Andrei Tarkovsky: The Poet of Apocalypse
Discovering the mystical world of the greatest postwar Russian filmmaker
Andrei Tarkovsky's THE SACRIFICE
Andrei Tarkovsky (1932–1986) is widely considered the greatest director of postwar Soviet cinema. Though his spiritual and ecological concerns often lapse into anti-rationalist cant, one cannot help but be transfixed and shaken by the bewildering beauty of his films. Simultaneously stark and sumptuous, elemental and metaphysical, they place Tarkovsky alongside those he called the “poet geniuses” of the cinema: Bresson, Mizoguchi, Dovzhenko, Bergman, Antonioni (he also esteemed Kurosawa, Fellini, and Buñuel).
Like Bresson, the director Tarkovsky admired most (he cited Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest as the greatest film he had seen), the Russian filmmaker’s legacy is immense; and also like Bresson, whose singular style has frequently been mimicked by lesser directors (often to parodic effect), Tarkovsky cannot be held accountable for the battalions of imitators who have scavenged from his hermetic vault a few key elements and turned them into rote emblems of desolation. The list of directors who have copied his visual approach — long, often tracking and telephoto takes, adagio pacing, use of desaturated or muted colour, numinously animated objects, alternation between colour and black and white, and emphatically repetitive invocations of water, loping dogs, and industrial ruin — is lengthy, and some have been so concerted in their impersonation that one might dub them “Tarkclones.”
(One of the director’s most assiduous imitators and self-proclaimed heirs apparent is Andrey Zvyagintsev, whose 2007 film The Banishment quotes an early shot of a car making its way on a distant, winding road with a lone tree in a meadow from Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia; is stuffed with literalist religious imagery that includes a little girl called Eva eating an Edenic apple, a bookmark carrying an image from Masaccio’s Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, and children putting together a large puzzle of Leonardo’s Annunciation; and takes place in an isolated dacha whose surrounding landscape features a weathered church and parched land that sluices with rain when God’s grace returns to it at the end, the camera gliding over its gushing gullies in trademark Tarkovsky style. Zvyagintsev has continued his Tarkclone tendencies with the stark, snow-loaded trees and wintry water that grace the ominous opening and closing sequences of Loveless.)
The extent and intensity of Tarkovsky's influence are all the more remarkable for his scant filmography. Over two and a half decades, Tarkovsky made only seven feature films — a canon half the size of the sparse oeuvre of Bresson, a director with whom the Russian shared many affinities. Both explored themes of spiritual anguish, the search for grace and oblivion, and the conflict between the spiritual and the material, between faith and the barbarity of the world; both made the mystical or ineffable inhere in the materiality of objects, colours, textures; and both made final films (Bresson’s L’Argent and Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice) that stand as magisterial summations of a life’s work, compendiums of signature images, methods and themes.
The list of similarities goes on — the ecological alarums of Le Diable probablement and Stalker, the aversion to genre (“colder than the tomb,” in Tarkovsky’s words), the interest in Tolstoy and Dostoevsky — but, as is indicated by their respective collections of pensées on film (Bresson’s epigrammatic Notes sur le cinématographe and Tarkovsky’s discursive Sculpting in Time), in most ways the two directors are worlds apart. Bresson’s films are sec, clipped, and elliptical, their increasing reliance on rapid editing at odds with Tarkovsky’s partiality for the long take, the flowing of his water-gorged world, and the sense of immersion these both imply. (His films baptize one in time as much as in the elements, particularly fire and water.)
The famous final scene of The Sacrifice
Tarkovsky’s much-copied use of the long take — progressively attenuated with each film until its apotheosis in the nearly seven-minute house-burning sequence at the end of The Sacrifice — carried a moral, even spiritual import for the director. For Tarkovsky, montage (at least in its classic formulation by Sergei Eisenstein) profaned the world by fragmenting it and forcing meaning from juxtapositions. “I am radically opposed to the way Eisenstein used the frame to codify intellectual formulae,” Tarkovsky wrote; “My own method of conveying experience to the audience is quite different.... Eisenstein makes thought into a despot: it leaves no ‘air,’ nothing of that unspoken elusiveness which is perhaps the most captivating quality of all art.”
Tarkovsky’s search for wholeness, for the integrity of the world, might be read in reductive psychological terms: the separation of his parents in 1935 deeply marked him, and such films as The Mirror and Solaris reveal his yearning for a reassembled family. (His concern with memory, both private and ancestral, is largely reconstitutive.) More importantly, it reflects his preoccupation with spiritual and psychic renewal, dependent in his view on a series of vital connections: with nature, with the past, with originating cultures, including that of pre-revolutionary Russia.
With its holy madmen, saints and seers, and its Dostoevskian themes of atonement, apocalypse and imprisonment, loss of spirituality and hope, Tarkovsky’s cinema has its origins in 19th-century Russian culture (as frequently did Bresson’s). So imbued with the mystical notion of Mother Russia are Tarkovsky’s films that even those he directed in exile, after leaving the Soviet Union in 1983, seem to remake their respective settings into visions of his homeland. The final, heart-stopping image of Nostalghia conflates Russia and Italy, East and West, in the image of a snowy Russian country house walled within the ruins of the abbey of San Galgano; the spare, pristine house of The Sacrifice, shadowed by summer dusk on the Swedish island of Gotland, is another of the dachas that summon up the lost Eden of family and mother country in The Mirror and Solaris; even the Canadian (!) setting of the short story on which Stalker is based was transformed by Tarkovsky into a Zone reminiscent of a Soviet gulag (as many have noted, the shaven, derelict Stalker resembles a zek, or political prisoner).
“In the beginning was The Word. Why is that, Papa?,” asks the young son of Erland Josephson’s patriarch Alexander in his first faltering speech at the end of The Sacrifice. Muteness — from Andrei Rublev’s retreat into speechlessness to Alexander’s vow of silence in The Sacrifice — and a general mistrust of words are defining motifs of Tarkovsky’s cinema. “Words are too inert to express emotions,” says the narrator in The Mirror (which opens with the curing of a stutterer), and they are often used as weapons, to coerce or misinform. This suspicion of speech, no doubt influenced by Tarkovsky’s experience with Soviet doublespeak and Stalinist censorship — one thinks of the political repercussions of a single misspelt word in The Mirror — finds an attendant emphasis on symbolically charged imagery, as though pictures were somehow more direct and truthful: ruins and desolate landscapes, Edenic dachas, trees, (green) apples, milk, horses, mirrors, dogs. (Like Michael Powell, Tarkovsky was a connoisseur of auburn hair, most evidently in the Botticellian mane of Domiziana Giordano in Nostalghia.)
As countless critics have pointed out, Tarkovsky deployed the four elements like no other director before or since. Swathed in fog and aquatic with spas, needled with drizzle, sluicing, streaming, coursing and dripping with rain and snow, indoors and out, Tarkovsky’s terrain is terrarium. The mottled forest flora of ferns, lichens, and toadstools traversed by his slow camera are lushly entropic; the crumble and rust, detritus and dilapidation of his watery ruins, rendered gorgeous by sfumato effects and desaturated or monochrome film stock, signal both the remnants of past cultures and ecological calamity. Water, earth, and fire (less so air — he tends to scant the sky) are transformed by Tarkovsky’s glacial takes into signifiers of the imminent divine. As Chris Marker notes in One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich, his documentary-cum-essay film on the director,
It rains a lot in Tarkovsky's films, as in Kurosawa’s — one of the signs, no doubt, of the Japanese sensibility [Tarkovsky] mentioned so often. And like the Japanese, a physical relationship to nature. There's nothing more earthy, more carnal than the work of this reputed mystical filmmaker — maybe because Russian mysticism is not that of Catholics terrified by nature and body. Among the Orthodox, nature is respected, the Creator is revered through his creation, and in counterpoint to the characters, each film knits a plot between the four elements – sometimes treated separately, sometimes in pairs. In The Mirror, a simple camera movement brings together water and fire . . . the opposite path in Solaris.
The Japanese affinity cited by Marker, evident also in the folk music in The Sacrifice, is one of many forces that shaped Tarkovsky’s cinema. Though profoundly Russian in his cultural orientation — religious icons figure prominently in his work, as do the influences of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky (though Tarkovsky showed little respect for the novels by Stanislaw Lem and the Strugatsky brothers he adapted, distressing the authors with his extensive revisions) — European art was a wellspring for his films: a cursory list of artists quoted or summoned by his cinema includes Brueghel, Leonardo, Rembrandt, Rousseau, Bach, Pergolesi, Purcell, Debussy, and Dante. Even though Tarkovsky admired the innovations of Antonioni and cultivated his own demanding, even abstruse style, his taste inclined to the conservative and canonical. He once cited Walden as his favourite book and employed such familiar classics as Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” and Verdi’s Requiem; he was nonplussed by the abstract films of Stan Brakhage, loathed those of Godard, and was baffled by the very concept of non-narrative cinema. That said, his rejection of Soviet modernism was not exhaustive: though he reviled Eisenstein and Shostakovich, he excepted Dovzhenko, no doubt because of his poetic pantheism. (One should note that Tarkovsky’s “spiritual heir,” Alexander Sokurov, admires Eisenstein and made a feature film about Shostakovich.)
Variously cast since his death as shaman, martyr, prophet, saint, and visionary, Tarkovsky has been immured by reverence. His parade of lean, ascetic, even hieratic alter egos, many of them on spiritual quests to redeem the world, suggests a streak of the messianic, and one hears a theosophic thrum in some of his pronouncements:
I am drawn to the man who is ready to serve a higher cause, unwilling— or even unable — to subscribe to the generally accepted tenets of a worldly “morality”; the man who recognizes that the meaning of existence lies above all in the fight against the evil within ourselves, so that in the course of a lifetime he may take at least one step towards spiritual perfection.
Veneration has impeded criticism of Tarkovsky’s ideology, as though to parse were to asperse. While some have argued that his long take finally became an affectation (in Nostalghia), and that his parable-like use of symbolism was increasingly repetitive and simplistic (e.g., the Tree of Life in The Sacrifice), it is the rare analysis that broaches Tarkovsky’s reactionary values without apology, discomfort, or diffidence. (One wonders if the punitive portrait of Domiziana Giordano’s modern woman in Nostalghia derives more from scriptwriter Tonino Guerra, whose female ideal appears to be the self-sacrificing and tediously weepy Eleni, more symbol than character in Angelopoulos’ The Weeping Meadow.) But, again like Bresson — whose conservatism transformed into an increasingly radical vision in his late films — Tarkovsky's critiques of modernity proved prophetic. Certainly, Tarkovsky’s anti-materialist, anti-technological vision has gained greater currency as the world succumbs to the depredations of the triumphant market economy; he would deplore the new Russia, for which he would feel little nostalghia (though the resurgence of the Orthodox church might give him reason for hope). Whatever disquiet one might feel about the essentialist tendencies of Tarkovsky’s last works, no one can reproduce Tarkovsky’s soulful poetry, its flow of enigmatic imagery and sense of quest and struggle, which sometimes manage to silence the secular cynic with sheer, unaccountable beauty.
Parts of this essay were first published in “Tarkovsky and Bresson: Music, Suicide, Apocalypse,” in Tarkovsky (ed. Nathan Dunne, Black Dog Publishing, 2008).