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Tarkovsky and his vision

Andrei Tarkovsky’s name does not require further introducing to movie fans. Jüri Järvet’s performance in his Solaris, and Stalker that was partially shot in Tallinn are perhaps Estonia’s closest contacts with world cinema classics this far. However, not so many people are probably familiar with Tarkovsky’s thoughts and visions that remained outside the movie screen, on the background of his films. The following text concerns these, as it is the depth of Tarkovsky’s vision what makes him a great and exceptional author.

Tarkovsky’s creative work was guided by his conviction that he was born to create. He saw his mission, because to him talent was a gift received from the above. (The Russian word for “talent”, dar, also means “present” or “gift”.) This is why he openly disapproved of artists who saw their talent as something of their own and ignored responsibility that comes with it. “I am appalled by artists who think they have been created for themselves,” he said. Tarkovsky did not see artist’s responsibility in communicating a certain message, but rather in manifestation of artistic quality and readiness to serve. He has said: “It seems to me that the function of our profession is not to convince someone of our right to tell what we tell, but rather to express our willingness to serve.”

Autoportrait: Andrei Tarkovsky

Tarkovsky could be seen as a spiritual and visionary creator. One of the central questions in his approach is about the culture’s spirituality. By spirituality I do not mean – just as Tarkovsky didn’t mean – any clearly defined religiosity. Although he did not deny religiosity, he also did not deem it necessary to underline it. His answer to movie fans asking about his religious affiliation was that it was not relevant for understanding his creative work. Tarkovsky was not interested in religious redemption, but rather the individual’s inner freedom in its widest sense. Even in his (conditionally) ecclesiastical film Andrei Rublev the themes of artist’s choices and (again) responsibility have emerged.

Tarkovsky is one of the most openhearted and uncompromising social and cultural critics among contemporary artist-celebrities in Western society. “I welcome the Western democracy in every way,” he says, adding: “But I must tell you that it has also taken the need from people to perceive themselves as spiritual beings. Spirituality is far from mandatory in the existence of a Western intellectual. By spirituality I mean the individual’s interest in the meaning of life. What do we live for? Where are we headed? What is the meaning of our existence on this planet? A person who has not yet contemplated these questions, is a spiritless personality. This means living on cat’s level − animals do not ask themselves such questions.”

These refer to the fact that the consumer-oriented society tries to hide its actual face from the individual. It tries to persuade people that they are lacking something – something that can be offered by the manufacturer, always calling for consumption. Freedoms of choice in such a society are mainly illusory, because uniform inner desolation is being offered in the form of seeming diversity. Tarkovsky shows that through different mechanisms the spiritual dimension is lost from the general world view; historical or confessional independence that is being offered has deprived people from believing in their inherent freedom and mightiness. The situation in which we would ask what the meaning of life is and why we were created is therefore avoided as much as possible, and these questions are given the hue of irrelevance or obsoleteness. Society tries to make the most fundamental, ideological choices for people, thus minimizing their ability and need to apply their personal judgement and will.

Quotations of Andrei Tarkovsky are taken from the book “Kummardus Andrei Tarkovskile” (Püha Issidori Õigeusu Kirjastusselts, Tallinn, 2001). The Estonian translation has been edited for this article. Photo: Arvo Iho

“A person is born free and fearless,” Tarkovsky says, instead. “Our vision, however, lies in the desire to hide and defend ourselves from our nature that compels us to stick to one another closer and closer. We communicate, not because we like to communicate, nor to get satisfaction, but in order not to feel so terrified. A civilization where human relations are built on this principle is wrong. On principle, the entire so-called “technological progress” creates nothing but prostheses. Indeed, we are moving many times faster than in the previous century. But it hasn’t made us any happier. We are the slaves to the system.”

A large part of art has also fallen victim to such mistakes. Artists do not seek to elevate or fuel anyone (including themselves). Rather, they affirm the dominant mentality, either for the sake of tradability or some other reason. This is why Tarkovsky’s attitude towards the general bulk of art was as critical as it was towards the society in a wider sense. “An artist who does not care about the reason why we are living is not an artist,” he announced, interpreting the word “realist” in a totally new way.

“An artist is not a realist if disregarding one of the most crucial problems: what makes us human? I think there is only one way – be it good or bad, but it has no alternative: the artist must serve his talent and try to find out why he exists. The artist has to set some spiritual and moral and vital ideals to help him and his people grow mentally.”

“It is perfectly clear that art is in the state of deep depression these days,” he is convinced. “Apparently, the reason is that it becomes more and more shallow-minded,” he explains. “Art finds its objective in something else, not in what it should be searching. And so we have come to understand art as entertainment.”

Tarkovsky’s penultimate film Nostalgia serves as an especially vivid expression of the conflict between “spirit-ualisation” and the present. The nostalgia echoing in the film as longing for one’s homeland, takes wider dimensions too. It is nostalgia for something extremely inherent, nostalgia for simplicity, nostalgia for our soulful integrity and appreciation, which are more and more difficult for us to find. What results is a cry, a catastrophe – a gorge that requires a fundamental change to be bridged. In this situation the madman Domenico seems to be the only one who has a right to claim for purity; and the fact that, in the end of the movie, the main character, Andrei, finds himself wandering around in the ruins of a monastery near his home, has a very symbolic effect. “The evil of our time,” Domenico screams before setting himself in fire, “lies in the fact that there are no great teachers any more.”

Undoubtedly it is an interesting perspective to the evil, and in the spreading fear of terrorism it becomes more and more topical. We could say about Tarkovsky that even if he was not a great teacher, he certainly had an important role in pointing to great values. “If my films have given you an impression that life is a mystery, I consider my work successful,” he once told a movie fan.

Andrei Tarkovsky and Aleksandr Kaidanovski shooting the film “Stalker” in the summer of 1977 in Jägala, Estonia. Photo: Arvo Iho


Mathura (a.k.a. Margus Lattik) is an Estonian writer-artist who has published four poetry books and held exhibitions here and there in Estonia. His latest book “Kohalolu” (“Presence”, 2006) was nominated for the Annual Prize of Estonian Cultural Endownment in the category of poetry.