Andrei Tarkovsky

Home / Music / Mentors / Andrei Tarkovsky

A Cinematic Genius

While not a musician as such, Andrei Tarkovsky could almost be considered a composer for the eyes. Essential viewing, his films are gems by the greatest director of the 20th Century. I wrote this page to encourage people to come to the Tarkovsky Retrospective season at the NFT in March 2005.

For vastly more information about his work, see this awesome website - a fine homage to this awesome director.

Bear in mind that these are not your average Hollywooden movies. We're talking low kills-per-minute ratio here. 180 mins = 3 hours, with subtitles. * S l o w * but stunning, each shot is a moving painting. The music is fantastic, almost as if he went back in time and got Bach to write the score direct to picture. Yep, these films are far out beyond our Western ken. Shot on very low budgets, often with ridiculous technical difficulties such as shortage of available film stock (Stalker features sections of black & white and colour, used to great artistic effect). The cinematography is nothing short of breathtaking.

For newcomers to Tarkovsky's work, I'd recommend The Sacrifice and Nostalghia, and for space fans, Solaris and Stalker. Nostalghia and Mirror are also fabulously poetic (and shorter). His earlier films are less accessible, but Ivan's Childhood and The Steamroller and the Violin are excellent. My favourites are probably Nostalghia, Solaris and Stalker.

I attended almost every NFT event (but not every showing ;-) This was for me a great pilgrimage; his work borders on the religious in its intensity, and I was converted on first seeing it aged sixteen.

The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky

Tempo Di Viaggio (1983) [62 mins]
Une Journee D'Andrei Arsenevitch (2000) [55 mins]

Two documentaries about Tarkovsky's work. The first was filmed during the location scouting of Nostalghia in Italy, with Andrei talking casually about his work. Une Journee is a more formal homage to Tarkovsky's work, including moving footage of his family coming to visit him on his deathbed. Viewers should be aware that this film contains lots of clips and some spoilers, including on-set footage showing the filming in Gotland of the final scene of The Sacrifice, so be sure to watch the films first. It also shares this fascinating insight, namely that when Andrei attended a seance, he contacted the spirit of the great Russian poet Boris Pasternak, who told him in no uncertain terms that he would make seven films. "Only seven?", enquired Tarkovsky. Boris replied: "But good ones". The documentary presenter then goes on to list his major works, but having seen Andrei Rublev, we feel that she was in error in including this, and should have instead chosen the wonderful early work The Steamroller and the Violin.

Killers (1958) [19 mins]
There Will Be No Leave Today (1959) [25 mins]
The Steamroller and the Violin (1960) [45 mins]

Three short early works. The last one is a gem, about a young violinist who befriends a steamroller driver; an unlikely but charming friendship. Tarkovsky really gets inside the characters, and the result is pure joy.

Ivan's Childhood (1962) [92 mins]

This is the closest Tarkovsky gets to an action film, and is set during the Nazi invasion of Russia, depicting the gruesome events that befall a young boy called Ivan. This film yet again brings into focus the futile stupidity of war. Despite the harrowing scenes, there are moments of inspired beauty and heroism, with some breathtaking dream sequences. His first masterpiece.

Andrei Rublev (1969) [182 mins]

We were disappointed by this film. It is undoubtedly an epic, with a cast of thousands and some truly amazing sequences, such as a long wide shot overlooking a vast reconstructed medieval city with countless people teeming about like ants. It is amazing to see the scale of what the Mosfilm empire could recreate in this historical depiction of the life of one of Russia's great heroes, a religious icon painter. However, for me the film was too overblown and lacked the director's usual genius. The excessive violence was quite sickening too, and coupled with the generally bleak mood of suffering, made the film quite an ordeal for its three-hour duration. The whole cinema was noticeably creaking at the strain after two hours, with many people walking out, obviously tired of the unreadable subtitles and uncomfortable seating, thankfully freeing up some scarce oxygen for the rest of us, but it was still hard going to make it to the end, and this was the most hardcore of England's elite cinema-goers.

So, to sum up: some touching and memorable scenes, but below par for the master. For completists only.

Solaris (1972) [166 mins] {more info}

Solaris is a sci-fi epic reminiscent of 2001, only more Russian and rugged instead of slick and polished. The tech is all malfunctioning and weird things occur frequently. The story revolves around a psychologist, Kris, who is sent to visit a space station orbiting the planet Solaris, to investigate what happened to the crew who have all gone insane or killed themselves. The surface of the planet is covered by a vast ocean which is believed to be a conscious entity. Reports of bizarre hallucinations experienced by the crew only deepen the mystery. This is not an action film: the first hour is set on Earth, detailing the reports into what happened and the feelings of Kris leaving his family for many years for the voyage. There is a mesmerising scene which sees him driving through a vast spaghetti junction of roads and tunnels, which lasts for many minutes without dialogue, and was filmed on motorway interchanges in Tokyo. When he arrives on the station, things get even stranger...

Solaris is based on a novel by Stanislav Lem that I haven't read yet. There was a Hollywood remake a year or so ago, but the reviews I read didn't inspire me - a poor relation probably, seeming more of a typical lurve story that happened to be set in space.

Mirror (1975) [106 mins] {more info}

This one I remember to be the strangest, in terms of storyline or lack thereof; it seems more like a dream than a film, a highly symbolic autobiographical account of Russian life.

Stalker (1979) [161 mins] {more info}

Stalker is about a weird place called The Zone, created by a meteorite strike (possibly modelled on the one that hit Tunguska in Siberia in 1908). Within this Zone, everything was destroyed and the military put a cordon around the region to prevent people going in. Somewhere within is a mythical place called The Room, said to grant anyone's wishes. Intrepid explorers known as Stalkers risk being shot on sight, and the hazards of this dangerous place, and for a fee take people in to find their deepest desires. Only sometimes, those desires are not for the best...

Stalker is loosely based on a novel by the Strugatsky brothers called "Roadside Picnic", which is even more far out, and well worth reading; the entire text is online :-) Check out also their amazingly visionary (and much shorter) Chronicles of the 22nd Century, to get an idea what they're on.

Nostalghia (1983) [126 mins] {more info}

Nostalghia depicts a visit to Italy by a music historian and friend, with stunning architecture and natural beauty. This is more accessible and less surreal, and features some truly unforgettable scenes. I totally love the old man's house, and wanted to live in such a place ever since I saw it.

The Sacrifice (1986) [148 mins] {more info}

A family gathering at an idyllic house by the sea is shattered by terrible news of impending global thermonuclear war. The film charts the reactions and feelings of the people trying to come to terms with the situation, and the father's sacrifice for the world.

Music featured in Tarkovsky's films

My schedule for the NFT season

Sadly the seminars all quickly sold out :-( I managed to get to see all of the films, except for The Sacrifice. Here you can see the intrepid explorers who braved the perils of The Zone...

© copyright Malcolm Smith 2005-02-23 - last updated 2005-05-19 - links verified 2005-02-23