10 great films that inspired Andrei Tarkovsky

We journey through some of the influences that helped shape the Russian master’s unique filmmaking genius.

22 October 2015

By Patrick Gamble

Mirror (1975)

 “Tarkovsky for me is 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.”
Ingmar Bergman

In an interview with Naum Abramov in 1970, Andrei Tarkovsky described cinema as “an art form which only a small number of directors have actually mastered, and they can be counted on the fingers of one hand”. An outspoken artist who emphatically saw cinema as a medium equipped to answer the myriad questions life puts forward, he could be critical of other filmmakers. He showed antipathy to the theories of early Soviet filmmakers and could often be heard disparaging the work of his contemporaries.

However, he was also an avid writer, kept diaries during his shoots and often wrote about the role of film in modern society. In his writings the same names continued to pop-up, with filmmakers such as Robert Bresson, Ingmar Bergman, and Kenji Mizoguchi part of a very exclusive pantheon of auteurs he admired. Others were mentioned, but very few made the cut. His adoration for other directors and their films was always measured and often accompanied by some form of critique. He praised Kurosawa as one of the world’s greatest directors but wasn’t afraid to criticise what he felt were substandard special-effects in the finale of Throne of Blood.

He even commended James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) saying its “vision of the future and the relation between man and its destiny is pushing the frontier of cinema as an art”. However, he remained critical of the film’s “brutality and low acting skills”.

The following list aims to look behind the mirror, illuminating some of the films that helped to shape and form the unique cinematic language of Tarkovsky’s collective oeuvre. In some cases the influence stands out with striking aesthetic similarities, for others the inspiration is more oblique, layered in the rich thematic textures of their work. Yet each of the films listed below, and the directors who created them, played some part in shaping Tarkovsky’s distinctive signature.

Earth (1930)

Director: Alexander Dovzhenko

Earth (1930)

“If one absolutely needs to compare me to someone, it should be Dovzhenko. He was the first director for whom the problem of atmosphere was particularly important.” – Andrei Tarkovsky

On the eve of each new work Tarkovsky reportedly re-watched Alexander Dovzhenko’s Earth. During the shooting of Mirror he went one step further, sowing a field of buckwheat in pre-production in an attempt to recreate both his own childhood memories of the white flowing plant and Dovzhenko’s spellbinding landscapes. The result is one of the film’s most celebrated scenes, a perfect amalgamation of memory and dreams: a doctor rises from the ground and a miraculous gust of wind ripples through the buckwheat field towards the camera.

City Lights (1931)

Director: Charlie Chaplin

City Lights (1931)

In 1972, when asked to list his top ten films by film critic Leonid Kozlov, Tarkovsky placed Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights at number five. Tarkovsky believed cinema’s silent past to be a prelude to what he considered ‘real’ filmmaking. However, the inclusion of City Lights in this list points to his admiration of Chaplin’s self-realisation as a director. Tarkovsky admired the efficiency of Chaplin’s work and how his use of minimalism refined his filmmaking. Chaplin’s films also elicit a somewhat elusive spirituality and it’s this understanding of the camera’s ability to register the subtle permeations of the human spirit that connects his work with Tarkovsky’s. Their characters, when observed in stasis, are not that dissimilar, equally lost in a world that feels extraneous to them, looking for answers while the camera searches for higher meaning.

L’Atalante (1934)

Director: Jean Vigo

L'Atalante (1934)

The influence of Jean Vigo is apparent in Tarkovsky’s construction of space. He believed that film should be an emotional arena, where a director must convey what they’ve experienced, not constructed. He also believed mise-en-scène should allow the viewer to interpret his or her own reading. Tarkovsky cited a scene at the beginning of Vigo’s L’Atalante, where the newlyweds walk from the church to their barge, criss-crossing around three large haystacks on their way. “What is this? A ritual, a dance of fertility?” asked Tarkovsky. “No, the episode is significant not for a literary retelling, not in its symbolism, not in its visual metaphoricity, but in its concrete saturated existence. We see a form filled with feeling.”

Diary of a Country Priest (1951)

Director: Robert Bresson

Diary of a Country Priest (1951)

Although Tarkovsky and Bresson’s styles were aesthetically dissimilar – Tarkovsky favoured long takes over Bresson’s fragmented style – he greatly admired Bresson’s commitment to realism. Tarkovsky named Diary of a Country Priest as the greatest film he had ever seen, enamoured of Bresson’s ability to dispense with unnecessary exaggeration in his search for truth. Christian theology was a recurring theme for both directors, with the spiritual anguish and personal sacrifices endured by those inhabiting a materialistic world central to both directors’ oeuvre. However, it’s in their final films that the similarities in their work is best observed, with both L’Argent and Sacrifice poetic summations of each director’s search for grace in a barbaric world.

Ugetsu Monogatari (1953)

Director: Kenji Mizoguchi

Ugetsu Monogatari (1953)

The pensive long takes of Kenji Mizoguchi’s films, and the purity of their imagery, was an aesthetic influence on Tarkovsky’s work. In an interview with Télérama in 1979 Tarkovsky admitted that one scene in Andrei Rublev, where the Russian prince attempts to catch up with the Tatar, could easily be mistaken for an extract from a Mizoguchi film, Ugetsu Monogatari being a quintessential example. “The quality of the image in black and white, the landscape, the opacity of the overcast sky has a strange resemblance to an ink-drawn Chinese landscape […] It’s a scene that has nothing to do with the plot of the story. It attempts to express the state of a soul”. Tarkovsky included Mizoguchi in a small category of filmmakers who strived to create their own worlds. He called them the poets of cinema, a term applicable to his own expressive from of cinema.

Throne of Blood (1957)

Director: Akira Kurosawa

Throne of Blood (1957)

Tarkovsky wasn’t a particular fan of Throne of Blood. He didn’t like how Akira Kurosawa “copied Shakespeare’s plot in a superficial manner” as he put it, but he was an admirer of the director’s work as a whole. It has even been rumoured that an AK chalked on a wall in Stalker is a subtle tribute to his influence. There is one scene in Throne of Blood Tarkovsky did admire. When Washizu’s army is lost in the fog, Kurosawa uses a memorable tree to convey their disorientation. The recurring sight of this same tree makes it clear that the horsemen have been going round in circles. It was Kurosawa’s ability to articulate their confusion through mise-en-scène and simple camera movements rather than dialogue which Tarkovsky venerated.

Nazarín (1959)

Director: Luis Buñuel

Nazarín (1959)

In Sculpting in Time, Tarkovsky’s book about his own films and the role of art and cinema, he describes Luis Buñuel as “the bearer, above all else, of poetic consciousness”, and placed Nazarín at number three in his 1972 list of the ten greatest films ever made. Buñuel is best known for his iconoclastic surrealism. However, it was Buñuel’s elevation of cinematic discourse from the realities of everyday life that inspired Tarkovsky. Believing the viewer should engage with a film in an entirely oneiric way, Tarkovsky admired Buñuel’s playful juxtaposition of imagery, something apparent in Mirror’s non-linear structure and Stalker, where Tarkovsky employs the magical qualities of The Zone to disrupt both time and space.

L’avventura (1960)

Director: Michelangelo Antonioni

L'avventura (1960)

In Geoff Dyer’s novel Zona, a candid voyage into the author’s fascination with Tarkovsky’s Stalker, he uses L’avventura as an example of a typical, long-winded art film from Europe, before continuing to vent his disdain for the film. The irony behind Dyer’s inclusion of L’avventurra is that Tarkovsky, who he depicts with an almost pious adoration, described it as a miraculous film in an article for Sight & Sound in 1983. Antonioni’s influence on Tarkovsky is perhaps best observed in Nostalgia (which was scripted by Antonioni’s regular collaborator Tonino Guerra). Tarkovsky, like Antonioni, drains the action from the frame and forces the audience to initiate a different type of relationship with the protagonist, and in turn, more closely inhabit the character’s interior.

Winter Light (1963)

Director: Ingmar Bergman

Winter Light (1963)

There are various elements of Tarkovsky’s work that were directly influenced by Ingmar Bergman. However, it was the Swedish director’s expressive use of sound and silence that Tarkovsky was most inspired by. He admired his use of silence to establish a godless void in an increasingly materialistic world and his ability to single out particular sounds to amplify their significance. One example he cited is the moment in Winter Light when the fisherman’s body is found. The sound of water from the neighbouring stream is the only sound to be heard, filling the vacuum with a space to interrogate his protagonist’s spiritual crisis. Tarkovsky would use Bergman’s sound mixer Owe Svensson on his final, and most Bergman-esque film, The Sacrifice.

The Colour of Pomegranates (1969)

Director: Sergei Parajanov

The Colour of Pomegranates (1969)

Sergei Paradjanov once said that if it had not been for Ivan’s Childhood he never would have made anything. Tarkovsky’s influence is apparent throughout all of Paradjanov’s work, yet this was a reciprocal admiration, with the paradoxical beauty and dream-like spectacle of Paradjanov’s films a huge influence on Tarkovsky’s later films. The poetic convergence of authorial objectivity and the protagonists’ subjectivity in The Colour of Pomegranates is a clear influence on both Nostalgia and The Sacrifice, with both directors giving their internal sorrow a poetic form in the suffering of their leads.

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