For decades now, there has been a universal consensus that Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky is one of the greatest directors of all time. In a career that spanned 25 years, Tarkovsky only produced seven feature films, but each of them are almost flawless examples of cinematic brilliance. From his experiments with the science fiction genre in masterpieces like Solaris and Stalker to his meditations on the human condition in Andrei Rublev and Mirror, Tarkovsky’s filmography is as perfect as it gets.
Born in a village in Kostroma Oblast, Russia, Tarkovsky had an inclination towards the arts from an early age due to the influence of his father – the great Soviet poet Arseny Tarkovsky. Trained in music and art, Tarkovsky’s skill would emerge later as he was often busy being the troublemaker in school. After studying Arabic for a year, he dropped out and embarked on a year-long expedition. The experience proved to be a formative one for him because that was the time when Tarkovsky came to the conclusion that he wanted to make films for a living.
In 1954, the future filmmaker joined the State Institute of Cinematography, where he was truly exposed to the world of cinema: ranging from Italian neorealism to the French New Wave. Tarkovsky famously said in the latter half of his life: “I am only interested in the views of two people: one is called Bresson and one called Bergman.” At film school, he learnt from their works and was also greatly influenced by Andrzej Wajda’s 1958 film Ashes and Diamonds. Tarkovsky absorbed the brilliance of the Japanese masters as well, particularly the works of Akira Kurosawa.
It is truly astonishing to note that Tarkovsky would not just meet his idol later in his life but have the opportunity to discuss his own work. Kurosawa visited Tarkovsky on the set of Solaris and later wrote: “Tarkovsky was together with me then. He was at the corner of the studio. When the film [Solaris] was over, he stood up, looking at me as if he felt timid. I said to him, ‘Very good. It makes me feel real fear.’
“Tarkovsky smiled shyly, but happily. And we toasted vodka at the restaurant in the Film Institute. Tarkovsky, who didn’t drink usually, drank a lot of vodka, and went so far as to turn off the speaker from which music had floated into the restaurant, and began to sing the theme of samurai from Seven Samurai at the top of his voice. As if to rival him, I joined in. For I was at that moment very happy to find myself living on Earth.”
Starting from his brilliant 1962 debut Ivan’s Childhood and ending with his final masterpiece, The Sacrifice in 1986, Tarkovsky showed the world how it was possible to turn the visual narrative of cinema into true poetry. Throughout his life, he tried to come to terms with questions of time, space, human existence and metaphysical paradoxes. His films are the manifestation of his anxieties, swirling in beautiful patterns across the screen while overwhelming the audience with complete mastery.
Tarkovsky’s Stalker is not only his magnum opus, but quite possibly one of the greatest films ever made, revealing the hypocrisy of our empty dialectics and our petulant arrogance through a simple allegorical tale. When Tarkovsky succumbed to his illnesses in 1986, some people believed that he was assassinated by the KGB while others were convinced that he suffered from chemical poisoning while filming Stalker.
What remains absolutely clear is the fact that his legacy would prove to be monumental, not just inspiring his contemporaries but mesmerising future generations of filmmakers. Tarkovsky’s early hero, Bergman, also acknowledged his contribution to the world of cinema and oneiric film theory: “My discovery of Tarkovsky’s first film was like a miracle… 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.”
Film historian Steven Dillon rightly argued that most of the developments in cinema after Tarkovsky owed a great deal to him. From Lars von Trier to Krzysztof Kieslowski, Tarkovsky’s looming shadow can be observed in a lot of contemporary films. Lars von Trier even dedicated his 2009 horror drama Antichrist to Tarkovsky and cited the impact of Mirror on his own filmmaking journey, “I was hypnotised! I’ve seen it 20 times. It’s the closest thing I’ve got to a religion – to me he is a god. And if I didn’t dedicate the film to Tarkovsky, then everyone would say I was stealing from him.”
Directors from the New Russian Cinema movement like Aleksandr Sokurov also borrowed from Tarkovsky’s own investigations. The vision of Sokurov’s 1997 masterpiece Mother and Son can be compared to Tarkovsky’s own ideas of the human condition. In a conversation with Paul Schrader, Sokurov said: “The first time I saw [Tarkovsky’s] work was when I was finishing my education at the Film Academy. His aesthetics weren’t a discovery for me, rather it was a confirmation of my own vision.” Similar parallels can be drawn between Terrence Malick’s cinematic aesthetics as well as Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s portrayal of landscapes and elemental forces.
When asked about the anxiety of influence, Tarkovsky himself replied: “It seems to me that every original aspect in the work of genuine writers, genuine painters, musicians, filmmakers, always has deep roots. Therefore, finding references from far back in the past, is inevitable. I don’t even know what it originates from. Perhaps it is not a characteristic of our spiritual stance, but a typical aspect of our time. Because time is nevertheless reversible.”