Since his death in 1986, at the age of 54, Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky has become a crucial figure in the history of cinema.
Along with such persecuted and iconoclastic filmmakers as Erich Von Stroheim and Orson Welles, Tarkovsky fits the bill perfectly as the misunderstood and uncompromising artist-visionary who had to fight in order to express his deeply personal creative instincts. With charges made against his films as being anti-Russian and intentionally "obscure and elitist", the authorities formed a strong distrust as to what his films were actually trying to say. In his defence, he claimed that his films were not about any specific meaning but were to be experienced like pieces of music. Making only seven features in a career spanning 26 years, Tarkovsky was forced to sacrifice his country, his home, and his children to continue making films. "Many directors manage to detach their own life from the films they make. I could never do that. For me the cinema's not a profession, it's my life, and each film is an act of my life."
The stories of Tarkovsky having his productions hindered and sabotaged by a conspiratorial bureaucracy place him firmly amongst the ranks of the infamously troubled history of Russian cinema. In the 1920s, filmmakers, such as V. I. Pudovkin, Alexander Dovzhenko, Dziga Vertov, and Sergei Eisenstein, came under attack from accusations of being "overly-aesthetic". This not only excluded the 'illiterate masses', but also went against the socialist realist propaganda demanded by Lenin and Stalin. In the fifties and sixties, a new wave of Soviet filmmakers, such as Andrei Konchalovsky, Otar Ioseliani, Sergo Paradjanov, and Tarkovsky, emerged from film school ready to trample over any form of realist tradition. With a glut of artistically challenging films flooding onto the festival scene, it seemed as though the government had eased its censorial control. This, however, was not the case. Both Konchalovsky and Ioseliani defected to the West, while Paradjanov was arrested in 1973 under charges of illegal currency dealing, homosexuality, and "incitement to suicide". His last two films, Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors (1965) and The Colour of Pomegranates (1968), had been highly disapproved of and re-edited by the government, and he was subsequently prohibited from working. He then published a pamphlet detailing the difficulties of working in the Soviet Union the same year he was arrested, clearly suggesting the charges as being bogus. After a well-publicised international campaign, Paradjanov was finally released from prison four years later.
Tarkovsky, however, was not one to make life easy for himself. Although it is much more idealistic and romantic to think of the director as being some kind of heroic, troubled artist, there is also the side to the story in which Tarkovsky is described as an arrogant and difficult perfectionist who was instrumental in cultivating the artistic genius image for himself. There are stories of cast and crew having to wait in the freezing cold of a night shoot while the director spent half an hour fixing his hat and scarf in a mirror. While filming in the middle of a forest, the shoot was halted for hours while the crew were ordered to pick all the yellow flowers because they spoiled the composition. As for the oppressive control the government had on his productions, there have been investigations by a number of writers questioning the truth of this. Tarkovsky repeatedly claimed that many of his films were only given limited screenings in smaller cinemas on the outskirts of Moscow. Writer and critic Maya Turovskaya, after researching every issue of the weekly listings paper, Kino nedelya, between 1972 and 1978, reported that "at least one, sometimes two or three, of his films were showing for 87.5 per cent of this period". There are also unanswered questions as to the extent of the animosity between Tarkovsky and the film officials. There is no denying the well-documented hostility between them, but at the time Tarkovsky was internationally seen as the Soviet's greatest living film director and he had a gigantic and devoted audience, which ensured that his films were relatively successful. At what point would the government believe it to be in their best interest to stop Tarkovsky from working? Whatever the truth, it is clear that he was unhappy with his situation and quite openly stated that he was depressed about the number of films he was making. In his diaries in 1970 he wrote, "Making two a year from 1960 onwards, I could have made 20 films. Fat chance with our idiots".
After studying painting and music, and a brief period studying at the Institute for Oriental Languages, Tarkovsky successfully applied to the Soviet State Film School (VGIK) in 1954 where he studied under the guidance of veteran 1930s and forties' film director, Mikhail Romm. "Many people started film school already knowing what it was all about but to me the cinema was an enigma", Tarkovsky once admitted. "Even when I left school, I still couldn't grasp its significance. I didn't see its possibilities. I saw it as a profession requiring remarkable technical knowledge and skill but I hadn't understood that you can express yourself in the same way as you can with poetry, music or literature."
His short (42 minutes) graduation film, The Steamroller and The Violin (Katok I Skrypka, 1961), won the first prize at a New York Student's festival and gave him the opportunity to direct his first feature, Ivan's Childhood (Ivanovo Detstvo, 1962). Set in WWII, it told the story of a twelve-year-old boy who, after witnessing his parents being killed, becomes a spy searching for revenge on the German front. "Not even the shooting of Ivan's Childhood taught me what the role of the director should be. It was a search, a sort of blind search for points of contact with poetry", Tarkovsky said. "It was only after making this film that I realised that it was possible through the cinema to come in touch with spiritual essence". Ivan's Childhood brought him to the attention of international audiences and critics after winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival but it was his second film, the epic Andrei Rublev (1966), which confirmed his reputation as one of the great new filmmaking talents. Based on the life of the 15th Century monk and icon painter, it explores Rublev's battle with his spiritual and artistic faith. The Soviet film authorities (Goskino), however, believed that it was a pessimistic and violent attack on Russian history and that it was trying to say something about the oppression of art in the Soviet Union. Their solution, ironically, was to cut and re-edit it. Although it was entered upon request into the 1969 Cannes Film Festival, and went on to garner the (FIPRESCI) International Critics Prize, its Soviet release was held up until 1971. This would be the beginning of a tempestuous relationship between Tarkovsky and the authorities.
His next film was an adaptation of Stanislaw Lem's science fiction novel, Solaris (1972). Although he insisted that he was uninterested in the genre, (Edouard Artemiev, the soundman on the film, later reported that Tarkovsky had an entire bookcase full of sci-fi novels), the psychological and philosophical dilemmas of the story intrigued him. A widowed psychiatrist travels to a space station orbiting the mysterious planet Solaris, only to have the planet recreate his dead wife for him. With the bureaucrats pleased with the finished film, Solaris received a wide release in the Soviet Union. It was a commercial hit and went on to win the Special Jury Prize at Cannes, but Tarkovsky was dissatisfied with it and claimed that it was his least favourite of his own films.
His following two films also came under bureaucratic fire - Mirror (Zerkalo, 1974), an autobiographical and poetic examination of his childhood, his relationship with his mother and his first wife, and the history of his country, and Stalker (1979), another science-fiction film about an illegal journey into a forbidden country containing a room in which your inner-most desires are realised. The authorities despised Mirror for being too confusing and complex with reports that nobody who saw it actually understood it. It was this film that Tarkovsky believed had been relegated to only a tiny number of theatres on the outskirts of town. It was, however, a big hit, and Tarkovsky received many letters from fans congratulating him on making such a moving and honest film.
It is not an uncommon response for viewers to regard Tarkovsky's films as being 'confusing and complex'. In Mirror, the mother and the unseen narrator's wife are played by the same actress (a device he toyed with before in Solaris ), and the film blends the past and the present, dreams and reality together into a kind of maze or puzzle. In his book, Sculpting in Time, he details his own personal theories on the power of cinema. As the title implies, Tarkovsky believed that film was the one art form that was capable of capturing, moulding and examining time. He has often been described as a "spiritual director". Filled with lingering shots of nature, leaves rustling in the wind, reeds waving under flowing streams, and forest landscapes, his films turn the everyday into a kind of otherworldly meditation. It is as if the longer the shot is held the more truth is revealed. With the use of slow motion, close-ups, and long tracking shots, Tarkovsky's films strived to examine what he called "the pressure of time".
Stalker, which could have simply been a standard science-fiction adventure story, became a story about a psychological and spiritual quest for personal and spiritual truth, and self-realisation. Again stories abound about the government criticising the film for being a metaphor about the state's oppression of freedom, but they actually helped the film to be completed. After the film was shot the rushes were accidentally destroyed in a fire, and with the government's backing, Tarkovsky was able to reshoot the entire film.
It was on the completion of his next film, Nostalgia (Nostalghia, 1983), that the relationship between Tarkovsky and the authorities took a turn for the worst. The film tells the story of a homesick Russian writer researching a book in Italy while he yearns to return home. Tarkovsky decided to stay in Europe, finding the resources and the artistic freedom he had so often desired. He requested to stay in order to prepare for his next project, a film version of Hamlet, but the government refused to extend his passport. Feeling that there was no other option, Tarkovsky and his wife sought asylum in Italy but the government refused to let his son out of the country.
He made his last film, The Sacrifice (Offret, 1986), in Sweden shortly before being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. The film, about a father who promises to God that he will give up his entire family if the threat of nuclear war is prevented, won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes, but Tarkovsky was too ill to attend. In a gesture of good will, the Government allowed his son to pick up the prize on his behalf. With his family around him, he died in Paris on the 28th of December 1986.
Despite the quantity of films Tarkovsky finally made, they have all become undeniable classics, providing cinema with some of the most complicated, haunting and astonishing works of art. In the 1992 Sight and Sound Top Ten Film Poll, all seven of his films were nominated, turning up in the top ten lists of Krysztzof Kieslowski, Edward Yang, Atom Egoyan, Gillies Mackinnon, and Paul Cox. In the 2002 poll, this record was repeated with a contemporary wave of directors, including Olivier Assayas, Michael Haneke, Pawel Pawlikowski, Jonathon Glazer, and Lukas Moodysson, voting for his films. Ingmar Bergman, one of Tarkovsky's own favourite directors, declared, "Tarkovsky is for me the greatest, the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream." Bergman added that he himself had spent his "entire life knocking at the door leading to the space where he moves with such obvious naturalness".