The Tarkovsky legacy

The slim body of work produced by the great Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-86) – seven transcendent, spiritual films marked by exquisite visual imagery, mesmerising long takes, a near-pantheistic reverence for landscape and nature, and a seamless blending of real time, dream and memory – helped redefine the possibilities of arthouse cinema.

His enduring influence can be seen in the eclectic array of filmmakers of the past 30 years whose work, in different ways, owes him a debt, from Lars von Trier and Terrence Malick to Béla Tarr and Claire Denis.

Nick James
Updated:

from our November 2015 issue

Mirror (Zerkalo, 1974)

Mirror (Zerkalo, 1974)

 

Introduction

In the course of just seven feature films – Ivan’s Childhood (1962), Andrei Rublev (1966), Solaris (1972), Mirror (1974), Stalker (1979), Nostalgia (1983) and The Sacrifice (1986) – Andrei Tarkovsky changed what cinema as an artform could achieve. Despite the lack of canonical consensus today as to which filmmakers should be counted as the true greats, one can make this claim about Tarkovsky because many active filmmakers today tell us as much.

But how did this one filmmaker’s influence come to be so culturally pervasive? Critics tend to use the word ‘Tarkovskian’ with alacrity. Whenever an elegiac film incorporates long single-camera takes, is happy not to distinguish between real time, action, dream and memory, and wants to drink in the landscape, that word is in the wind. You could say that when it comes to a certain kind of festival-friendly international art movie, Tarkovsky owns the weather. If there are grasslands swirling, white mist veiling a house in a dark green valley, cleansing torrential rains, a burning barn or house, or tracking shots across objects submerged in water, a Tarkovsky name-drop is never far away. That usage might seem glib, but these things indicate a wider aesthetic terrain that deals in transcendence and the spiritual, but one that has resonance outside of religious belief – a cinema of what we might call the agnostic sublime.

So how did this come to be? The obvious place to start is with those who have influenced the influencer. Andrei Tarkovsky was born into a family in which an atmosphere of artistic inheritance was intense and unavoidable. His father, Arseny, was a serious poet of some reputation. Although Arseny did not publish much – as he knew his work would not get past the Soviet censors – the great modernist poet Anna Akhmatova thought highly of him. His first collection did not appear until 1962, by which time his son had already made his debut feature Ivan’s Childhood.

That Arseny was the primary influence on Andrei is irrefutable, attested to by the fact that Andrei chose to quote seven of his poems in his films, across Mirror, Stalker and Nostalgia. It is even arguable that Tarkovsky’s whole approach to cinema comes from striving to find cinematic equivalents to the way written poetry makes use of nature, landscape and the elements. In Sculpting in Time, his 1986 book on cinema practice, Tarkovsky says, “Poetic links seem to me perfectly appropriate to the potential of cinema as the most truthful and poetic of art forms… The pattern of life is far more poetic than it is sometimes represented by the determined advocates of naturalism.”

In terms of poetry, the key film is Mirror, Tarkovsky’s imaginatively complex and imagistic autobiographical memoir, framed as the recollections of a dying poet, yet presented as quintessential dream logic. One of the birthing moments of my own cinephilia happened when I saw the film’s famous first scene (which comes immediately after the prologue of the stuttering adolescent being hypnotised). The protagonist’s young mother is sitting on a fence, smoking, when she sees a strange man approaching across the grasslands along a route her husband usually takes. He introduces himself as a doctor and sits beside her, but the fence snaps beneath them. After they get up, laughing, they chat for a little longer, before he takes his leave. As she’s watching him depart, a sudden swirl of wind stirs the grasses, and he turns around as if to say, “Look at that.”

This scene is not, or not quite, a pathetic fallacy in which weather represents human feelings. In his book, Tarkovsky explains that the scene came about because he wanted to avoid the cliché of the man turning to wave mid-way along the path. His turning to acknowledge the magical gust of wind does the trick, but there remains an uncanny quality to it. Tarkovsky always insisted that nature was as much, if not more, of a character in his films than any person. Yet when his images capture an intensity of emotion, they are not suggestive of specific feelings; fire, rain, mist all remain concretely themselves, not merely symbolic of a particular human mood.

The second most important influence on Tarkovsky, one that lasts right through his career, is classical, pre-modern painting. Of course, he’s not the first film director to cite great paintings, but the strict reverence you see in true believer Tarkovsky probably grew out of the fact that the practice of religious art was suppressed in the Soviet Union. Renaissance masterpieces were not as commodified as in the West, and one probably had to appreciate their devotional qualities silently or in private, which feeds into 19th century ideas of the lonely genius, as epitomised by the director’s portrait of the titular icon painter during the 15th-century Tartar invasion of Russia in Andrei Rublev. “The artist is always a servant,” he tells us, “perpetually trying to pay for the gift that has been given to him as if by a miracle… Genius is revealed not in the absolute perfection of the [artist’s] work but in absolute fidelity to himself, in commitment to his own passion.”

This now unfashionably lofty attitude leads us from the boy leafing through a book of Leonardo da Vinci’s works in Ivan’s Childhood – a youth whose childhood has been snatched from him by war and who is acting as a reconnaissance scout, often crossing behind enemy lines – to da Vinci’s painting The Adoration of the Magi, which is central to the theme of The Sacrifice and can be seen in the film on the wall of the house of Alexander, who tries to save the world from nuclear destruction through occult acts.

Paintings also help us to track Tarkovsky’s forward influence. Pieter Bruegel’s The Hunters in the Snow is not only ‘quoted’ in Mirror and seen in Tarkovsky’s science-fiction psychological drama Solaris, but also appears in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011); images drawn from Mantegna’s Lamentation over the Dead Christ can be found both in Solaris and in Andrey Zvyagintsev’s The Return (2003).

Paintings influenced Tarkovsky’s use of space within the frame. He often sought to flatten out the image, and to spatially divide the contents of the frame as in Russian icon paintings (something taken further by his fellow countryman Aleksandr Sokurov), or to spread people across a landscape in the exact manner of Breugel. I’m only touching here on a wealth of painterly references – for instance, the visit to Piero Della Francesca’s Madonna del Parto that opens Nostalgia, Tarkovsky’s study of homesickness made after he left Russia for good, and Caspar David Friedrich’s The Ruins of Eldena, which inspires the astonishing image that closes the film.

That said, I’m not suggesting Tarkovsky was blind to modernism – though there’s not the space here to explore his interest in it. In fact, his reuse of these pre-20th-century works is typically postmodern.

Of the filmmakers who influenced Tarkovsky, those he himself cites combine key Russian forbears – Pudovkin, Eisenstein, Dovzhenko – with a familiar list of post-war international masters: Antonioni, Bergman, Bresson, Buñuel, Dreyer, Fellini and Kurosawa. Tarkovsky’s indebtedness here is probably best exemplified by what happened after he left the Soviet Union. To make Nostalgia, he borrowed many of his friend Antonioni’s collaborators, including screenwriter Tonino Guerra, and the film plays almost as much like a late Antonioni film of geometric obsession as it does any other Tarkovsky film. His second post-Soviet film, and his last, The Sacrifice, is partly a tribute to Bergman, and partly a last flourish, all houses blazing. Critics tend to regard these two films as his weakest, but by the time he made them he was already regarded as one of the pantheon.

Of the Russians, Dovzhenko is Tarkovsky’s true forbear, and given that his Earth (1930) opens with wheatfields sparkling in crisp monochrome, with wind playing over the stalks, and that we see these fields ‘stand’ for the Russian steppe, one wonders why it is we think of the later filmmaker as owning that particular landscape. Eisenstein, on the other hand, was the forefather Tarkovsky broke from. Tarkovsky’s insistence that the capture of real time was important to the uniqueness of cinema put him at odds with Eisenstein’s theory of rapid montage, yet there are many echoes of Eisenstein’s epic films in Andrei Rublev.

Critics tend to link Tarkovsky’s approaches to time to Gilles Deleuze’s theory of what he calls the ‘time image’, his argument, here simplified, being that since World War II, the employment of images designed to move a dramatic narrative forward through cuts in the classic Hollywood sense – which Deleuze calls the ‘movement image’ – has been surpassed in important filmmaking by the time image, one that acknowledges and uses the passing of actual time. There is some speculation that Tarkovsky would have been familiar with Henri Bergson’s Time and Free Will, whose arguments lay behind Deleuze’s ideas. Certainly the belief that immediate experience and intuition are more significant than abstract rationalism would chime with the Russian’s philosophy. Tarkovsky himself, however, pins his use of time to what he feels cinema is best at.

“Cinema came into being as a means of recording the very movement of reality; factual, specific, within time and unique; of reproducing again and again the moment, instant by instant, in its fluid mutability… The virtue of cinema is that it appropriates time, complete with that material reality to which it is indissolubly bound, and which surrounds us day by day and hour by hour…. The image becomes authentically cinematic when (amongst other things) not only does it live within time, but time also lives within it, even within each separate frame… The image is not a certain meaning, expressed by the director, but an entire world reflected in a drop of water.”

This use of time is what gives Tarkovsky’s influence perhaps its strongest foundation, for it enables dreams to be depicted in as concrete a fashion as reality – as in Ivan’s Childhood – or for a former warzone to be transformed by the imagination into a psychic labyrinth of hidden invisible traps, as in Stalker.

If one is considering which of Tarkovsky’s films are the most influential on the filmmakers listed below, Mirror and Stalker are the ones that seem to be the strongest, but all seven of his films get plundered regularly.

In his seminal 1973 book The Anxiety of Influence, literary critic Harold Bloom writes, “Poetic influence need not make poets less original, as often it makes them more original.” That certainly applies to the filmmakers cited below as Tarkovskians. What’s curious about my choice of Tarkovsky-influenced films is that so many of them were made around the Millennium; indeed four were made in the same year, 2002. That’s an indication of how Tarkovsky’s films continue to dominate not only ideas of the sublime in cinema but also the cinema of apocalyptic portent.

Bloom’s great argument is that Shakespeare is so dominant an influence on the Western canon of literature that he practically invented the way we talk to one another. I’m not about to claim that Tarkovsky is as dominant a figure in arthouse film aesthetics. But Bloom also says that Shakespeare’s “energies so fuse rhetoric, psychology, and cosmology that we cannot distinguish them from one another”. Tarkovsky’s energies created their own unique fusion: of visualised elemental poetry; extremely intense characters and events; the equalisation of reality, memory and dream; and a faith in intuition over rationality and, for better or worse, of God over man.

 

1. The Element of Crime

Lars von Trier, 1984

Since the beginning of his career, arch provocateur Lars von Trier’s praise for Tarkovsky has never faltered. He’s been saying he’s seen Mirror 20 times since at least 2003, when Trier on von Trier was published.

Yet, at the 2009 Cannes press preview for his violent religio-sexual parable Antichrist, there was an audible gasp when the end credit came up, “Dedicated to Andrei Tarkovsky 1932-1986”, probably because the Russian director has so rarely been associated with violence (except, perhaps, in the case of the horse that was killed during the making of Andrei Rublev). “Have you seen Mirror?” von Trier asked critic David Jenkins apropos Antichrist. “I was hypnotised! I’ve seen it 20 times. It’s the closest thing I’ve got to a religion – to me he is a god. And if I didn’t dedicate the film to Tarkovsky, then everyone would say I was stealing from him.”

Antichrist, then, was an obvious temptation for this list, but the much earlier The Element of Crime – von Trier’s first feature – is a more guileless Tarkovskian work, one besotted not only with Mirror but also Solaris and Stalker. The opening image is of an ass rolling in dust in imitation of a horse that does the same in Andrei Rublev.

In his surgery, a flyblown doctor berates an unseen man for always coming back to Cairo for help with his headaches and suggests he needs to go back into his memory of 13 years ago in Europe. He suggests hypnosis and soon we’re watching one of those Stalker shots that track across mysterious objects submerged in water as our unseen hero’s voice quotes Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, “Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink,” as he goes under the trance.

The Europe he recalls is a decaying, dystopian, post-industrial nightmare shot mostly in black and white with a sickly amber tint. Michael Elphick plays our hero, Fisher, a former detective who must return in his mind to his last case in post-war Germany, a hunt for the ‘lotto murderer’, who kills girls who sell lottery tickets. The film is a catalogue of visual ideas inspired by Tarkovsky, of leaking water, soughing wind, unexpected fire and constant reflections, with von Trier already linking them to violence.

It plays out as if a writer of slightly clumsy hard-boiled fictions was inserting the conventions of film noir into an urban night-time version of Stalker’s Zone. As such, it’s pretty compelling, and a brilliant, complex spectacle of visual ideas for a first-time director to pull off.

2. Three Colours: Red

Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1994

On the principle that influence is a continuous process among near-contemporaries, I’ve included this work by a director whose career overlapped with Tarkovsky’s. Kieslowski was just nine years younger than his Russian counterpart, they both died in their mid-50s, and they shared the experience of working first under the Soviet bloc and later in the West as émigrés.

Kieslowski was the more prolific, making twice as many feature-length works. He started as a documentary filmmaker and remained more focused on people as protagonists than Tarkovsky, who preferred them to operate as ciphers, and he also worked a lot in television, which Tarkovsky more or less ignored.

Yet both directors share an unusually intense concern with the metaphysical. In Kieslowski’s case that was played off an equal interest in the moral consequences of decisions, shared with his screenwriting partner Krzysztof Piesiewicz, an ex-lawyer.

Three Colours: Red is the third part of a trilogy based on the French motto of liberty, equality and fraternity. Blue, under ‘liberty’, looked at grief, romantic jealousy and the nature of authorship; White, under ‘equality’, was a blackly comic portrait of a Polish man who loses everything when his wife divorces him, but then climbs back to a position where he can enact revenge. Red was Kieslowski’s final film and it focuses, with valedictory fellow feeling, on the things that might bind recalcitrant people together.

A model, Valentine (Irène Jacob), accidentally runs over a German Shepherd dog and takes the injured pet back to its owner, Joseph (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a retired judge, who seems indifferent to its fate and gives the dog to her. After the dog has recovered, she takes it to the park and it runs away. She tracks it back to the judge and, later, discovers that he secretly listens in to the phone conversations of his neighbours.

Traces of the Tarkovskian are subtle here. There’s something in the way the interior of Joseph’s house is shot, how the camera prowls its corridors, how its doors are left open to the elements, combined with an overt concern for unexpected light and sound – a bulb blows while Valentine is present; the talk the judge is snooping in on brings an extra dimension of simultaneous presence and absence. There’s something too about the way Irène Jacob is lit and framed indoors that’s reminiscent of Margarita Terekhova in Mirror.

3. Mother and Son

Aleksandr Sokurov, 1997

On his death bed, Tarkovsky identified Sokurov as his successor. They had become friends and Sokurov returned the compliment by making a black-and-white documentary about Tarkovsky, Moscow Elegy (1988), originally intended as a 50th birthday tribute for the director in 1982, and which shared some of the same material from the set of The Sacrifice that Tonino Guerra used in his biodoc Voyage in Time (1983) and Chris Marker gathered for his One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich (1999).

Around the time of the release of Mother and Son, Sokurov told Paul Schrader: “The first time I saw [Tarkovsky’s] work was when I was finishing my education at the Film Academy. His aesthetics weren’t a discovery for me, rather it was a confirmation of my own vision” – a remark typical of Bloom’s ‘anxiety of influence’.

Certainly, the older director was not the only influence on Sokurov’s complex works – Japanese cinema is as powerful a presence in his films. And in Mother and Son – Sokurov’s exquisitely beautiful study of the intense bond between a young man and his dying mother during her final day – there’s the acknowledged influence of classical art.

The opening image, for instance, of the son (Alexei Ananishnov) leaning over his bedridden mother (Gudrun Geyer), is stretched in an optical effect similar to (if less extreme than) the skull in Holbein’s The Ambassadors and lit in a way that’s inescapably reminiscent of the chiaroscuro of Caravaggio. For much of the film’s 75 minutes the son walks around with his tiny swaddled mother carried in his arms in a kind of reversed pietà. Sokurov’s visual scheme came out of a desire to flatten the image – using mirrors and angled panes of painted glass – so that its picture plane was more like the anti-perspective of Russian icons, and he and DP Aleksey Fyodorov were said to have travelled to Berlin to look at Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings, particularly The Monk by the Sea.

Nonetheless, no one could doubt that Mother and Son is steeped in the elegiac Tarkovskian mode. Very quickly after that opening shot we see the grasslands of the steppe whipped into magical life just as they are in Mirror. Image after image seems as evocative of Tarkovsky’s misty polaroids as of Friedrich’s paintings. There’s broken sunlight, billows of dust, mist shifting in ways that Tarkovsky had no right to claim as his own but somehow did. Which other filmmaker has mixed up Russian mother-reverence with dreams in such distinctive fashion? Whose cinema do we think of when a reverence for classical art combines with a presentation of nature that makes it as central a protagonist as people?

The two directors also shared a sincere belief. When Schrader asked Sokurov how he managed to achieve his complicated images, he said: “God was probably assisting us at that time.”

4. Werckmeister Harmonies

Béla Tarr & Agnes Hranitzky, 2000

Béla Tarr is usually treated as the sole auteur of his films, and talks as if he were, describing himself as a “total autocrat” on set, even though Agnes Hranitzky, his editor and wife, has been credited as co-director from Werckmeister Harmonies onwards. But Tarr holds the sole director credit on Damnation (1988), the film with which his entire approach to his cinema changed from social realism to the high stylisation for which he has subsequently become known (although some elements of the transformation were evident in 1984’s Almanac of Fall). With Damnation he first allied himself to the screenwriter-novelist László Krasznahorkai, embraced monochrome film, and became the lion of the long take, pushing its possibilities much further than anyone had done before him – ergo Tarr and the film were immediately labelled Tarkovskian.

Werckmeister Harmonies, an allegory of the Soviet bloc years in Hungary, concerns a small town beset by apocalyptic rumours. A circus has arrived that boasts a huge mobile shed containing a dead whale and a mysterious rabble-rousing figure called The Prince. Young idealist János (Lars Rudolph) is approached by his aunt Tünde (Hanna Schygulla) to oblige his uncle György (Peter Fitz) to gather financial donors to help restore control, or else she will return to bother him. The move fails and riots ensue.

There are several scenes reminiscent of Tarkovsky’s, but the most obvious is a shot that focuses on the profiles of János and György as they walk through town to the rhythmic sound of something clinking; this echoes the famous scene in Stalker in which Stalker, the Professor and the Writer ride a flat-bed rail cart and the camera switches between close-ups of each while the machine rattles in rhythm. (Gus Van Sant’s Gerry completes a third link by directly copying Tarr’s profile-on-profile walking scene).

But Tarr is no mere copyist of Tarkovsky and the differences between them are best expressed by Tarr himself. “Tarkovsky is religious and we are not… he always had hope; he believed in God. He’s much more innocent than us – than me. No, we have seen too many things to make his kind of film… he is much softer, much nicer. Rain in his films purifies people. In mine it just makes mud.”

Werckmeister Harmonies is made up of just 39 single-camera takes. If there’s a difference between a Tarkovsky long take and a Tarr one, it is probably found in Jacques Rancière’s observation: “The Tarr long take tells as time itself would tell – as a time indifferent to the human experience of time.”

5. Uzak

Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2002

For a direct match with Tarkovsky from Ceylan’s films one might have preferred Kasaba (1997), a village portrait whose extreme sensitivity to ethereal sound, and the idea of landscape as a presence and fire as a binder of community has particular exemplary force. However, it’s hard to resist Uzak (Distant), since it directly quotes from several Tarkovsky films, one in particular.

Mahmut (Muzaffer Özdemir) is a middle-aged photographer habituated to living alone, comfortably, in Istanbul (the apartment in the film is the director’s own). When his young cousin Yusuf (Emin Toprak) has to leave his village to seek work in Istanbul, Mahmut is obliged to put him up, and odd-couple tensions wind tight from the start. Istanbul is miserably snowbound, hardly convenient job-seeking weather, but this was not a matter of Tarkovskian design – it just snowed at the time of the shoot.

The direct quote scene – designed to further reveal Mahmut’s snobbery towards his cousin – has Mahmut watching Stalker on TV in the evening while Yusuf dozes in a chair. Yusuf, bored, says he’s going to bed. As soon as he’s sure Yusuf’s gone, Mahmut puts on a porn DVD and turns down the sound.

Meanwhile, Yusuf quietly calls his mother to insist she gets a tooth pulled – a moment reminiscent of the scene in which the adult Alexei talks to his mother on the phone in Mirror. At one point Yusuf says, “Nuri always gives credit,” presumably referring to the dentist. When Mahmut hears Yusuf coming back into the room, he flips the switch to regular TV fare, which makes Yusuf want to linger, so he switches it off.

Later, we see Mahmut lying in bed, watching a documentary about Tarkovsky that cuts from a scene in Nostalgia to one from Mirror. Ceylan shows here that he understands the anxiety of influence and is willing to mock both Tarkovsky and himself in a highly comical way, thereby reminding us too that the one quality absent from the Russian’s films is a sense of humour. Ceylan does indeed always give credit.

6. Gerry

Gus Van Sant, 2002

What seems in retrospect astonishing – that Matt Damon and Casey Affleck would be in a such a spare low-budget film that, in storytelling terms, has nothing going on but the cinematography – was even outrageous at the time. People got excited about the five-minute opening scene, which is set to Arvo Pärt’s aching piano and viola piece Spiegel im Spiegel and which switches between a shot from the rear following a car heading into desert country, a head-on full windscreen shot of the two men in the car with a low sun behind them, and a view of the road directly ahead – but many lost interest thereafter.

Tarkovsky’s influence here is at one remove, via Béla Tarr, whom Gus Van Sant thanks in the credits. Van Sant’s minimalist approach came about partly as a result of watching Werckmeister Harmonies and Sátántangó, but he also cites Tarkovsky as an influence.

After they get out of the car and diegetic sound arrives in the form of boots crunching gravel, there’s a sense of vague purpose as the two young men, who both go by the name Gerry, enter a path signed Wilderness Trail. We’re never told which wilderness, but the film was shot in Death Valley, the Utah salt flats and Argentina.

What happens is that they walk and walk, mostly in silence, and get lost. At one point Affleck’s Gerry finds himself stuck up on a rock that’s about 25 feet high and Damon’s Gerry makes him a “dirt mattress” on to which he can jump without hurting himself.

Aside from the film’s concentration on landscape, perhaps a second link with Tarkovsky is via Samuel Beckett. Our Gerrys share with Stalker’s Writer, Professor and Stalker an affinity with Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot. Is it a stretch to suggest that the desert they walk into and get lost in – a landscape that’s hardly Tarkovskian – constitutes a parched version of the Zone? Any film that devotes itself to the passing of real mundane time in long takes of people walking about in gorgeous but terrifyingly austere surroundings would have been unthinkable without the cult success of Stalker.

I was in Utah once with Tom Luddy, the artistic director of the Telluride Film Festival. As we were admiring some colossal mesas, Tom said, “I brought Tarkovsky here, you know. I explained how mesas were formed by the oceans millions of years ago and Tarkovsky just said, ‘No. God made this.’”

7. Japón

Carlos Reygadas, 2002

“Japón is the best Tarkovsky film Tarkovsky never made,” opined Financial Times critic Nigel Andrews, and who’s to argue? A debut as stylistically precocious as von Trier’s, Japón seems to have borrowed the basis of its story from another Russian, from Solzhenitsyn’s novella Matryona’s Place, in which a teacher on a collective farm is obliged to share a single room with his landlady, and becomes embroiled in her exploitation by a relative, who wants the wood from her shed for his own uses. Here it’s white stone the nephew wants.

Reygadas transforms the teacher into an unnamed middle-aged man with a serious limp who seeks out a remote Mexican canyon under a dazzling near-hallucinogenic sun as a place where he can quietly top himself. He asks among the hillside locals for somewhere to stay and is taken to see the elderly Ascen – named, as she tells us, after Christ’s ascension to heaven, not Mary’s – who lives in extreme poverty, but has a barn. In a dream, a beautiful woman in a bikini – perhaps a deceased wife or lover – indicates he should transfer his affections to his aged landlady, who becomes, as the story plays out, a kind of female Christ figure.

In 2002, sublime minimalism ruled and it seems to have been the peak year for combining Tarkovsky influences with the music of Arvo Pärt: Japón has the composer’s Miserere being played in the car that gives the suicidal protagonist a lift at the beginning and ends at the scene of a railway accident with Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten. In a way Japón has a similar strategy to The Banishment in that its Tarkovskian bouquets tend to punctuate events – the camera’s dipping perusal of a pile of logs; a hot dry rock suddenly wet with large drops of water; a tiny mirror that catches a character in profile; 360-degree pans as seen in Andrei Rublev – yet these are much more successfully integrated into the unfolding drama.

In 2003, Reygadas told Sight & Sound: “When I was about 15, my father gave me a Tarkovsky film on VHS and I was amazed at the simplicity, the power that comes out of a single event. I’m not very much into narrative-driven films and I never remember dialogue; what sticks in my mind are the sound, the image and the camera movement. With Tarkovsky it’s as if direct emotion comes out of each image and sound. It drives me crazy.”

8. Solaris

Steven Soderbergh, 2002

When is a remake not a tribute? Perhaps when the auteur remaking the film goes out of his way to be as un-Tarkovskian as possible. Soderbergh’s Solaris was touted as a return to Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 novel rather than to Tarkovsky’s film, yet both films follow closely the outline story of Kris Kelvin (George Clooney here), a psychologist in the future who is informed by his friend on a space station on the planet Solaris of an interesting phenomenon. Arriving there, Kelvin finds his friend has committed suicide, and the surviving two team members seem strangely distracted. Exhausted, Kelvin finds his cabin and goes to sleep.

In Soderbergh’s version, Kelvin dreams of intimate moments he shared with his dead wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone), and when he awakes, Rheya is manifested alive in the room. Horrified, Kelvin finds a way to launch her into space, but then she, or a replica version of her, comes back, created, it seems, by the oceanic planet out of Kelvin’s sublimated desires. Soderbergh’s focus is much more on this rekindled love story, whereas Tarkovsky’s emphasis was on nostalgia for the earth and its natural beauty. In Soderbergh’s version there are also numerous flashbacks to Kelvin’s life with Rheya, something Tarkovsky eschews.

The American takes Dylan Thomas’s poem And Death Shall Have No Dominion, with its emphasis on the idea that “though lovers be lost, love shall not”, and sidelines all other grand themes. The result is crisper and, at 99 minutes, much shorter than the original’s 165 minutes. Of course it’s extremely doubtful that Soderbergh, Clooney and co would ever have adapted Lem’s novel had Tarkovsky not transformed it into one of the most original science-fiction films ever made. Perhaps remaking a masterpiece your own way is the sincerest form of cinema flattery.

9. The Intruder

Claire Denis, 2004

Claire Denis worked as a casting director on The Sacrifice, and, of this selection, The Intruder is arguably the film that does most to explore discontinuity of time and space in a way that recalls Tarkovsky’s innovations and his near-equal treatment of realist event, dream and contemplation.

But again, as with Sokurov, there is a more prominent influence here. The film is an ‘adoption’ of the ideas expressed in French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy’s autobiographical essay about his heart transplant – in a wider sense, how one can accept an ‘intruder’ without destroying their otherness through assimilation – but the film also explores Nancy’s ideas about landscape in a way that both recalls and challenges Tarkovsky.

“Landscape begins when it absorbs and dissolves all presences into itself,” argues Nancy in another essay, Uncanny Landscape, positing that the way we view landscape always involves our taking in a ‘corner’ of it, a space that simultaneously encloses and discloses itself. But his conclusion is that we discover in landscape “the place without God, the place that is only the place of taking place”. Denis’s invented fable certainly matches the ‘you only live once’ quality of that conclusion.

Louis Trebor (Michel Subor), is an ex-mercenary with heart problems who is hiding out in the Jura Mountains in the Western Alps from people who have reasons to take revenge on him. He virtually ignores his son Sidney, who lives in the nearby town, and pines instead for the child he fathered in his youth with a Tahitian woman. After murdering an intruder, he arranges to have an illegal private heart transplant in Korea, insisting on a young male donor, but the outcome proves unsatisfactory in more ways than one and he’s left to wander the South Seas in a hopeless reverie.

Few films are as bold and complex with their time logic and their associative leaps as this, and Tarkovsky remains its obvious progenitor.

10. The New World

Terrence Malick, 2005

Malick was born in 1943, two years after Kieslowski, but it’s hard now to see him as a near contemporary of Tarkovsky in the same way, even though Badlands, his first feature, made a big international impact in 1973, while the Polish director had to wait until 1989 for his breakthrough with Decalogue. Badlands certainly has echoes of Tarkovsky in the way it admires burnished wheatfields in the magic hour, but when Malick began developing that film – given how long films tend to gestate – he is likely only to have seen Ivan’s Childhood and Andrei Rublev (Solaris was made in 1972).

Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978), on the other hand, with its vivid conflagrations, came after Mirror’s unforgettable barn fires. There might have been an interesting mutual call and answer between the directors had Malick not had a 20-year filmmaking hiatus until The Thin Red Line in 1998, long after Tarkovsky’s death. That film traced the outline of a completely different style, one that’s given us – arguably with dwindling effect – The New World, The Tree of Life, To the Wonder and Knight of Cups. The old Malick was a serious rival to Tarkovsky, the new one feels more contemporary to today: scooping surfaces, prowling for evidence of the divine, but settling always for the sheer wonder of the world in a sunset. But curiously, the new Malick is an overt devotee of Tarkovsky – there are many images in The Tree of Life that match Tarkovsky’s, not least the scene in which Jessica Chastain levitates – as the mother does in Mirror and the writer and the maid do in The Sacrifice.

Nonetheless I’ve chosen The New World because it shows the new Malick style in its best light, in a context – the arrival of British colonists in Virginia – in which wonder and mistrust between pagans (the Native Americans, particularly Pocahontas) and Christians is expressed in a similar way to that in Andrei Rublev. This is especially evident in the scenes of bathing in the river, and when Captain Smith blunders through a swamp in his armour and gets captured, almost in a parody of the finesse with which young Ivan ghosts behind German lines.

11. The Banishment

Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2007

Zvyagintsev’s second feature (after The Return) is the most straightforward, even blatant, case of Tarkovsky’s influence in action. Many of his shots of lustrous or weather-obscured landscapes are so redolent of the master as to approach parody. It might seem surprising to make this observation about an adaptation of a William Saroyan novel involving such dramatic tropes as jealousy, uncertain progeniture and criminal brothers, but over-enthusiastic mini-tributes to Tarkovsky, set to one side of the drama, act here as a kind of punctuation.

Alex (Konstantin Lavronenko), under pressure due to corrupt business failings, needs to disappear from the city for a while. He takes his family to his magnificent childhood home, set next to a church in a secluded ravine. He and his wife Vera (the dazzling Maria Bonnevie) are not getting along, and when she reluctantly tells him she’s pregnant, he has suspicions. These are confirmed in his mind when he learns from his son that a friend, Robert, visited their city house while Alex was away. Alex consults his racketeer gambler brother, Mark (Aleksandr Baluev), who tells him, fatalistically, that whatever he wants to do – kill or forgive – will be right.

There is a hint of Bergman about how the scenes from a marriage play out – touching at first, then grim and agonising – but Tarkovsky looms over it all. The specially constructed house and church are drawn from Andrew Wyeth paintings, yet the way the house is shot constantly recalls the country houses in Mirror and The Sacrifice. In long takes the camera meanders in typical Tarkovskian style through birch trees; in quicker ones it sweeps across fields of golden wheatgrass; the children spend an evening piecing together a jigsaw puzzle of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Annunciation (Da Vinci is a constant reference in Tarkovsky’s films); a palpably Tarkovskian mist drapes itself over the surroundings.

Most blatant of all is a long tracking shot that moves over streams and pools of water covering poignant debris. It climaxes with a downpour, apeing similar sequences in Stalker and Nostalgia. When confronted about these tributes, Zvyagintsev said, “It’s impossible for any Russian filmmaker not to feel a certain influence from Tarkovsky.” The Banishment is nonetheless a magnificent yarn and, from the evidence of the director’s last film, Leviathan (2014), we can conclude that he’s probably got the excess Tarkovsky out of his system.

12. The Headless Woman

Lucrecia Martel, 2008

Of all the films here, this is probably the greatest stretch in terms of influence, the tip of a tendril if you like. Martel is a very distinctive director, and her work comes out of her knowledge of the people of north-west Argentina, where she’s from. She moves from cut to cut quickly, yet her pacing is slow. The Headless Woman’s visual style is not particularly reminiscent of Tarkovsky’s, except for the extrasensory quality she seems to have – a sensitivity to the power of boredom and objects and the hidden lives of houses.

In the film, Vero (María Onetto) is a middle-aged dentist who’s been meeting with her girlfriends. Driving along a seemingly deserted road, she is enjoying a solo singalong when her mobile phone rings, making her take her eye off the wheel for a moment. Her car runs over something, in two bumps, and she hits her head. Stunned and shaken, she brings the car to a halt, stares in her wing mirror for several beats and then drives on. In a rear-view shot, as the car pulls away, we see a dog lying motionless in the road.

Vero seems completely distracted and appears to be suffering from concussion. Colleagues, family and servants make excuses for her. Eventually she confesses to her husband that she thinks she might have killed someone; he refuses to believe her, saying she’s just frightened. Her car gets fixed and every anxiety is smoothed away almost invisibly until we find out what really happened.

The great success of Martel and Onetto in this film is the way Vero is able to be simultaneously of and not of this world, the sense that her sudden vulnerability and inability to connect with real things is not a ruse but an altered state of consciousness, a kind of floating above the guilt she feels. Her mother mutters in her sleep about the dead and tells Vero her voice has changed. These things ‘feel’ Tarkovskian. In a way, Vero’s the very opposite of the boy in Ivan’s Childhood: he’s a ruined innocent, she’s a sinner preserved. 

More from this issue

Find out more

Access the digital edition

Back to the top

See something different

Subscribe now for exclusive offers and the best of cinema.
Hand-picked.