Tarkovsky, or the Burning House


Uploaded 1 March 2001
Translated by Kevin Windle

for Ivan Divis

 On Mystery

The work of Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-1986), whose career was cut short by his premature death, is undoubtedly among the most significant in the entire history of the cinema. In Tarkovsky’s work – coming after Fellini’s – the attempt to put cinematic images to the service of poetry, to make them an instrument of the inner vision and of dreams, reaches its apogee. Bernardo Bertolucci’s observation, that “we never forget a film’s light”, applies to Tarkovsky more than to anyone else: his images, at once fiery and liquid – as if they had arisen spontaneously from that union of fire and water which is central to his oeuvre – act on us by the extraordinary “aura”, which alerts us at once to their visionary quality.

It is not simply that everything in it is inseparably tangible, sensual, and “spiritual”, that the outward form of things cannot be divorced from their emotive significance, from the investigation of their inner meaning – his films are unmistakable evidence of the functioning of one person’s subjective vision. They also somehow transcend the limits of art by uniting deliberate creative endeavour with sensitivity to mystery in its “natural” state. If Tarkovsky’s vision is utterly self-generating, it needs spontaneous fixing, in images which the director did not invent, but which he allowed to ripen within himself and crystallize. A dark, irreducible kernel remains, like a mysterious situation in life, or like those bewitching films that owe their unique poetry less to the director’s designs than to the whim of circumstances. In brief these films are created almost in the biblical sense, as something with an independent existence; in them people and things seem to us to have exceptional clarity, urgency, and grace, as if we ourselves were in love and suddenly experienced the world with redoubled intensity.

In Tarkovsky’s last film, The Sacrifice (Sweden-France 1986), we see the hero, in a black-and-white sequence, running from a house in which we have just seen a nude young woman in a bedroom (or rather her reflection in a mirror – she is partly hidden by a screen); we then see him wandering in a large garden, where he picks up some small coins from the mud and rotting leaves, before freezing into immobility amidst the falling snow and the old trees, which, thanks to the slowly panning camera, begin a slow dance around him. The calm and self-evident power of this scene is redolent of both a recollection and the sensation of waking from sleep, but it is neither one nor the other. It is simply a visual thought, remote from the strangeness of dreams and from realistic description, and seeming to convey as precisely as possible our inner breathing itself. It is not only at once extraordinary and simple, but at the same time, in its “content”, literally inexhaustible…

The lighting of Tarkovsky’s films consists of illumination and eclipse, the light of revelation and of enigma. From the beginning, objects possess for the director a kind of dark visibility, which defies all preconceptions. An understanding – and a spiritualization – of the world begins to take shape here, as a language of signs, in which mystery alone speaks to us, and in which sharp visual definition is more important than abstract symbols and ideas: the bolts wrapped in strips of surgical gauze and scattered in the grass ( Stalker [USSR 1979]), the pulsating skin of a wounded scalp, or the wet circle left on a table by a teacup (The Mirror [USSR 1974]) speak to us first only via their material or immaterial nature – or sometimes both, like the bolts “lent wings” by the gauze – via their presence, whether insistent or fleeting, which has all the more meaning in itself for being inexpressible in words. Likewise the mysterious groupings and “constellations”, which objects seem to produce almost of their own volition, as if they wished to join in some secret conspiracy. We find them at the level of details (including those gauze-wrapped bolts, – in a way a paradigm representing the whole of Tarkovsky’s imagination), and of whole scenes: the car buried in a bush at the side of the darkening road, along which the hero of The Sacrifice was driving to complete his mission, stuck there (with a strip of fabric flying in the breeze) like a palpable fragment of mystery in the arteries of the world.

The director’s vision literally breathes life into the material mass of objects, awakens life in them, and shows us their secret existence, or their hidden essence; the gradually fading imprint of the cup on the table “breathes” (The Mirror), just like the cupboard in The Sacrifice, whose door twice opens beside one of the characters without anyone touching it. The mark of the teacup and the wounded soldier’s pulsating scalp (The Mirror) also take on the force of a cryptic proclamation thanks to another characteristic feature: their urgent, insistent appearances are emblematic fragments of memorylodged in the mists of one person’s consciousness and resisting the destructive force of forgetfulness and the passage of time. The force which gives objects an intensified presence is, paradoxically, their constant slipping out of direct reality into internalized concepts, into the sphere of dreams and ideas, where only the shimmer of blurred images survives. Evidence of this is also provided by those mysterious scenes, sometimes memory-like, sometimes dreamlike, in which objects are replaced by the metaphors, and this also signifies a paradoxical “compression” of them, rather like the results of improbable accidents in silent comedy films. We see this in the books spattered with earth, dreamily recorded in Solaris (USSR, 1972), or the spectral soldiers coated in sand who appear in the labyrinthine The Mirrorin a scene from an old newsreel: earth and sand seem to make palpable the burial of people and objects in the depths of memory and history, and heighten their own palpability – like the cream in those silent-movie bunfights – to the level of “hyper-reality.” Something similar is displayed in those striking sequences – sometimes composed solely of black-and-white images, as if purely in the mind – which Tarkovsky inserts like independent lyrical interludes. Some particularly fascinating examples are included in The Sacrifice (among them the hero’s stroll in the garden): the camera gradually explores from above a staircase and a narrow litter-strewn courtyard, lingers on a chair with a hole in the seat, and finally glides to a puddle in which the decor of the yard is mirrored, as if wishing to “internalize” it definitively, while looking back up at it from the water, to return to reality and “real” life. A single slow pan, literally welding together these fragmentary pieces of reality, turns them into a condensed definition of a whole unified world…

A sequence which is also an enigmatic recollection again owes its inner cohesion to the collective placement of objects in the memory. It is no accident that most such scenes are dominated by water, the primal element, and some consist of a prolonged glissade over the surface of water. Consider the travelling shot in Stalker, monochrome and technicolour by turns, when the hero dozes off on a grassy island in a river and the camera gradually moves away from the sleeper to offer a surprising survey of submerged objects thrown into the water: a syringe, a sodden piece of newspaper, a gold coin , and – a little way off – an icon.

The beginning of the garden sequence in The Sacrifice, when the hero picks out of the mud and rotting leaf-mould the coins that have fallen into it, along with the scraps of newspaper and rag, is another such descent to the bottom. Like the bicycle and the bottle raised from the bed of the drained reservoir – coated in slime, just as the soldiers in The Mirror are covered in dust – where the hero carries out his mission in Nostalgia (Italy-USSR 1983) the objects buried in the mud come to embody those uncertain and varied treasures that lie at the root of our memories and which are our only riches. Remarkable only for the freshness that sparkles before us, as it once did in childhood, the coin has no more value (and no less) than the humus it has fallen into and with which it is equated, as in the well-known story in which a basket of leaves turns into a bag of gold coins and vice versa; the objects coated in earth or slime are lent a fabulous power of attraction and a value by the very thing that strips them of their practical worth.

Similarly, the dilapidated, apparently burned residence of the hero of Stalker seems at the beginning of the film at once wretched and splendid, thanks to the paradoxical abundance of stains on the door, cracks in the plaster and artistic effects etched in by the dark outlines of the iron bedsteads, in striking harmony with the network of cracks. The boundaries between riches and poverty in Tarkovsky’s work are blurred. Just as in life, true luxury is concealed beneath the most ordinary of things.

The ascent to the surface, signalled in The Sacrifice at the conclusion of the descent to the bottom of the courtyard, or rather the spiritual uplift, which Tarkovsky seems to blend into (and which is indicated, in a way, in Stalker by the reflection of a tree suddenly falling into the water and obscuring our view of the submerged objects), is possible only after immersion in the primal waters of the past – seemingly a redemptive return to the source.

Glimpses of Infinity

Tarkovsky’s images are not merely the product of his inner vision; they also have the ability independently to increase and multiply infinitely. Each one, inseparably literal and metaphorical, with its own unique specificity and its figurative echoes, expands and takes on multiple meanings, until it acquires the autonomy and limitlessness of a poem in free verse composition. Like a poem, it seems to hold the potential for a complete narrative, captured, shimmering infinitely, at its threshold. This multiplicity of meanings blurs the linear nature of the narrative (or what was left of it) and replaces it with the organization of the images in depth, in layers formed one on top of another, thanks to which they break free of their narrow limits and reach beyond them into infinity, both in time and space.

In this sense, fixed-camera sequences are just as evocative as those shot with a moving camera. In the opening scene of The Sacrifice the hero’s son and a postman appear on the shore of a bay, where the hero – before a motionless camera – is transplanting a withered sapling. They approach as if they were dragging along the vastness of the whole world outside from over the horizon [2] .Their garrulousness (the postman) and their silence (the mute son) seem to form a complete, “synthesized” chord with the hero’s soliloquy, in which they gradually join. The wealth of sound in Tarkovsky’s films is legendary, however. His unique “music”, disturbing and soothing, intrusive and discreet by turns, at odds with, and in harmony with the images, is an inseparable element of the director’s vision. Even if we take only The Sacrifice, we find images on the screen accompanied by the sound of an unseen coin tapping (as the tired hero falls asleep on the couch), a loose sheet of corrugated iron clattering in the breeze (as the introduction to a scene showing the hero’s son asleep), and distant music and ancient chants in Swedish or Japanese (hence remote in space and time). The sounds themselves transport the visual to a distant setting, to other lands and other times, which provide the indispensable counterpoint to its present reality.

This inner accumulation of scenes is also an expression of a quest for social oneness, or rather the blending of the individual into the communal. Tarkovsky’s vision, be it ever so unique and personal, tends from the very outset to transcend itself; the concrete tangibility of his images, “hyper-real” to the point of being hallucinatory, is, as it were, filled to the limit by an infinite quantity of barely perceptible, quivering, teeming, detail, irresistibly spreading and intermingling, against which the form of the images is no more than a fleeting, fragile reflection, at once giving shape to the image and eroding it. Suffice it to mention the forest in Andrei Rublev (USSR 1966), with its seething masses of ants and midges, murmuring streamlets and rills, its web of branches and twisted roots – like streams themselves, but made of wood – , and on this tangled labyrinth the camera pauses for a moment, on the bank of a stream. The seething life of nature seems to have fashioned the living soil that gave birth to both Rublev’s painting and Tarkovsky’s art itself. The ending, the remarkable sequence showing the casting of the bell, also emerges from a teeming procession of objects, places, sounds (the ominous creak of the scaffolding, on which the bell is raised by a rope), and individual and group actions. In the course of the kaleidoscopic excursus through Rublev’s paintings with which the film concludes (in black and white), as with a closing message of reconciliation, the works are first fragmented into details which are hard to read, as if they – the paintings – were meant to resemble the woodland labyrinth, and only then do the icons emerge before us in their entirety. Thus the quest for a particular vision (the artist’s work) could lead only through a return to primal chaos and through dispersion into seething, anonymous life, represented, to the hero of the film, by the experience he gradually gains of the harsh world and the suffering of his fellow human beings.

It is true that the creative individuality embodied in Rublev is also the only force capable of giving meaning to the experience of cruelty and evil, and including it in the nature of things. When, after a survey of the icons, we see a colour scene showing real horses at the water’s edge, it is as if reality itself can be made accessible thanks to the vision of the artist. At the same time, however, the artist in Tarkovsky applies this capability of his only when he is able to forge a connection with reconciliation, when he can bow down before the untold riches of the world and open up fully to the life which is progressing through him, and of which he is no more than an elected spokesman. In this sense art finds its model in the paradoxical “work” of the aged madman in Nostalgia, in which the blurring of boundaries between poverty and wealth can clearly be seen, and in which the artificial, man-made world order blends with the order of nature, or rather, with its natural “disorder”. [3]  Here the old man – rather like a visitor – inhabits a territory cluttered with pots and pans and empty, unforgettably green bottles, endlessly flooded with shafts of light and ringing currents of rainwater, bottles whose “construction”, however shaky and impermanent, changes the decor into that of the most splendid exhibition hall, or concert hall, that one could hope to visit.

The overlapping of different temporal planes also belongs among the conjunctions and intersections of innumerable signs, events, and movements of which Tarkovsky’s images are composed and which collectively go to form a scene. Such an intersection is the scene in Ivan’s Childhood (USSR 1962) in which the young hero leafs through a volume of Durer’s etchings and wonders whether they show the German enemy. His youth interweaves with – and collides with – the supratemporal nature of culture, which itself is interwoven with the historical period of the Second World War. In this respect the kernel of the director’s entire work is The Mirror, in which the deliberate mingling of generations and eras spans the uncertain waves of one person’s memory: the narrator’s mother merges with his wife (both are played by the same actress); at moments he himself is identified with his father (if only in the commentary); different events from the history of the family sometimes interweave within the framework of a single scene. Together with the varied spatial scenes, the temporal planes intermingle in the extraordinary juxtaposition of images in which Solaris and Nostalgia culminate. The hero’s own house, which the rapidly ascending camera unexpectedly shows us surrounded by the sea (Solaris), is lost here like a fragment of the past in the waters of oblivion (as well as in the uncertainty surrounding the future of the cosmos itself). Likewise the grass-covered islet in the middle of a stream, on which the hero of Stalker falls asleep (in foetal position), also recalls birth and a safe union with the mother, and is symbolic of irreversible disappearance (the islet, hardly bigger than the hero’s body, is itself no more than an embryo fashioned out of turf), while in Nostalgia the Grecian or Roman ruins in which the hero’s humble Russian hut is set, as in a frame, at the conclusion, bind the time of his childhood into the memory of the whole of Western culture. An unexpected change of scale, common to both scenes, is repeated in The Sacrifice, when in a nearby meadow we find a replica of the hero’s house reduced to the size of a child’s toy. As it was evidently placed here by the hero’s son, as a birthday present for his father, it suggests an image of the future taking shape in the present, the reduplication of the present in the future…

Timelessness versus History

The mysterious labyrinth of The Mirror, which drew together fragments of various memories without integrating them into a single whole, was judged “elitist” and incomprehensible to the masses when first shot in Russia. However, the moral that blazes forth with truly indomitable force is so self-evident that this itself appears to be the reason the film was proscribed. In spite of its anecdotal content and chronological structure, by means of fragmentary memories and fragmentary “archetypal” scenes, it creates a vision of life which highlights all that is most nameless and ordinary, and which forms, in a sense the obverse side of History with a capital ‘H’. And, in addition, the obverse side of ideology: by celebrating specific gestures and moments which plot the individual’s path through life and form his fragile memory (the namelessness of these gestures provides a link with life in general), Tarkovsky at a stroke places himself in opposition to all abstract schemas which seek to subordinate life to some “higher” purpose. Thus, The Mirror is to the cinema what Jiri Grusa’s Questionnaire is to literature: an implied critique of ideologies seen from below, from the standpoint of everyday life, whose superstructure they aspire to be, and which treacherously eludes the grasp of their constructs.

This critique is fully apparent in the riveting and oft-cited cloudburst scene: the narrator’s mother returns through wet and deserted streets to the printing works where she is a proof-reader, driven by the hideous vision of a “blasphemous” misprint (the details of which we never learn), that she might have overlooked in an article about Stalin. When she finally reads the proofs, and when she confides her fear in a whisper to her friend, and the two of them laugh with relief, her work-mates, who have come to console her, also screen with their bodies a huge portrait of Stalin on the wall… The underlying message of this work goes far beyond mere political suggestiveness. It may also be read in the striking scene at the end of the film, in which the camera itself appears to glide along the ground, revealing as it does so the ruins of an unfamiliar structure – evidently the hero’s own home, overgrown with grass and thistles. This is reminiscent of Stalker, in which, as the camera travels over the surface of the water, it examines traces of a past life and, at the same time, links them with timeless nature and its primal, elemental forces. In spite of adversity in history, and the wounds inflicted upon individuals, the simplest and most private human existence has the same abiding value – the same  real value – as the grass on those ruins; precisely because, like the grass, it is nameless and powerless.

A return to nature and the elements is omnipresent in Tarkovsky. Right at the beginning of Ivan’s Childhood we see, lying on the cracked ground split by tree-roots, the head of the young hero, looking as if it were about to become part of it. In Solaris, as the camera ends its glide over the wet grass, we discover what seems to be the hero beside a pool, but so close, and in such fragmentary detail, that at first we can hardly recognize him in the grass, and take him for a stone or a piece of wood. Fire and water, earth and air reach into the most dramatic scenes, as if to transfer the action of those scenes back to their ancient, timeless roots, and thus give back to human gestures their lost substance. In this sense they offer a corrective to History and its ghosts; the printing-shop scene in The Mirror is literally awash with water, from the rain in the street to the shower that the heroine takes at the end to wash away the traces of her fear. The soldiers roaming on the deserted beach, covered in sand, seem to have fled here from the fury of battle with the idea of drawing new strength from their contact with the earth. The hero of Nostalgia can continue on his mission after descending into the flooded basement of the ruined house; here he “communes” not only with water, but also with fire (he burns a book and recites a poem in praise of the flame of a candle). At the end he meets a little girl, who is no more than an example made flesh of a life brought back to its beginning and its source. The hero’s mission, moreover, is to keep alive the flame of a candle carried across the bed of a drained thermal bath, at the moment when a demented old man publicly burns himself to death… The importance of newly-discovered roots in Tarkovsky’s work is shared by the concreteness of objects, gestures, and the sounds which his films seem to extract from time and magnify to hallucinatory proportions, starting with the most ordinary of them: the simple movement of a glass across the seat of a shaky chair in Stalker becomes a whole dizzying journey. Here the palpability of the world is sublimated, elevated to cosmic significance, and also serves as the elemental and irreducible basis of Tarkovsky’s message itself. Hence the predominant role allocated to female figures in The Mirror, and in fact throughout his oeuvre. They dominate this key film not only because it deals with the war years, when most men were away at the front. Women are also omnipresent as the privileged guardians of the material world and its day-to-day memory, which they maintain securely and patiently – in a time of dire need – by means of simple but magical rituals: killing a chicken, lighting a fire, whose flames light up a pair of hands with a coral-red glow, trying on (face to The Mirror of the camera) some ear-rings that gleam like discovered treasure in the half-light of the room, while another woman stands by. Women are directly linked with those items or materials, whether common or rare, which by systematic use provide references to an original, “pre-modern” world order: the old wash-basin and pitcher (SolarisThe Sacrifice), the portable lamp (The Sacrifice), the milk that is common to The Mirror and Andrei Rublev, and which is so significantly spilt in The Sacrifice by the tremor announcing a new war, and with it, the end of the world.

In The Mirror, as they try on the ear-rings, the women, excited by the darkness, exchange whispered confidences to do with their femininity and their lot as wives and mothers – lending their sensuality an almost magical air. All Tarkovsky’s female characters, incidentally, appear at once calm and troubled, aristocratic and primitive. They give the impression of being like “God’s creatures”, dedicated to higher things, but also possessed by the devil. They seem to hold the key to good and evil, love and hate. In The Sacrifice, when the hero’s wife is seized by convulsions on hearing of the approach of war, she writhes on the floor, with her skirt riding up her thighs, as if shaken at once by insatiability and an organic need to destroy. Harey, in Solaris, and the Stalker’s wife suffer similar seizures (the latter after trying in vain to prevent her husband leaving for the forbidden Zone). The heroine of The Sacrifice is symmetrically complemented by the countrywoman Maria, who evokes at once Christian sainthood (by her name) and a pagan priestess (beginning with her “swarthy appearance”); [4] by the act of love with the hero she enables him to save the world from destruction. But is she not also linked to the cause of the impending disaster, as suggested by her restless behaviour just before the announcement of hostilities? Women in Tarkovsky’s work are always morally ambivalent, at once pure and impure, in their natural physicality – which perhaps for that reason had to be invested with a new meaning. Tarkovsky finds it in the maternal aspect of femininity (in the broadest sense of that word), which is clearly the thing that for him makes the act of love an act of salvation (in The Sacrifice). Before making love, Maria ritually washes the hero – using the old basin and pitcher – just as in Solaris the hero’s mother bathed him; similarly, after the first meeting in the fields she follows him and urges him, in a motherly way, to go home, fearing that he will catch cold…

The descent to the bottom, which in Tarkovsky’s work precedes resurrection, is, with regard to the identification of wife and mother, at the same time, inseparably, a descent into the maternal waters of memory and a momentary brushing against the base, corporeal physicality to which women are closer than men, and which must be known if one is to rise above it… Tarkovsky’s shots themselves have a “feminine” duality about them: if their concreteness is systematically relieved and illuminated by an inner – almost mystical – light, it is only thanks to the glow of the ever-present sensuality, at once concealed and dazzlingly revealed.

On Alienation

History and the suffering it brings with it are not set against daily life in any Manichean sense in Tarkovsky’s work. In The Mirror, the uncertainty of human destinies tested by history finds a direct continuation in a fragmented vision of history itself, in which the destruction it represents seems to be turned against it. Mao’s soldiers waving their Little Red Books in the wilderness of the frontier zone, hundreds of leaflets tumbling from a soaring balloon like snowflakes onto the empty pavement of a city boulevard (seen in aerial view) are no more than the ghosts of a remote and uncertain history without a controlling hand, and, as it seems, forever incomprehensible to history itself. In the same way, the elemental and timeless forces of nature are not merely that which history would like to cut us off from; on the contrary, they manifest themselves through it and in spite of it – just as the aforementioned leaflets form a kind of snow – so that it even seems as if only the constant renewal of an ancient menace lies concealed behind it. War, which figures in all Tarkovsky’s films, is more a mythic than a social phenomenon: a dark trial, by which the forces that drive the universe occasionally reveal to us their displeasure, and perhaps even their age-old antagonism. The Sacrifice, in which war assumes apocalyptic proportions (but remains preventable by personal sacrifice), is in this sense only further confirmation; a similar vision of war was earlier outlined in The MirrorAndrei Rublev, and Nostalgia. Even Tarkovsky’s first-born, Ivan’s Childhood, still close to patriotic films after the manner of Son of the Regiment (USSR 1946), [5]   sees in war a force capable of renewing our contact with nature and “original” experience. The opening episode leads into the first characteristic marriage of fire and water in a dark cave resembling a dug-out (where the exhausted Ivan warms and washes himself). Here the hero keeps count of enemy units by using fir-cones and beech nuts – according to the type of weaponry that passes – having gathered the cones and beech-nuts and carried them in his shirt.

War is also a seminal experience in the sense that it is an object lesson in the impermanence of life, compelling us to consider the inevitability of loss. It also defines the role of memory as a purely spiritual property (the old man in Ivan’s Childhood continues to live in the ruins of a house of which only the doors are still standing), and relativizes the significance of culture as an autonomous asset and as humanity’s memory (in the same film, old frescoes on the walls of a cell are juxtaposed with the last messages of condemned prisoners). One of the recurrent scenes in Nostalgia, which is among the most enchanting moments in any film ever made, also symbolically encapsulates Tarkovsky’s view of war. It is entirely in black and white, and begins on a lonely farmstead somewhere in Russia. A winding road leads away from the farmstead, across the woods and meadows of a peaceful landscape. It is early morning, in a house an unknown woman wakes, draws her curtains, – whereupon a bird flutters into the room, – and joins other women passing her door, having first, like them, put on a long, dark coat over her white nightdress. The women walk away from us, down the road, and at the edge of the forest pass a prancing white horse, then they appear again before us close to another bumpy road, and pass in anxious silence in front of the camera with the timidity of worthy, but startled crows. Then we hear the rumble of engines, and a hoarse voice from an unseen loudspeaker reads out an inaudible, but obviously alarming announcement: evidently war has just broken out. The air is still ringing with the news when the women begin to stir again, and – before they leave the spot they turn towards the farmstead on the horizon behind them. A huge, brilliant sun is just rising over it. With those black-clad mothers and sisters we have been cast out of Eden, and are now cut off from our childhood, our home, and the promise of a long, uninterrupted sojourn amidst the meadows and friendly livestock of our own chosen land. And if the original Eden still endures – apparently within our reach – in the ripe, sunlit fruit that we have only to reach out for, in the stillness of a new day, on which the world itself seems to have just been born, we suddenly have no access to it. The gods have reclaimed their own. [6]

The film opens with a wonderful scene (again in black and white), which fatefully places the beauty of the world elsewhere, in a place accessible only to our memories and our nostalgia. After a falling white feather has slid over the hero’s tuft of white hair, the man bends and thoughtfully picks it up, then glances back over his shoulder: on the threshold of the same farm, shown in the sequence marking the outbreak of war, in the translucent light of a fine summer’s day, under a tree, a large wooden wheel is mysteriously turning, (or so it appears from afar). Tall, white-clad women disappear in the house, to which they are returning, like proud graces. That is all – but everything seems to have been said; all the magic of childhood, of a promised land seen in a dream, a dream triggered by memory and reaching out into a real landscape, a dream peopled by unfamiliar yet real phantoms. Just as real as our vain longing to overcome the distance between these two worlds, between the landscape before us and that other one, forever remote… In its seething multiplicity and flickering light, the tangibility of the world Tarkovsky shows us, and its secret riches and beauty, are at once something that extends us infinitely, and something that disperses us and sends us for the space of a moment back to some long-lost horizons. On one hand, it is true, the ever-present flickering leads to mysterious signals and contacts, as if remote destinies and whole empires were giving one another conspiratorial signs: the white feather that floats down to the white tuft of hair on the man’s head; the milk that flows into the stream from the murdered pilgrim’s flask, and is carried on the water to the distant spot where another unfortunate perishes in the water (Andrei Rublev). On the other hand, “dispersion” is a constant threat; the flickering is the omnipresent breath of the cosmos and the “blinking” of realities and lives disappearing forever into memory (hence Tarkovsky’s obsession with flickering, gradually dying light, seen in The MirrorStalker, and The Sacrifice).

In Tarkovsky’s films uncertainty shimmers even under those (relative) certainties, which form the moral basis of his world view. As with nature and the elements: fire is at once a purifying force and a destructive one (the hands warmed by the flames in The Mirror, and the fire in the same film; the death by burning of the old man in Nostalgia); water is linked both with the destructive action of time and with the primal, “saving” unification of the individual with the mother. And even a mother figure does not represent any fixed certainty. In Ivan’s Childhood the descent into the maternal depths of memory (and the subsequent “ascent”) has a nightmarish quality. When the young hero, tired after his bath, falls asleep in the dug-out, he sees his late mother from below – as if from the very bottom – leaning over the rim of a well, accompanied by Ivan himself, but a year or two younger. Although they are looking down, their image ripples, as if it were only a reflection on the surface. This alone is giddying and disturbing, but this is not all; as the well bucket suddenly begins to hurtle down towards the sleeping boy, a sudden cut shows us his mother falling in the dust beside the well, into which the same pail of water is rapidly sinking (and then returning from the depths). The rise and the fall are identified, the return to the source (soil and water, memory) is, at the same time, birth and death, a condition of the upward journey, towards the light, and of being swallowed up by the darkness of the grave. The maternal body of the big balloon which we see in The Mirror (in a long shot, from old newsreel footage), surrounded by mysterious uniformed mechanics, hanging suspended from smaller balloons, and sailing with it through the air as if on the waters of some primal sea, also evokes the image of an ideal world, but one forever locked within itself (like the rising sun in Nostalgia). The balloon appears to have risen into the air by itself, without any crew, while its upward movement is balanced only by the downward flight of the leaflets…

In Tarkovsky’s work, childhood is also a treasure lost before it has begun. The burning barn, shown at the beginning of The Mirror, on the far side of a clearing adjoining the hero’s home, spells the doom of that home itself, long before the black and white sequence which shows it empty and abandoned, “inhabited” only by the fluttering white spectres of the curtains drying in the breeze. The creak of the sheet-iron, which, with the flickering light, accompanies the hero’s son as he falls asleep in The Sacrifice, similarly announces the destruction of the house in which he is growing up, and lays the foundations for his future on this loss. Our roots are held only in uncertain, shifting soil, which we inhabit and claim as our own solely via the medium of memory and its flickering flashes of illumination.

Dancing in the Open Air

Although balanced on the edge of a precipice, human life and the world itself are not bereft of meaning for Tarkovsky. In Stalker there is a scene in which the camera slowly rises from the clayey, moss-grown earth to a grey background which seems to be empty, but in which we suddenly discern the waters of a lake. It is bounded on the horizon by a row of trees, whose reflections in the water look like fragile, immaterial roots. The water resembles the materialization of a void, and the trees seem to have inscribed a meaning identified with the void itself, with an awareness of that meaning, and acceptance of it. It is apparently a matter of simply taking on board the strangeness of the world, without coming to terms with it, but making it one’s own.

Here Tarkovsky approaches Antonioni’s probing of unknown expanses of the universe. If he often brings the whole vast world into his scenes, we are also – in Andrei Rublev and Stalker – witnesses to the way his figures cluster in mid-canvas, their heads and bodies forming huge agglomerations, a kind of shared body, which lends people something alien, and abstractly monumental. The focus then shifts back to the distance, and rests there, for comparison, marking out a possible displacement of human boundaries. This, incidentally, has nothing to do with any conquest of space; on the contrary, Tarkovsky constantly reminds us that we occupy only a modest and relative position in the universe. The hero simply disappears behind some trees in mid-screen (as in the park with the melting snow, in The Sacrifice), or leaves a door open behind him, as when we, inside the set, follow his progress round the house in Solaris, and are suddenly left face to face with the yawning rectangle of the door, expecting somebody to appear in it. The role assigned to us by such images in the totality of the universe is assuredly only that of a small component needed to fill an empty space, but in no sense an irreplaceable component: instead of a man, the rectangle of the door is soon occupied by a grazing horse, and only after this does the hero himself appear. The only power we can aspire to lies solely in a paradoxical blending into the fabric of existence. At the end of Stalker, the little girl who sends glasses flying from the table by merely looking at them, as she faces the camera, demonstrates her supremacy here even if the glasses really fall because of tremors caused by a passing train, which happened to coincide with her look. If it is not given to us to impose our will upon objects, we can at least link our will to theirs.

The loyalty of Tarkovsky’s heroes to what has been is possible only at the price of an inner paradox, and in conjunction with the courage to leap into the void. The emblem of their firm roots in the past and in memory, presented by the burning barn in The Mirror (seen on the far side of a forest clearing, over the heads of some people who seem to have already been watching it), is matched like an echo and a necessary counterweight by the recurrent motif of a house which is open to the world, a motif which is characteristic of this director’s entire oeuvre. In The Mirror alone, it can be seen in several forms. The recurrent scene, insistently repeated, of a table laid in a garden behind a house, from which a gust of wind, – suddenly shaking the surrounding woods, – strips the tablecloth and sends a lamp crashing onto it, somehow takes the house out of itself and brings it face to face with the elements and timeless nature. The scene in which only the billowing curtains show any sign of life amid the ruins does the same. The looted, unroofed church in Andrei Rublev, into which both snow and earthly time seem to fall, having been offered sanctuary in it, stands open to nature and the cosmos, [7]  thanks to the weather; just as they are received in Nostalgia by a cellar given over to nettles and water. Also in Nostalgia, in the old man’s home, in which bottles filled with water and light from outside seem to be participating in some unfamiliar ritual, the “open house” appears in its purest form, surpassed only when the motif returns for the last time in The Sacrifice. Like “interiors” and “exteriors”, isolation from the world and receptiveness to changes in it, poverty and wealth blend here too; the structure made of bottles is the greater and the more realistic as a luxury for being gilded only by the fleeting golden light of a moment. And the house is the more credible as a house for not having its fragility disguised, and remaining open to the breeze. In The Sacrifice, the hero’s home is the very thing that is at stake; when it is menaced by the spectre of war, the hero paradoxically saves it, only in order to destroy it himself, – as the supreme sacrifice and offering to the gods. By burning the house down and going to live in an asylum, he achieves his own salvation, by the voluntary sacrifice of his own interests to those of others, thus merging forever into the infinite oneness of creation. This merging into the multitude had already been given definitive bewitching shape at the conclusion of Ivan’s Childhood, in which it is expressed in the agitation of the young nurse searching in vain in the birch-grove for the particular tree under which she experienced her first kiss. After hearing of Ivan’s death, we see the hero again as he was in his carefree pre-war days, playing his flute with some friends on a beach. When he steps apart from the group and turns his back on them, so that they can hide from him, this is merely a temporary distancing, after which the joy of the shared game will be the greater. The significance of his heroic death is similar: it is the price which he pays to be forever at one with the community of man, and the order of nature. Diagnostic here is the “flashback” scene in The Sacrifice which immediately precedes the hero’s heroic deed: seen from above, a crowd of people rushes to and fro across a yard, as a last reminder of the mass on whose behalf (and in whose name) the hero is acting. And if their haste looks like panic before an air-raid, they could also merely be trying to hide while he plays his flute…

It is as if cinematic art were in the process of rediscovering here, at one of its most salient “subjective” moments, the “objectivity” and anonymity which has long competed with individual (and stylized) expression. There is even a double sense to this: Tarkovsky’s vision, and the respect he pays to the “memory” of the most ordinary things (in the special style of a kind of magical documentary) is anonymous; and so is the altruism he propounds. The hero of The Sacrifice, a former theatre director, in the end stands directly for the artist renouncing his individual ambitions – and with them the cult of art as an independent value-system – in order to take an active part in helping the suffering. “All this talk! I’m sick of it! If only somebody would stop talking and do something!” he says right at the beginning of the film. And at the end, when he has crowned his mission by burning down his own house, he himself falls silent. His son, however, hitherto mute, gains the power of speech, seeming to receive it from his father…

Here the burning of the house corresponds to the blazing barn in The Mirror, or rather, it is an inverted replica of it: a gesture which lays open the house, and contains within itself the inevitable loss of the house, yet somehow blunts the impact of that loss. Long before the house goes up in flames its windows and doors fly open in the breeze and its occupants scatter among the trees in the surrounding grounds; the hero himself leaves it – twice in succession – as if literally trying to shake off some spell. His flight increasingly resembles a graceful dance of relief, as he makes his way through the fir trees, out of sight of his family, circles the building in a wide arc, casting last-minute spellbound glances towards it, picks up an abandoned bicycle, mechanically rings its bell, straddles it, and rides off in the gathering dusk along the tracks over the fields.

A similar grace certainly serves to lighten the concreteness of many of Tarkovsky’s scenes: gestures and whole actions, shimmering landscapes and light effects, the movement of a glass or a cloud are for the director all creative motifs, from which he builds the whole – by means of repetition, variation, and intersection – as in a musical composition. And here, of course, lies the anonymity of his vision: the mute discourse of the most ordinary objects is elevated to the intensity of everyday revelations and miracles. The dance at the conclusion of The Sacrifice is that much “lighter” for the fact that its grace and harmony is filled with an awareness of human frailty; and the fact that it is also an expression of the relativity of the boundaries between our weakness and our strength, between power and impotence. In spite of the gravity of the moment (and his “Russian” melancholy), Tarkovsky nonetheless injects into the dance, quite naturally, some little “gags”, which seem to have their origins in the freedom (poetic and human) that his message suggests, – a freedom which “objectively” has a place for humour too. We laugh when the hero’s matches won’t light as he tries to set fire to his house; when, just before the blaze takes hold, he reaches back on the balcony from which he has begun to climb down a ladder, and quickly drinks the brandy left there; and when, in front of the burning house, he escapes from the ambulance almost as soon as the ambulancemen have bundled him into it. The humour has all the more impact owing to the ingenuous delight the hero finds in this moment, along with the courage to see himself – and come to terms with himself – in all his nakedness, without illusions, and without striking attitudes.

A Backward Glance

The giddying concluding scene of The Mirror was also a dance. We had left the narrator’s mother, as a young woman, in the background, on the far side of a wheatfield. In the foreground, with the camera, we found her in an updated version, much older and accompanied by two children, one of whom let out a piercing cry. We then left them, retreating into the darkness of a wood, where the trees gradually concealed this group from our view. In one travelling shot we have left childhood behind and locked it once and for all into the memory of the whole human race, a memory to which another travelling shot (mentioned earlier) and its musical accompaniment clearly pointed, by scanning the grass growing on the ruins, to a Bach accompaniment, like a characteristic “synthesis” of eternal nature and supratemporal art. In The Sacrifice the concluding ritual is somewhat different: the hero, his wife, the ambulancemen, and the young peasant sorceress, darting about in front of the burning house, over a meadow covered with puddles and light from a now clear sky, celebrate both the locality, suddenly illuminated by the light of the dying home, and the end of that home itself. This scene is not merely the latest version of the marriage of fire and water, but also the definitive coming together of space and time, or rather, of times: the past, which is burning with the house in the middle of the field; the present moment in the lives of the protagonists, darting agitatedly hither and thither; and the future, which intrudes in the form of the ambulance, like a foretaste of the hero’s sojourn in the asylum.

At the same time, this sequence leads into another temporal loop, in which a return to timelessness blends with a new beginning. And not merely because life is being reborn from under the shadow of an apocalyptic menace, in the way that the outbreak of war in Nostalgia was marked by the expulsion of the women from paradise, and an encounter – through the rising sun – with primal innocence. When we (with the “sorceress” on her bicycle) unexpectedly catch up with the ambulance, which disappeared from view in the meadow, carrying the hero, we again see the hero’s son. He is lying by the water under the tree his father planted, looking up at the branches that spread against the flickering background like a vast web of aerial pathways, and pronounces his first sentence, which, furthermore, is “In the beginning was the word”. One circle has been squared, the story of the son may begin at the point where that of his father, who has lost the power of speech, ends.

This scene also provides a striking conclusion to the whole of Tarkovsky’s oeuvre, being a symmetrically inverted echo – no doubt unconscious – of the opening of his first film, Ivan’s Childhood, where the camera climbs a tall tree, while the boy moves away from it through the forest. Both films are, moreover, closely bound up with the biography of the director: Ivan the orphan, and his loneliness amidst the war remind us of Tarkovsky’s own childhood; The Sacrifice was completed shortly before his death, before he could be reunited with his son, to whom the film is dedicated (‘with hope and confidence’) as a last testament, and who thus inherits the fundamental trauma of his career. This only bears out yet again the truth of the old axiom, that an artist vouches for any work of inspiration with his life…

The future which opens before the youthful hero at the conclusion of The Sacrifice – here we seem to be “conquering space”, with the girl on the bicycle and the spreading boughs of the tree – had previously opened before the boy from The Mirror. There it blended with the dazzling light of a summer ringing with the sound of cicadas, a light which unexpectedly drew the boy out from under the window of his house at the very moment when we approached the window with the camera, after passing through its empty rooms. In The Sacrifice, it is all the more apparent that the “urge to conquer” is a direct continuation of a loss freely accepted; that the light linking father and son in the chain of generations is the light of the void in which it is always necessary to start anew. This film (the most “linear” of his works) is in this sense a true summing-up of Tarkovsky’s philosophy, just as the labyrinthine Mirror dealt (mainly) with his view of memory and Stalker with his attitude to mystery.

The message here is also a memory directed towards the horizon, in a direct continuation of the gesture by which the hero turns the burning barn in The Mirror into the act of setting fire to his own house. The man making this gesture seems also to find in it the answer he needs to his mother and all women, to those evil-eyed, but restless agents of divine power, to which his only connection is as a rejected element, cast out into alien, earthly exile. Whatever pull his earthly sisters may exert, he must ultimately turn away from them to face the void which yawns before him. At the end of Ivan’s Childhood, when the hero chases the other children during the game of hide-and-seek, he first catches up with a girl we saw him playing with earlier; he does not stop, but runs on, leaving the girl behind him, like a space rocket shedding its first stage (in Stalker too, women are cast aside, left on the border of the forbidden Zone). When the hero of Andrei Rublev leaves the nocturnal bacchanalia of the pagan sect, an unknown naked woman, leaning on a wooden fence, watches him idly with a languid gaze, which she slowly lowers to her own arms, enfolding him within herself. But the man’s path does not lie towards her eyes, but away from them, as if they were his point of departure; even if he can find the strength to break the maternal embrace of his original home, he will confront it again – arms flung wide to greet him – in the freedom and light of the surrounding area. His only hope lies in breaking those primeval bonds; only this propels him towards the unknown, like the branches of that spreading tree in The Sacrifice that assail the sky above it. If he puts down roots, this must be right in the fateful space between his drive to possess and his alienation, between the lost paradise and an alien world, between the fullness he has before him, and the emptiness that awaits him.

This does not mean he must forget all he is leaving behind. “The ashes will be poured into wine and drunk with it,” we are told in The Sacrifice, “but the memory will endure for the rest of your life.” And it will undoubtedly live on solely by its mystery, like Tarkovsky’s films themselves. Here, as elsewhere, the essence remains inexpressible.


[1] Translated fromthe Czech by Kevin Windle. Originally published in Svedectvi XXIII, No. 91, 1990, pp. 258-68. An earlier and substantially different version, “La maison en feu: sur Andrei Tarkovski”, appeared in Positif 304, June 1986, pps 16-23. This translation is reprinted, with the kind permission of Professor Daniel Gerould, from Slavic and East European Performance, Vol 15 No 3, pps. 51-7, Vol 16 No 1, pps. 51-7, and Vol 16 No 2, pps. 50-56.
[2] A comparable scene in which the outside world is drawn onto the set can be seen in the classic silent comedy Calino joue au billard (France 1910). Not only does the cue-wielding hero smash mirrors and the imagined depths behind them, lit by reflected candles in the room. He also breaks into his neighbours’ flats, evoking an angry reaction from the tenants. [The Calino series, starring the comedian Migé, was produced for Gaumont from 1909 to 1913, and created by Romeo Bosetti. – Ed.]
[3] The need to have human order embrace primal chaos also finds expression in a childhood recollection of the hero of The Sacrifice: when he once tried to clear his mother’s overgrown garden, he found, to his surprise, that he had destroyed its charm.
[4] This “polysemy” is a feature of Tarkovsky’s work and of his personal mysticism, which is not bound to any particular religious system. The crown of thorns which appears in Stalker has no greater significance than the dressing-gown with the ying-yang symbol on it, worn by the hero of The Sacrifice. Both are merely stage props
[5] Son of the Regiment, a children’s film based on a famous Russian play by Valentin Petrovich Katayev (1897-1986) and directed by Vasilii Pronin, concerns a group of Soviet soldiers who adopt a boy they find while fighting the Germans in World War II. In a prodigious career, Katayev contributed to film scripts for Boris Barnet. Incidentally, Roman Polanski first came to notice as a child actor playing the lead in a Polish touring stage adaptation of Son of the Regiment directed by Josef Karbowski in the ’40s. [Ed.]
[6] This scene is also notable for the consistent way in which it translates a historical event (the war) into its effect on individual (and anonymous) lives. (The official car drives like an invisible phantom past the women.) The natural spectacle of the sunrise literally robs the war of the conclusion of this scene, by drawing all attention – ours and that of the women – to itself.
[7] “Outside history is falling like snow”, said André Breton.

See also, Gino Moliterno’s piece in the First release section, “Zarathustra’s Gift in Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice”, Screening the past 12 (March 2001).

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Petr Král

About the Author

Petr Král

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