Andrei Tarkovsky created a handwritten list of his 10 favourite films of all-time
(Credit: FCAT)

Andrei Tarkovsky films ranked from great to greatest

Poetry is an awareness of the world, a particular way of relating to reality.” – Andrei Tarkovsky

Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky is widely considered to be one of the most influential artistic voices in the history of cinema. Over a career of 25 years, Tarkovsky added seven feature films in a nearly flawless filmography. The fact that his oeuvre is still being discussed and dissected by students, audiences and even other filmmakers, 34 years after his death, is proof of the enduring importance of his work.

In an interview, Tarkovsky spoke about the anxiety of influence, “In general, I’m very afraid of these things and I always try to avoid them. And I don’t like when someone then reminds me that in this or that case I did not act with complete independence. But now, recently, quotation is also starting to become interesting to me. Mirror, for example, has a scene, a shot, which could very well have been filmed by Bergman. I reflected on the opportuneness of filming the scene that way. Then I decided that it wasn’t important. Oh yes, I thought, it will be a sort of homage that I make to him.”

He added, “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.”

As a celebration of one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, we revisit Andrei Tarkovsky’s coveted filmography and evaluate where each of his films rank.

All Andrei Tarkovsky films ranked:

7. Nostalghia (1983)

The first film that Tarkovsky directed outside the USSR, Nostalghia is one of his lesser-seen works. It tells the story of Russian writer Andrei Gorkachov who goes to Italy to investigate the life of an 18th-century composer. The composer, Pavel Sosnovsky, lived there before coming back to Russia to commit suicide. Nostalghia is a poetic exploration of the empty legacy of mankind.

Tarkovsky said, “Our ‘nostalghia’ is not your ‘nostalgia.’ It is not an individual emotion but something much more complex and profound that Russians experience when they are abroad. It is a disease, an illness, that drains away the strength of the soul, the capacity to work, the pleasure of living. I analyse this nostalghia confronting it with a concrete story, that of a Soviet intellectual who comes to Italy.”

He added, “I made the film without the use of a translator, making myself understood with broken phrases. Film uses a universal language, it helps us to understand each other, to explain ourselves. However, I do find that in Italy there is far too much discussion and arguing over the financial aspects of this type of work, of filmmaking.”

6. Ivan’s Childhood (1962)

Tarkovsky’s first feature also happens to be his most accessible film, although Ivan’s Childhood did display breaks from the traditional conventions of filmmaking. Set during the Second World War, it features a twelve-year-old spy called Ivan who is forced to participate in international espionage. It is unflinching in its insistence that violence is the omnipresent reality of a ravaged world.

“I created The Steamroller and the Violin as my graduation movie of the VGIK in 1960,” the filmmaker reflected. “Soon after graduating, I entered the production group led by Grigory Alexandorov at the Mosfilm studio, and a group people who had seen The Steamroller, recommended that I should pick up the original book of Ivan’s Childhood. I was attracted by the story and finished the film in six months.”

Speaking about the message of the film, Tarkovsky said, “The terror and fear of war is not only the destruction and devastation of houses and lands, nor loss of many human lives, but war also robs children of their childhood. This is it. That is why I strived to express tragedy by describing the inner world of a young boy.”

5. The Sacrifice (1986)

Tarkovsky’s last addition to his filmography came out just a few months before his death in 1986. The Sacrifice centres on a middle-aged intellectual, a former theatre actor who gave it all up in order to become a critic. When the news of a third world war breaks out, he tries to bargain with his god so that a nuclear holocaust can be averted.

“Yesterday (every Wednesday) I was given chemotherapy (for the third time). I feel terrible. I can’t even think of getting out of bed, or even of sitting up,” Tarkovsky wrote in his journal a few weeks before his death. “[The Sacrifice] has been shown in England, with great success, and in America.

“The reviews are unbelievably good. The Japanese are organising some sort of relief fund as well, only they find it impossible to understand how such a famous director can be so poor.”

4. Solaris (1972)

Solaris, considered one of the greatest films in the history of cinema, marked a significant change in the approach to the genre of science fiction. Tarkovsky, disillusioned by the approach of western filmmakers and their shallow vision, attempted to add deeper layers of emotional and understanding.

The film, described as a ‘Soviet science fiction art film’, is based on Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 novel of the same name and stars Donatas Banionis and Natalya Bondarchuk. It revolves around a psychologist who is sent to a space station orbiting a planet called Solaris to investigate the death of a doctor as well as the conflicted mental states of the other cosmonauts only to discover that the planet has a neurology of its own.

Tarkovsky said, “My decision to make a screen adaptation of Stanisław Lem’s Solaris was not a result of my interest in science fiction. The essential reason was that in Solaris Lem undertook a moral problem I can closely relate to. The deeper meaning of Lem’s novel does not fit within the confines of science fiction. To discuss only the literary form is to limit the problem. This is a novel not only about the clash between human reason and the Unknown but also about moral conflicts set in motion by new scientific discoveries.

“It’s about new morality arising as a result of those painful experiences we call ‘the price of progress.’ For Kelvin that price means having to face directly his own pangs of conscience in a material form. Kelvin does not change the principles of his conduct, he remains himself, which is the source of a tragic dilemma in him.”

3. Mirror (1975)

Tarkovsky’s 1975 effort is a complex philosophical examination of human memory and the fundamental nature of our existence. Structured in the form of non-linear flashbacks and dreams, Mirror is a semi-autobiographical work about a dying man in his forties who indulges in meditative memories ranging from his parents’ divorce to his time on the battlefields of World War II.

The filmmaker explained, “Cinema in general always creates a possibility of putting pieces together into a whole. A film consists of all of the separate shots like a mosaic — of separate fragments of different colour and texture. And it may be that each fragment on its own is — it would seem — of no significance. But within that whole it becomes an absolutely necessary element, it exists only within that whole. That’s why cinema is important to me in the sense that there is not, there cannot be any fragment in the film which wouldn’t be thought through with an eye for the final result.

“And each individual fragment is coloured so to speak with a common meaning by the entire whole. That is, the fragment does not function as an autonomous symbol but it exists only as a portion of some unique and original world. That’s why Mirror is in a sense closest to my theoretical concept of cinema.”

2. Andrei Rublev (1966)

Set in a volatile 15th-century Russia, Tarkovsky’s masterpiece is about the iconic painter Andrei Rublev who takes a vow of silence and decides not to paint after he is exposed to the brutality of violence. The film examines the artistic essence through Rublev’s struggle to find some sort of inner peace. Art slow manifests itself as the speechless artist makes sense of the world around him.

Tarkovsky elaborated, “[Andrei Rublev] is shot in very long takes, to avoid any feeling of artificial, special rhythm, in order that the rhythm should be that of life itself. In fact, you can have any kind of editing: short, long, fast, slow. The length of a shot has nothing to do with being modern or not modern.

“In film, as in any other art form, it is a way of selecting in order to express a particular idea. Basically, editing is the way you organise the rhythm of a film. And the length of a take depends on what has to be shown: it’ll be short for a detail and long for a panorama.”

1. Stalker (1979)

Stalker is the best film of Andrei Tarkovsky, one of the greatest filmmakers in the history of cinema. Just that statement is enough to merit a place on any list but it does not do the film justice at all. Tarkovsky constructs a meditative experience that violently lurches towards the truth but only claws at the void, a revelatory incision from which an empty dialectic drains out. Although it is structured as an outdoors expedition to arrive at a heterotopia that promises to provide our deepest and darkest desires, Stalker conducts a simultaneous journey into the psychological recesses that remain hidden from us.

Tarkovsky shrouds the brashness of the sci-fi genre with a rich atmosphere of philosophical maturity. Stalker’s self-destructive desire threatens to destroy all of our preconceived notions but holds back with the graceful restraint of poetic totality. Tarkovsky’s camera glides over the radioactive wasteland as he slowly punctures some of the mysteries of the universe.

“Why doesn’t it matter where he arrived? Because the path is infinite,” Tarkovsky said. “And the journey has no end. Because of that, it is of absolutely no consequence whether you are standing near the beginning or near the end already — before you, there is a journey that will never end. And if you didn’t enter the path — the most important thing is to enter it. Here lies the problem. That’s why for me what’s important is not so much the path but the moment at which a man enters it enters any path.”

He added, “In Stalker, for example, the Stalker himself is perhaps not so important to me, much more important is the Writer who went to the Zone as a cynic, just a pragmatist, and returned as a man who speaks of human dignity, who realised he was not a good man. For the first time, he even faces this question, is man good or bad? And if he has already thought of it — he thus enters the path… And when the Stalker says that all his efforts were wasted, that nobody understood anything, that nobody needed him — he is mistaken because the Writer understood everything. And because of that, the Stalker himself is not even so important.”

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