by Gideon Bachmann
Gideon Bachmann first met Tarkovsky when Ivan’s Childhood was being screened and awarded at the Venice Film Festival in 1962. He tape recorded their conversation for his weekly WBAI-NY radio film column.
During the subsequent 20 years, Bachmann kept himself informed on Tarkovsky’s further work and often ran into him at various film festivals. In 1982 they met again in Rome while Tarkovsky was making preparations to shoot Nostalghia. Bachmann subsequently had the opportunity to follow the actual shooting of the film.
The following interview is transcribed from taped material obtained during the shooting of Nostalghia. As well, there are excerpts from conversations that were never recorded, and a brief excerpt from their first 1962 conversation, along with a few statements made by Tarkovsky during press conferences in connection with the film’s production and some comments found in documentary material recorded during the the shooting.
The continuity is from Bachmann’s most recent recorded material. Excerpts and quotes from other sources have been used when some statement was in need of further clarification and explanation. The questions have been somewhat re-written for cohesiveness.
GIDEON BACHMAN: First of all I would like to hear you talk about your impressions from working in the West.
ANDREI TARKOVSKY: This is not only the first time I make a film abroad, it is also the first time I work under foreign conditions. I suppose it is difficult to make a film wherever you go in the world, but I notice that the nature of the difficulties vary a great deal from place to place.
Here, the greatest hindrance has turned out to be the constant lack of money and time. Especially the lack of money hinders one’s creativity and the dearth of funds also results in a lack of time. The longer I have to work on the film, the more costly it gets.
Here in the West, money rules. In the Soviet Union I never have to think about what things cost. I just never have to worry about that. It is indeed correct that the Italian TV Company, RAI, has been very generous and invited me here to make this film, but the budget they have allocated is obviously insufficient [Footnote: 1.2–1.5 Lire]. As I have no prior experience working abroad, some of this may just be presumptions on my part. The current project is actually labeled a “cultural initiative,” and not a commercial venture.
On the other hand, it has been an extremely rewarding experience to work alongside the Italian film team and their technical crew. They are extremely professional and highly knowledgeable, and they appear to be enjoying their work. Everybody appears to be loving what they are doing.
But I don’t want to make comparisons between our methods and theirs. It is complicated and excruciating to make a film wherever you go, whatever the reasons may be. What I consider most worthy of criticism here is the total dependence upon purely economical factors, this has the potential of jeopardizing the very future of cinema as an art form.
There has in the five films you have made during the last 20 years — Ivan’s Childhood, Andrei Rublov, Solaris, Mirror, and Stalker — always been a strong conflict between the individual and his surroundings. Is this the theme of Nostalghia as well?
It is always the conflict itself that is strong, not the individual. On the contrary, the central characters are almost always weak persons whose strength is born out of their weakness, out of the fact that they just do not fit in, and are at odds with their surroundings.
Of course, there always exists a conflict between the individual and the society, between distinctive individuals and their milieu. That is, there always exists an opposition between these, and it is this we refer to as conflict. Where there are no human relationships, neither are there conflicts.
I am interested in working with characters whose relationship to society is characterized by a strong element of conflict. They have an intense relationship to the reality that surrounds them, and because of this they always seem to end up in a conflict with their surroundings. I wish to follow that kind of person so as to find out in what way they resolve their problems: will they cave in, or will they remain true to themselves.
In a sense, one may say that this is the issue that is at the very root of my dramaturgy.
Can you talk about how Nostalghia came into being?
I have been to Italy several times, and about three years ago I decided to make a film together with a good friend, the Italian author, poet, and scriptwriter Tonino Guerra. The film was to revolve around my experiences in Italy.
Gortchakoff, who is played by Oleg Jankovskij, is a Russian intellectual who comes to Italy on a business trip. The title of the film, for which the word “nostalgia” is only a very insufficient translation, indicates a pining for what is far from us, for worlds that cannot be united. But it is also indicative of a longing for an inner home, some inner sense of belonging.
The “action” of the film, the sequence of events themselves, was modified several times, partly during the preparations while we were writing the script, and also during the filming itself. I want to give expression to the impossibility of living in a divided world, a world torn to pieces.
Gortchakoff is a Professor of History, an internationally known expert of Italian architectural history. It is now the first time ever he has had occasion to see and touch the monuments and buildings which he heretofore only has known and taught on by using reproductions and photographs. As soon as he comes to Italy he starts to realize that one cannot communicate, transfer — not even learn to know — a work of art unless one is an integral part of the culture from which the work of art has sprung.
So, he comes to Italy to trace the footsteps of a little known composer from the 1700s, one who had originally been a Russian slave sent to Italy by his Master to be educated as a court musician. He studied at the Conservatory of Bologna under Giambattista Martini and eventually became a renowned composer and thus subsequently lived in Italy as a free man.
An important scene in the film is when Gortchakoff shows his Italian interpreter and companion, a young woman, a letter written by the composer and sent to Russia, in which he expresses his homesickness, his “nostalghia.” Indications are that this man actually returned to Russia, but that he turned alcoholic and subsequently committed suicide.
To Gortchakoff as well, the Italian experience turns out to be life changing. The beauty of Italy, and her history, makes a great impression upon his soul, and he suffers because he cannot internally reconcile his own background with Italy. In spite of his experiences in Italy initially only having a character of being purely external, he soon realizes that when he returns to the Soviet Union it will involve the end of something. This causes him to feel depressed, as he knows that he will never be able to forget or put behind him what he has experienced in Italy.
Knowing full well that he cannot make use of his Italian experiences increases his internal pain, “nostalghia,” which includes an awareness of the fact that he is totally unable to share his experiences with his dear ones at home, even with those who were closest to him before he left for Italy.
This awareness of not being able to share with others his impressions and experiences makes his stay quite painful. He is tormented, but at the same time the need to find a soul mate is stirred within him, someone who can understand him and share in his experiences.
The film is really a sort of treatise on the topic of the nature of nostalghia, or about that experience which may be referred to as nostalgia but contains so much more than a longing. A Russian can only with the greatest of difficulty part with new friends and acquaintances. His impending return to the Soviet Union turns into a nightmare, but this longing back to Italy is only one of many constituents comprising this complex phenomenon referred to as “nostalghia.”
What in the film expresses his seeking for a soul mate?
Gortchakoff abandons his original intention of writing a book about his experiences and decides to rather pass on — or try to pass on — the experiences he had in meeting an Italian, a teacher of mathematics from a village in Toscana, played by Erland Josephson. For seven years this Italian has prevented his wife and children from leaving the home in order to save them from the disaster he fears the most: the end of the world.
This somewhat insane, mysterious fanatic becomes a sort of alter ego for Gortchakoff, who recognizes in him his own feelings and doubts. The teacher, Domenico, might be considered a positive influence in the film, as his character personifies a necessary condition for the future. He becomes Gortchakoff’s main conversation partner and he represents an extreme case of the spiritual unrest which Gortchakoff feels emerging within himself.
Domenico also stands for the constant search for the meaning of life, a meaning to the concepts of freedom and insanity. On the other hand, he is in possession of the receptiveness of of a child and the extraordinary sensitivity often found in children. But he has some additional characteristics which the Russian is lacking. Where the latter is easily hurt and finds himself in a deep crisis of life, the somewhat mad Italian is simple, no beating around the bush, and convinced that he in his own enlightened outsidedness has found a solution to the general problem.
Tonino Guerra found this person in a newspaper clipping and we since developed it a bit further. We have given him a touch of a kind of childish generosity, which is strongly present with him. His straightforwardness in relation to his surroundings reminds one strongly of the kind of trust seen in a child.
He is obsessed with the thought of of committing an act of faith, such as walking straight across the pool — a gigantic, square, old Roman bath in the center of the Tuscan village Bagno Vignoni — with a lit candle in his hand. Gortchakoff attempts to do this, but Domenico, who considers that an even greater sacrifice is required, goes to Rome and burns himself alive on the Marcus Aurelius statue at the Capitoleum. It is a violent sacrificial act, yet without any element of fanaticism, performed with a calm faith in the salvation to be revealed at the moment of revelation.
Do the main characters — the architecture professor and the math teacher — have characteristics which you can personally identify with?
Let us say that what I like the most in them is the confidence with which the madman acts and the tenacity of the traveler in his attempts at achieving a greater level of understanding. That tenacity could also be called hope.
Does the relationship which unites these two people reflect of your own feelings…?
My hero considers the “madman” to be a consistent and strong personality, one who is certain of his own actions, while he himself lacks this kind of confidence. He is therefore utterly fascinated by Domenico, and in the end it is he who ends up helping my hero to dare live without always having to think and to rationalize everything. It is in this sense — thanks to this development — that Domenico becomes Gortchakoff’s alter ego.
The strongest ones in life are always those who have succeeded in retaining a child’s confidence and intuitive sense of safety.
Does there exist some sort of external reason for making this film, some sort of obvious theme that provides us with the key to its internal tensions?
To me it is very important to again and again show how crucial it is for people to be able to meet and to function together. When one lives for oneself, in one’s own hidden away corner, there seems to rule a deceptive calm. But as soon as two people come into contact with each other the problem arises of how this contact can be made deeper and more profound.
This film is thus first and foremost about the inherent conflict between two forms of civilization, two different ways of living, two different ways of thinking. Secondly, it is a film about the kinds of difficulties encountered in human relationships.
When it comes to a love relationship between a man and a woman, I wish to show how difficult it is to live together and feel an affinity towards one another when one knows so little about the other. It is easy to become acquainted on the surface, but much harder to really get to know each other. Gortchakoff is in the company of a female Italian interpreter, Eugenia, who is played by the young actress Domiziana Giordano. It is also — put in a simple way — an unconsummated love story between the professor and the woman.
But seen from a wider perspective, the film will show the impossibility of importing and exporting culture. We in the Soviet Union pretend that we understand Dante and Petrarca, but this is not true. And Italians pretend to know Pushkin, but that is also and erroneous assumption. Provided there are no sweeping change, it will never be possible to transfer a people’s culture to a person who is foreign to that culture.
Gortchakoff’s suffering begins when he realizes that he sooner or later has to stop being absorbed by all the new that surrounds him — emotions and people which have caught his attention during his stay in Italy. New fascinations and interests have begun to stir within him. He meets a person, who, just as himself, understands that real relationships are impossible, and who therefore sacrifices himself. He, Domenico, suffers from the same kind of internal fragmentation: that of not being able to unite the enitre world within oneself, all that is good, people, emotions and spirit.
Everyone considers Domenico to me “mad,” and perhaps he is. But the reason why he is considered insane, and the resons for his reactions and feelings, feelings which Gortchakoff recognizes very clearly, are absolutely normal.
Is it an encounter with Self in a different incarnation?
Gortchakoff recognizes the similarities, and in spite of the fact that their encounter is relatively brief he can sense the connection between them. It is the similarity of their suffering that unites them.
During the shooting of the film, Domenico became even more important and we have given his character a much firmer shape. He expresses even more clearly Gortchakoff’s increasing awareness of the impossibility of real contact. To a certain extent he also gives expression to the fear which we are all forced to live in, our uncertainties when it comes the the future. It is fear that is the problem in the psychological state in which we are — in our waiting for the future and what it holds.
Everybody are worried, not at rest, about the future, and this film is very much about this our unrest. It is also about our apathy, which causes us to allow things to develop any which way. We are worried, but at the same time we do nothing to change the situation. Granted, we actually do a whole lot, but what we do do is hopelessly insufficient. We should do more.
As far as I am concerned, all I can do is this film. It is what little I have to offer: to show that Domenico’s struggle concerns us all, and to show that he is absolutely correct when he accuses us of being too passive. He is “the fool” who accuses “the normal” of being too lazy, and sacrifices himself so as to shake up his surroundings, thusly underlining his own warning. This is his sacrifice and it is all he can do. His intention is to force us to act, to change the “now.”
Do you share the world view which causes Domenico to commit this act?
The essential element of Domenico’s character is not his world view per se, that world view which leads him to commit the ultimate sacrificial act, but rather the way in which he chooses to resolve his internal conflict. Thus, I am not as interested in his starting point as I am in his emerging conflict. I want to understand and try to show how his protest was born and the way in which he expresses it.
I am actually not as interested in how he expresses it; the most important thing is the very existence of the protest itself. I consider any way in which a person choses to express a protest to be significant. Even a simple opinion that is expressed clearly and without fear (an opinion for which one may very well be considered insane) can mean more, and be more significant, than the talk of the so-called “normal,” who are given to idle chatter and never actually do anything.
Is it important for you to reach a large audience with your ideas?
I don’t believe that there exists any form of art film that can be understood by everyone. Consequently, it is almost impossible to make a film that works for everyone watching it, and if it did it wouldn’t be a work of art at all. Irregardless, a work of Art is never accepted without objections.
A director like Spielberg has an enormous audience and earns enormous sums and everybody is happy about that, but he is no artist and his films are not art. If I made films like him — and I don’t believe I can — I would die from sheer terror. Art is as a mountain: there is a peak and surrounding it there are foothills. What exists at the summit cannot by definition be understood by everyone.
I don’t believe that it is my task to capture the audience, to make them interested in what I am doing. Because that would imply that I was underestimating their intelligence. After all, I don’t believe that the audience consists of idiots…. But I often do reflect over the fact that no producer in the world would dare invest 15 kopek if all I promised him was to make a work of art. Therefore, I invest all my energy and diligence into every film I make. I try to do my best, otherwise I may never get the chance to make a film again.
I think that I, in my own way, have succeeded in getting the attention of the viewer without having compromised my own ideals. And that is, after all, what counts. I am not some intellectual type drifting up in the blue yonder, and I am most definitely not from some different planet. On the contrary, I feel close ties with the earth and its people. Briefly put, I don’t want to seem more nor less intelligent than what I actually am. I stand on the same level as the spectator, but I have a different function. My mission is different from the viewer’s.
It is not essential for me to be understood by everyone. The most important to me is not to be understood by everyone. If film is an artform — and I think we can agree that it is — one must not forget that artistic masterpieces are not consumer goods, but rather artistic pinnacles expressing the ideals of an epoch, both from the viewpoint of creativity and with respect to the culture from which it springs.
A masterpiece gives form to the ideals of the particular epoch in which we live. Ideals can never be made immediately accessible to everyone. To be able to approach them, one must grow and develop spiritually. If the dialectical tension between the spiritual level of the masses and the ideals to which the artist bears witness disappears, it would simply mean that art had completely lost its purpose and function.
Unfortunately, one can rarely say that the films one see exceed the level of mere entertainment. The fact that I treasure Dovsjekos’s, Olmi’s, and Bresson’s films is due to that fact that I am attracted by their pure, simple ascetic touch. Art must strive to achieve these characteristics. And trust.
The prerequisite for a creative idea to reach the consciousness of the viewer is that that creator harbors a confidence in the viewer. They must be able to communicate with each other at some common level. There is no other way.
Is is completely worthless to try to violently force onto the viewer some understanding even when it concerns something that is entirely obvious to the originator. But even if one must respect the viewer’s ethical principles, one must not allow oneself to compromise one’s duty to create a modern form of film art.
One must never allow oneself to be swayed by the regressive tastes of the audiences.
I don’t believe in the literary theatrical dramatical construction. It has nothing in common with the dramaturgy that is particular to cinema as art form. Most modern films serve no other purpose than to explain to the viewers the circumstances surrounding the action, the narrative of the film. But in film one does not need to explain, but rather to directly affect emotions. The heightened state of emotions then naturally lead the intellect forward.
I am trying to arrive at a principle of editing the film that will permit me to communicate the subjective logic — the thought, the dream, the memory — instead of the subject’s own logic. I am looking for a form which springs out of the actual situation and the human condition of soul, i.e., the factors that influence human behavior. That is the first condition for presenting psychological truth.
Is “the logic of the subject” the same as the plot of the film?
In my films, the story itself is never particularly important. The real significance in my works have never been expressed through the plot of the films. I attempt to speak about what is significant, but without unnecessary distractions. By showing certain things that are not necessarily joined at the purely logical level. It is the stirring of thoughts within that conjoins them for us, in the inner man.
Would you say, then, that what is important to you is the emotions that you communicate in your films, and not the stories being told themselves?
I am often asked what this or that means in my films. It’s terrible! An artist does not have to answer for his purposes. I do not harbor any particularly deep or profound thoughts about my own work. I simply have no idea what my symbols represent. The only thing I am after is for them to give birth to certain emotions. Whatever feelings emerge based on your response from within.
One always tries to discover concealed meaning in my work. But wouldn’t it be strange to make a film and at the same time try to hide one’s thoughts? My images mean nothing beyond what they are…. We don’t know ourselves very well; sometimes we just give expression to forces that cannot be measured in conventional ways.
In your films you have often used “the traveler” as a metaphor, but never before in such a clearly defined theme as in Nostalghia. Do you consider yourself a traveler?
Only one journey is possible: the journey within. We don’t learn a whole lot from dashing about on the surface of the Earth. Neither do I believe that one travels so as to eventually return. Man can never reach back to the point of origin, because he has changed in the process. And of course we cannot escape from ourselves; what we are we carry with us. We carry with us the dwelling place of our soul, like the turtle carries its shell. A journey through all the countries of the world would be a mere symbolic journey. Whatever place one arrives at, it is still one’s own soul that one is searching for.
In order to conduct the search for ones own soul one must have a strong confidence in oneself. But today I think it seems as if Man’s belief in his own capacity to take a stand has given way — everywhere — to a fanaticism which rather values the belief in external events, ideas which come from the outside.
Yes, I have the sense that mankind has stopped believing in itself. That is to say, not “humankind” per se — that concept does not exist — but rather every single human individually. When I consider contemporary man I see her as a choir singer, who opens and closes her mouth in synch with the rhythm of the music, but without uttering a note. After all, everybody else is singing! She just pretends to be singing along as she is convinced that the others’ singing is sufficient. She behaves like this because she has lost faith in the significance of her own personal actions.
Contemporary man is without faith, completely without hope that he might be able to influence the society he or she lives in through his or her own behavior.
What is the point of making a film in such a world?
The only meaning of life lies in the effort that is demanded in growing spiritually, to change and develop into something different than what we were at birth. If we during the span of time between birth and death can achieve this, in spite of the fact that it is difficult and that progress may seem slow at times, then we have indeed served humanity.
I am increasingly becoming interested in Eastern philosophy wherein the meaning of life lies in contemplation and Man’s being an inseparable part of the Universe. The Western world is far too rational and the Western idea of life appears rooted in a more pragmatic principle: a little bit of everything in a perfect balance, so as to keep the body alive and merely “exist” for as long as possible.
Do you not believe in the concept of time as a gauge for the purpose of depicting the experience of existence?
I am convinced that “time” in itself is no objective category, as “time” cannot exist apart from man’s perception of it. Certain scientific discoveries tend to draw the same conclusion. We do not live in the “now.” The “now” is so transient, as close to zero as you can get without it being zero, that we simply have no way of grasping it. The moment in time we call “now” immediately becomes the “past,” and what we call the “future” becomes the “now” and then it immediately becomes “past.” The only way to experience the now is if we let ourselves fall into the abyss which exists between the now and the future.
And this is the reason “nostalghia” is not the same as mere sorrow over past time.
Nostalghia is a feeling of intense sadness over the period that went missing at a time when we forsook counting on our internal gifts, to properly arrange and utilize them,… and thus neglected to do our duty.
This article is taken from the Swedish film journal Chaplin, no. 193, September 1984 (a Tarkovsky special issue), where it appeared in a Swedish translation prepared by Marianne Broddesson, entitled Att resa i sitt inre.
Translated from Swedish into English by Trond at Nostalghia.com