Tarkovsky, Andrei (1932–1986)

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Soviet film director.

Andrei Tarkovsky was the most important and original Russian Soviet film director of the post-Eisenstein period. He was born in Ivanovo Oblast, near Moscow, on 4 April 1932. His father, the famous Russian poet Arseny Tarkovsky (1907–1989), deserted the family when Andrei was four years old. The theme of fatherlessness and the presence of a loving and troubled mother are featured in many of Tarkovsky's films. Tarkovsky was an artist in the philosophical mold and a profound religious thinker, who presented in his films the most serious problems of morality and faith, humanism and the dehumanization. The world he created in his films is original and easily recognizable: it is enigmatic, complex, irreal, dreamlike, and full of significant and hidden symbols.

Tarkovsky's first success came with the film Ivan's Childhood (1962), which portrays a child who has lost his parents during the war and has become an army scout. The film created a stunning impression in the USSR and in the West: the boy is depicted as having permanently lost his childhood. He maintains within himself the trauma of the violence he has endured, a trauma that dooms him to solitude. The French writer and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre formulated the philosophical idea of the film thus: "War kills those who wage it, even if they survive.… History in the same wave calls its heroes to life, creates them, and destroys them, depriving them of the ability to live without experiencing the suffering of society, which they have helped to preserve."

Tarkovsky devoted his next film to the greatest Russian icon painter of the fourteenth to fifteenth centuries, Andrei Rublev (1360 to 1370–c. 1430). The director said that the aim of Andrei Rublev (1966) was to investigate the nature of the Russian painter's poetic gifts; analyze the spiritual condition and civic feelings of an artist who created moral values of enormous significance; and tell the story of how national yearning for brotherhood in an era of terrible internal strife under the Tartar yoke gave birth to Rublev's work of genius, "The Old Testament Trinity." This was not, however, a historical or biographical film but rather a philosophical-historical parable about the fate of the artist during the wars and violence of the Middle Ages. Soviet censors perceived dangerous historical allusions in the film and references to the lack of artistic freedom in the USSR. For that reason, only a limited number of prints were made in the Soviet Union, with considerable cuts by the censors. By contrast, the film was interpreted abroad as proof that under socialism even an unconventional artist had the freedom to realize his work.

Taken from the Polish writer Stanislaw Lem's science-fiction novel, the futuristic film Solaris (1972) tells the story of a planet that materializes the human desires of the human beings who are sent there to carry out research. Behind the film are reflections on outer space, earth, humankind, conscience, life, death, and one's responsibility to the future. Tarkovsky said that he wanted to prove through this film that the problem of ethical stability permeates the whole of human existence, revealing itself even in spheres that at first glance are not linked to morality, for example, in the exploration of outer space and the study of the objective world.

He also turned to the fantastic in The Stalker (1979), taken from a novel by two science-fiction writers, the brothers Boris and Arkady Strugatsky. The Stalker is a man with professional knowledge of the system of obstacles and traps in the Zone, a place where desires can be fulfilled. A fashionable writer wants to find inspiration, a famous professor dreams of making a discovery. Tarkovsky asserted that he had been preparing for this film all his life. He said that in the film he was trying to determine the specifically human quality that crystallizes in the soul of each person and constitutes his or her value. Although outwardly the characters suffer fiascos, in fact each of them finds within something incalculably more important: faith, the feeling within the self of what is most fundamental.

In 1974 Tarkovsky shot The Mirror, a film-memoir and meditation. The hero of the picture is an author, a storyteller, and it is he who provides the film's voice-over. The episodes he remembers before his death cause him suffering and increase his anguish and anxiety. The film tells of the feelings of this unnamed hero toward those closest to him, his interrelations with them, and their eternal pity and unfulfilled feelings of duty toward him. The film is full of poetry and the enigmatic unreadability of life, in which the present and past merge in the streams of memory.

At the beginning of the 1980s, Tarkovsky's conflict with the Soviet authorities increased, and he was finally refused permission to return to the USSR from Italy, where he had been working on the film Nostalgia (1983). This conflict was linked not so much to political dissidence as to the sharp stylistic originality of his pictures, which in no way suited the conventions of Soviet cinema of the time. Nostalgia was dedicated to the memory of the director's mother and told the story of a certain Russian writer, Gorchakov, who travels to Italy to search for biographical traces of an enserfed musician from the eighteenth century who had once visited the place. This musician's fate was tragic: returning to Russia, he was unable to buy his freedom from serfdom, took to drink, and ended his own life. The search for the past links Gorchakov to the translator Evgeniya, who tries helplessly to understand the internal world of her Russian friend and the reasons for his anguish, with the help of a small volume of Arseny Tarkovsky's verse. Tarkovsky's final film, The Sacrifice (1986), also has biographical features. Separated from his family, who was not allowed to leave the USSR, Tarkovsky made this film and dedicated it to his son. He said that this is what every generation has to accomplish in relation to its children: self-sacrifice.

Tarkovsky's films were valued highly at international film festivals (Cannes, Venice, New York) by some the greatest figures in world art—Jean-Paul Sartre, the film directors Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, Krzysztof Zanussi, and many others.

See alsoCinema; Russia; Soviet Union.


Jameson, Fredric. "On Soviet Magic Realism." In his The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World System, 87–113. Bloomington, Ind., 1992.

Johnson, Vida T., and Graham Petrie. The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue. Bloomington, Ind., 1994.

Le Fanu, Mark. The Cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky. London, 1987.

Tarkovsky, Andrey. Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema. Translated by Kitty Hunter-Blair. New York, 1987.

Turovskaya, Maya. Tarkovsky: Cinema as Poetry. Translated by Natasha Ward. Edited and with an introduction by Ian Christie. Rev. ed. London, 1989.

Evgeny Dobrenko