can’t see the forest

Sculpting in Time: Andrej Tarkovskij

When film is not a document, it is dream. That is why Tarkovskij 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? … All my life I have hammered on the doors of the rooms in which he moves so naturally. —Ingmar Bergman, 1987

Andrej TarkovskijAndrej Arsenijevich Tarkovskij (also spelled Andrei Tarkovsky, Cyrillic Андре́й Тарко́вский), 1932-1986, was a Russian filmmaker, producer, actor, and writer. He was arguably the most influential and almost certainly the most visionary of all Russian filmmakers. Two of his best-known films are Solaris (1972), a sci-fi psychodrama after the novel by Stanisław Lem which is viewed in some quarters as Tarkovskij’s answer to 2001: A Space Odyssey; and his swan song, The Sacrifice (1986), a Tarkovskij-written and Swedish-produced hommage to Ingmar Bergman which explores the journey of a somewhat neurotic Swedish family into the initial shock of a (possibly imaginary) nuclear holocaust.

He was the son of the poet Arsenij Tarkovskij, receiving a classical education in Moscow and later attending the All-Russian State Institute of Cinematography where his chief teacher was Mixail Romm. There he produced several student films, including 1960’s The Steamroller and the Violin.

In his maturity, Tarkovskij developed a theory of film which he referred to as ‘sculpting in time.’ He thought of the medium of film as a way of carving unnecessary facts and details out of a length of time to reveal a finished artwork in much the same way as a sculptor creates his artwork from a block of mineral. He believed that film offered a unique creative opportunity which is particularly faithful to the human experience of the passage of time, even moreso than music or dance. Tarkovskij created not by the addition of elements, but by subtraction, in a manner of speaking.

Tarkovskij paid a great deal of attention to fine detail, participating actively in aspects of production not normally attended by the director. He believed that one should not relegate that which one, as an artist, can do himself; however, he also encouraged his actors, cinematographers, and production crews to contribute creatively to his films. As a result of this philosophy each of his films has its own character traits while preserving Tarkovskij’s creative signature on multiple levels of play.

He was infamous for using very long takes and lengthy single shots; The Sacrifice, for instance, contains only 115 shots in total, including an opening shot which lasts for just under ten minutes. His films contain stark, beautiful imagery with carefully crafted contrasts in color and texture. Tarkovskij often insisted on active participation in set design and cinematographic matters. He relied heavily upon playful signature devices such as abruptly terminating dream sequences, spilling milk, Christian imagery, and characters leaving and reappearing in the foreground in single shots. A number of his pictures prominently feature the music of J.S. Bach and the ambient sounds of nature.

Stalker (1979) is a particularly interesting film which some consider a prophecy or foreshadow of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Tarkovskij’s other major sci-fi picture after Solaris, this picture tells the story of three men who search through the remains of a post-apocalyptic world in an attempt to locate a room which grants wishes. The production of Stalker was plagued with problems. Most of the outdoor shooting took place in a heavily polluted area of Estonia, and a number of the participants in the production, including the director himself, died of cancer in subsequent years. The relationship between Tarkovskij and his cinematographer suffered a fallout early in production and much of the film had to be reshot despite firm opposition from the Soviet film boards.

Although his spirituality often put him at odds with Soviet authorities, and although he eventually left the Soviet Union for good, Andrej Tarkovskij was nonetheless a beacon of originality and genius as a product of the Soviet arts education system. His films provide a great measure of poetry, finesse, and introspective vision in a world where cinematic production seems to be increasingly dominated by frenetic symptoms of ‘attention deficit disorder.’ Tarkovskij’s art is essential material for both the serious student and the serious enthusiast of cinema, and his works leave impressions which are not soon shaken—through his unique ingenuity and passionate dedication, this titan of the moving picture continues to sculpt the minds of his audiences in a very real sense.


5 Responses

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  1. homeyra said, on 1/4/07 at 9:50 am

    I am a big fan of Russian movies. It is interesting to note that they had a golden period before the collapse of the USSR, Tarkovsky, Parajanov, Bondarchook to name a few…
    Seems the limitations drew only passionated people to endure all the complications to make a movie, and made them even more creative. Also they were not market oriented.
    I believe if there was not the cold war a movie such as War and Peace in the 60’s or so, would have won all the Oscars.
    It seems that the same sort of limitation has been what has boosted the Iranian cinema in the last years.

  2. Curtis said, on 1/5/07 at 4:55 am

    Iranian cinema is definitely something I’d be interested in looking into. Any favorites? Feel free to e-mail if you like.

    Music and ballet also experienced a sort of bittersweet golden age in Stalin and post-Stalin USSR. Composers such as Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Kabalevsky were, while often engaged in bitter struggles with the authorities in regards to freedom of expression, highly productive and creative, certainly moreso than many of their American and western European counterparts—at least to my tastes.

    I think you have made a wise point; just as they say the artist finds his greatest inspiration in hunger, so I think there is something to be said for creative productivity when freedom of expression is challenged. I wouldn’t want to overgeneralize, but I think the record is compelling.

  3. Alex said, on 7/23/07 at 3:28 pm

    I am Russian, and Tarkovskij’s movies are my favorite for many years, as well as Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, Seven Samurai and others, and some of Ingmar Bergman’s movies. My childhood spent in almost the same location as Andrej Tarkovskij while his family was escaping Nazi’s bombing during Second World War. His movie Zerkalo (The Mirror) is about that times. My grandma, my mom told me about that times while I was a child. Perhaps because of that Zerkalo and of course Andrej Rublev are my favorite. I think it is more than just movies for me.
    Speaking about “Seems the limitations drew only passionated people to endure all the complications to make a movie, and made them even more creative.” : I think it’s just a little part of the truth which is much more simple (and because of that much more complex :-) ):
    ” Matthew 7:13 The Narrow and Wide Gates 13″Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. ”
    It’s key point, IMHO, in Russian Orthodox Church too. Here is another quote from Andrej’s son interview supporting the same point:
    ” He taught me from the childhood, that man was not created for the happiness, that there are things more important than happiness. Search for truth – painful way. This it repeated in its films. Because happiness, in the sense of material prosperity and some simple values, cannot be the sense of human existence. For him, and probably now for me, the arts goal is to explore the world. Here is the lesson, which I never forget.”
    You can find more from excellent website, IMHO, the Martyrolog is specifically interesting.
    Also I disagree that Solaris is just sci-fi psychodrama (or Stalker is just a prophecy of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster), perhaps the best explanation came from Stanisław Lem himself, although his view is very different from Tarkovskij interpretation, see his interview at

  4. Curtis said, on 7/29/07 at 7:39 pm

    Thank you very much for your comments and links, Alex . . .Tarkovskij is a great favorite of mine and I am pleased to be learning more about his work all the time. It is my feeling that he is one of the most underappreciated artistic geniuses of the last century.

    Also, I agree with you that Solaris is much more than just a sci-fi thriller, of course—I only meant to pin it down to some kind of genre for the benefit of readers who might not have heard of it before. It is more like a thoroughly human drama which happens to take place in a sci-fi context.

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