Andrei Tarkovsky: Making Every Frame a Philosophical Statement

Tarkovsky explores his cinematic philosophy, challenges faced, and deep connections with audiences, seeking to articulate film's unique artistry.

In “Sculpting in Time,” Andrei Tarkovsky reflects on his journey as a filmmaker, expressing the frustrations and challenges he faced in his professional career, which included long gaps between projects that forced him to contemplate his artistic goals and the unique nature of cinema. He recounts his dissatisfaction with existing cinema theory, leading him to develop his own ideas about the art form through questioning and personal experience. Tarkovsky discusses the mixed reactions from audiences and critics, with some viewers struggling to understand his films while others felt deeply moved and connected. He shares various letters from viewers, illustrating the diverse and often profound impact his work had on them. Ultimately, Tarkovsky’s book is an exploration of his thoughts on film, aiming to navigate and articulate the complex and still-evolving art of cinema, informed by his interactions with audiences and his desire to communicate genuinely through his films.

* * *

Some fifteen years ago, as I was jotting down notes for the first draft of this book, I found myself wondering whether there really was any point in writing it at all. Why not just go on making one film after another, finding practical solutions to those theoretical problems which arise whenever one is working on a film?

For many years, however, my professional biography was none too happy; the intervals between films were long and painful enough to leave me free to consider—for want of anything better to do—exactly what my own aims were; what are the factors that distinguish cinema from the other arts; what I saw as its unique potential; and how my own experience compared with the experience and achievements of my colleagues. Reading and rereading books on the theory of cinema, I came to the conclusion that these did not satisfy me, but made me want to argue and put forward my own view of the problems and the objectives of film-making. I realised that I generally came to recognise my own working principles through questioning established theory, through the urge to express my own understanding of the fundamental laws of the art form which has become a part of me.

My frequent encounters with vastly differing audiences also made me feel that I had to make as full a statement as possible. They seriously wanted to understand how and why cinema, and my work in particular, affected them as it did; they wanted answers to countless questions, in order to find some kind of common denominator for their random and disordered thoughts on cinema and on art in general.

I have to confess that I would read with the greatest attention and interest—at some moments with distress, but at others with huge encouragement—the letters from people who had seen my films; during the years I was working in Russia these built up into an impressive and variegated collection of things people wanted to know, or which they were at a loss to understand.

I should like to quote here some of the most typical of these letters in order to illustrate the kind of contact—on occasion one of total incomprehension—that I had with my audiences.

A woman civil engineer wrote from Leningrad: ‘I saw your film, Mirror. I sat through to the end, despite the fact that after the first half hour I developed a severe headache as a result of my genuine efforts to analyse it, or just to have some idea of what was going on, of some connection between the characters and events and memories. . . . We poor cinema-goers see films that are good, bad, very bad, ordinary or highly original. But any of these one can understand, and be delighted or bored as the case may be; but this one?! . . . ’ An equipment engineer from Kalinin was also terribly indignant: ‘Half an hour ago I came out of Mirror. Well!! . . . Comrade director! Have you seen it? I think there’s something unhealthy about it. . . I wish you every success in your work, but we don’t need films like that.’ And another engineer, this time from Sverdlovsk, was unable to contain his deep antipathy: How vulgar, what trash! Ugh, how-revolting! Anyhow, I think your film’s a blank shot. It certainly didn’t reach the audience, which is all that matters . . .’ This man even feels that the cinema administration should be called to account: ‘One can only be astonished that those responsible for the distribution of films here in the USSR should allow such blunders.’ In fairness to the cinema administration, I have to say that ‘such blunders’ were permitted very seldom—on average once every five years; and when I received letters like that I used to be thrown into despair: yes, indeed, who was I working for, and why?

I would be given some glimmer of hope by another kind of letter, expressing puzzlement, but also the genuine wish to understand what the writer had seen. For instance: ‘I’m sure I’m not the first or the last to turn to you in bewilderment and ask you to help them make sense of Mirror. The episodes in themselves are really good, but how can one find what holds them together?’ A woman wrote from Leningrad: ‘The film is so unlike anything I’ve ever seen that I don’t know how to go about it, how to appreciate either the form or the content. Can you explain? It’s not that I lack understanding of cinema generally . . . I saw your earlier films, Ivan’s Childhood and Audrey Rublyov. They were clear enough. But this is not. . . . Before the film is shown the audience should be given some sort of introduction. After seeing it one is left feeling cross with oneself for being so helpless and obtuse. With respect, Andrey, if you are not able to answer my letter in full, could you at least let me know where I could read something about the film? . . .’
Unfortunately I had nothing to advise such correspondents; no articles came out about Mirror, unless one counts the public condemnation of my film as inadmissibly ‘elitist’, made by my colleagues at a meeting of the State Institute of Cinematography and the Union of Cinematographists, and published in the journal, Art of Cinema.

What kept me going through all this, however, was my growing conviction that there were people who minded about my work, and were actually waiting to see my films; only it was apparently in nobody’s interests to further this contact with my audience.

A member of the Institute of Physics of the Academy of Sciences sent me a notice published in their wall newspaper: ‘The appearance of Tarkovsky’s film, Mirror aroused wide interest in IPAS as it did all over Moscow.

‘By no means all who wanted to meet the director were able to do so; nor, unfortunately, was the author of this notice. None of us can understand how Tarkovsky, by means of cinema, has succeeded in producing a work of such philosophical depths. Accustomed to films as story-line, action, characters and the usual “happy ending”, the audience looks for these things in Tarkovsky’s films, and often enough leaves disappointed.

‘What is this film about? It is about a Man. No, not the particular man whose voice we hear from behind the screen, played by Innokentiy Smoktunovsky1. It’s a film about you, your father, your grandfather, about someone who will live after you and who is still “you”. About a Man who lives on the earth, is a part of the earth and the earth is a part of him, about the fact that a man is answerable for his life both to the past and to the future. You have to watch this film simply, and listen to the music of Bach and the poems of Arseniy Tarkovsky2; watch it as one watches the stars, or the sea, as one admires a landscape. There is no mathematical logic here, for it cannot explain what man is or what is the meaning of his life.’

I have to admit that even when professional critics praised my work I was often left unsatisfied by their ideas and comments—at least, I quite often had the feeling that these critics were either indifferent to my work or else not competent to criticise: so often they would use well-worn phrases taken from current cinema journalese instead of talking about the film’s direct, intimate effect on the audience. But then I would meet people on whom my film had made an impression, or I would receive letters from them which read like a kind of confession about their lives, and I would understand what I was working for. I would be conscious of my vocation: duty and responsibility towards people, if you like. (I could never really believe that any artist could work only for himself, if he knew that what he was doing would never be needed by anybody . . . But more of that later . . .)

A woman wrote from Gorky: Thank you for Mirror. My childhood was like that. . . . Only how did you know about it?

‘There was that wind, and the thunderstorm . . . “Galka, put the cat out,” cried my Grandmother. . . . It was dark in the room . . . And the paraffin lamp went out, too, and the feeling of waiting for my mother to come back filled my entire soul . . . And how beautifully your film shows the awakening of a child’s consciousness, of this thought! . . . And Lord, how true . . . we really don’t know our mothers’ faces. And how simple . . . You know, in that dark cinema, looking at a piece of canvas lit up by your talent, I felt for the first time in my life that I was not alone . . .’

I spent so many years being told that nobody wanted or understood my films, that a response like that warmed my very soul; it gave meaning to what I was doing and strengthened my conviction that I was right and that there was nothing accidental about the path I had chosen.

A worker in a Leningrad factory, an evening class student, wrote: ‘My reason for writing is Mirror, a film I can’t even talk about because I am living it.

‘It’s a great virtue to be able to listen and understand . . . That is, after all, a first principle of human relationships: the capacity to understand and forgive people their unintentional faults, their natural failures. If two people have been able to experience the same thing even once, they will be able to understand each other. Even if one lived in the era of the mammoth and the other in the age of electricity. And God grant that people may understand and experience only common, humane impulses—their own and those of others.’

Audiences defended and encouraged me: ‘I am writing on behalf, and with the approval of, a group of cinema-goers of different professions, all acquaintances or friends of the writer of this letter.

‘We want to let you know straight away that your well-wishers and the admirers of your talent, who await the appearance of every film you make, are far more numerous than might appear to be the case from the statistics in the journal, Soviet Screen. I don’t have any comprehensive data, but not one of the wide circle of my acquaintance, or ot their acquaintances, has ever answered a questionnaire about particular films. But they go to the cinema. Admittedly not often, but they always want to go to Tarkovsky films. It’s a pity your films don’t come out very often.’

I must admit it’s a pity for me too. . . . Because there’s so much I still want to do, so much to be said, so much to finish—and apparently I’m not the only one to whom it matters.

A teacher from Novosibirsk wrote: ‘I’ve never written to an author to say what I feel about a book or a film. But this is a special case: the film itself lifts the spell of silence and enables one to free one’s spirit from the anxieties and trivia that weigh it down. I went to a discussion of the film. “Phvsicists” and “Lyricists ”* were unanimous: the film is compassionate, honest, relevant—all thanks to the author. And everyone who spoke said, “The film is about me.” ’

Or again: ‘This is from an old man, already retired, and interested in cinema even though my professional field had nothing to do with art (I’m a radio engineer).

I am stunned by your film. Your gift for penetrating into the emotional world of adult and child; for making one feel the beauty of the world around one; showing the true, instead of the false, values of that world; making every object play a part; making every detail of the picture into a symbol; building up to a philosophical statement through an extraordinary economy of means; filling every frame with poetry and music. . . . All these qualities are typical of your style of exposition, and yours alone . . .

‘I should very much like to read your own comments on your film. It’s such a pity you seldom appear in print. I’m sure you have plenty to say! . . .’

To be honest I put myself in the category of people who are best able to give form to their ideas by arguing—I entirely subscribe to the view that truth is reached through dispute. Left to study a question on my own, I tend to fall into a reflective state which suits the metaphysical bent of my character and is not conducive to an energetic, creative thought process, since it affords only emotional material with which to construct a—more or less well-ordered—framework for my ideas.

One way and another it was contact with audiences, by letter or in person, that pushed me in the direction of this book. In any case I shan’t for a moment blame those who question my decision to embark on abstract problems, any more than I shall be surprised to find an enthusiastic response on the part of other readers.

A working woman from Novosibirsk wrote: ‘I’ve seen your film four times in the last week. And I didn’t go simply to see it, but in order to spend just a few hours living a real life with real artists and real people. . . . Everything that torments me, everything I don’t have and that I long for, that makes me indignant, or sick, or suffocates me, everything that gives me a feeling of light and warmth, and by which I live, and everything that destroys me—it’s all there in your film, I see it as if in a mirror. For the first time ever a film has become something real for me, and that’s why I go to see it, I want to get right inside it, so that I can really be alive.’

One surely couldn’t hope for greater acknowledgement of what one is doing. My most fervent wish has always been to be able to speak out in my films, to say everything with total sincerity and without imposing my own point of view on others. But if the vision of the world that has gone into the film turns out to be one that other people recognise as a part of themselves that up till now has never been given expression, what better motivation could there be for one’s work. One woman sent me on a letter written to her by her daughter, and the young girl’s words are, I think, a remarkable statement about artistic creation as an infinitely versatile and subtle form of communication:

‘. . . How many words does a person know?’ she asks her mother rhetorically. ‘How many does he use in his everyday vocabulary? One hundred, two, three? We wrap our feelings up in words, try to express in words sorrow and joy and any sort of emotion, the very things that can’t in fact be expressed. Romeo uttered beautiful words to Juliet, vivid, expressive words, but they surely didn’t say even half of what made his heart feel as if it was ready to jump out of his chest, and stopped him breathing, and made Juliet forget everything except her love?

‘There’s another kind of language, another form of communication: by means of feeling, and images. That is the contact that stops people being separated from each other, that brings down barriers. Will, feeling, emotion—these remove obstacles from between people who otherwise stand on opposite sides of a mirror, on opposite sides of a door. . . . The frames of the screen move out, and the world which used to be partitioned off comes into us, becomes something real . . . And this doesn’t happen through little Audrey, it’s Tarkovsky himself addressing the audience directly, as they sit on the other side of the screen. There’s no death, there is immortality. Time is one and undivided, as it says in one of the poems. “At the table are great-grandfathers and grandchildren . . .’’Actually Mum, I’ve taken the film entirely from an emotional angle, but I’m sure there could be a different way of looking at it. What about you? Do write and tell me please . . .’

This book was taking shape all through the period when my professional activities were suspended, an interlude which I have now forcibly brought to an end by changing my life; it is intended neither to teach people nor to impose my point of view on them. Its main purpose is to help me to find my way through the maze of possibilities contained in this young and beautiful art form—still, in essence, so little explored—in order to be able to find myself, fully and independently, within it.

Artistic creation, after all, is not subject to absolute laws, valid from age to age; since it is related to the more general aim of mastery of the world, it has an infinite number of facets, the vincula that connect man with his vital activity; and even if the path towards knowledge is unending, no step that takes man nearer to a full understanding of the meaning of his existence can be too small to count.

The corpus of theory relating to cinema is still slight; the clarification of even minor points can help to throw light on its basic laws. This is what has prompted me to put forward a few of my own ideas.

I have only to add that this book has been put together from half written chapters, notes in diary form, lectures; and discussions with Olga Surkova, who came to the shooting of Audrey Rublyov when she was still a student of film history at the Institute of Cinematography in Moscow, and then, as a professional critic, spent the following years in close collaboration with us. I am indebted to her for the help she gave me throughout the writing of the book.


1. Innokentiy Smoktunovsky (b 1925) Popular Soviet stage and screen actor. In Mirror he reads the text of the ‘Narrator’.

2. Arseniy Tarkovsky (b 1905) Russian lyric poet. Father of Audrey Tarkovsky who repeatedly quotes his poems in his films.

* An expression coined in the late 1950s, referring to the debate between those who question the relevance of art to the modern age and those who see beauty as one of man’s fundamental needs, and sensibility as among his most important qualities. (Tr.)

From Andrei Tarkovsky’s introduction to his Sculpting in Time. Reflections on the Cinema, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1987


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