Andrei Tarkovsky was born in Russia in 1932. He died tragically young at the age of 54 in 1986. Yet he still stands as one of the most beloved of all directors. His seven feature films, made from the 1960s through to the 1980s, all embodied a deep sense of humanity and spirituality. He made cinema under Soviet authorities, and yet defied them to create films utterly devoid of propaganda. His cinema was metaphysical and glacial, profound and meditative. Nobody made cinema like he did, and nobody has ever captured the beauty of the world in the same way he did. Andrei Tarkovsky is a filmmaker every person should explore, for his films enrich us all with their delicate and meaningful balance of love and suffering. This guide is to examine the films of Tarkovsky and show the extraordinary career of one of cinema’s greatest directors.
Want to start with a student film?
Try THE STEAMROLLER AND THE VIOLIN (1961)
Andrei Tarkovsky was born to Arseny Alexandrovich Tarkovsky, a poet, and Maria Ivanova Vishnyakova, a corrector. He was not a good student and dropped out of his studies in 1952 to join a research expedition in Siberia. Only after that, in 1954, did he begin as a film student. Joining film school in a post-Stalin 1950s, Tarkovsky was exposed to foreign films which had long been censored in the Soviet Union. While Tarkovsky remains so original that the influence of other films is minor, his access to a wider range of cinema allowed him to enter less political realms of filmmaking than many previous Soviet directors.
While at film school, Tarkovsky co-directed two short films, THE KILLERS (1956) and THERE WILL BE NO LEAVE TODAY (1959). However, if you want to start at the very beginning of the career of a genius, Tarkovsky’s graduation film, THE STEAMROLLER AND THE VIOLIN, is a must-watch. THE STEAMROLLER AND THE VIOLIN is purely poetic film, without traditional drama or conflict. Playing from a child’s perspective, it is a warm film, of deep humanity. Everything is simple and showcases the slow techniques Tarkovsky would become known for. It’s an early curio, but interesting as a start point.
Want to start with war?
Try IVAN’S CHILDHOOD (1962)
Tarkovsky’s first true feature debut was with IVAN’S CHILDHOOD. Once again the film deals with children. This time however there is little joy. IVAN’S CHILDHOOD is set during the Eastern Front in World War Two. However Tarkovsky chose to make a film which did not glorify war. Unlike the Soviet films of a decade prior, there is no celebration of the USSR’s victory. War is shown on a human level, as something unfathomable and unexplainable. Tarkovsky’s camera lingers on trees and nature, finding lyricism within melancholy.
Tarkovsky’s cinema became increasingly experimental, but in IVAN’S CHILDHOOD, everything is beautifully simple in style. Yet the film presents the confusion of war as preventing any beauty from lasting. The film is told without linearity, in flashback and in pieces. It was released to immediate success, being a commercial hit in the USSR, and a critical success worldwide. It even picked up the coveted Golden Lion, a rare achievement for a debut feature. IVAN’S CHILDHOOD instantly launched Tarkovsky to cinema stardom and remains as great now as it was then, even as Tarkovsky went on to bigger projects.
Want to start with religion?
Try ANDREI RUBLEV (1966)
Andrei Tarkovsky was a devout Christian. In a Marxist country that promoted atheism, that often put Tarkovsky at odds with the state authorities that funded his films. His faith runs deep throughout his cinema, as almost all his films deal with characters discussing religion and trying to find some higher purpose for being. Never is that more strongly seen than in ANDREI RUBLEV, a film about a medieval Russian painter. Central to ANDREI RUBLEV is the thesis that Christianity is vital to Russian identity. Hence the film was censored for many years and many cuts now exist.
However, regardless of which version of ANDREI RUBLEV you watch, the film is overbearing in its sheer beauty as a piece. It is overwhelming in its arthouse nature, being nothing but episodes in the life of a man who did both very little and yet also produced lasting pieces of art. The runtime is long and the filmmaking considered. Nothing is rushed. ANDREI RUBLEV remains one of Tarkovsky’s most acclaimed and respected films, in spite of its difficulties. No film is quite like it, and it is a miracle to behold.
Want to start with his most mainstream work?
Try SOLARIS (1972)
Andrei Tarkovsky was not a fan of science-fiction. He viewed it as shallow and without emotion. He called 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) “a lifeless schema with only pretensions to truth”. Yet, with ANDREI RUBLEV unreleased and a lack of work, Tarkovsky looked to re-invent science-fiction and bring the genre the emotions and depth he felt it lacked. Tarkovsky decided to adapt an acclaimed Polish novel and so he brought SOLARIS to the screen. The West had Kubrick and 2001, the East had Tarkovsky and SOLARIS.
While SOLARIS is notably more mainstream than Tarkovsky’s other films, it is still an almost three hour journey into the soul. It plays out as science-fiction, but spends most of its time considering the human condition and our reactions to grief, loss, and love. SOLARIS finds Tarkovsky uncompromised, so much so that the author of the book condemned the film for not matching its themes. Tarkovsky wanted to make a film about people, not one about science. His faith was stronger than technology. SOLARIS is an incredible success, a deep film that meshed Tarkovsky with an incredible set of genre ideas. He personally viewed SOLARIS as a failure, but given that it still holds up as a cult piece of art cinema, it’s a failure only in comparison to a career of only greatness.
Want to see something truly unique?
Try MIRROR (1975)
It is impossible to describe MIRROR. The film is nothing but a collection of pieces, presumably memories, told from the perspective of a child, a mother, a father, and an onlooker. MIRROR has no plot. It has no narrative. It has no adherence to convention. The film plays as individual scenes scattered across time. It is the most experimental film of Tarkovsky’s career, and still remains one of the most daring pieces of cinema ever made. While it is routinely cited as one of the greatest pieces of cinema, MIRROR still continues to baffle, awe, and confuse audiences.
MIRROR is partially based on Tarkovsky’s own life and his own memories. The film plays as an ode to his mother, in so many ways. Initially the Soviet authorities turned down the film for being incomprehensible, but they eventually released it in a very limited capacity. MIRROR has managed to last the test of time in spite of this however. It remains enigmatic and grows on audiences as they allow it to grow in their mind. Nothing can quite describe the poetry of MIRROR and nothing can quite match the human way it reflects all life and history.
Want to start with a philosophical genre movie?
Try STALKER (1979)
STALKER is a perfect movie. In the opinion of many, including this writer, STALKER is the finest film Tarkovsky ever made. Despite not being a fan of science-fiction, Tarkovsky returned to the genre again to adapt the book Roadside Picnic, by the most acclaimed Soviet science-fiction authors, Boris and Arkady Strugatsky. STALKER stands as a grand philosophical epic that questions the point of life. It follows three men wandering into a mysterious and dangerous “zone”, and questioning all that they know along the journey. The film is so incredibly slow, with more minutes than shots. The pace is leisurely, but the discussions intense.
The film was shot more than once, as the initial production was ruined by the film being incorrectly developed. Getting STALKER made proved to be a tough challenge, even though it was viewed more favourably by the Soviet authorities than MIRROR. Shooting in abandoned power stations, many of the crew died from causes often attributed to the filming of STALKER, including Tarkovsky himself. This may be one of the greatest pieces of cinematic art, but it came at a cost. STALKER is more approachable than many Tarkovsky films, but it is still very complex and profound. Like all Tarkovsky films, it stands completely alone. Nothing beats this, and nothing ever will.
Want to start outside the USSR?
Try NOSTALGHIA (1983)
After the struggles of ANDREI RUBLEV, MIRROR, and STALKER, Tarkovsky eventually left the Soviet Union. He traveled to Italy and made a film partially funded with Italian money. The film, NOSTALGHIA, was another film of faith and internal struggle. While every Tarkovsky film stands apart and is unique, NOSTALGHIA is the closest to rehashing ideas he ever made. The film deals with everything Tarkovsky ever explored, like doubt, religion, and sacrifice. Yet, in a different setting, and with something not historical or futuristic, NOSTALGHIA captures a contemporary angst Tarkovsky rarely utilised.
NOSTALGHIA saw Tarkovsky with more freedom than before. He made a film that was totally his own. This is a film of dreams and despair, showing that even without restriction, society can leave people trapped. Faith is a big part of NOSTALGHIA and it is a film of observations on religious thoughts and living. While NOSTALGHIA may be a minor Tarkovsky work, it is nonetheless a powerful portrait of faith in the modern world.
Want to start with something Bergman-esque?
Try THE SACRIFICE (1983)
Andrei Tarkovsky was a huge fan of Ingmar Bergman. Bergman, likewise, was a huge fan of Tarkovsky. They both wrote many times of their admiration for one another. After completely leaving the Soviet Union, Tarkovsky decided to make his next film in Sweden. Shooting in Bergman’s own country, Tarkovsky also worked with Bergman’s regular cinematographer Sven Nykvist and regular actor Erland Josephson. THE SACRIFICE also functions as a chamber piece, Bergman’s most famous type of film, and contains a lot of conversations on religion. This was a true fusion of Bergman and Tarkovsky.
THE SACRIFICE follows a man on the eve of the apocalypse, who promises to sacrifice everything to God if the destruction is undone. What follows is a meditation on faith, culminating in encounters with a witch. THE SACRIFICE presents Tarkovsky as his most probing of beliefs. What does it mean to sacrifice, and what does it mean to worship? Tarkovsky rarely explored paganism and yet it appears here. THE SACRIFICE is a singular work, inspired by one master and perfected by another, leaving it a perfect grand finale to Tarkovsky’s career.
A few months after THE SACRIFICE premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, Tarkovsky died from lung cancer. Speculation remains common that it was a consequence of the shooting of STALKER. Across his short career, with just seven feature films, Tarkovsky won nine prizes at Cannes and became the most respected of all European filmmakers. No one has ever matched him in terms of consistent quality as a filmmaker. Any of his films could be a potential starting point, and whichever you do start with, the rest are worth checking out. The breadth of his genres – from pure art, to science-fiction, to historical, to war, to simple drama – allows for new ideas to be glimpsed in every film. Yet his love of nature and the world is still felt in every frame.
Andrei Tarkovsky’s Filmography:
The Killers (1956) [student film]
There Will Be No Leave Today (1959) [student film]
The Steamroller and the Violin (1961) [student film]