrei Konchalovsky called The First Day was halted in the middle of production. The cancellation of the project would start a long war between Tarkovsky and Soviet officials as he would embark on another hiatus between films.
Shortly after the release of Stalker, Tarkovsky went to Italy where he would make the documentary Voyage in Time with Italian screenwriter Tonino Guerra. The documentary would follow Tarkovsky’s travel to the country as he and Guerra would work on a screenplay together. The project would revel into the world of nostalgia and longing as it would be about a Russian poet who travels to Italy to do research on an 18th Century composer. There, he would have encounters with his surroundings including a madman who would shape his thoughts on loneliness as he longs to return home to Russia.
The project would eventually be a co-production between Italy and Russia as Tarkovsky would make the film largely in Italy. The decision to shoot in Italy with an Italian film crew, with the exception of his wife Larissa as the assistant director, would only cause problems between Tarkovsky and Soviet officials. Even as it would lead to Mosfilms pulling out of the project as Tarkovsky had to get funding from Italian film productions to do the film along with some funds from the French film company Gaumont. The lack of support from his home country would force Tarkovsky to leave the country forcing to leave behind his son Andrei Jr. who was unable to leave the country.
Unable to work with his old collaborators, Tarkovsky was able to get the production going as he shot the film largely in Italy. With Oleg Yankovsky in the role of the film’s protagonist Andrei Gorchakov, the film’s real coup was getting famed Swedish actor Erland Josephson in the role of the troubled Domenico. The film would mark Tarkovsky’s first collaboration with one of Ingmar Bergman’s key principle actors as Josephson provided the kind of performance Tarkovsky wanted where it would include some very haunting moments for the film.
With many of the film containing shots and styles that is similar to Tarkovsky’s other films, the film would also have Tarkovsky experiment more with the idea of flashbacks and dream sequences. Notably to establish Gorchakov’s sense of longing as he feels overwhelmed by his research, his surroundings, his smitten translator, and all sorts of things where he would recall images of the life he left behind. The film would also have Tarkovsky create some abstract moments such as a dream sequence where Gorchakov would see himself as the madman. The film would feature two powerful scenes that would play to the feeling of alienation such as Domenico’s speech in the middle of the town and the penultimate scene of Gorchakov holding a candle while walking on an empty pond. It’s these moments where Tarkovsky manages to find these moments and create something that is truly unforgettable.
The film premiered at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival where it was well-received and won several prizes. Among them was the Ecumenical Jury Prize, the Best Director prize, the FIPRESCI prize, and a special prize that he shared with French filmmaker Robert Bresson. Still, Tarkovsky wasn’t happy over the fact that Soviet officials prevented the film winning the prestigious Palme D’or as it would further resolve Tarkovsky’s decision to never work in the Soviet Union again. Yet, he would be able to find work in Europe where he still managed to maintain his stature as one of cinema’s great filmmakers.
After deciding not to return to the Soviet Union, Tarkovsky would go ahead to create another project as he would get the chance to make a film completely outside of the restrictions of the Soviet Union. For what would become his final project, it would be a film that would return Tarkovsky full-on to his fascination on faith and humanity. Notably as it would reflect on aspects of the Cold War that is still happening as Tarkovsky would call the film The Sacrifice.
The film would revolve around the birthday of a family patriarch in a Swedish island as the news that World War III has just begun brings a lot of chaos for the family as its patriarch wonders how to bring peace and spare his family and friends from this horrible ordeal. It would then lead this man to reflect on what he’s about to lose and everything he’s already lost as it would lead to him making the ultimate sacrifice to save his family and friends. It would be a drama that asked big questions as Tarkovsky would finally get the chance to make something that talked about the world at large as it would be set in a small, Swedish island.
Getting the permission to shoot the film in Sweden at the island of Gotland after being unable to shoot in the island of Faro. Tarkovsky wanted to employ some of the traits of Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman whom he considered to be a major influence. The big coup for Tarkovsky in making the film wasn’t just getting Bergman’s art director Anna Asp to build the house for the movie but also getting the service of another Bergman collaborator in famed cinematographer Sven Nykvist. The collaboration with Nykvist would be a major moment for Tarkovsky as the two worked on creating visual ideas for the film.
With Erland Josephson playing the lead role of Alexander, Tarkovsky would get a cast of mostly Swedish actors, with the exception of British actress Susan Fleetwood, to play the characters in the film. The crew Tarkovsky would gather would consist of a mostly Swedish crew as he would have a translator to work with to translate instructions to the people he’s working with. While Tarkovsky didn’t change his approach to the direction, it was something new to the crew that Tarkovsky worked with in creating the kind of shots that Tarkovsky wanted.
While the production was smooth for the most part, the shoot for the film’s climatic moment was a disaster as it would be documented by the film’s co-editor Michal Lesczylowski for a documentary about the making of the film. Yet, Tarkovsky was able to re-shoot the scene as it allowed him to complete the film. By the end of the year, he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer as he was treated in Paris while completing the film on his deathbed as Nykvist and Lesczylowski would help him finish.
The film made its premiere at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival where the film was a major hit collecting three prizes in the Ecumenical Jury prize, the FIPRESCI prize, and the Special Jury prize as they were collected by Tarkovsky’s son Andrei Jr. The film would also win a British Academy Award for Best Film in early 1987 as it was well-received by critics. Yet, it would be Tarkovsky’s last triumph as the filmmaker finally died in Paris on December 29, 1986. He would be buried a few days later at Russian cemetery in Paris as his wife Larisa would die 12 years later as she is buried next to him.
In the years since his death, Tarkovsky would be revered as one of the great filmmakers of the 20th Century as he’s managed to influence many filmmakers. Danish auteur Lars von Trier cites Tarkovsky as a huge influence as he bears some of Tarkovsky’s visual traits in early films like Medea and Europa and later use those visual tricks for his 2009 film Antichrist as he dedicated the film to Tarkovsky. American filmmaker Jim Jarmusch also cited Tarkovsky as an influence as many critics noticed many of the visual tricks Jarmusch put in his 1995 western Dead Man were inspired by Tarkovsky.
In 2002, another American filmmaker in Steven Soderbergh did his own adaptation of Solaris as the director also admitted to borrowing some of the visual ideas of Tarkovsky for his version though that too wasn’t well-received by its novelist Stanislaw Lem. In 2011, American filmmaker Terrence Malick released The Tree of Life as many critics compared the film’s narrative style and some of its visual ideas to Tarkovsky’s The Mirror. With many filmmakers from Russia and around the world citing Tarkovsky as a major influence. Documentaries were made about the filmmaker as noted experimental filmmaker Chris Marker made a 55-minute documentary entitled One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich for a French TV program in 2000.
It’s been more than 50 years since Andrei Tarkovsky released his first feature film and more than 25 years since his death. Yet, he’s created a legacy of films that are unparalleled with any filmmaker that has come before and since. Tarkovsky is alive in the seven feature films he’s made as young film buffs and aspiring filmmakers are discovering his work. While it’s obvious that none of his films are easy to watch as they take on very heavy themes and have visual ideas that are very unconventional. There’s something about these seven films that will stay in someone’s mind as there’s images that can be imitated but never replicated. That is why Andrei Tarkovsky will always be around as the legacy and films he created is just simply unforgettable.
Related: The Short Films of Andrei Tarkovsky - Voyage in Time - One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich
© thevoid99 2012