Why this might not seem so easy
He made only seven features, but Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky is widely regarded as one of cinema’s true masters. Sight & Sound’s 2012 poll of the best films of all time saw no less than three of his movies – Mirror (1974), Andrei Rublev (1966), and Stalker (1979) – voted into the top 30 by critics and directors. Ingmar Bergman once said: “Tarkovsky is the greatest of them all. He moves with such naturalness in the room of dreams. He doesn’t explain. What should he explain anyhow?”
The reverence Tarkovsky inspires and the oblique, sombre and high-minded nature of his work have been a turn-off for some. His small output was the result of relentless obstruction from the Soviet authorities, who viewed his films as elitist. But he refused to compromise his vision. Letting go of an urge to figure out a concrete meaning, audiences open themselves up to the rhythms of his slow, long takes (he famously described filmmaking as “sculpting in time”) and the mysterious magic of imagery which is hard to match for sheer beauty.
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The best place to start – Stalker
A poetic sense for the dreamlike hold of memory and the elemental grandeur of nature already shines through Tarkovsky’s first feature Ivan’s Childhood (1962), within the more conventional, suspenseful format of a Soviet war movie about a 12-year-old on reconnaissance at the front. But for a sense of the director’s fully-developed vision, Stalker is perhaps the best entry point. Based on sci-fi novel The Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky brothers, it still has a relatively straightforward plot, but is dense with enigmatic philosophy over its unhurried, meditative 160 minutes. As in all Tarkovsky’s work, spiritual crisis is the theme. But wry dialogue punctuates its melancholy, defying those who claim he doesn’t have a sense of humour.
An outlaw guide, or ‘stalker’, leads a writer and professor on an expedition into the Zone, a treacherous area of overgrown, strangely sentient land which has been cordoned off by the government. In an iconic sequence they travel into its heart on a railway car, its wheel-clanking hypnotically blending with a sparse electronic score. Their destination is a Room said to have the power to fulfil one’s innermost desire. Their quest and differing worldviews are shadowed by the story of another Stalker who hanged himself after becoming fabulously wealthy, the Room having revealed the truth of his nature.
Tarkovsky saw true artists as prophets with a gift of prescience. The evocative power of Stalker, shot close to a toxic chemical plant near Tallinn, is enhanced by its uncanny prefiguring of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster seven years later and its irradiated, ghostly exclusion zone. His fifth feature, it is the last he made in the Soviet Union.
What to watch next
Tarkovsky’s other sci-fi adaptation was Solaris (1972), based on the novel by Stanislaw Lem. It’s set in outer space, but is also more focused more on the story’s psychological and emotional resonances, making it an eerie meditation on the persistence of memory. An oceanic, sentient planet’s proximity is causing strange phenomena among the crew on a space station. When Kris (Donatas Banionis) goes to investigate, he is confronted with visitations from his late wife Hari (Natal’ya Bondarchuk), who committed suicide.
Mirror is arguably Tarkovsky’s greatest masterpiece. It’s also his most unconventional in form. Autobiographical and highly personal, it unfolds with the associative logic of a dream. Fragments of memory from his childhood are woven in with narration of his father Arseny’s poems, on time and immortality. Devastating archival footage of Red Army troops arduously trudging through mud allows these recollections to reverberate within Russia’s tumultuous national history.
An iconic dream sequence of the mother levitating above a bed as water cascades indoors is one of cinema’s most sublime, and epitomises Tarkovsky’s recurrent use of rain, fire and supernatural imagery to create an oneiric universe teeming with life’s mysterious forces. He said that only after making this film did he stop dreaming about the house he had once lived in.
Andrei Rublev is a more epic sweep of Russian history, but was still highly personal for Tarkovsky in its meditation on the risks and salvation of artistic endeavour. Based on the life of the titular 15th-century Orthodox icon painter (played by frequent collaborator Anatoli Solonitsyn), its medieval Russia is a brutal world of vicious rivalries and torture, treachery between Princes and Tatar raids. A leap of faith offers hope for spiritual regeneration, as a bellmaker’s son attempts to cast a massive cathedral bell under threat of death if he fails. The film’s emphasis on Christianity’s role in Russian identity caused problems with the atheistic state’s censors.
Where not to start
Tarkovsky found the pressure exerted by the state on his ability to create so taxing that after going to Italy to shoot a film, he never returned. He claimed that Russians are fatally attached to their roots, and Nostalgia (1983) echoed his predicament. In it, Russian writer Andrei travels to Italy to research a compatriot 18th-century composer. There, he is struck with painful longing for his homeland, and a profound disorientation that the unwanted amorous attentions of his pretty interpreter cannot soothe. (Regarding gender relations, this film has not aged so well.) Andrei’s mindset is summed up in a final stunning merged image of him with his dog in front of a Russian dacha, nestled inside an Italian cathedral.
Tarkovsky’s other work of exile was his haunting, supernatural-tinged last film The Sacrifice (1986), shot on the Swedish island of Gotland, and not in his native language. It looks at times like a Bergman film – not surprising given he enlisted Bergman’s brilliant cinematographer Sven Nykvist. Tarkovsky died shortly after its completion, and his cancer no doubt fed into its apocalyptic themes. In it, a family gathers to celebrate the birthday of disillusioned intellectual, Alexander. As World War III breaks out bringing the threat of nuclear annihilation, he tries to strike a bargain with God. It’s a fitting contemplation on how much a man must give up personally to nourish a greater life force.