Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-1986) directed seven feature films over a 24-year period. Zerkalo (Mirror), released in 1975, comes at the midway point in his career. It is preceded by Ivanovo detstvo (Ivan’s Childhood, 1962), Andrei Rublev (1966) and Solaris (1972); after it, will come Stalker (1979), Nostalghia (1983) and Offret (The Sacrifice, 1986). The last two – shot in Italy and Sweden, respectively – were made in exile from the Soviet Union. In recent years, Mirror has eclipsed Tarkovsky’s other works, at least in terms of its critical reception. In 2012, it made its first top ten appearance in the Sight and Sound poll of the Greatest Films of All Time, where it placed ninth in the Directors’ Top Ten. (It was also the highest ranked of Tarkovsky’s works on the Critics’ Poll, where it placed 19th.) This acclaim is related, no doubt, to the viewer’s sense that with this film one has been given privileged insight not only into Tarkovsky the man but Tarkovsky the artist; for Mirror is not only the most autobiographical of all his works, it is also the film that most succinctly recapitulates the filmmaker’s aesthetic: his belief that cinema is, first and foremost, a medium of time, a medium that allows both artist and viewer to come to terms with the force of time and its role in the constitution of subjectivity.
As Tarkovsky recounts in Sculpting in Time, he had originally planned to write a novella detailing his childhood memories of the Second World War. At some point, he abandoned this project and began thinking of recreating these memories on film. A first draft focused exclusively on this recreation. It was “full of elegiac sadness and nostalgia for my childhood” (1). The title, at this point, was A White, White Day. Unsatisfied with it, Tarkovsky decided, in his second draft, to include filmed interviews with his mother discussing her own memory of the same period, as a point of tension or contrast. This idea would evolve into Mirror. Although he decided against the use of interviews, he does include some fleeting images of his mother Maria Vishnyakova, as well as his second wife, Larisa Tarkovskaya, and the voice of his father Arseny Tarkovsky, reading some of poems (2). But rather than remain focused on one time frame, he decided to create a narrative that moves backwards and forwards in time, so as to chronicle one man’s life through the 20th century, a life lived not solely in the present but in some complex temporal zone between past and present, one where the past remains present to us, where the past is not past. This man, named Alexei in the film, is a surrogate for Tarkovsky himself, who makes a brief appearance near the end of the film, laying in bed, cupping a bird in his hand until he releases it into the air. “It’s nothing”, he says, “everything will be alright” (3).
One thing that Tarkovsky has retained from the second draft is the idea of juxtaposing his memories with someone else’s memories, except now this idea is expressed through the use of archival footage, which is to say objective memories rather than subjective ones, memories that have been left behind as traces or deposits on strips of celluloid. As Robert Bird notes, the documentary footage is culled from three time periods (1935-6, 1943-5, 1969), each of which is meant to coincide “with the chronological foci of the autobiographical narration” (4). This point is essential in comprehending the structure of Tarkovsky’s film, which takes place in these three time periods: in 1935-6, when Tarkovsky would have been between three and four years old; in 1943-5, when he would have been between 11 and 13 years old; in 1969, when he would have been 37 years old.
This will not be clear to the first-time viewer of Mirror. Tarkovsky freely moves between time frames, between fictional recreations and archival footage, between colour and black-and-white film stocks, and this might produce, on initial encounter, a degree of confusion on the viewer’s part. This confusion is enhanced by Tarkovsky’s decision to cast the same actress, Margarita Terekhova, to play both his mother in the childhood sequences and his wife in the scenes set in the present day (she is magnificent, by the way, especially in the scenes where she is required to interact with the camera, as the representative of Tarkovsky’s agency or gaze), and the same actor, Ignat Daniltsev, to play Tarkovsky in the ’40s and Tarkovsky’s son in the ’60s (5), as well as the inclusion of a number of scenes (such as the one involving a woman who mysteriously appears in Alexei’s apartment and has his son recite a letter written in 1836 by Pushkin to Chaadayev) that defy rational explanation.
But what might appear confused, difficult, or opaque on first viewing becomes something else with repeated screenings. Having seen Mirror a half-dozen times, over a decade or so, in a number of different countries, it now appears to me as simplicity itself. What at first seems to be an aberration in regards cinematic narration now seems the most organic means of telling a story through the medium of film, through the use of images suffused with movement, time and light. Tarkovsky has described the dramaturgy of Mirror as following “the associative laws of music and poetry” (6), laws that are – at the same time – transformed through their contact with the medium of film.
Here we might turn to the main thesis that Tarkovsky develops in Sculpting in Time: the primary material with which the filmmaker works is time; hence, the title of his manifesto. Instead of working with clay or other types of material, the filmmaker works with blocks of time imprinted onto strips of celluloid. The filmmaker captures these blocks of time, in the act of recording, shapes them, in the process of editing, and releases them, in the act of projection. This is what distinguishes cinema from other artistic forms: its ability to record a moment of time and repeat it; to make the past present in (or as) an image. As Tarkovsky says, “No other art can compare with cinema in the force, precision and starkness with which it conveys awareness of facts and aesthetic structures existing and changing within time” (7). Cinema testifies, in other words, not only to the persistence of time but its permanent status as a medium of change or transformation.
A crucial point to stress here: the time that Tarkovsky is speaking about is not personal or subjective. The filmmaker doesn’t create time but works with the time they are given – a time internal to the image itself. This is a key point for Tarkovsky because it ensures that the inward turn necessary for the creation of an original work of art is met by a complementary outward turn that reconnects the artist to the world. If much of cinema fails in this regard it is because it sacrifices this objective dimension either to the whims of the filmmaker or the whims of an industry, each of which impose an artificial time on the image through their adherence to montage or adherence to narrative. Neither is sufficient because neither allow the viewer to experience the heterogeneous force of time, a time that isn’t simply internal to the work but is also felt by the viewer as part of their experience of seeing the film.
It is in this vein that Tarkovsky is led to proclaim that the main reason we are drawn to the cinema is for the experience of time:
I think that what a person normally goes to the cinema for is time… He goes there for living experience; for cinema, like no other art, widens, enhances and concentrates a person’s experience – and not only enhances it but makes it longer, significantly longer. That is the power of cinema. (8)
This claim runs counter to the one that we usually tell ourselves about the fascination or allure of motion pictures, but are we so sure that he is wrong on this score? And if so, how to explain the fact that the appeal of Tarkovsky’s work not only remains undiminished nearly 30 years after his death but has continued to grow in stature over the last decade (as is evident from the ever-expanding number of publications dedicated to his work as well as the top ten appearance of Mirror in the Sight and Sound poll, 37 years after it was released)? Remember too that when Tarkovsky speaks of time he is not attempting to delimit the meaning or significance one can attribute to his film, or anyone else’s film. How could he, when the impermanence or flux of time means, among other things, that each screening of a Tarkovsky film such as Mirror is itself a unique event, an event that would not exist but for Tarkovsky but which also exists as an entity in its own right, or comes to exist in its own right over the course of the film’s 108-minute duration, where an image slowly materialises, makes its presence felt, and then vanishes from the screen, but not from the mind’s eye where it leaves a permanent impression; an impression that is renewed, modified, transformed with each successive viewing of the film.
- Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema, trans. Kitty Hunter-Blair, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1994, p. 129.
- It is this autobiographical dimension that makes the film qualitatively distinct from other works with which it otherwise could be said to share certain themes or concerns, such as The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011), which also attempts to render manifest the line that connects one family to the world (except, of course, that in Malick the world we are shown doesn’t simply run parallel to the lives of the characters; it proceeds it by billions of years, prior to the appearance of the first organism). Mirror is far more interesting in this regard because it also asks us to reflect – at one and the same time – on the fluctuating line between fiction and non-fiction, between subjectivity and objectivity, which is particular to the medium of film.
- An early cut of the film included a less abstract shot of Tarkovsky, but he decided it would work better if his presence were not made so explicit or direct.
- Robert Bird, Andrei Tarkovsky: Elements of Cinema, Reaktion Books, New York, 2008, p. 136.
- In both cases, the use of the same actor to play two roles is meant to create parallels between the set of characters they are asked to portray: Alexei’s ex-wife and his mother; the young Alexei and his son Ignat.
- Tarkovsky quoted in Bird, p. 109.
- Tarkovsky, p. 69; emphasis mine.
- Tarkovsky, p. 63.
Zerkalo/Mirror (1975 USSR 108 mins)
Prod Co: Mosfilm Prod: Erik Waisberg Dir: Andrei Tarkovsky Scr: Aleksandr Misharin, Andrei Tarkovsky Phot: Georgi Rerberg Ed: Lyudmila Feyginova Prod Des: Nikolai Dvigubsky Mus: Eduard Artemev
Cast: Margarita Terekhova, Oleg Yankovsky, Filipp Yankovsky, Ignat Daniltsev, Nikolay Grinko, All Demidova, Anatoli Solonitsyn, Larisa Tarkovskaya, Arseny Tarkovsky (poems)