Few can say that they were potentially murdered by the Soviet Union for their stance against that regime. Andrei Tarkovsky is a legend; friend to Akira Kurosawa, influence on Stanley Kubrick and Stephen Soderbergh, and director of significant weight and magnitude that isn’t afraid to take his time with a shot or a character. Surrounding his films is always an air of surrealistic reality and contrived personal interaction that feels like something out of a long dream you can’t quite remember. Like these dreams, what you’ve seen after a Tarkovsky film will feel unreal and like an oddity that isn’t quite there but sticks with you in some emotional way. It’s beyond our reality and yet feels so personal to those that can connect with them.
Let’s take a look at his films, shall we? For the sake of time I’ll only be looking at his feature-length narrative features, but I’ll tell you that his shorts and his documentaries are well worth your time as well.
- Mirror : There’s not a bad one in this bunch, I promise you. Everything just revolves around your willingness to read subtitles. Mirror is Tarkovsky’s fourth film, coming after masterpieces and requiring a legacy unto itself. This is…probably the least-talked-about of his films and for good reason. The story is a nonlinear mishmash of memories, recalled by a dying poet based on Tarkovsky’s own father, and it plays out as a stream-of-consciousness narrative that turns into a remarkable flashing of the life before the dying man’s eyes. It’s telling that even in his weakest moment this guy could turn out work like this. The poet father would go on to outlive his director son by three years, living in his shadow and as a memory himself. Much of the images are symbolic in nature and this was where the director began to be viewed as against the Soviet Union, leading to the conspiracy theories surrounding his death.
- Nostalghia : Ever been to another country and felt isolated? How about just another community, their ways, and customs confusing to you and difficult to latch onto? Tarkovsky felt the same way quite often, leaning on his memories of a home in the Soviet Union to feel comfortable. This is especially difficult for him to address after he left the country, moving and transitioning his career to more open hostility towards his former leaders/employers. The film follows a Russian writer that moves to Italy for research, only to be struck with profound homesickness. Like all of his films, this makes use of dream sequences and absurdly long takes that remind one of the ennui period of Antonioni. These isolated moments are used to bring to life how Tarkovsky felt being in Italy himself, in particular the sky. Tarkovsky felt that, while it was merely the sky, he could look at it throughout the day and see different portraits and this is one of the things that connects people. It’s often called a film where “nothing happens,” but this is part of Tarkovsky’s narrative on life itself.
- Ivan’s Childhood : Americans don’t often think about what happened to the Russian people during WWII. We’ve explored it here and there, sure, but no one quite knows what to say about it with our own experiences in the pocket that come off as largely patriotic. Even rarer is to experience the viewpoint of a child during this whole affair (Jojo Rabbit is still in theatres, get off your asses and see it). Soviet cinema went through a long interest in films of this nature, working to get their experiences out there and collectively work through it together. The way the world reacted to it was telling, and it became one of Tarkovsky’s most profitable films and launched his career. Soviet film fans flocked to it and American audiences weren’t far behind. Hell, this thing won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and that’s no small feat. The film would draw fans the likes of Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, and modern fans from all walks of life. The Independent called it “the most lyrical war movie ever made,” and I think that it could stand up to that statement even today. War films are often an exploration of brutality or beauty that are found in violence, but few can portray it with the grace of a director that lived it as a child himself.
- Andrei Rublev : This thing’s an absolute beast, okay? Look, not everyone can strap in for a three-and-a-half-hour epic that contemplates the life of a painter in medieval Russia. While the film only loosely adapts the man’s life, the depiction of that period in the country’s history has been widely praised for its slavish accuracy and deep-dive on the period that lead to tsarist Russia. This is one of the Tarkovsky films that is surrounded by controversies like censorship and Soviet interference, but the restored full cut of the film is an absolute masterpiece from a director that was only on his second film. The idea that this thing could be so controversial for its depiction of Christian symbology as a grounding force behind what Russia would become speaks volumes to where the country lay at the time of its release. There’s an absolutely dynamite restoration that was released earlier this year (maybe late last year?) that’s worth hunting down.
- Solaris : If you’d have found me as recent as three years ago I’d have sworn up and down that this was THE Tarkovsky film, and I still think it’s one of the most incredible ever released. I love when artsy directors go sci-fi because something that high-concept requires dedication and real vision behind it to achieve. What Tarkovsky made is one of the most beautifully weird, depressing, and brutally honest films in the man’s set. The plot surrounds a psychiatrist that is sent to a space station to evaluate the health of some wayward scientists that have begun to feel the effects of the planet. See, this thing is a sentient ball of liquid that is calling out to people with imagery that causes them to fall apart and begin to connect with things they don’t like acknowledging. What follows is classic Tarkovsky but finally audiences could connect with it, and it went global to change how we viewed contemplative sci-fi. Kubrick made it cold and beautiful, but Tarkovsky gave it love. It’s one of the best science fiction films ever made, it’s one of the most beautiful tragedies ever made, and if you’ve got the patience it’s definitely one of the best contemplations on what it takes to truly be human that one could ask for.
- The Sacrifice : At its core this is something marvelous, but the subject matter might be difficult for a lot of people. Tarkovsky shot a movie about a high-minded intellectual that gets into an argument with God in order to avert an impending nuclear holocaust. If this sounds like the plot of Terminator 2: Judgement Day you’d be right, but what happens here is much more solemn and less bombastic. The director wrote that the lead had grown weary of the emptiness in human speech, and the entirety of the film shows a weary view of human bickering when the species as a whole is at stake. The director would die while this was still rolling out, and his exhaustion (not to mention the cancer flowing through his veins) shows in every frame. The man’s sickened view of humanity would go on to win the Grand Prix and his third Palme d’Or at the Cannes film festival. I won’t spoil anything further for you, just point out that this is an incredible piece of work that should be viewed by everyone capable.
01. Stalker : Look, just go with me here. This is nothing short of an absolute masterpiece that calls together the best parts of humanity and puts them in a conflict that makes them fight and squabble and confront reality beyond their own. Three men, one a leader, one a scientist, and one a different kind of intellectual, all trespass in a zone that is messed up by a meteor that landed somewhere in the center and they are forced to confront the alien thing that MIGHT be controlling everything.The entire message of the film revolves around the idea that this whole thing could be bullshit. The Stalker, a man who knows how to navigate the area around the crash landing site. These separate pieces come together to create a new idea together, all of these people coming from different backgrounds and faiths and ideas to head towards the center of their universe to find an answer that we are left to guess at. I adore the way this asks us to consider humanity and what it truly means, what changes it can handle, and what it takes to traverse the weird alleyways of life.
Welp, that’s my Tarkovsky list. This one was grueling just to put together, let alone figure out for a list. Compiling thoughts on his films takes a lot of effort and I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I think putting it all to words was totally worth it. Any of you familiar with Tarkovsky?