3. Solaris (1972)
Though this is Tarkovsky’s first foray in the science fiction genre, Solaris seems much more interested than the inner regions of its characters minds than outer space. Tarkovsky decided to make Solaris as a reaction to the sci-fi movies coming from Hollywood, calling Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey “sterile and cold”, and felt the genre itself was shallow. Solaris begins as an anti- science-fiction film: shots of nature, warm light, and water. This sets the tone for more grounded, internalized type of science fiction.
The films revolves around Kris Kelvin, a psychoanalyst sent to the space station hovering over Solaris, a body of water located deep in space that has some sort of cognitive abilities, a sentient being in its own right. Kelvin is sent by the head of the organization responsible for initial study of Solaris, and he must determine whether or not the station or overall mission is even worth continuing at all.
However, once Kelvin gets to Solaris he realizes that it has the ability to not only probe one’s mind, but manifest those it finds in the deepest recesses of its subconscious. Kelvin starts seeing his dead wife, who had committed suicide sometime before our story begins.
The film brings up a universal and very big question, one that the sci-fi genre rarely scratches the surface of: what does it mean to be a human, and does a physical body account for one’s soul? Or is it something else? The film also explores the meaninglessness of technology, and how it brings us further from nature and our true selves.
The film was a commercial and critical success. It debuted at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival, and won the Grand Prix award in addition to being nominated for the Golden Palm, the festival’s highest honor. The film also sold over 10 million tickets in its initial, fairly limited release in Russia.
Despite the success, Tarkovsky later felt that the film was a creative failure, citing his inability to ‘transcend the genre.’ His view was that it a director ‘is not entitled to please anyone’, and that making art for the appeasement of others restricts the artist; the fact that his pictures were a success in a critical or commercial sense had no bearing on his personal opinion of the film.
4. The Mirror (1975)
After the successful Solaris, Tarkovsky starting work on The Mirror, a film based on a decade-old concept he had for a film about a man’s memories and dreams, from the point of view of the man, without showing him in the film. Coming back to this idea after making two films, the Mirror can be read as a dying man’s recollections of his past, moments in Russian history, and his personal history. The film is also one of Tarkovsky’s most personal, and poetic, works in his can.
Aesthetically, The Mirror is very unique: it shifts from sepia tone, black and white to color, mixing archival footage amongst the flashbacks of a dying poet. The style has been compared to stream-of-consciousness writing, and is extremely powerful in its effect. The plot is not easily ascertainable, flowing in and out of different points in time, much like the writing of Marcel Proust.
Full of the characteristic stark imagery and symbolism, The Mirror remains one of the most beautiful, if incomprehensible, films of all time. Audiences received the film well upon its initial release, but it would has been the subject of fierce debate- The Russian State Committee for Cinematography wouldn’t allow the film to be shown at Cannes in 1975, and had made it quite difficult during through the whole process for Tarkovsky to get the film done. It is now recognized as one of the great films in cinema history, often finding its way onto many ‘top 10’ lists.
5. Stalker (1979)
Whereas Tarkovsky felt he had ultimately failed with the science fiction genre with Solaris, he felt differently about Stalker. Tarkovsky’s second take on the science fiction genre is a poetic, highly allegorical film that explores the purpose of art, as well as human desires and what we really need to be a human. Slow and deliberately paced, there is next to no action at all, with an atmospheric soundtrack, showing us that Tarkovsky is attempting to completely distance himself from the genre and put forth and profound and entrancing work.
The plot revolves around three characters: Stalker- who leads people through the mysterious ‘Zone’ (a heavily guarded area that is rumored to contain a room within which dreams are fulfilled, and have the implications of nuclear fallout), the Writer – a bitter man who wishes to obtain genius to make up for his waning inspiration, and the Scientist, a grounded man who wishes to win a Nobel prize.
Stalker serves as their guide (in more ways than one) through the eerily quiet ‘Zone’, which is be guarded by its own unpredictable and obscure traps, while along the way the two guests ponder their desires and the true worth of what they wish for.
Again, Tarkovsky faced criticism from the authorities, this time for the films pacing. The Committee for Cinematography called the film too slow and dull, to which Tarkovsky replied that their opinion did not matter to him. It would be the last film he made in the Soviet Union. Dreamlike, arresting, and gorgeous, Stalker is a masterpiece of the science fiction genre, despite of (or because of) its deviation from the genre’s typical aesthetics.
6. Nostalghia (1983)
His first film directed outside his home country, Tarkovsky directed Nostalghia in Italy with the support of Mosfilm, who eventually backed out. He eventually found support from Italian State Television and Gaumont (a French studio), creating a work about “the fatal attachment of Russians to their national roots, their past their culture, their native places, their families and friends.”
Tarkovsky made a ‘profoundly Russian’ film while in Italy, about a Russian weary poet who goes to Italy to research an Italy composer from the 1700s for an opera libretto, before returning to end his own life home in Russia. He’s detached, disoriented, and longing for home. The film greatly mirrored Tarkovsky’s own life for a time. He wrote of the period when he initially left Russia as ‘like a symptom of the hopelessness of trying to grasp what is boundless.’ The film shows what it’s like to be intensely aware of being an outsider.
For Nostalghia, Tarkovsky received further honors at Cannes, even sharing a special prize with one of his film idols, Robert Bresson. However, Russian authorities again blocked Tarkovsky from being eligible for the festival’s highest honors, the ‘Golden Palm’, even though claims to have been making the film for his compatriots with the hopes that it would be shown in Russia.
7. The Sacrifice (1986)
Tarkovsky’s final film was made in Sweden on an island off the country’s Southeast coast, and starred a Bergman regular, Erland Josephson. The film is about a man’s bargain to God in order to stop the impending doom that has just come on the radio- a possible nuclear Holocaust.
Josephson stars as an ex-actor turned intellectual named Alexander, and his family who lives on a remote island. While the family’s postman over, it is announced over the radio that doom is near. The postman convinces Alexander he must go to bed with the family maid, whom he claims is a witch. Despite initial reluctance, Alexander and his maid consummate in an ethereal scene in which they levitate on the maid’s bed.
In the end, Alexander sets him home ablaze (after convincing the family to go for a walk), eventually getting taken away by an ambulance. In fact the film speaks of man’s loss of will to materialism. In an Interview, Tarkovsky explained: ‘I wanted to show that man can restore his links with life by renewing his covenant with the source of his soul,’ in which case Alexander’s sacrifice can be seen as one of those links.
Released in May of 1986, the film was positively received again at Cannes, winning another Grand Prix award, and was also a BAFTA winner. Tarkovsky would die of cancer just nine months after the film’s release. However, his seventh film does complete one of the best oeuvres in cinema history, and cements his place as one of the greatest directors of all time.
Author Bio: Sam Perduta is a reference librarian at the public library in the city of New Haven, CT, as well as a touring musician and singer-songwriter in the garage-folk band Elison Jackson. He studied filmmaking briefly at the University of Southern California, and contributed to developing a Cinema Studies minor at Central Connecticut State University. His interests other than film include Pataphysics, vinyl and book hoarding, and travel (by automobile).