Andrei Tarkovsky (1932 - 1986) was one of the greatest and most influential filmmakers in the history of Russian and world cinema. His films explored spiritual and metaphysical themes, featuring slow pacing and long takes, dreamlike visual imagery, and preoccupation with nature and memory.
Tarkovsky studied film at Moscow's State Institute of Cinematography under filmmaker Mikhail Romm, and subsequently directed his first five feature films in the Soviet Union: Ivan's Childhood (1962), Andrei Rublev (1966), Solaris (1972), Mirror (1975), and Stalker (1979). After years of creative conflict with state film authorities, Tarkovsky left the country in 1979 and made his final two films abroad; Nostalghia (1983) and The Sacrifice (1986) were produced in Italy and Sweden respectively. In 1986, he also published a book about cinema and art entitled Sculpting in Time. He died of cancer later that year.
Tarkovsky was the recipient of several awards at the Cannes Film Festival throughout his career (including the FIPRESCI prize, the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury, and the Grand Prix Spécial du Jury) and winner of the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival for his debut film Ivan's Childhood. In 1990, he was posthumously awarded the Soviet Union's prestigious Lenin Prize. Three of his films—Andrei Rublev, Mirror, and Stalker—featured in Sight & Sound's 2012 poll of the 100 greatest films of all time.
Andrei Tarkovsky was born in the village of Zavrazhye in the Yuryevetsky District of the Ivanovo Industrial Oblast (modern-day Kadyysky District of the Kostroma Oblast, Russia) to the poet and translator Arseny Alexandrovich Tarkovsky, a native of Yelisavetgrad, Kherson Governorate, and Maria Ivanova Vishnyakova, a graduate of the Maxim Gorky Literature Institute who later worked as a corrector; she was born in Moscow in the Dubasov family estate.
Andrei's paternal grandfather Aleksandr Karlovich Tarkovsky (in Polish: Aleksander Karol Tarkowski) was a Polish nobleman who worked as a bank clerk. His wife Maria Danilovna Rachkovskaya was a Romanian teacher who arrived from Iași. Andrei's maternal grandmother Vera Nikolaevna Vishnyakova (née Dubasova) belonged to an old Dubasov family of the Russian nobility that traces its history back to the 17th century; among her relatives was Admiral Fyodor Dubasov, a fact she had to conceal during the Soviet days. She was married to Ivan Ivanovich Vishnyakov, a native of the Kaluga Governorate who studied law at the Moscow State University and served as a judge in Kozelsk.
According to the family legend, Tarkovsky's ancestors on his father's side were princes from the Shamkhalate of Tarki, Dagestan, although his sister Marina Tarkovskaya who did detailed research on their genealogy called it "a myth, even a prank of sorts," stressing that none of the documents confirms this version.
Tarkovsky spent his childhood in Yuryevets. He was described by childhood friends as active and popular, having many friends, and being typically in the center of the action. His father left the family in 1937, subsequently volunteering for the army in 1941. He returned home in 1943, having been awarded a Red Star after being shot in one of his legs (which he would eventually need to amputate due to gangrene). Tarkovsky stayed with his mother, moving with her and his sister Marina to Moscow, where she worked as a proofreader at a printing press.
In 1939 Tarkovsky enrolled at the Moscow School No. 554. During the war, the three evacuated to Yuryevets, living with his maternal grandmother. In 1943 the family returned to Moscow. Tarkovsky continued his studies at his old school, where the poet Andrei Voznesensky was one of his classmates. He studied piano at a music school and attended classes at an art school. The family lived on Shchipok Street in the Zamoskvorechye District in Moscow. From November 1947 to spring 1948 he was in the hospital with tuberculosis. Many themes of his childhood—the evacuation, his mother and her two children, the withdrawn father, the time in the hospital—feature prominently in his film Mirror.
In his school years, Tarkovsky was a troublemaker and a poor student. He still managed to graduate, and from 1951 to 1952 studied Arabic at the Oriental Institute in Moscow, a branch of the Academy of Sciences of the Soviet Union. Although he already spoke some Arabic and was a successful student in his first semesters, he did not finish his studies and dropped out to work as a prospector for the Academy of Science Institute for Non-Ferrous Metals and Gold. He participated in a year-long research expedition to the river Kureikye near Turukhansk in the Krasnoyarsk Province. During this time in the taiga, Tarkovsky decided to study film.
Upon returning from the research expedition in 1954, Tarkovsky applied at the State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK) and was admitted to the film-directing program. He was in the same class as Irma Raush whom he married in April 1957.
The early Khrushchev era offered good opportunities for young film directors. Before 1953, annual |film production| was low and most films were directed by veteran directors. After 1953, more films were produced, many of them by young directors. The Khrushchev Thaw relaxed Soviet social restrictions a bit and permitted a limited influx of European and North American literature, films, and music. This allowed Tarkovsky to see films of the Italian neorealists, French New Wave, and of directors such as Kurosawa, Buñuel, Bergman, Bresson, Wajda (whose film Ashes and Diamonds influenced Tarkovsky) and Mizoguchi.
Tarkovsky's teacher and mentor were Mikhail Romm, who taught many film students who would later become influential film directors. In 1956 Tarkovsky directed his first student short film, The Killers, from a short story of Ernest Hemingway. The short film There Will Be No Leave Today and the screenplay Concentrate followed in 1958 and 1959.
An important influence on Tarkovsky was the film director Grigory Chukhray, who was teaching at the VGIK. Impressed by the talent of his student, Chukhray offered Tarkovsky a position as assistant director for his film Clear Skies. Tarkovsky initially showed interest but then decided to concentrate on his studies and his own projects.
During his third year at the VGIK, Tarkovsky met Andrei Konchalovsky. They found much in common as they liked the same film directors and shared ideas on cinema and films. In 1959 they wrote the script Antarctica – Distant Country, which was later published in the Moskovsky Komsomolets. Tarkovsky submitted the script to Lenfilm, but it was rejected. They were more successful with the script The Steamroller and the Violin, which they sold to Mosfilm. This became Tarkovsky's graduation project, earning him his diploma in 1960 and winning First Prize at the New York Student Film Festival in 1961.
Tarkovsky's first feature film was Ivan's Childhood in 1962. He had inherited the film from director Eduard Abalov, who had to abort the project. The film earned Tarkovsky international acclaim and won the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival in the year 1962. In the same year, on 30 September, his first son Arseny (called Senka in Tarkovsky's diaries) Tarkovsky was born.
In 1965, he directed the film Andrei Rublev about the life of Andrei Rublev, the fifteenth-century Russian icon painter. Andrei Rublev was not, except for a single screening in Moscow in 1966, immediately released after completion due to problems with Soviet authorities. Tarkovsky had to cut the film several times, resulting in several different versions of varying lengths. The film was widely released in the Soviet Union in a cut version in 1971. Nevertheless, the film had a budget of more than 1 million rubles – a significant sum for that period. A version of the film was presented at the Cannes Film Festival in 1969 and won the FIPRESCI Prize.
He divorced his wife, Irma Raush, in June 1970. In the same year, he married Larissa Kizilova (née Egorkina), who had been a production assistant for the film Andrei Rublev (they had been living together since 1965). Their son, Andrei Andreyevich Tarkovsky, was born in the same year on 7 August.
In 1972, he completed Solaris, an adaptation of the novel Solaris by Stanisław Lem. He had worked on this together with screenwriter Friedrich Gorenstein as early as 1968. The film was presented at the Cannes Film Festival, won the Grand Prix Spécial du Jury, and was nominated for the Palme d'Or.
From 1973 to 1974, he shot the film Mirror, a highly autobiographical and unconventionally structured film drawing on his childhood and incorporating some of his father's poems. In this film, Tarkovsky portrayed the plight of childhood affected by war. Tarkovsky had worked on the screenplay for this film since 1967, under the consecutive titles Confession, White day, and A white, white day. From the beginning, the film was not well received by Soviet authorities due to its content and its perceived elitist nature. Soviet authorities placed the film in the "third category", a severely limited distribution, and only allowed it to be shown in third-class cinemas and workers' clubs. Few prints were made and the filmmakers received no returns. Third category films also placed the film-makers in danger of being accused of wasting public funds, which could have serious effects on their future productivity. These difficulties are presumed to have made Tarkovsky play with the idea of going abroad and producing a film outside the Soviet film industry.
In 1975, Tarkovsky also worked on the screenplay Hoffmanniana, about the German writer and poet E. T. A. Hoffmann. In December 1976, he directed Hamlet, his only stage play, at the Lenkom Theatre in Moscow. The main role was played by Anatoly Solonitsyn, who also acted in several of Tarkovsky's films. At the end of 1978, he also wrote the screenplay Sardor together with the writer Aleksandr Misharin.
The last film Tarkovsky completed in the Soviet Union was Stalker, inspired by the novel Roadside Picnic by the brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Tarkovsky had met the brothers first in 1971 and was in contact with them until his death in 1986. Initially, he wanted to shoot a film based on their novel Dead Mountaineer's Hotel and he developed a raw script. Influenced by a discussion with Arkady Strugatsky he changed his plan and began to work on the script based on Roadside Picnic. Work on this film began in 1976. The production was mired in troubles; improper development of the negatives had ruined all the exterior shots. Tarkovsky's relationship with cinematographer Georgy Rerberg deteriorated to the point where he hired Alexander Knyazhinsky as a new first cinematographer. Furthermore, Tarkovsky suffered a heart attack in April 1978, resulting in further delay. The film was completed in 1979 and won the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the Cannes Film Festival. In a question and answer session at the Edinburgh Filmhouse on 11 February 1981, Tarkovsky trenchantly rejected suggestions that the film was either impenetrably mysterious or a political allegory.
In 1979 Tarkovsky began production of the film The First Day (Russian: Первый День Pervyj Dyen), based on a script by his friend and long-term collaborator Andrei Konchalovsky. The film was set in 18th-century Russia during the reign of Peter the Great and starred Natalya Bondarchuk and Anatoli Papanov. To get the project approved by Goskino, Tarkovsky submitted a script that was different from the original script, omitting several scenes that were critical of the official atheism in the Soviet Union. After shooting roughly half of the film the project was stopped by Goskino after it became apparent that the film differed from the script submitted to the censors. Tarkovsky was reportedly infuriated by this interruption and destroyed most of the film.
During the summer of 1979, Tarkovsky traveled to Italy, where he shot the documentary Voyage in Time together with his long-time friend Tonino Guerra. Tarkovsky returned to Italy in 1980 for an extended trip, during which he and Guerra completed the script for the film Nostalghia. During this period, he took Polaroid photographs depicting his personal life.
Tarkovsky returned to Italy in 1982 to start shooting Nostalghia. He did not return to his home country. As Mosfilm withdrew from the project, he had to complete the film with financial support provided by the Italian RAI. Tarkovsky completed the film in 1983. Nostalghia was presented at the Cannes Film Festival and won the FIPRESCI Prize and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury. Tarkovsky also shared a special prize called Grand Prix du cinéma de creation with Robert Bresson. Soviet authorities prevented the film from winning the Palme d'Or, a fact that hardened Tarkovsky's resolve to never work in the Soviet Union again. He also said: "I am not a Soviet dissident, I have no conflict with the Soviet Government." But if he returned home, he added, " would be unemployed." In the same year, he also staged the opera Boris Godunov at the Royal Opera House in London under the musical direction of Claudio Abbado.
He spent most of 1984 preparing the film The Sacrifice. At a press conference in Milan on 10 July 1984, he announced that he would never return to the Soviet Union and would remain in Europe. At that time, his son Andrei Andreyevich was still in the Soviet Union and not allowed to leave the country. On 28 August 1985, Tarkovsky arrived at Latina Refugee Camp in Latina, where he was registered with the serial number 13225/379.
The Sacrifice was Tarkovsky's last film, dedicated to his son, Andrei Andreyevich. Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, which documents the making of The Sacrifice, was released after the filmmaker's death in 1986. In a particularly poignant scene, writer/director Michal Leszczylowski follows Tarkovsky on a walk as he expresses his sentiments on death — he claims himself to be immortal and has no fear of dying.
In 1985, he shot the film The Sacrifice in Sweden. At the end of the year, he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. In January 1986, he began treatment in Paris and was joined there by his son, who was finally allowed to leave the Soviet Union. The Sacrifice was presented at the Cannes Film Festival and received the Grand Prix Spécial du Jury, the FIPRESCI prize, and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury. As Tarkovsky was unable to attend due to his illness, the prizes were collected by his son, Andrei Andreyevich.
In Tarkovsky's last diary entry (15 December 1986), he wrote: "But now I have no strength left — that is the problem". The diaries are sometimes also known as Martyrolog and were published posthumously in 1989 and in English in 1991.
Tarkovsky died in Paris on 29 December 1986. His funeral ceremony was held at the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. He was buried on 3 January 1987 in the Russian Cemetery in Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois in France. The inscription on his gravestone, which was conceived by Tarkovsky's wife, Larisa Tarkovskaya, reads: To the man who saw the Angel.
A conspiracy theory emerged in Russia in the early 1990s when it was alleged that Tarkovsky did not die of natural causes, but was assassinated by the KGB. Evidence for this hypothesis includes testimonies by former KGB agents who claim that Viktor Chebrikov gave the order to eradicate Tarkovsky to curtail what the Soviet government and the KGB saw as anti-Soviet propaganda by Tarkovsky. Other evidence includes several memoranda that surfaced after the 1991 coup and the claim by one of Tarkovsky's doctors that his cancer could not have developed from a natural cause.
As with Tarkovsky, his wife Larisa Tarkovskaya and actor Anatoly Solonitsyn all died from the very same type of lung cancer. Vladimir Sharun, the sound designer in Stalker, is convinced that they were all poisoned by the chemical plant where they were shooting the film.
Tarkovsky became a film director during the mid and late 1950s, a period referred to as the Khrushchev Thaw, during which Soviet society opened to foreign films, literature, and music, among other things. This allowed Tarkovsky to see films of European, American, and Japanese directors, an experience that influenced his own filmmaking. His teacher and mentor at the film school, Mikhail Romm, allowed his student's considerable freedom and emphasized the independence of the film director.
Tarkovsky was, according to fellow student Shavkat Abdusalmov, fascinated by Japanese films. He was amazed by how every character on the screen is exceptional and how everyday events such as a Samurai cutting bread with his sword are elevated to something special and put into the limelight. Tarkovsky has also expressed interest in the art of Haiku and its ability to create "images in such a way that they mean nothing beyond themselves".
Tarkovsky was also a deeply religious Orthodox Christian, who believed great art should have a higher spiritual purpose. He was a perfectionist not given to humor or humility: his signature style was ponderous and literary, having many characters that pondered over religious themes and issues regarding faith.
Tarkovsky perceived that the art of cinema has only been truly mastered by very few filmmakers, stating in a 1970 interview with Naum Abramov that "they can be counted on the fingers of one hand". In 1972, Tarkovsky told film historian Leonid Kozlov his ten favorite films. The list includes Diary of a Country Priest and Mouchette by Robert Bresson; Winter Light, Wild Strawberries, and Persona by Ingmar Bergman; Nazarín by Luis Buñuel; City Lights by Charlie Chaplin; Ugetsu by Kenji Mizoguchi; Seven Samurai by Akira Kurosawa, and Woman in the Dunes by Hiroshi Teshigahara. Among his favorite directors were Buñuel, Mizoguchi, Bergman, Bresson, Kurosawa, Michelangelo Antonioni, Jean Vigo, and Carl Theodor Dreyer.
With the exception of City Lights, the list does not contain any films of the early silent era. The reason is that Tarkovsky saw the film as an art as only a relatively recent phenomenon, with the early film-making forming only a prelude. The list has also no films or directors from Tarkovsky's native Russia, although he rated Soviet directors such as Boris Barnet, Sergei Parajanov, and Alexander Dovzhenko highly. He said of Dovzhenko's Earth: "I have lived a lot among very simple farmers and met extraordinary people. They spread calmness, had such tact, they conveyed a feeling of dignity, and displayed wisdom that I have seldom come across on such a scale. Dovzhenko had obviously understood wherein the sense of life resides. This trespassing of the border between nature and mankind is an ideal place for the existence of man. Dovzhenko understood this."
Andrei Tarkovsky was not a fan of science fiction, largely dismissing it for its "comic book" trappings and vulgar commercialism. However, in a famous exception, Tarkovsky praised the blockbuster film The Terminator, saying that its "vision of the future and the relation between man and its destiny is pushing the frontier of cinema as an art". He was critical of the "brutality and low acting skills", but was nevertheless impressed by the film.
In a 1962 interview, Tarkovsky argued: "All art, of course, is intellectual, but for me, all the arts, and cinema even more so, must above all be emotional and act upon the heart." His films are characterized by metaphysical themes, extremely long takes, and images often considered by critics to be of exceptional beauty. Recurring motifs are dreams, memory, childhood, running water accompanied by fire, rain indoors, reflections, levitation, and characters reappearing in the foreground of long panning movements of the camera. He once said: "Juxtaposing a person with an environment that is boundless, collating him with a countless number of people passing by close to him and far away, relating a person to the whole world, that is the meaning of cinema."
Tarkovsky incorporated levitation scenes into several of his films, most notably Solaris. To him, these scenes possess great power and are used for their photogenic value and magical inexplicability. Water, clouds, and reflections were used by him for their surreal beauty and photogenic value, as well as their symbolism, such as waves or the forms of brooks or running water. Bells and candles are also frequent symbols. These are symbols of film, sight, and sound, and Tarkovsky's film frequently has themes of self-reflection.
Tarkovsky developed a theory of cinema that he called "sculpting in time". By this, he meant that the unique characteristic of cinema as a medium was to take our experience of time and alter it. Unedited movie footage transcribes time in real-time. By using long takes and few cuts in his films, he aimed to give the viewers a sense of time passing, time lost, and the relationship of one moment in time to another.
Up to, and including, his film Mirror, Tarkovsky focused his cinematic works on exploring this theory. After Mirror, he announced that he would focus his work on exploring the dramatic unities proposed by Aristotle: a concentrated action, happening in one place, within the span of a single day.
Several of Tarkovsky's films have a color or black-and-white sequences. This first occurs in the otherwise monochrome Andrei Rublev, which features a color epilogue of Rublev's authentic religious icon paintings. All of his films afterward contain monochrome, and in Stalker's case sepia sequences, while otherwise being in color. In 1966, in an interview conducted shortly after finishing Andrei Rublev, Tarkovsky dismissed the color film as a "commercial gimmick" and cast doubt on the idea that contemporary films meaningfully use color. He claimed that in everyday life one does not consciously notice colors most of the time, and that color should therefore be used in the film mainly to emphasize certain moments, but not all the time, as this distracts the viewer. To him, films in color were like moving paintings or photographs, which are too beautiful to be a realistic depiction of life.