In his study of Andrei Tarkovsky’s films, Peter Green remarks, “Had it not been made by Tarkovsky, The Steamroller and the Violin would probably be of little consequence in the history of film” (1). While it is true that without Tarkovsky’s international reputation his diploma film would now be languishing, unwatched, in the depths of a Russian archive, Tarkovsky’s tendency to denigrate his own early work (most notably the sublime Ivanovo detstvo/Ivan’s Childhood ) has encouraged critics and theorists to follow suit and pass over the formative phase of his career. Only Maya Turovskaya has argued about Steamroller that “for all that it is a short film, and a film for children, [it] deserves to be regarded as an integral part of Tarkovsky’s oeuvre” (2).
The film was made as the final project for Tarkovsky’s course at the Soviet state film school VGIK (All-Union State Institute of Cinematography). He had already directed a twenty-minute film based on an Ernest Hemmingway story, Ubiytsy (The Killers, 1958), and a “docu-drama” entitled Segodnya uvolneniya ne budet (There Will be no Leave Today), which had been shown on television in 1959. The diploma film was a chance to produce a work that would demonstrate a director’s particular talents and allow him (or her – the internationally renowned Kira Muratova graduated from VGIK two years earlier than Tarkovsky) to find future work. At this early stage, Tarkovsky showed two character traits that would help to define his career: ambition and arrogance.
Tarkovsky’s ambition was visible in that he planned and shot a film double the length of most diploma films, and tried to hire the cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky who had shot the Palme d’Or winning Letyat zhuravli/The Cranes are Flying (1957). Clearly Tarkovsky had more on his mind than just a perfunctory film school exercise that would allow him to become a member of the Soviet film establishment.
When the film was completed, it faced the obligatory screening and discussion with the Soviet cinema authorities. Many of them took umbrage with the “unrealistic” nature of the film, and its playful quotations of both Russian and European films. But Tarkovsky was stubborn – despite his fledgling position he refused to compromise, or to be tactful and diplomatic. The move paid off. The film was approved and acclaimed, and Tarkovsky was transferred from the Children’s Unit to Mosfilm’s First Creative Unit.
The film tells the straightforward story of Sasha, a young violin-playing boy who befriends Sergei, an adult steamroller driver, who protects him from bullies and acts as a role model and father figure to the boy. Tarkovsky imbues this tale with an audacious visual style and an intangible atmosphere, plus a sense of nostalgia for the bittersweet lessons of childhood.
Vida T. Johnson and Graham Petrie point out that the popularity of Albert Lamorisse’s Le ballon rouge/The Red Balloon (1956) during the Soviet “thaw” period sparked a slew of diploma films with child protagonists (3). Lamorisse’s film exerted a powerful influence on the young Tarkovsky’s work, to the point of it being derivative. Its friendless, sensitive child protagonist who is pitted against youthful ruffians and stern adult authority figures, and poetic evocation of a capital city, with enticing shop-windows and rain-streaked pavements, and similarly evocative bold colour schemes and musical scores, all point in that direction. But there is another influence on Tarkovsky that has not been acknowledged, at least where The Steamroller and The Violin is concerned: neo-realism.
Tarkovsky studied the Italian movement at VGIK, and found in it a realism more suited to his own moral concerns than the Soviet Union’s own, officially sanctioned Socialist Realism. The film’s images of the child wandering around the city derive from Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini as much as they do from Lamorisse’s film. From De Sica’s Ladri di biciclette/The Bicycle Thieves (1948) comes the uneasy, bittersweet relationship between child and father figure as they wander round a big city. While it is easy to criticise De Sica’s film for its sentimentality rather than a true commitment to the relentless pursuit of naturalism and Italian social problems, it is more productive to view neo-realistic works precisely as documents. De Sica documents the out-of-town housing projects to which the fascists moved the urban poor of Rome, just as Steamroller documents a multi-faceted Moscow; grand and metropolitan, labyrinthine and archaic, concrete and banal, surreal and beautiful.
The sequence in which a wrecking ball destroys an old building is a testament to the urban reconstruction Moscow was then undergoing, though Tarkovsky and Yusov’s camera somehow seems to view this process with scepticism. Viewed in the context of Tarkovsky’s work as a whole, this image is tinged with eschatological undertones, and thus joins other Tarkovskian images of wholesale destruction such as the mushroom cloud atomic explosions in Zerkalo (Mirror, 1975).
At one point in the film’s story, a childhood tantrum causes Sasha to fling a loaf of bread to the ground. Turovskaya comments, “Not so many years have passed since the war, when the precious eighth of a loaf of black bread was the only thing that kept people alive, and people knew the moral as well as the material value of bread” (4). This small moment chimes with the rapacious destruction of the wrecking ball to subtly evoke the World War II. Often with Tarkovsky, large themes and concepts seem to take place in off-screen space, bearing only slight on-screen traces and yet structuring both the lives of the protagonists and the film itself. Tarkovsky’s own experience as a child during the war, and his conviction that film should function as a kind of autobiography, meant that Tarkovsky’s work would never be seen as “a twee little children’s film” (5).
Viewed today, Tarkovsky’s debut resonates with some of the films of the post-Soviet period. Both Koktebel (Boris Khlebnikov and Aleksei Popogrebsky, 2003) and The Return (Vozvrashcheniye, Andrei Zvyagintsev, 2003) articulate a child’s eye view of the world, both beautiful yet harsh, demonstrating a passionate yearning for a strong father figure. The touching ending of Steamroller, suggesting that such a strong father figure is the ideal stuff of daydream, is brought down-to-earth in Koktebel, where a grudging reconciliation is achieved between the son and his alcoholic father. The very notion of a paternal ideal is completely exploded in the cinematic shock therapy of The Return, where the yearned-for figure is revealed to be illusory, leaving the young protagonists alone, yet with an adult sense of responsibility. Tarkovsky’s film, in which an adult male can ask an unrelated young boy to the cinema with him in all innocence, is clearly a testament to a time of more innocent public discourse. That said, it is tinged with the pervasive sadness and rare moments of joy that make the best of Tarkovsky’s work so powerful.
- Peter Green, Andrei Tarkovsky: The Winding Quest, Palgrave Macmillan, London, 1992, p. 20.
- Maya Turovskaya, Tarkovsky: Cinema as Poetry, trans. Natasha Ward, Faber and Faber, London, 1989, p. 27.
- Vida T. Johnson and Graham Petrie, The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1994, p. 64.
- Turovskaya, p. 24.
- Turovskaya, p. 27.
Katok i Skripka/The Steamroller and the Violin (1960 USSR 46 mins)
Prod Co: Mosfilm Children’s Film Unit Prod: A. Karetin Dir: Andrei Tarkovsky Scr: Andrei Konchalovsky, Andrei Tarkovsky Phot: Vadim Yusov Ed: Lyubov Butuzova Mus: Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov
Cast: Igor Fomchenko, Vladimir Zamansky, Natalya Arkhangelskaya, Marina Adzhubei