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By Sean Martin
Oldcastle BooksCopyright © 2011 Sean Martin
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LIFE AND TIMES
Andrei Tarkovsky (1932–86) was a 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, who regarded Tarkovsky as 'the greatest of them all'. Tarkovsky's work was admired by directors as diverse as Bergman, Victor Erice, Terry Gilliam, Peter Greenaway, Krzysztof Kieslowski and Lars von Trier. 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. Before we move on to examine Tarkovsky's films, writings and works in other media, it is instructive to explore briefly the Soviet film industry as it was when Tarkovsky was working within it and Tarkovsky's own biography, as both played an important part in making Tarkovsky's films what they are.
TARKOVSKY'S 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. Although as a boy and teenager, the young Tarkovsky 'caused his mother a lot of worry' – in addition to his difficult behaviour, he also suffered from tuberculosis – he was always to write in later life of his high regard for her, although this would seem to be, in part, a retrospective judgement.
His relationship with his father was likewise complex. Tarkovsky detested Antonina, his father's second wife, and can have only felt something like relief when she died unexpectedly in 1940. Arseny joined the Red Army as a war journalist and was sent to the Front, where he lost a leg. Tarkovsky's memories of the war revolved around waiting for it to end and for his father to come home. When Arseny did return home, as a decorated war hero (he received the Order of the Red Star), he did not rejoin his first family; indeed, he did not even go to meet the young Andrei when he and his sister returned to Moscow from their time as evacuees in Yurievets. But despite this apparent callousness, Tarkovsky held his father in high regard and, as a teenager, seems to have been closer to his father than his mother, spending what time he could with him, discussing books, listening to Arseny read his own poetry and sampling his father's extensive record collection (Bach was to become a favourite). The teenage Tarkovsky seems to have regarded his mother as the more guilty party with regard to the break-up of the marriage, which again may go some way to explain why he would want to spend so much time with his father at this stage of his life.
In 1951, Tarkovsky enrolled in the School of Oriental Languages to study Arabic; he had been interested in the East since an early age (perhaps as a result of hearing stories about his family's supposed origins among the Daghestani nobility during the reign of Ivan the Terrible). However, he did not finish his course due to concussing himself in the gym one day, and he found employment instead on a geological expedition to Siberia, where he spent a year (1953–4) prospecting the remote Turuchansk region for mineral deposits. That Tarkovsky ended up on this expedition may not have been entirely his own doing: his lack of aptitude for serious academic study had been a continuing worry for the family, and it seems that, after the incident in the gym, Tarkovsky's mother intervened and virtually exiled the would-be director to the East, to prevent him wasting away among Moscow's stilyaga, the dandified Russian equivalent of the Beat Generation.
Despite being summarily sent away, Tarkovsky thrived in Siberia. He walked many hundreds of miles along the River Kureika, where he spent a lot of time drawing and thinking. It is not recorded how successful he was as an employee of the expedition, but as he didn't get fired, we can assume that he passed muster. But the expedition did not ignite in him the desire to be a geologist. Rather, alone with nature – and himself – for the first lengthy period since his days as an evacuee in Yurievets, he resolved to become a film director. Maya Turovskaya notes that Tarkovsky's 'spiritual baggage was acquired during his none-too-happy childhood and was little affected by subsequent external influences'. Likewise, his year in the Siberian taiga would serve as a dramatic baseline for nearly all his subsequent work. Nature is ever present in his films – often celebrated, always mysterious – as is the lone protagonist, struggling to come to terms with his own life and the world around – and within – him.
Upon returning from Siberia, 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 ageing 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, Buñuel, 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 (1956) 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.
TARKOVSKY'S PROFESSIONAL CAREER
Tarkovsky's life and career after VGIK are perhaps better known. 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-1950s 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.
Andrei Rublev was to be the beginning of the end for Tarkovsky in the Soviet Union. Although completed in 1966, it was not released until 1971 on the grounds that it was too naturalistic, unpatriotic and, perhaps worst of all in the eyes of the authorities, 'mystical'. The film was first screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 1969, where it was awarded the FIPRESCI Prize. It was finally released in the West in 1973.
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).
Nostalgia was shot in Italy in the autumn of 1982. Tarkovsky had first visited the country 20 years earlier, when Ivan's Childhood had triumphed at Venice. In 1976, after the controversy surrounding Mirror had left Tarkovsky disillusioned and bitter, he began making notes for what would become Tempo di Viaggio (1980), his only documentary, and his only film to be shot abroad. The film was finally shot in Italy in the summer of 1979, by which time Tarkovsky and the screenwriter Tonino Guerra, his long-time friend, had had an idea – provisionally entitled 'The End of the World' – that would turn into Nostalgia. The screenplay was completed in May 1980; Tarkovsky then spent two years in a bureaucratic quagmire before the film could be made. Soviet officials prevented the film from winning the Palme d'Or at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival, a scandal that enraged Tarkovsky and hardened his resolve that he could no longer continue working in the Soviet Union.
On 10 July 1984, Tarkovsky announced his intention to remain in the West at a press conference in Milan. He had considered defecting in 1981 during a trip to Sweden, but concern for his wife and son prevented him from proceeding. When he finally did make the decision to remain in the West, his son was still in the Soviet Union, and would not be allowed out until January 1986, by which time Tarkovsky had been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. His final film, The Sacrifice, won four prizes at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival, including the Grand Prix and the Special Jury Prize. Tarkovsky was too ill to attend, so his son Andrei Jr collected the prizes on his behalf. Tarkovsky seemed to be in remission during the summer of 1986, but the cancer returned. He died in Paris on 29 December 1986.
Tarkovsky did not live long enough to experience glasnost, although he predicted that, after his death, he would be rehabilitated in his homeland. His prediction came true: a major retrospective of his work was held at Dom Kino (the House of Cinema) in the spring of 1987. The following year, the original 205-minute cut of Andrei Rublev received its first public screening. An Andrei Tarkovsky Memorial Prize was established in 1989, its first recipient being the legendary animator, Yuri Norstein. In April 1990, Tarkovsky was posthumously awarded the Lenin Prize, the highest form of recognition in the Soviet Union.
TARKOVSKY AND THE SOVIET CONTEXT
Tarkovsky made five feature films in the Soviet Union between 1962 and1979. All of them were seen – at least in Western Europe – as major masterpieces, even one of which would have guaranteed their director a place in cinema history. Unlike some directors, such as his close friend Sergei Parajanov (1924–90), who spent a number of years in prison on trumped-up charges and whose career was badly hampered by the authorities, Tarkovsky managed to remain relatively free to pursue his vision, despite the fact that he was not a Party man and his films did not conform to the Socialist Realist norm that the Communist Party championed. This suggests that the Soviet system was not as monolithic as we might be tempted to think it was, to say nothing of Tarkovsky's own tenacity. A brief overview of the Soviet film industry will go some way towards helping us to appreciate what obstacles a filmmaker in the Soviet Union had to face and how this, in turn, played a part in shaping Tarkovsky's films.
Excerpted from Andrei Tarkovsky by Sean Martin. Copyright © 2011 Sean Martin. Excerpted by permission of Oldcastle Books.
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