Andrei Tarkovsky was born to Arseny Tarkovsky, a poet, and Maria Vishnyakova, a well-educated literary woman, in 1932 Soviet Russia. His life would be one of poetic vision and his father’s interests would influence his private life and his films. He attended school alongside poet Andrey Voznesensky, and he studied piano, art, and ultimately filmmaking.
In film school, Andrei’s first short film was based on an Ernest Hemingway short story, and his others were his own creations until he teamed up with Andrei Konchalovsky, famed screenwriter and director. Tarkovsky’s work would eclipse Konchalovsky’s, as well as every other Russian filmmaker’s, with the possible exception of Sergei Eisenstein.
What brought Andrei such success? His films are beautiful, featuring long, iconic tracking shots of beautiful Russian and Scandinavian landscapes. His characters grow and he clearly pays close attention to their development; and the musical and cultural aspects of his films are impressive and allusive in a way that few other filmmakers can match. Those aspects notwithstanding, it is Andrei’s poetic and philosophical depth that is unparalleled, making him an icon and role model for so many successful filmmakers today.
His films analyze meaning, materiality, love, epistemology, metaphysics, and faith. In what is to follow, I will analyze in brief his 7 greatest films and attempt to bring out the key philosophical elements of each. If you want to deepen your understanding of life, faith, science, reason, or humanity, I recommend you watch any (or all!) of these films.
1. Ivan’s Childhood
Andrei’s first major film, Ivan’s Childhood is unlike his others in its relatively straightforward plot and traditional tropes. It follows a 12-year-old orphan, Ivan (Nikolay Burlyaev), fighting for the Soviet army in WWII.
Ivan serves as a spy behind German front lines. He builds relationships with several Soviet officers who try to care for him, and it is in these relationships that viewers learn Ivan has no regard for himself. He is careless, a synonym for his incredible bravery, because of awful events in his past, primarily the German atrocities which took the lives of his family members.
What is Tarkovsky saying in his creation and development of Ivan? He weaves a complicated depiction of human nature, as Ivan appears erratic and seems to have major mood swings. But, the film is less about Ivan’s nature as it is about what causes Ivan to behave as he does. It is, as Jean-Paul Sartre penned, that “war kills those who make it even if they survive it,” but it is also that human nature and human life is incredibly fragile and always affected by the evils of others.
Without something to cling to, Ivan is left totally alone and thus without any cares for his life. As a 12-year-old his family had naturally been his anchor, and without them he is suicidal. Tarkovsky’s later films will analyze other foundations for life to keep the existential angst at bay, particularly art and faith.
2. Andrei Rublev
Tarkovsky’s next film Andrei Rublev would take a different turn, as is apparent with its abstract prologue which follows artist Efim (Nikolay Glazkov)as he attempts to escape an angry mob via a hot-air balloon. In many ways, this is foreshadowing for Tarkovsky’s departure from the Soviet Union, but it is intended as an allegorical examination of Rublev and how he at times is depicted running from his work.
The film is then divided into 8 parts, which depict the philosophical, spiritual, and motivational struggles of Rublev. These parts also depict his growth, which is necessary for the completion of his final project: the church bell and what it symbolizes.
So what exactly is the film about? The film ultimately is about faith, particularly faith as experienced by Tarkovsky, and about the narrative of the artist as creator. Rublev creates throughout the film, and nearly all of his creations are destroyed.
We see this in nearly every chapter, and it is so damning that Rublev takes a vow of silence (as Tarkovsky would later do in effect by destroying a film he had worked on because of frustrations with the Russian government, preventing it from being shown in Russia) only to be brought to speech by a great work of art.
Rublev struggles and is tormented in the way all too many modern artists are and throughout his struggles he keeps his faith. In the epilogue, we see the reward for this faithfulness—timeless works of art, creations that prove the permanence of his faith.
Tarkvosky’s next film would be a daring Sci-Fi adventure, in ways as ambitious as 2001: A Space Odyssey, but by all accounts much more pointed in its meaning. It follows Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) as he travels to a space station orbiting the oceanic Solaris. The ocean of Solaris is unlike any other: it is sentient, manipulative, and psychologically powerful.
Needless to say, we see a lot of weird things going on, and we hear of weirder things happening off screen. Shot in a beautifully and ingenious way (so as to make it age well), Solaris is an amazing film well worth watching and rewatching.
What is the film questioning? Love, to be sure, but more importantly Solaris questions knowledge and personal identity. We see duplicates of Khari (Natalya Bondarchuk), Kelvin’s late wife, which the ocean has created to torment Kelvin. But are they duplicates? They are identical to Khari, both physically and mentally.
They remembers things that Khari remembers, love Kelvin as Khari did, and acts as Khari would. Is she a different person and, if so, what does it mean for Kelvin to know that she is? Tarkovsky’s answer may be depressing, but it’s an interestingly practical one given the nature of his other films.
4. The Mirror
Tarkovsky’s The Mirror is a dream, in which a man in his 40s is dying and, as is often the case in the arts, the dying man remembers fragments of his past. These fragments are from Tarkovsky’s own past, and they revolve around his mother, childhood, and the war. Of course, with Tarkovsky, there is always a deeper meaning, and the random glimpses we see of his past are both beautiful and allegorical in nature.
The Mirror is perhaps one of Tarkovsky’s most political films. The progression of images and memories symbolize a loss of innocence and an increase in corruption, which in turn stand for the loss of innocence and increase in corruption of the Russian state. Tarkovsky’s deep-seated frustrations with the Soviet Union come out, as well as his analysis of what may be causing problems in the Soviet Union.
Moreover, all of this is accomplished via a dreamlike prose, which begs for the psychoanalysis so popular at the time. I wonder how many in the Russian state committed to analyzing these dreams and, if anyone did, why they let it pass censorship.
Tarkovsky’s next film ventures back into the Sci-Fi genre. Stalker is the suspenseful tale of a trip a stalker or guide (Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy) makes into the infamous “zone”, a supernatural area deep inside Soviet Russia. Inside this zone, there is a room that grants the deepest desire of anyone that enters. It’s important to emphasize “deepest desire” here, because one’s “deepest desire” may not be a wish of which one is conscious.. Again the film depicts a supernatural realm that can affect reality—notice a theme yet?
Stalker marks a philosophical break from Tarkovsky’s other films because it, like his later works, analyzes the themes and philosophical issues of all of his previous films. The film is an examination of faith, as everyone traveling to the room has faith in its powers and that the room will serve them well. It is an examination of knowledge and personal identity, as people are changed by the zone and have no knowledge of what will happen inside the room (or even how to get to it).
It’s a critique of the Soviet Union in its presentation of the government’s handling of the zone and its supernatural powers. It’s a critique of art, as we routinely see beautiful works of art discarded inside the zone, rusting beneath inches of water or decaying from the elements. Perhaps most of all though, Stalker is a return to the questions of Ivan’s Childhood, as we see characters look for a way to anchor their lives and find meaning.
That meaning is the hope the zone can provide, an other-world hope that the broken human nature depicted so desperately needs. His last two films analyze sources of meaning further, increasing the stakes and offering clues as to where Tarkovsky found meaning.
Tarkovsky’s next film is a huge break in production quality, partially because it’s his first film directed outside of the Soviet Union. Most of the dialog is in Italian, it was filmed in Italy, and some of the financial support came from Italy. After his other films, he was a known and appreciated filmmaker who was able to get that kind of support. It also features and even focuses in on the works of Beethoven, marking another step up from the lower-production score of Stalker (which is, by all means, still amazing), to a higher production version of a piece of classic classical music.
The film follows Andrei Gorchakov (Oleg Yankovsky), a Russian writer who is in Italy researching an 18th century composer who lived there and committed suicide after returning to Russia. Andrei hopes to learn more during his time there, but things continue to get in the way and he eventually is distracted by Domenico (Erland Josephson), a local hero who tries almost daily to cross a mineral pool with a lit candle. Domenico is convinced that finishing this task will save the world. Everyone else is convinced he is insane.
Like Stalker, Nostalghia covers a plethora of philosophical issues, all of which were touched upon in Tarkovsky’s past films. Like Stalker too, Nostalghia is about the faith an individual has in some thing (this time an act and not a place) to cause a supernatural event. The fundamental difference here is that Tarkovsky has placed an existential element on this faith.
Specifically, Domenico is convinced that his act can save the world from sin and damnation. He is decried as insane, in many of the same ways that Kierkegaard claims Abraham must have been, but he trusts his direct communication with God and is willing to stake his life on it. We see this in the final scene, so prominently built upon Beethoven’s ninth, in an act that represents how faith in God takes precedence over life itself.
7. The Sacrifice
Tarkovsky’s final film, The Sacrifice is his greatest. It was made with actors famous from Bergman’s films (Erland Josephson had also acted in Nostalghia), and with a crew partially assembled from Bergman’s old crew, and filmed in Sweden. Like Solaris, it won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival, but unlike Solaris, it was not made with the restrictions of the Soviet Union holding Tarkvosky back. Because of this, it is provocative, troubling, and arresting in a way that Solaris could not be.
The film centers on Alexander (Erland Josephson), though in truth it is also largely an analysis of his son “Little Man” (Tommy Kjellqvist), and on the faith of each. Alexander is a former actor turned journalist who lives in relative isolation and is raising his only son. Nearby is Maria (Gudrun Gisladottir), rumored to be a witch with special powers. All that’s needed is crisis, right? Not too far into the film, we’re rewarded with crisis, as international tensions lead to nuclear warfare and holocaust.
So, what’s the film about? Tarkovsky manages to cover almost every topic, from metaphysics to aesthetics and from nihilism to fundamentalism and paganism. The central thrust though is that of existentialism, particularly as it pertains to Heidegger and Nietzsche, and its juxtaposition with faith. Their writings place an emphasis on man, his being in the world, and his soon-to-be inexistence in the world. Kierkegaard’s notion of man and existence is subservient to God and faith, and is clearly what Tarkovsky is embracing in The Sacrifice.
Returning to Fear and Trembling, Alexander finds himself in a position like Abraham, in which he must do the unthinkable to save his bloodline. Like Kierkegaard’s Abraham, Alexander knows he will be labeled a lunatic if he acts as he believes he should. Yet, he acts anyways, not only in the ways that God has told him to, but also on every other opportunity that seemingly might help him save his son.
This plotline is set up by Tarkovsky to accomplish several things: 1) it shows us how weak human nature is, in that Alexander tries everything imaginable to stave off holocaust and death; 2) it shows us that faith is powerful and ultimately effective, capable of saving what is dear to us; and 3) it places faith in the God of Abraham above any other faith (most clearly here above Pagan sorcery) as the key to, and source of, life.
Author Bio: Ben Wilson is a recent graduate of Yale College, where he studied Philosophy and Political Science. A film buff and addict, he views film as the proper medium for philosophy in the 21st century.