The genius of Tarkovsky

Course #4 / The World of Tarkovsky

Andrei Tarkovsky in Italy

«Tarkovsky is for me the greatest, the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of the film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream».

Ingmar Bergman

Most directors produce dozens of movies in their careers, but they never come close to the recognition and impact that Andrei Tarkovsky made on the cinematography. Seven movies were enough. From Ivan’s Childhood to The Sacrifice – it was a symbolic cycle of his own lifeline. His views on life, his memories, deep beliefs, and emotions. The first scene of his first movie Ivan’s Childhood shows a young, whose boy stands nearby a tree. In the final scene of his final movie The Sacrifice, we can see a young boy laying on the ground nearby a withered, dead tree. A symbolic full circle of life. Coincidence? Probably, not. Just a part of the mysticism that Tarkovsky’s movies always featured.

He himself admitted that he never tried to create actual movies or somehow throw a shadow on the system of the Soviet Union through them. It all was a subjective experience carried on the screen. In Tarkovsky’s view – the movie should be a complex form of art, not something vulgar and cheap. Because his movies are largely based on deeply personal experiences, they are not always easy to understand or analyze. On the bright side, subjectivity gives the viewer a chance for his own interpretation. Tarkovsky was not trying to impose his views on the viewer; he simply shared his experiences and reflections on life.

Tarkovsky had uneasy relationships with his father Arseniy, who was a poet that left his family when Andrei was just three years old. Tarkovsky often admitted that father’s absence had a great impact on his life. It was a hard and emotional childhood experience that was later carried on the screen; in many of his movies, you can hear the poems of Tarkovsky senior.

Outside of work, Tarkovsky showed interest in yoga, meditation, various paranormal activities, and religion. This interest translated into a display of strong spiritual experiences in his movies. While many movies throughout the history of cinematography have portrayed human as a strong and heroic figure, Tarkovsky presented his own view. He saw the human being as someone, who can be weak and miserable in his efforts to distance himself from the material goods. Meaning of life is not to be happy, but to find the inner self, work hard and despite the odds overcome all the materialistic desires to eventually evolve into a better person. His movie characters struggle a lot; their spiritual journeys are cruel and tormenting. It is because the root of evil hides in every human being and not everyone can handle it the right way.

For the actors, who worked with Tarkovsky – it was also an exciting, but very challenging experience. As a director, he was a perfectionist and very demanding towards actors and filming crew. Tarkovsky had his own psychologic tricks to bring out the best from them. Actors often worked in unclear, tense and exhausting conditions. He constantly challenged them to squeeze out all their acting talent. In his understanding, the actor had not only to trust the director but have a deep, almost religious faith in him. This is why he had a difficult relationship with the old-school actor Donatas Banionis in the process of the making of Solaris. The experienced actor was asking dozens of questions about his role to understand his role, as it is usually done in the theatre. Tarkovsky strongly believed that movie actor simply has to have faith in the concept of the movie. Fewer questions, more action. In every scene, Tarkovsky tried to bring out the spontaneous emotions from his actors and only he knew which emotion would eventually be the one he needs.

Attention to detail and scrupulous creation of the environment around the main characters of his movies – was another trademark of Tarkovsky. He paid serious attention to the smallest things that could appear in a particular scene. The color spectrum that often changed – from black and white to sepia or full color. Flowing water, sounds of nature, wandering animals, religious icons, light bulbs, and many other items – they all had a specific meaning. The same idea was with the timing and rhythm of the movie. Tarkovsky never tried to rush anything just to create more action on the screen. His scenes are often slow, with long shots and almost still moments. Reality often becomes a dream, but in some scenes, this transition is so natural that it is hard to distinguish between them.

A lot of his features and stylistics have been adopted and used by other directors. One of the latest examples is the 2015 Oscar-winning movie The Revenant by Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu. Mexican director has admitted in many interviews that Tarkovsky is one of his biggest inspirations and The Revenant clearly shows that. It has several scenes that look very similar to the ones that can be seen in Tarkovsky’s movies. Other well-known directors, like Wim Wenders and Lars von Trier, also are admirers of his talent.

Where hides the genius of Tarkovsky? Answers might differ. Seven timeless movies secured a lasting legacy in the cinematography – that is a fact. Tarkovsky always fundamentally worked only on those movies he truly wanted to create. Each of them was made like possibly the last one. Full dedication, no intentions to fool or cheat the viewer. It is hard to pick out any of his movies or make a trendy TOP 5 list – they all are brilliant in their own way. A part of a bigger story. Add to this his unique, poetic language of cinema that presents viewer not just a movie, but also an experience. Of course, not everyone can instantly feel and understand his works. There are no certain criteria what makes a person a Tarkovsky’s viewer, but at some point, his movies can present a completely different view on life. It is possible that after watching some of his works the perception of movies will never be the same.

Sources | Андрей Тарковский. Мартиролог. Дневники (2008) | Майя Туровская. 7 1/2 или фильмы Андрея Тарковского (1991) | Ярослав Ярополов. Андрей Тарковский. Сталкер мирового кино (2016)

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