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  • 12/27/2003

Biography of Andrei Tarkovsky

(April 4, 1932-Dec. 28 1968)

By: Matthew Sanford

Czar of Cinematic Spirituality

Andrei Tarkovsky was born onApril 4, 1932, the son of famed poet and translator Arsiniy Tarkovsky and talented actress Maria Ivanovna. His parents split soon after his birth, prompting he and his younger sister Marina to live with their mother in Moscow. Tarkovsky was schooled in Moscow as a boy, and in addition to regular classes, he began to study music and drawing. In 1951, he joined the Moscow institute for Oriental Languages but was unable to complete his coursework due to illness. From there he began studying Arabic and pursuing a career as a geologist. However, his passion for the cinematic arts would lead to his eventual acceptance to the prestigious All-Union State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK) in 1954.
Here Mikhail Romm became his most influential teacher, and with the screenwriting help of friend Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky, he produced his first two short films, There Will Be No Leave Today (1959), and the famousKatok i Skripka (The Steamroller and the Violin, 1960), which earned him his degree. Following graduation in 1960, Tarkovsky went to work for Mosfilm, where he served as assistant to Moscow’s elite staff of directors. It was through Mosfilm that he made his directorial debut with 1962’sIvanovo Destvo (Ivan’s Childhood). Based on a story by Vladimir Bogomolov, Ivanovo Destvo was awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and achieved international recognition.
The much-deserved recognition following the success ofIvanovo Detsovo touched off considerable ideological concern in Moscow, which subsequently led to the immediate suppression of his sophomore film,Andrei Rublev (1966). Ostensibly a portrait of a 15th century Russian painter, the film is actually a metaphorical drama mirroring the plight of many Russian artists. Many critics consider the film to be Tarkovsky’s masterpiece, but though it was made in 1966, problems with Soviet censors deferred its international release until 1973. However, the film was allowed to compete at Cannes in 1969, where it was shown at4 o’clock in the morning on the last day, in order to prevent it from winning a prize. The film won a Faprisci award nonetheless, and brought Tarkovsky to the forefront of international cinema.
His 1975 filmZerkalo (The Mirror), with its open-ended narrative and revolutionary camera techniques, was very popular among Russian intellectuals. An intimate, multi-layered autobiographical story in which the timeframes fluidly move forward and backwards, it reflects Tarkovsky’s dreams and the spiritual crisis he experienced while growing up in an artist’s community during Stalin’s rule. It is considered by many to be a subjective companion piece toIvanovo Detsovo, which similarly looked at a boy’s childhood growing up in the WWII era. But, likeAndrei Rublev before it,Zerkalo faced similar bureaucratic resistance and didn’t reach Western European cinema halls until several years after its completion.
Solyaris (Solaris) burst onto the scene in 1972, being acclaimed by many in the West as the Soviet answer to Kubrick’s 2001 (although Tarkovsky himself was never too fond of it). Based on a science fiction novel by Stanislas Lem, the film touched upon a subject that was still relatively innocuous at the time: humanity forging on into space. Tarkovsky’s dense spiritual character meditations were brought into a new dimension with his next film,Zerkalo, in 1975. In it, Tarkovsky takes the viewer into a veritable spider web of autobiographical memories wound tightly into a radically innovative plot structure.
Stalker premiered in 1979 (having had to be re-shot on a much tighter budget after a laboratory accident destroyed the first version). Tarkovsky’s last film made entirely inRussia,Stalker is based on Roadside Picnic, a story by the Strugatsky brothers. Particularly evident in this film is Tarkovsky’s theme of the spiritual crisis. In it, each character is faced with the same objective: the rift between natural science and belief, the future of humanity in view of current atomic threat, and ultimately being able to keep the flame of the human spirit alive within themselves throughout.
After a stage production of Hamlet in Moscow, Tarkovsky traveled toItaly in 1982 to begin filmingNostalghia. A Soviet-Italian co-production, the film is based on a script written jointly with the poet Tonino Gurerra. The theme ofNostalghia deals with a typical Russian dilemma, an artist abroad, smitten by homesickness, but unable to live in his country or away from it, a fate that befell Tarkovsky himself in the years to come.
In the Autumn of 1983 Tarkovsky staged Boris Godunov with great success at the Covent Garden Opera in London. In 1984, Tarkovsky, unable to get formal permission to remain abroad, and learning that should he return toMoscow he would no longer be allowed to make films, defected to Western Europe. A year and a half later, in 1986, his widely acclaimed book, Sculpting in Time, was published. Around the same time, Tarkovsky was carrying on preparations for his last film fromBerlin, where he was staying on a fellowship from the German Academic Exchange Service.
In 1986, Tarkovsky completed his last film,Offret (The Sacrifice). Offret was filmed in Sweden using many of Ingmar Bergman’s regular collaborators. Often referred to as his Legacy, the film deals with an aged intellectual taking a leap of faith amidst the threat of nuclear annihilation, who ultimately makes a great sacrifice and saves the world. The film won an almost unprecedented four prizes at Cannes, including the Special Jury Prize for best film.
Following the success ofOffret, Tarkovsky returned toRome, already afflicted with the disease to which he would eventually succumb: lung cancer. OnDecember 29, 1986, Andrei Tarkovsky died in a Parisian cancer clinic. He was buried in a graveyard for Russian émigrés in the town ofSt. Genieve-du-Bois, France.
Perhaps the greatest contribution Tarkovsky gave to modern cinema was the inner voice, the spiritual meditation on life that he displayed so passionately in his films. We seldom find a director so willing to offer up his innermost crises and allow an audience to examine and dissect, to hear the very language of the director’s life. Tarkovsky stamped his uncompromising belief that every human is a spiritual being on the face of every film. Where commercial cinema pushed aside the human quest for spiritual enlightenment in the face of more “exciting”, mentally appeasing topics of sexuality, psychology, sociology and so on, Tarkovsky was there to draw us back in and force us to contemplate the very essence of human existence.

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