He made only seven films in an over two-decade career, where he also had to contend with his homeland’s authoritarian regime (which had resources beyond pliant censor boards to squelch ‘undesirable’ content), but still Soviet Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky rose to become one of the most influential filmmakers ever.
Widely considered the greatest Soviet film-maker since Sergei Eisenstein, Tarkovsky (1932-86), whose 85th birth anniversary is on Tuesday, is one of the few directors whose name serves to describe their unique style.
In his case, Tarkovskian denotes his penchant for spiritual and metaphysical themes, with self-reflection a major component, and lack of conventional dramatic structure. It also includes images of rare, natural beauty and motifs such as water (either sight or sound), wind, dreams, memories (usually of childhood) and bells and candles, which have gone to influence the likes of Iran’s Majid Majidi and many others.
“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,” noted Tarkovsky at the beginning of his career. He also once said that children understood his films better than adults.
Son of poet Arseny Alexandrovich Tarkovsky, he grew up an industrial town in Russia before moving to Moscow in 1939 where he was enrolled in school. He subsequently studied Arabic at the Oriental Institute in Moscow, and though doing well initially, did not finish the course, beginning work as a mineral prospector. It was while on an year-long research expedition to Siberia, he decided to go into films.
Admitted to the film-directing programme at the State Institute of Cinematography in 1954, Tarkovsky was lucky that this period of his study coincided with the “Thaw” of the Khruschev years, allowing him to see the works of the Italian neorealists, French New Wave, and of directors such as Akiro Kurosawa, Luis Bunuel, Ingmar Bergman, Robert Bresson and Andrzej Wajda.
He was an admirer of the films of Kurosawa and Bergman, who would eventually praise Tarkovsky’s own films, with Bergman lauding him as “one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream”.
Tarkovsky, who made three student films – “The Killers” (1956, 19 minutes), “There Will be No Leave Today” (1959, 46 minutes) and “The Steamroller and the Violin” (1961, 46 minutes) – achieved fame with his first film “Ivan’s Childhood” (1962).
Set during the Second World War, the harrowing tale of a young boy, who has experienced the horrors of war and is determined to make his own contribution to the fight against the Nazi invaders enjoyed widespread acclaim, winning the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival.
His next “Andrei Rublev” (1965) about the life of a 15th-century Russian icon painter, however raised the hackles of the Soviet regime, and after a solitary screening in Moscow, was never shown till a heavily censored version finally came out in 1971. Shown at the 1969 Cannes Film Festival at 4 a.m. on the last day, in order to prevent it from winning a prize, it won one nonetheless.
Tarkovsky then followed the lead of many Soviet authors who told stories they knew would rub the establishment the wrong way through the medium of science fiction, with two of his subsequent films, “Solaris” (1972) and “Stalker” (1979) in the same genre. However his semi-autobiographical “The Mirror” which also poems recited by his father, again was not welcomed much including by outside critics though it is now thought one of the greatest films ever.
Going to Italy in 1979 to shoot documentary “Travel in Time” about his groundwork for his next film, joint Italian-Soviet venture “Nostalghia” about a Russian writer travelling there to research the life of an 18th century Russian composer Tarkovsky saw his country pulling out midway and decided never to return home again. The film was eventually completed with Italian and French backing.
He spent the last four years of his life in Europe, where he did only one more film “The Sacrifice” about an intellectual who seeks to bargain with God to stop nuclear war. It went on win an unprecedented four prizes at Cannes.
Tarkovsky died shortly afterwards of lung cancer, and there are rumours that the KGB was behind it. An aide however says it was possible that the chemical plant where “The Stalker” was shot could be responsible as his wife Larisa and actor Anatoly Solitsyn, who acted in most of Tarkovsky’s films, died of the same cause.
(Vikas Datta can be contacted at [email protected])