Tarkovsky on the set of "The Sacrifice"

Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-1986) grew from childhood and began his career in Soviet Russia. Inevitably, this influenced his creative and philosophical journey. However, Tarkovsky begins Sculpting in Time by calling attention to how this constrained his work.

By 1962, the time of Tarkovsky’s first feature movie at age 30, the Soviet movie production system was comparatively mature. Those working within it knew the routine and its boundaries. Since it controlled access to the supply of film stock, if one wanted to make movies, one had to make peace with the system in some fashion. Those openly critical of the Soviet political regime no longer risked confinement in labor camps but they definitely would be denied access to the means of expression.

As someone whose intentions the movie authorities soon came to suspect, Tarkovsky notes that for him “the intervals between films (approved) were long and painful.” His disappointment at having so few opportunities was quite keen. Shortly after he died in exile, the Soviet Union collapsed. It is quite possible that the work he did manage, among that of many others, contributed to this transformation.

Normally, we assume producers will fund those movies they believe will create a profit. The Soviet system, instead, gave its preference to projects seemingly supportive of the official ideology. Not that attracting an audience was ignored, only that there was a higher value. Nor is this to imply that other systems, especially those with which we are most familiar, ignore the potential for influencing an audience’s ideas and its implicit psychological support for the regime.

The practical political constraint for Tarkovsky was the continual need to defend his directorial choices to political authorities who believed themselves qualified to comment on the relation between those choices and the abilities or intelligence of audiences. Are government bureaucrats really the best source of advice on how a director might improve his or her movie? In addition, under all systems, though emphatically so under the Soviet model, one can suppose producers would be especially on guard against projects which actually might undermine the underlying political regime. This last issue became Tarkovsky’s eventual undoing.

Of his seven features, Tarkovsky directed five under the Soviet system: Ivan’s Childhood (1962); Andrei Rublev (1966); Solaris (1972); Mirror (1975) and Stalker (1979.) Tarkovsky exiled himself while directing Nostalghia (1983.) He completed it in Italy. Produced in Sweden, The Sacrifice (1986) came out in the year Tarkovsky died at 54, from lung cancer. He was buried at a Russian cemetery in Paris.

Tarkovsky began drafting Sculpting in Time while working on Solaris. He published it 15 years later when he knew that he was dying. In the Introduction, Tarkovsky explains why he wrote this book rather than simply letting his films do all the work; both of demonstrating his movie-making theories and of carrying to audiences the gift of his insight into the human condition. He says, “My frequent encounters with vastly differing audiences made me feel I had to make as full a statement as possible.”

Now, the whole Introduction, written last, is constructed around audience reaction to Mirror as expressed in letters to the director. Although the final movie would be quite different, when he began writing the book, he already had the idea for Mirror in mind. The pride of place Tarkovsky assigns to Mirror encourages the provisional judgment that it contains the true introduction to his methods and insight. In the same way, Plato made the Apology of Socrates his introduction. Since Mirror and Plato’s life of Socrates each include near their end the killing of a chicken as an offering to the god of healing, this similarity (mirroring) may be less than wholly coincidental. Nor should considering Mirror as the true introduction to Tarkovsky’s teaching surprise anyone. It is an avowedly autobiographical work about the creative process, one in which the creator himself appears, or almost appears, separated from the audience only by a thin screen. A full commentary on Sculpting in Time, then, should also include a preliminary interpretation of Mirror. We can leave that aside for now.

In the Introduction, Tarkovsky divides the letters he received into three categories. In the first, he reports the response of one engineer,

How vulgar, what trash. Ugh, how revolting! Mirror certainly didn’t reach the audience which is all that matters. One can only be astonished that those responsible for films in the USSR should allow such blunders.

Alas, Tarkovsky had let this poorly educated professional leave the theatre unappreciative that the director had made him a gift much more valuable than his time and the price of admission! Well, isn’t it always the director’s fault if a member of the audience goes away confused?  Still, some people are in so great a need for spiritual restoration that they cannot even be entertained.

In the second category, Tarkovsky placed those who expressed puzzlement but showed a genuine desire to understand what they had just seen.

The film is so unlike anything I’ve seen that I don’t know how to appreciate either the form or content…Before it is shown the audience should be given some form of introduction. Could you at least let me know where I might read something?

Tarkovsky said, “I had nothing to advise such correspondents. No articles came out about Mirror, unless one counts the public condemnation of it as ‘inadmissibly elitist’ by my colleagues at the State Institute of Cinematography in the journal, Art of Cinema.” He went on to say, “I have to admit that, even when professional critics praised my work, I was often unsatisfied by their ideas and comments…I quite often had the feeling that these critics were either (actually) indifferent or (just) incompetent.”

Tarkovsky then produces an array of supportive letters proving that, whatever any skeptics might say, his film had found its audience and done its work. He endorsed one letter in particular as illustrating his own understanding of communicating through movies. He set it up this way,

My most fervent wish has always been to be able to speak out in my films, to say everything with total sincerity without imposing my own point of view. But, if the whole view that has gone into the film turns out to be one that other people recognize as a part of themselves that has never before been given expression, what better motivation could there be for one’s work? One woman sent me a letter by her daughter (whose) words are, I think, a remarkable statement about artistic creation as an infinitely versatile and subtle form of communication.

With some light paraphrasing, what the girl said was,

How many words does a person use in every day speech? One hundred, two, three? We wrap our feelings in words like so many packages, try to express in them our sorrows and joys, and any sort of emotion; the very things that can’t, in fact, be reduced adequately into words. Romeo uttered beautiful words to Juliet. But they surely didn’t say half of what made his heart feel as if it was ready to jump out of his chest, an experience in him which properly communicated to Juliet made her forget everything but her love. There’s another kind of language, another form of communication by feelings and images. That form is the contact that stops people from being separated from each other, which brings down barriers. Will, feeling, emotion – these remove obstacles from between people who otherwise stand on opposite sides of opaque words, of a mirror, of a door or captured in their separate bodies. Through this form of communication, the frames of the mirrors move out (the discrete edges of our normal concepts and ideas as captured in speech move out) and the world which used to be partitioned off comes into us, and we can experience it as something real within us. In this way there is no death, there is immortality. We are connected to everything, part of everything. Time is all one and undivided.

Mirror may be said to fail at providing entertainment for those incapable, or for those not yet ready to receive its teaching. Yet, these letters show the movie does succeed in massaging the emotions of some portion of the audience so that these feel restored, healed or spiritually energized as they resume their life’s journey.

These letters show that Mirror also succeeds at opening the understanding for a significant audience. These can feel quite passionately that they did learn something life altering from their encounter with the movie. This remains true even if, as they leave the theatre, they may not know exactly what that is; or they may not be able to express it in words; or they may not know just yet what to do about it.

Perhaps he succeeds too well. If Tarkovsky’s teaching was actually subversive, then the most powerful political authorities may have understood Mirror and its creator well enough as a threat, even if they could not put into words exactly why or how. Or, if it was not actually subversive, then it also may have been too easily misunderstood by an important audience not suited to receiving the teaching. After Mirror, the authorities gave Tarkovsky permission for Stalker, his last film wholly under the Soviet system. It was while shooting Stalker that some allege Tarkovsky, his wife and his favorite actor were all exposed deliberately to chemicals which then killed all three with the same lung cancer.

No movie is ever “just a movie.” Tarkovsky might have been better advised to view the pile of positive letters he received after Mirror as a sign to flee instantly for safe ground. Being understood is sometimes a dangerous thing. Whatever the truth about his teaching on the human condition, all this reinforces the view that Tarkovsky’s thoughts on method, as revealed in Sculpting in Time, really can contribute to making more powerful movies.