As one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century, Andrei Tarkovsky’s career as a director and screenwriter spans 30 years.
The majority of the films he wrote he directed and his contiguous creative vision flourishes through the haunting images he creates. A look at two distinct and poignant points in his career showcase his filmic genus. From his first big success to one of his greatest films, the idiosyncrasies of Tarkovsky abound through each scene. Most praise him for the poetic tone of his films and how the beauty of each shot is distilled. The focus of the film never lands with the spectacle of the image alone though. Tarkovsky used images to underlay meaning and depth that elevate his works to new heights.
The resounding consistence throughout his films comes from the haunting images he creates. The way he assembles these images vary, but their presence never leaves his films. In fact, his films are only haunting images, one after the other, amusing the audience enough to get lost in the three-hour epics Tarkovsky creates.
While most of his movies are nearly indeed three-hour epics, there are two specific ones that stand out as means of guide posts for his filmic career. These each give an over view of his style and focus to his films, but they don’t necessarily break his films into groups or sections, merely showcase his points best. The first film to establish Tarkovsky’s vision as a filmmaker comes from Ivan’s Childhood (1962). This film was not his first, but its success resounds far beyond that of his other earlier films.
Ivan’s Childhood tells the story of a small boy named Ivan (Nikolay Burlyaev) who loses his mother during World War II to a German attack. Because of this and Ivan’s proximity to the terror caused during WWII Ivan uses his vendetta against Germany to join the Russian Army and become a message carrier; perhaps one of the most dangerous jobs available to soldiers.
In this film Tarkovsky uses juxtaposition of contrasting scenes to create the haunting images that cover the landscape of this film. As the film opens Ivan’s face lies behind a spider’s web; literally caught in the spider’s web. This introduction is steeped with meaning the audience can only extrapolate on until more info is presented, but as new information is added the viewer’s mind keeps going back to this image sussing out more and more meaning as the film continues. Before any exposition is revealed the scene progresses to show Ivan’s perspective as he appears to fly through the trees and the country side.
Point of view shots in the earlier works of Tarkovsky are amazingly unique and interesting. In Ivan’s Childhood there are a few that really stand out from other shots in the film. The first happens as Ivan flies about, showing his hands and branches moving out of his way to reveal a little town from high up in the air, before he finds his way back down to his mother. This scene is immediately juxtaposed to Ivan wading through swamp water as mortar flares fall off in the distance.
Ivan has lost his youthful innocence, now covered in mud and hunched over in hope of survival. When he is brought before the lieutenant of the camp he arrives at, he is blunt and snarky to the officers. This completely contrasts to the sweet and innocent boy at the beginning. The meaning of both shots are compounded by each other. The innocent boy looks happier when contrasting the wet and shivering boy who is always on his guard with strangers.
The film relies heavily on this early Russian technique from filmmaker Lev Kuleshov. The Kuleshov effect was uncovered when Kuleshov placed the same few seconds of a man against different images. When people saw the man and then a clip of a lady, he was in love. When the man was placed in contrast to a bowl of soup he was hungry. Much of early film used this ‘a+b=c’ technique to create meaning and Tarkovsky used it to create deeper meaning in nearly every shot. The viewer needs to see how happy the boy is to know how miserable his life has become during the war.
Imagery and, more specifically, nature imagery always work two-fold in Tarkovsky films. First and foremost, imagery creates the beautiful poetry in each film. The stunning landscapes, and the juxtaposition of ruins in the wilds of natural habitats allow for beautiful shots. Ivan’s Childhood consists mostly of nature shots. The scene where the young medic and the officer are traipsing through the woods together is stunning with the seemingly endlessness of the birch tree’s slim figures painting the landscape for as far as the eye can see.
Not only does nature create a beautiful background, but the way people appear in nature both deepens the meaning while deepening the beauty and poetry. People isolated as they walk through landscapes and the ruins of buildings are often shown throughout his films. Man’s isolation is never more pressing then when a lone figure stands in the woods or near the ocean. The feeling of loneliness is also compounded by the ruin of civilizations, which show a past untouchable in its distance from the present and very little hope for a future.
In Ivan’s Childhood the audience finally finds out what happened to Ivan as soldiers try to take documents out of a half-blown-up building. A line of men work to pull document after document entailing German prisoners and their ends. When Ivan’s face appears on one of the documents a voice over of the events leading to his death follows the camera of the present through the path of the building Ivan would have walked to his death. This choice is far more chilling when seen in the future with the building falling down around the doorways they walk through. It simultaneously links us to a past moment unchangeable and to all of the other prisoners who fell to the same fate.
The nature of Tarkovsky also adds a magical or supernatural aspect to his films. In the final scenes Ivan is once again able to frolic about happy and warm at a beach. As he runs through the shallow water the viewer thinks back to his flight at the beginning, yet this time Ivan does not need to fly to become lighter than air. His reflection against the water as the sun sets and he runs for what feels like miles creates this sense of fantasy and magic. Ivan may be dead, but through some sense of altered reality he will forever be a boy enjoying the sun.
While the majority of these aspects stick with Tarkovsky, a few of them change and shift. When looking at a film from the middle of his career and perhaps one of his best films Stalker (1979) there are a few shifts in focus. The film is about three men who travel to an illegal Zone to walk into a room with the hopes that their innermost wish will be granted. One of the men is a Stalker (Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy) or a guide through the zone, while the other two, a writer (Anatoliy Solonitsyn) and a Professor (Nikolay Grinko) wish to make it to the room.
Most noticeably, Tarkovsky styles this film after Italian Neorealism. The shots are long, and the audience is asked to watch even the most mundane aspects. Nature and all of its beauty make every shot a wonderful adventure in observing, but Tarkovsky does not just want the audience to look he wants everyone to live in these images. The haunting images still exist, but instead of them being born from contrast they are merely burned into the retinas of the viewer; unforgettable in their familiarity.
In this film nature also takes a much more active role as it no longer just paints the background, but it takes over and decides what is to happen. The Zone surrounds a nuclear facility long since abandoned; a place where nature is already taking back the land. Half fallen buildings, rusted cars, and flung open doors speak of a past society that was all too quickly wiped out. Nature however swoops in as grass grows through cement and metal, and rainfalls in rooms. One long shot in particular shows the quick encroachment of nature as a building, clear in the back ground, is covered in fog minutes later almost completely obscured.
In Russia during the early years of nuclear testing, Zones were rumored to be from meteorites, when in reality they were nuclear disasters that where covered up. The men talk of the rumor of meteorites, while also hinting that what happened there was much more, without ever outright saying ‘Kyshtym Disaster of 1957.’ As the three men make it to the Zone color finally floods the crisp images to make the Zone into a surreal place of power. From there The Stalker tells the men that the Zone decides who can make it to the core room; people can disappear and never come back. They even take a longer roundabout way to get to places right in front of them with the sole purpose of appeasing the Zone. The personification of the Zone and its powers take the magical aspect Tarkovsky usually gives nature and blows it into a God-level of judgment and decision making. Though the Zone does not care for good or bad only miserable men, the way it manipulates the three far exceeds normalcy for nature.
The Zone’s true powers are expressed first when The Professor goes back for his bag while the other two go on ahead only to find themselves back where they once were. From this point on the audience know the Zone means business and the closer the trio gets to the core the frequency with which strange things happen begins to skyrocket. The culmination of the Zone, and thus Nature’s, powers comes from the shot at the end when The Stalkers child, a paraplegic mute, is able to move water glasses through telekinesis. Nature not only takes on a more active role, it also takes on a chaotic and malicious role. Like a border Djinn, radiation causes different effects for all, but it mostly allows for the single innermost wish to come true.
Lastly, POV is essentially gone from this film. In Ivan’s Childhood there were plenty of shots to simulate POV and create character reaction shots, but due to the Italian Neorealist leanings of the film, there are few shots, most of which are wide shots that may draw close, but always function to show the three characters and the landscape. There are only a handful of close-up shots in the film and some even start as wide shots that turn into close-ups. In this way, Tarkovsky keeps the audience isolated from the characters, while they are journeying through an uninhabited landscape; a dual isolation from both sides of the lens.
Tarkovsky found his stride in filmmaking through the poetry he could create with humans in a magical land of nature and isolation. This may have been his view of the world, and as he gained more and more film experience his view stayed the same while his techniques at achieving that view changed. Shots grew longer, the juxtaposition of shots and POV fell to the wayside while living in the long moments with the actors took over. Even his view of the magic of nature, twisted and became less and less benign as it increased with power. The result of his changing pallet created a host of films that are interesting and unlike what is standard for today. They are epics in every sense of the word, long journeys, that you never come back from the same way.