"My discovery of Tarkovsky’s first film was like a miracle. Suddenly, I found myself standing at the door of a room, the keys of which had, until then, never been given to me. It was a room I had always wanted to enter and where he was moving freely and fully at ease. I felt encouraged and stimulated: someone was expressing what I had always wanted to say without knowing how.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."

Ingmar Bergman

Andrei Tarkovsky (1932–86) was part of the generation of Soviet filmmakers that emerged during the Khrushchev Thaw years, which also saw the emergence of such directors as Otar Iosseliani, Sergei Parajanov and Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky. Tarkovsky made only seven full-length films, yet this slender oeuvre has established him as the most important and well-known Russian director since Eisenstein. Although Tarkovsky’s reputation continues to grow, especially in North America, where initial critical reaction was decidedly cooler than in Europe, his genius was recognised within his own lifetime by Jean-Paul Sartre, who championed Tarkovsky’s first feature, Ivan’s Childhood, and Ingmar Bergman. In its Ten Best Films of All Time poll in 1982, Sight and Sound critics voted Tarkovsky’s second feature, Andrei Rublev, as runner-up, a remarkable achievement since the film had only been released in the UK in 1973, making it the youngest film on the list by far.

Tarkovsky’s films are slow, dreamlike searches for faith and redemption, and it comes as no surprise to learn that, during his years in the Soviet Union, he was often criticised for ‘mysticism’ and his continued failure to tackle subjects in a style more acceptable to socialist realism. And yet Tarkovsky and his films were very much a product of the Soviet system, which ironically allowed directors a great deal of freedom to express themselves.

Early Years

Andrei Arsenevich Tarkovsky was born on 4 April 1932 in the village of Zavrazhie, which lies just outside the town of Yurievets on the banks of the Volga in the Ivanovo region about 60 miles north of Moscow. The family were literary: his paternal grandfather, Alexander (1860–1920), was a poet who had been a member of the People’s Freedom Movement, which espoused culture and learning for all; as a result, he was banished by the Tsar for his liberal views. Tarkovsky’s father was the poet Arseny Tarkovsky, who was born in the Ukrainian city of Kirovograd (then Elizavetgrad) in 1907. He attended the Moscow Literary Institute during the late 1920s, where he met Maria Ivanovna Vishnakova. They subsequently married and had two children, Andrei and his sister, Marina (born 1934). Tarkovsky senior had yet to be published and so, to support the family, worked away from home as a translator.

The family moved to Moscow in 1935, where Tarkovsky’s mother took a job as a proofreader at the First State Printing House. Tarkovsky’s father left the family in 1937 to live with another woman, although he continued to support his family financially and to visit on birthdays and other important occasions. Tarkovsky began his schooling in Moscow in 1939, but with the Nazi invasion of Russia two years later, was evacuated with his mother and sister back to Yurievets, where they remained for two years. Although the family were confirmed Muscovites, Tarkovsky’s early life in the country, both before the family moved to Moscow and during his time as an evacuee, would leave an indelible impression on him which he would later portray in Mirror.

Tarkovsky claimed that his mother groomed him from childhood to be an artist, making sure that he was exposed to art and literature from an early age (though given both Arseny’s and Maria Ivanovna’s literary predilections, it would have been difficult for the young Tarkovsky to have avoided books and works of art). To further this end, Tarkovsky studied music for seven years, as well as having three years of art lessons at the 1905 Academy.

Tarkovsky seems to have resented his mother’s attempts to foster in him a sense that he was an artist-in-waiting, as a result rebelling by hanging out with kids his mother didn’t approve of, playing football and acting tough. However, despite his rebelliousness, he did love books, and was apparently only quiet when reading. At school, he was an average pupil, a ‘dreamer more than thinker’. It was perhaps his lack of academic aptitude that made Tarkovsky realise that he might indeed become an artist one day, perhaps as a composer, painter or writer.

Film career

Tarkovsky applied for a place at the prestigious All-Union State Institute of Cinematography, VGIK. That year (1954), there were around 500 applicants for only 15 places. Tarkovsky was among those chosen, and he began studies under the veteran director, Mikhail Romm (1901–71). Romm appeared to be temperamentally at the opposite end of the spectrum to Tarkovsky. He was known chiefly for his films of the 1930s, such as Lenin in October (1937) and Lenin in 1918 (1939), both of which firmly toed the Party line. Given that, and combined with Tarkovsky’s less than inspiring academic record up to that time, one could be forgiven for assuming that his time at VGIK was not to be a success. Yet Romm was a brilliant and unorthodox teacher, and unorthodoxy was precisely what Tarkovsky needed. Romm believed that one could not be taught to be a director, but had to learn to think for oneself and develop an individual voice.

During his time at VGIK, Tarkovsky and his fellow students studied all aspects of filmmaking, watching the classics of Soviet cinema and taking part in workshops in which they would demonstrate their technical ability. This even included acting; Tarkovsky’s fellow student and friend, Alexander Gordon, remembers him giving a superb performance as the aging Prince Bolkonsky when Romm got the students to perform scenes from War and Peace during their third year at VGIK. Tarkovsky saw many classics from outside the Soviet Union, including Citizen Kane, the films of John Ford and William Wyler, and the works of the fathers of the French New Wave, Jean Renoir and Jean Vigo. Tarkovsky developed a personal pantheon that included Bergman, Bunuel, Mizoguchi and Kurosawa, Fellini and Antonioni. The only Soviet director who made it into his pantheon was Dovzhenko, although he was good friends with the Georgian director Sergei Parajanov, whom he regarded as ‘a genius in everything’. He also spoke highly of Iosseliani, and, on occasion, of Boris Barnet. But above them all was the towering figure of Robert Bresson, whom Tarkovsky regarded as the ultimate film artist.

Whilst at VGIK, Tarkovsky co-directed two shorts, The Killers (1958) and There Will Be No Leave Today (1959), which are discussed in the ‘Student Films’ chapter. He also saw Hamlet on stage for the first time (the Paul Scofield production). In 1957, he married fellow student, Irma Rausch, with whom he had a son, Arseny (Senka), who was born in 1962.

A year after making There Will Be No Leave Today, he completed his studies and made his award-winning diploma film, The Steam Roller and the Violin, which won first prize at the New York Student Film Festival in 1961. It was an auspicious time for new filmmakers to be emerging in the Soviet Union. The Soviet film industry was undergoing something of a renaissance; the resultant surge in production from the mid-fifties on would bode well for Tarkovsky and his generation. Films such as The Cranes are Flying and The Ballad of a Soldier caused an international sensation, and Tarkovsky would become the new star in the firmament of this Soviet New Wave.

Tarkovsky shot his first full-length film, Ivan’s Childhood, in 1961. At the film’s first screening in Moscow in March 1962, Mikhail Romm famously declared ‘Remember the name: Tarkovsky.’They would prove to be prophetic words: the film won the Golden Lion at Venice later that year and was championed in the West by no less than Jean-Paul Sartre, who praised it as ‘Socialist surrealism’. Tarkovsky was instantly recognised in the West as a major director; Ingmar Bergman would later write that his discovery of Ivan’s Childhood was ‘like a miracle’ and that ‘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.’As Tarkovsky began work on what would become his second feature, Andrei Rublev, his standing was at its high-water mark in Moscow. He would never enjoy such a position again in his homeland.

By the time Andrei Rublev was released, Tarkovsky had shot his third feature, an adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s novel, Solaris. Although the film was part of the seemingly ‘safe’ genre of science fiction, the shoot was difficult, primarily due to frequent arguments between Tarkovsky and his cameraman, Vadim Yusov, who had shot all of Tarkovsky’s films from The Steamroller and the Violin onwards. The two men would not work together again, and Tarkovsky asked Georgy Rerberg to shoot his next feature, the autobiographical Mirror. Mirror is at the heart of Tarkovsky’s oeuvre in every way, but was met with official condemnation for being obscure and elitist. Such was the furore surrounding the film, that Tarkovsky briefly considered giving up filmmaking and also began to toy with the idea of making a film in the West.

The last film Tarkovsky would make in the Soviet Union was another venture into science fiction, Stalker. The film, based on a novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, marks a turning point in Tarkovsky’s work, towards a more pared down and minimalistic style. The film was completed in 1979 and was shown in Cannes to rapturous reviews in 1980. The Polish director Andrzej Wajda felt that, with Stalker, Tarkovsky was ‘throwing down the gauntlet’. The film heralds the onset of Tarkovsky’s late period, which would be rounded out by his last two features, Nostalgia (1983) and The Sacrifice (1986).

This is an edited extract of The Pocket Essential Tarkovsky by Sean Martin. To buy the book and find out more about the Pocket Essential series, please follow the links provided on the sidebar.