It would be hard to overstate the influence that Andrei Tarkovsky had on the world of cinema across the seven feature films he made in his lifetime. From his predilection for takes so long you begin to forget when they started, to his tendency to move seamlessly between dream and reality, the Russian auteur shaped the language for both arthouse and mainstream cinema yet to come.
It would be a fine achievement under any circumstances, but is even more remarkable for the fact that he left such a vivid mark with just seven films. Convenient, too, as that taut filmography is no doubt part of why Curzon Artificial Eye is able to bring digital restorations of all seven films back to cinemas in a limited run.
From his 1962 debut Ivan’s Childhood through to 1986’s The Sacrifice, there’s a lot to discover here. His best known films remain the poetic sci-fi Solaris (later remade by Steven Soderbergh with George Clooney) and the post-apocalyptic Stalker, but they’re far from the only films worth investigating.
Ivan’s Childhood is an accessible point of entry, containing the seeds of Tarkovsky’s particular sort of dream logic, while retaining enough narrative for most viewers to cling onto. Ivan is a young Russian child caught up in the Second World War, scouting behind enemy lines following the death of his family. The dreary, mud-caked vision of war stands in sharp contrast to Ivan’s visions of the sun-dappled life he lost, while the gut-punch of an ending proves Tarkovsky harboured no illusions about the glory of child warfare.
The Sacrifice, Tarkovsky’s final film, also holds war as a central hook, but is a very different affair. Here, family life collapses under the looming threat of a nuclear apocalypse, though a dabble with the occult seemingly offers a potential escape. It’s labouring and meditative – and perhaps not quite as profound as it thinks itself to be – but Tarkovsky’s winding camerawork is hard to resist.
Finally, Mirror is perhaps the Tarkovsky film most often cited by other filmmakers. It’s an extraordinary technical accomplishment, but so dense as to be nearly impenetrable on first viewing. Semi-autobiographical, it’s ostensibly the recollections of a dying poet, but its layers of narrative and tendency to drift in and out of memory, dream, and reality make it challenging to follow. It’s best not to try to cling to the narrative too tightly then, and instead just drift into the dream, with all its sumptuous visuals, poetic monologues, and perspective-shifting tricks.
Words by Dominic Preston