More than a filmmaker or artist, Andrei Tarkovsky was an explorer. He worked tirelessly to shine a light on man’s darkest corners, not to expose a monster, but to examine the core doubts of our very being. His films explore the spirit, shaken by life, made fragile by the falsities of society endangering our clarity of thought and personal understanding. He had a strong desire to identify what drives one towards these understandings, what makes us so determined to find a truth to our madness to provide ease in our being. This curiosity is abundantly evident in every frame of his work.
In most films there is a protagonist faced with a conflict. Sometimes the conflict is external, affecting him or her internally. Sometimes the conflict is internal, affecting the character’s external world. Andrei Tarkovsky wiped the board clean of the “external” world entirely, creating an exclusive exploration of man’s internal realm. The only reality is that which we perceive and what we internalize, everything is viewed through this filter, or lack there of. In this place, it is where the line of demarcation between life and death, a line cut between our pure reality, and the invading pollution of other’s perceptions, where purity of thought exists.
For example, Tarkovsky was quite obviously a spiritual man. His films often contemplate the existence and the actions of god. However, he never presents a truth in the matter, deciding to study the unfathomable relationship an individual may have with the very question. In his final film The Sacrifice, the main character, Alexander, who we take for an atheist earlier in the film, is faced with the annihilation of human kind in the onset of WWIII. Broken with fear, he falls to the floor in desperation, crying out to god. This isn’t presented as a sneer towards atheism; it is a look at an individual ransacking the deepest recesses of his thoughts in an act of crazed horror, searching for any lingering hope. He does not call to god in a moment of truth or clarity, it is only a word called out in a moment of despair. Where we’ve come from, and where we’re going from that moment, are the truths of life. In the end, Alexander believes that god has spared him and his loved ones. For his penance he tears himself away from his possessions and family. To the outsider, he would appear mad, but he is convinced it was god’s doing. And Perhaps he is mad, but what matters is his perception that god has forsaken mankind. More importantly, what matters to Tarkovsky, is Alexander’s personal discovery, his clarity of truth. It is not important whether or not he is mad, or if he found god, but whether or not he has found a certainty in his discovery.
This idea is also explored in Tarkovsky’s 1979 film, Stalker, only here, we explore the perception of three different men. One, the Stalker, represents a man of faith. There is also a man of science, and an artist/writer. “The Zone”, represents god, or in a broader sense, a higher consciousness. All three men approach The Zone differently. The man of faith has great reverence and respect for it. He believes he is an extension of it, and he is even willing to forsake his family for it. The artist has flippant disregard, and skepticism, believing truth to be exclusive to the individual. In many regards this is exactly what Tarkovsky believes, however the artist’s view of himself and the world has been darkened by laziness, greed, and the selfish fanning of praise. He fears he is losing his inspiration, and not unlike Alexander in The Sacrifice, is calling out in desperation. Then there is the scientist who wants to destroy The Zone, believing that nothing is sacred that can’t be analyzed, fragmented, torn down, and built back up again. The Zone’s elusiveness is a threat to his understanding of the world and himself. The three men move through the zone in an effort to reach “The Room” it is there where a wish will be granted to each of them. When they finally reach the destination, they discover an empty room without consequence. The Stalker denies this, assuring the other two that there is in fact a higher understanding, but doubt is taking over his faith. The writer has found a truth within himself, in his journey though The Zone. What is in the room is not important to him, for he believes he already contains his wishes and possibilities. The scientist eventually loses his desire to destroy the room, discovering that one cannot destroy the truth of an individual’s making. The room poses no threat to him, or anyone else, so much as any other idea. All three men refuse to enter the room. They leave The Zone with a new understanding of themselves and the world around them, their perspectives changed by a blind faith within themselves, and in the case of The Stalker, the bond and love of his family.
In every one of his films, a protagonist struggles deeply with his or her perception, determined to not be denied the truth, even if it means his or her demise. There is the perception of love and belonging in Solaris, and to an extent Nostalghia, of loyalty, and the thin line between a child and a man’s understanding of the world in Ivan’s Childhood, and the very exact crisis of faith in Andrei Rublev. Of course, there are many more ideas present in these films that are being glazed over, but at the core is a very visceral and internal idea, that Tarkovsky ventures into using the mind’s projection of dreams, and the direct view through an individual’s understanding of the world around them.
One of the more interesting ideas is the question of legacy, and the idea of how skewed and selfish our perception can be. The Mirror examines these ideas, and almost exclusively through Tarkovsky’s favorite tool for exploration, dreams. In the film he juxtaposes the fact that Communist Russia has skewed, defamed, or erased, a rich history, or legacy of pre-communist Russia, with the fevered memories of a dying man’s life. The man’s memories of his mother, wife, and son are morphed into a clouded dream, where truths are twisted, and emotions like guilt, sorrow, nostalgia and regret pervade. It is his most abstract film, and where he uses dreams the most.
There may not be a director who used dreams in such a literal way, where as most directors use them simply as metaphors, Tarkovsky attempted to make his dream sequences the encompassing view of a character’s perception. In many ways his depiction of a character’s reality outside a dream has more metaphorical substance. He works with the belief that dreams are our minds conceptualization of our experiences, similar to a film director’s visual interpretation of a script. The dreams are emotional markers for a character’s state of being, not visual nods or allusions to something else entirely. To him, using dreams as strictly a metaphorical tool was a way of diverting the viewer, or more importantly the true emotional idea within the film.
Maybe a fantastic, but fitting view of Tarkovsky would be as a wise sage, perched on a mountaintop in solitude listening to the whistle of the wind. He never contemplates where the wind came from, instead he contemplates the very essence of the wind, its strength, and its fragrance, as it passes through him, and onto the next solitary soul.