“If you look for a meaning, you’ll miss everything that happens.” – Andrei Tarkovsky
Known as one of the greatest and most influential voices of world cinema, the films of Andrei Tarkovsky are each concerned with the exploration of spiritual and existential themes, using dreamlike, ethereal imagery to meditate on nature, memory and human existence. Over three decades after his passing, the director still has the power to transport viewers, arguing that cinema is the true pinnacle of art, stating: “All art, of course, is intellectual, but for me, all the arts, and cinema even more so, must above all be emotional and act upon the heart.”
Characterised by the recurrence of metaphysical themes and motifs including dreams, memory, childhood and reflections, Tarkovsky spoke of his own brand of cinema that “juxtaposing a person with an environment that is boundless, collating him with a countless number of people passing by close to him and far away, relating a person to the whole world, that is the meaning of cinema.”
With his influences spanning far and wide, multiple writers and directors name Tarkovsky as one of their primary sources of inspiration. This includes legendary Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, who once said: “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.”
Continuing, Bergman added: “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.”
Across Tarkovsky’s filmography, from Solaris to Stalker, the director has reinvented the cinematic language and provided for audiences some of the greatest shots the medium has ever seen. Here, we take a look back at some of his greatest ever shots, supported by the views of many contemporary greats:
5 shots that prove Andrei Tarkovsky was a genius:
The Burning House – The Sacrifice
Demonstrating the power of Andrei Tarkovsky’s long shot, the climactic image of the burning house in the director’s final film, The Sacrifice, lasts for over five minutes and carries real gravitas, detailing the turmoil of each family member.
Concerning Alexander, a journalist and philosopher who finds out WWIII will break on the night of his birthday, The Sacrifice tracks the journey of a man’s relationship with God as he pleads for the end of the war if he offers him everything he has.
Such leads to the burning of Alexander’s own house captured in meditative thought by the static cinematography of Swedish DOP Sven Nykvist, panning away from the house only to capture the wailing reactions of the family members. Despite the catastrophic nature of such a family tragedy, Tarkovsky manages to allocate a strange beauty behind the smouldering wreckage of the house. It appears to be not of this world, as if the figment of a beautiful dream.
The Beach – Ivan’s Childhood
The emotional trauma and dark existential musings of war are explored through the eyes of a child in Tarkovsky’s debut feature film Ivan’s Childhood. Viewing WWII through the subjective reality of Ivan’s escapist perception, reality merges with the dreamworld as the tribulations of war slowly suffocate the titular child.
Upon discovering that Ivan has, in fact, been hanged by the Germans at the end of the film, a final flashback concludes the story, showing Ivan running across a beach as a small boy. Depicting happier times for himself and the young girl who accompanies him, the film’s final image shows Ivan alone beside a twisted, dead tree, evoking a painful, yearning nostalgia for an innocent life lost.
Appearing as out of place as the tree on the beach, Ivan’s solitude on the beach is terrifying, despite the fact that the dream sequence that imprisons him places him among other children. Though, despite the company, Ivan feels isolated, alone and hopeless. It’s a heart-wrenching final sequence.
The Meat-Grinder – Stalker
In Stalker, perhaps Andrei Tarkovsky’s most famous film, a guide leads two men through an area known only as ‘The Zone’ to find a room that grants wishes. The ‘Meat Grinder’ tunnel sets the scene for the film’s emotional climax, placing the viewer in a dark, grey industrial tunnel; a shifting, terrifying vision of human consciousness.
The area itself, punctuated by vast mounds of white sand, accompanied by the diegetic sound of echoes and footsteps, is a captivating, immersive space. A strange, grey indoor landscape becomes the setting for the monologue of the melancholic writer, Pisatel (Anatoliy Solonitsyn), staring directly into the camera as he confesses the fragility of his ego and the hopelessness of life.
Staging the monologue in such a place is a genius decision from Tarkovsky, making the words of the writer seem ethereal and otherworldly as they make their way over and around the mounded obstacles of the room.
The landscape of a memory – Mirror
Tarkovsky’s personal, autobiographical feature Mirror tells the lyrical tale of a dying man in his forties remembering his past, including his childhood, mother, war and the makeup of Russia’s modern history.
It may well be the director’s most beautiful film, concerning itself with an individual’s recollections and fantasies of nostalgia and memory. Natalya (Margarita Terekhova), the mother, is the film’s central focus and is pictured here looking longingly out toward the landscape of memory and dreams.
Contrasting the verdant green meadow with the ethereal pink hue of the dusk sky, Tarkovsky is able to draw a beautiful visual contrast between the stark reality of memory with the fantastical recollection of imagination. It creates an illusory and otherworldly feeling of nostalgia that invites you in with warmth whilst not wanting to interrupt the serene beauty Natalya seems captivated by.
The Great Andrei Rublev – Andrei Rublev
The life, times and afflictions of the fifteenth-century Russian iconographer St. Andrei Rublev is captured with great monochrome beauty by director Andrei Tarkovsky in his second feature-length film.
Framing Andrey Rublev (Anatoliy Solonitsyn) in a style evocative of a religious portrait, he is placed in the shot as a figure both of great wonder and fragility. Tarkovsky presents the iconic Russian painter as a complex and flawed individual, and ultimately one seeking artistic freedom and true expression of religious thought under a repressive Russian regime.
Tarkovsky sought to create a film that shows the artist as “a world-historic figure”, stating in an interview that “creation requires from man the complete offering of his being…these acts demand that, for the price of his creation, man should die, dissolve himself in his work, give himself entirely”.
Here, we see Rublev existing in such a moment, a subject of the religious tableau behind him, it just so happens he exists in an entirely different realm.