This is the first in a new series I’m doing for IndieWire where I profile noteworthy directors.
There is no one in the history of cinema who photographs the poetic beauty of nature quite like Andrei Tarkovsky. He made only seven feature films and yet, his impact on cinema remains one of the most substantial. Tarkovsky was born in the Soviet Union on April 4th, 1932— his mother, a literature scholar and proofreader, his father, a famous Soviet poet. Having a poet for a father obviously influenced his own work greatly. His style can be appropriately described as ‘visual poetry.’ His stylistic trademarks consist of long unbroken takes, beautiful contemplative scenes of nature, unconventional narrative structures, and surreal imagery.
In 1954, he went to a film school in Moscow called the State Institute of Cinematography where he made his first short film titledThe Killers—based on the short story by Earnest Hemingway. His start in film school was very well-timed. Prior to 1953, there was much censorship in the Soviet Union because of Joseph Stalin. But after Stalin’s death in 1953, Nikita Khrushchev took over and reversed many of the censorship laws as part of his “de-Stalinization” which came to be known as the “Khrushchev Thaw.” Because of this, film students like Tarkovsky were now allowed to view films from outside of Russia including the films of Kurosawa, Buñuel, Bergman, Bresson, the Italian neorealism movement, and the French New Wave movement. These films were a big influence on him—he especially loved Bergman and Bresson. Bergman eventually returned the affection saying, “Tarkovsky for me is the greatest, the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream.”
In 1959, Tarkovsky teamed up with a classmate to make The Steamroller and the Violin. They wrote the screenplay together and Tarkovsky directed it. The film was his senior project and went on to win the First Prize at the New York Student Film Festival in 1961. In 1962, Tarkovsky directed his first feature film titled Ivan’s Childhood about a 12 year old orphan boy named Ivan during World War II. It was the only film he directed that he did not write the screenplay for, but he was around the same age as Ivan during the war and drew from his own experience while making the film.
Every film he made was somewhat autobiographical, but none more so than TheMirror, which touches on his experiences during the war, his mother, and the absence of his father. In 1939, he fled Moscow with his mother and sister to live with his grandmother in the countryside, which is reflected in the film. The Mirror is a beautifully haunting piece of filmmaking that evokes a dreamlike atmosphere.
The beauty of the natural world is a major theme in all of Tarkovsky’s work, but almost the entirety of his most famous film doesn’t take place on Earth at all—rather it takes place on a space station orbiting a planet known as Solaris. It was a considerable departure from his comfort zone being so removed from the naturalistic setting found in all of his other films and yet, Tarkovsky’s unique perspective shines through.
When asked what advice he would give to young directors, he said, “It requires sacrificing of yourself. You should belong to it, it shouldn’t belong to you. Cinema uses your life, not vice versa.”
Solaris (1972 dir. Andrei Tarkovsky)
Stalker (1979 dir. Andrei Tarkovsky)
The Mirror (1975 dir. Andrei Tarkovsky)
The Sacrifice (1986 dir. Andrei Tarkovsky)
The Killers (1956 dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, Marika Beiku, Aleksandr Gordon)
Yojimbo (1961 dir. Akira Kurosawa)
Un Chien Andalou (1929 dir. Luis Buñuel)
The Seventh Seal (1957 dir. Ingmar Bergman)
Pickpocket (1959 dir. Robert Bresson)
Rome, Open City (1945 dir. Roberto Rossellini)
Breathless (1960 dir. Jean-Luc Godard)
Andrei Rublev (1966 dir. Andrei Tarkovsky)
The Steamroller and the Violin (1961 dir. Andrei Tarkovsky)
Ivan’s Childhood (1962 dir. Andrei Tarkovsky)
Nostalgia (1983 dir. Andrei Tarkovsky)
This video essay was written, edited, and narrated by Tyler Knudsen.