Some consider Ingmar Bergman the greatest director of the 20th century. But Bergman himself considers Tarkovsky as the most important filmmaker, because he was able to find a language that captures the essence of film: life as a dream… Indeed, Tarkovsky time and again let something very profound happen. His films bear enormous gravity. They express: What happens here, is art. Solaris, Stalker, Andrei Rublev et al. are impenetrable walls. Maybe they´re the Absolute. The Absolute is indifferent to human thinking and to human opinions. The Absolute only gives orders, but never accepts any. The Absolute is, beyond so-called perfection, the full actualisation of the potential of something. Solaris, Stalker, Andrei Rublev et al. are, probably, the nonplusultra of cinema as an art form. My aim is to elevate film to the same rank as that of the other arts, to achieve that film becomes acknowledged as a from of art no less profound that music, poetry, prose, etc., Tarkovsky writes in his diary, on December 31 1973.
Otto Weininger says, art is about treating the great enigmas of existence. As such, art operates at the boundaries to the metaphysical realm („life as a dream“). The great artist, according to Weininger, stands in a conscious relationship to the universe, to the world as a whole, in the oeuvre of the great artist you experience the pulse of the Ding an sich. Only few artists, nevertheless, operate at such a level of intellectual analysis and integration and of perception. Among filmmakers, Tarkovsky likely stands on top. Andrei Rublev may be his most expressive film about the task of man to bear existence as a whole; his later works, Nostalghia and The Sacrifice (and also Stalker) express the same thing more tacitly, while the films of his middle period, Solaris, Mirror and Stalker are more primarily about the confrontation of man with his own innermost subjectivity (as the instrument with which he can grasp objective reality). Art is about expressing the status of man and of mankind, i.e. of the subject, in an objective reality, and about finding and expressing objective truths about this subject/ive-object/ive relationship that can be experienced by the subject. (By contrast, science is about investigating objective reality and the objective dimensions of the subject, and (existential) philosophy is about (not expressing but) defining the nature of the subject/ive-object/ive relationship and finding out truths that adress the objective intellect of the subject, whereas art would rather adress the (more subjective) faculty of imagination of the subject.) Tarkovsky takes this task extremely serious. To him, the artist is someone who, with all his energy, open and directly, within his specific ecological niche, strives for attainmant of definite truth. Tarkovsky is dismissive about the notion of art as a means of self-expression, of art as a strange endeavour of eccentric personalities who only strive for legitimation of the unique value of their self-centered actions. Within art, individuality is not confirmed, but serves a more general, and higher idea. The artist is a servant who needs to pay a contribution for the talent that has been given to him like a miracle. Modern man does not want to sacrifice himself, although true individuality can only be achieved via sacrifices. Deep down, art, and any endeavour, becomes highly ethical in nature, because ethics refer to the deep laws that govern existence and that establish solidity out of contingency. Although I attribute great significance to the subjective notions of an artist and his personal worldview, I am against arbitrariness and anarchy. What is important is the worldview and the ethical purpose and ambition. Masterpieces derive from the desire to express ethical ideals (…) if (the artist) loves life, he will feel the urge of a necessity to understand life and to contribute to its improvement (…) His oeuvre will then be the result of a spiritual endeavour about human perfection, expression of a worldview that captivates through its harmony of thinking and feeling, through its dignitity and through its simplicity. These are the intellectual and spiritual endeavours that are behind great art. Therein, in treating the great enigmas of existence and trying to find out universal truths and ethical ideals, art, like science, philosophy and religion is a department, a faculty of the Geist, of the absolute spirit, the capability for reflecting and investigating our existence.
In contrast to the other faculties of the mind – science, philosophy and religion – art is not normative nor definitive, but expressive and evocative in the outlining of truths. Its language is poetry, and Tarkovsky would even consider film as the most poetic of all arts. Poiesis literally means „to make“, „to create“, to reveal and to unconceal, i.e. to lay bare „hidden“ meaning, to make visible the unseen. Poetry is both about creation as well as perception of a potential that lies within something that is already there. Such „hidden“ meanings and relations are usually not discovered by the rational intellect, but by a distinctive faculty to make associations to given subjects, between remote subjects, between subjects whose relatedness seems counterintuitive or paradoxical to the purely rational mind, etc. Poetry lets us experience that there is „something more“ to the words that express it or to the subject it tries to express, it establishes relations and connections between things and concepts. Poetic language uses harmony, melody, rhyme, juxtaposition etc. to enrich the possibilities of perception and understanding of its mere propositional content. Finally, something highly poetic is something that carries all the possibilities for connection and association within itself. That is also what makes the quality of a soul. It would mean, the possibility to make connections and relations becoming the propositional content itself. Connections are a good thing. The more connections you can make, the richer and more colorful will be your life. If you see the world via a peception of „connectedness“ (as does the artist), you will have an inherently ethical perspective. More or less all my films are about humans are not living in solitude in the world, instead they are connected via countless threads to the past and to the future. So that every man can connect his personal fate to that of the world and of humanity. Connections, of course, have to be real, else they aren´t authentic. The great artist makes intellectual and spiritual associations and connections that seem both highly original and productive AND just a „mere insight“ into an essence that has already and always been there. Both confirms his authenticity (i.e. the authenticity of the original and productive subject and the capacity of insight into the „merely“ objective reality and the faculty of the individual to get „grounded“).
Likewise, Tarkovsky has been noted for using „symbolic“ film language, yet his „symbols“ are more than that. Symbols, metaphors, allegories are a signifier for another signifier (and, as such, do not even necessarily relate to a signified), they do not create a space in which „magical“ connections seem to become a possibility. A symbol is only a true symbol when it is inexhaustible and umlimited, when, in a secret language, it suggests something inexpressible in words, Tarkoski quotes Russian poet Vjacheslav Ivanov, and says by himself that irrespective of our inability to perceive the world as a whole, in its totality, the image may express this totality. Tarkovsky´s images are so extremely careful and sophisticated that they seem to unconceal the entire potential that lies within the respective situation, including the imaginary, ethical, aesthetic potential that lies within any given situation – as well as the potential for terror and alienation that also may lurk right around the corner (therein, Tarkovsky´s images seem to contain all three Lacanian registers – the register of the Symbolic, the Imaginary and the Real – at once: I cannot, for the moment, think of any director or of many other artists who have achieved something like that). Tarkovsky´s „symbols“ are evocative without a deeper meaning, so they become a placeholder for presence and Being itself, in its inexpressilility and unspeakableness, in its concreteness and ability to affect as well as in its remoteness and uncommunicativess. More than just being suggestive and evocative, they become placeholders for suggestiveness. I think only poets will remain in the history of cinema. Poets make their own world and not merely reproduce the world around them, Tarkovsky says in an interview. That all adds up that Tarkovsky´s films are symbols for existence itself. They express existence in a way that includes the poetic and metaphysical aspects of existence, as something that is inherent to „physical“ existence.
Nevertheless, the „physical“ and the metaphysical aspects of existence are distinguished spheres. The great topic of Tarkovsky´s work is the need for balance of both the material as well as the spiritual needs of man; to understand man as both an earthly and a „divine“, an immanent and a transcedent being – with all the confusion and difficulties, if not aporias, this double nature may bring about, especially in the modern era. As a Russian, Tarkovsky felt the ambivalences of an individualistic, rational modernity, clashing with a collectivist, spiritual pre-modernity more acute – and his sympathies are more directed to the notion of a pre-modern embeddedness in spirituality. Of course, he does not deny rationality and modernity, the „spirit of enlightenment and of the west“, but he is melancholic about the gradual – respectively the substantial – cultural loss of spirituality. To him, precisely due to this loss of spirituality and sense for (collectivistic) embeddedness, the fetish of modernisation and of western society – to enable individuality, free from constraint – becomes undermined and devoid of its own true foundation. To Tarkovsky, the fundamental flaw within modern, industrial civilisation, including communism, is that modern civilisation tries to solve all of man´s problems in an impersonal and top-down way. Within modern civilisation, including communism, man becomes comforted. Because if this, individual man does not need to make true individual sacrifices any longer. Yet this means, according to Tarkovsky, that individuality becomes depleted: True individuality only can come into being when the individual has „been through“ existential struggle, has experienced that there is a transpersonal sphere (society, the other, human values, the own spiritual nature of man who is, necessarily, embedded in the world, religion, etc.) and has made a sacrifice, i.e. given up some of his individuality for an ethical purpose, which realigns man to the transpersonal and, therein, truly enriches him, embedds him and individualises him. If man wants to improve the world, he first needs to improve himself (via the sacrifice): via the sacrifice, balance between the material and the spiritual sphere can be achieved. The many paradoxes, traps and possibilities alongside this journey are what Tarkovsky´s films are about. Man is not created for happiness; happiness, as such, does not exist … I think man is born to fight between good and evil, and to enrich his character spiritually in this struggle … if the meaning of life is to enrich oneself spiritually, then art is about spirituality … art enriches spirituality and art unleashes the „free will“ of man. „Free will“ is paradoxical. „Free will“ would mean the freedom of the mind. Yet complete freedom of the mind would cut off the individual from any society, would make society impossible. Therein, true freedom can only be achieved via the free-will, voluntary sacrifice, via which man would lose some of his earthly freedom, in order to become free in the transpersonal sphere, the realm of ideals. Tarkovsky´s films are about quasi-religious acts in a modern world. Religious acts will always remain the most profound of acts and endeavours of the individual, since they´re transcendent and adress the core of the individual, the soul, and the reconciliation of the soul with the „great other“. Art is born of an ill-designed world … if the world was perfect, art would be unnecessary, Tarkovsky says. Yet he also says that, apart from the artistic image, man has never created anything without self-interest. Therein, creating artistic images is probably the true meaning of human existence. Perhaps man´s ability to create artistic images shows that man has been created in the image of God.
All of Tarkovsky´s heros are both far from „God“, as well as very close to „God“. They are in heavily eccentric situations, in a condition of great Seinsferne. Ivan is a voluntary, monomaniac child soldier in the second world war; Andrei Rublev is a monk and an artist; Kelvin confronts an enigmatic alien intelligence in outer space; Stalker lives for one part as a criminal at the margin of society and fort he other part in the Zone; Andrei Gorchakov is in Italy and cannot connect and Alexander lives in a remote place in remote country and feels alienated from his past. Yet, they all are also closer to the mysteries, the abyss, the iron laws of existence, the cruel contingecies of existence, the cruel contingencies that – to a considerable degree – are existence. It is a paradox of this existence, that it is through their extreme individualism that artists, and people in general, are able to find and re/discover authentic human values; that it is through personal eccentricity that an individual may become universal. Tarkovsky´s films are about enduring existence as a whole, about a nostalgia for an existence that is ganzheitlich. They are about the soul – of the individual and of humanity – finding rest in something that is absolute. And they are also about the traps alongside this pathless path, and the possible flaws and fallacies, contradictions and paradoxes that are inherent to these concepts and notions. The quest for harmony may just enhance disharmony. Pushkin was more modest than others (as he did not fall prey to bombastic ideas about Russian culture as the most indispensable of all the world´s), … Pushkin´s genius was more harmonious, because of this. The genius of Tolstoi, Dostojevsky, Gogol was disharmonic, embodied in a conflict of these writers with the authenticity of their own visions. Dostojevsky did not believe in god, but he would have liked to. He had nothing in which he could believe. Pushkin has to be considered higher, since, to him, Russia was not the Absolute, Tarkovsky ruminated in hid diary, April 16 1979, Monday, 2 in the morning). The genius, and, to a lesser degree, humanity, strives to adapt present society and humanity to an ideal society and humanity. This is very complicated and even the ideas about an ideal society and humanity are, in most cases, flawed. Ideals and the Absolute only exist outside society and humanity, in a seperate realm. Therefore, for maintaining your sanity, also ideals and also the Absolute should be considered as something relative, something Pushkin obviously managed to do. A definite meaning of life can and should not exist, ruminates Tarkovsky further. If there was a definitive meaning to our lives, our lives would become robotic. Therefore, the quest for the meaning of life and for ideals can only remain, in character, a quest.
To Tarkovsky, cinema is the major art form to express time. Cinema is a „mosaic of time“, according to him; the basic idea of film as an art is time captured in its factual forms and phenomena. Apart from Ivan, all of Tarkovsky´s characters are dynamic characters; or static characters, individuals stuck into something, confronted with the need to become more dynamic and to open up. Human immaturity and the need for self-actualisation via finally becoming mature is the great topic of Tarkovsky all the same. Maturation and actualisation is a process that happens within time, within a process of consciously experienced time, a Bergsonian durée, an internal time of the subject. Mirror, coincidentally the most „middle period“ of Tarkovsky´s films (and considered by some as the quintessence of his oeuvre (whereas Tarkovsky himself would rather refer to The Sacrifice as his most important contribution)), is the most conscious reflection on subjectivity and a clarification of subjectivity, looking at oneself (not via the Solaris or the Zone but) via the mirror of one´s own memories and experiences. In Mirror, memory seems to become liberated from antiquity or objectification, it becomes intensely, and in a non-hierachical way re-experienced. Memory becomes enlivened, and so the subject and the own subjetivity becomes enlivened and conscious. At the end of Mirror, when Tarkovsky´s mother, pregnant with her son, sees herself passing by in the future, you may have an experience of „ecstatic time“ in the Heideggerian sense, where the past fills the present and the future is already there, i.e. where you have, via the experience of time, your own whole subjectivity enlivened and „on your monitor“. By having your own subjectivity at hand in such a way, you may then confront the interior of the Zone courageously (or let it be for good). The most important thing that a human can possess is an eternally restless conscience (…) What interests me most about humans is the readiness to serve higher purposes, an unwillingness, maybe even an inability to conform to common philistine „morals“. I am interested in an individual who considers the meaning of his life the struggle against evil and who, within his life, reaches at least a somehow higher spiritual ground. Conscience is a call both from the past and from the future, adressing the individual in the present. In that fashion, Tarkovsky´s cinema necessarily is about time. As concerns the Mirror, a film that initially faced heavy criticism for alleged narcissism of the director within a self-centered self portrait, it soon served as a mirror to Tarkovsky´s more sympathetic audience. Many saw their own experiences and their own memories in this (partially) highly individualistic film, a mirror through which they can see themselves, and were grateful to Tarkovsky. Everything that tortures me and that I long for, what upsets me and what I detest – all that I can see like in a mirror in your film … and this is the reason I watch it over and over again – in order to live with it and through it, a woman – worker and proletariean – wrote to Tarkovsky.
Like his central characters Andrei Rublev, Alexander or Stalker, Tarkovsky, as an artist seeking purification, himself had to carry a cross in a world that is, to some considerable degree, antithetical to such values. In Tarkovsky´s case, it was a latent obscene rejection of his work by the authorities in his native country, the Soviet Union, finally leading to his exile in the last years of his life (putting him under intense psychological strain of nostalgia and home sickness). What a strange country that does not want international fame and recognition of our art and that does not want neither good books not good films! True art scares them. That is natural. Art scares them, because art is something human. They, however, try to suppress anything alive and vivid, all seeds for humanism … they will not rest until they have killed off any sign of autonomy and degraded human personality to livestock, Tarkovsky notes in his diary on February 23 1972. The authorities of the Soviet Union tried to solve all of its peoples` problems, in an authoritarian way, insecure and with an inferiority complex against the more successful western democracies. As a true artist, Tarkovsky was an individual and adressing man as an individual, i.e. beyond the sphere of politics, and therefore was something naturally evasive to (Soviet) political authorities, something an insecure authority will try to suppress. Due to his high rank, Tarkovsky also seemed to offend mediocrity, not only the mediocrity within Soviet authorities but also the, more or less, forced upon collective mediocrity on the Soviet people by these authorities, in the spirit of socialism. Hence, the often absurd and contradictory treatment of Tarkovsky by the regime was but an expression of the absurd and contradictory character of the regime itself, or, more general, an expression of the ambiguous love-hate relationship between spiritual man and mundane world, an expression of the this extraordinary drama … about the eternal problem of the higher standing spiritual individual that has to confront a mundane and dirty reality (Tarkovsky about Shakespeare´s Hamlet, which he wanted to put into film as well). The outstanding and „eccentric“ Soviet director Sergej Parajanov, to whom Tarkovsky held a dear and mutual friendship (considered, by their surroundings, as not so common among great artists who usually are eager to defend their own territory against each other), was subject to even more brutal treatment by the authorities. Eisenstein is considered the archetypical Soviet director, yet Tarkovky considers his own way of doing film as contrarian to that of Eisenstein. Eisenstein is despotic, as he wants to express ideas and concepts instead of inner experiences, and force those ideas and concepts upon the audience. Tarkovsky, by contrast, wants to adress the subjective imagination of the viewer. In an insecure regime, that may even be considered as an act of subversion. Not very much is necessary to be receptive to art. One just needs an alert, a sensitive soul that is open for beauty and for the good, capable of direct aesthetic experience. In Russia, for instance, there were many people among my audience who did not have a very high level of education or knowledge. In my opinion, this faculty for receptiveness of a man is innate and is interdependent with his spirituality, writes Tarkovsky.For those who are not so spiritual, this spirituality may easily be a cause of offense. „A great man is a catastrophe for society“ – Chinese proverb, Tarkovsky noted in his diary on February 18 1976.
According to Tarkovsky, the essence of man lies in being a creator. While the essence of woman lies in the submission to man out of love. The posh and sophisticated lady is denied the entrance to the Zone by Stalker, where she would confront the essence (or: absence) of her soul. The pseudo-woman Harey, created by both Kelvin and the Solaris, lacks an own essence, but becomes an individual in her voluntary self-annihilation as a sacrifice in order to „release“ Kelvin. The primitive Doruchka is chosen by Andrei Rublev as a companion as he mistakes her, due to her simplicity and uneducatedness, as a „natural being“, more pure and closer to God, but leaves him as she choses to follow her own (and legitimate) interests. Eugenia is both hysterical and possessive, but also desperate and the embodiment of an urge to live in fulfillment in the „here and now“ that fails, however, to release Gorchakov from his stubborn melancholia. Alexander´s wife, Adelaide, is hysterically self-centered to a degree to which she cannot even think of anything or empathise with anyone. Writer will find the true miracle of his journey not to reside inside the Zone, but in the love and affection Stalker receives from his wife at the end, after the journey. According to Tarkovsky, this is also meant to be the true message of Stalker. However, it may be sad to find out that Stalker´s wife loves him and chooses to be his companion, despite all the difficulties and terror such a lifestyle inflicts upon her (and her child), for obviously quite selfish reasons, as „a bitter happiness is better than a boring life“, i.e. as a lesser of two evils for her – therein, however, likely only mirroring the „egocentricity“ of Stalker who (as an allegory for a holy man or an artist) cannot help but trying to bring people to a supposedly higher truth, despite all the disappointment and failure it brings about for him, and, probably, anyone. The maid Maria is in no way possessive nor hysterical, and one is under the impression that she consoles Alexander in a way that borderlines the ridiculous (You poor man … what have they done to you? … Let me help you … You poor man…!). However, that may be just, one wonders, how it should actually be done. How people should treat each other! Therein, Alexander is one of the few, and maybe the highest example, among Tarkovsky´s heroes to „transgress the phantasma“ and carry out a true sacrifice. Tarkovsky acknowledges that he finds it difficult to love people and admits that I do not love myself enough, so I do not love people enough. That may have been true or an overly strict self-criticism of a sensitive man (or of an intelligent man: I cannot approach people with sympathy, they annoy me…). Therein, it is apparent that he wants woman to save him, with her love. „Woman is the phantasma of man“, or so the story goes in Lacanian psychology.
My aim is to elevate film to the same rank as that of the other arts, to achieve that film becomes acknowledged as a from of art no less profound that music, poetry, prose, etc., Tarkovsky writes in his diary, on December 31 1973. In his case, the mission was accomplished. Tarkovsky´s films, Tarkovsky´s images are something more profound than real life. Moreover, they seem to be as profound as any profoundness can possibly get. His subjects are more profound than real life. Moreover, they seem to be as profound as any profoundness can possibly get, for any conscious, intelligent creature, not merely humans (since all conscious, intelligent creatures supposedly are subjugated to the same metaphysical limitations as anyone else). They are about true self-actualisation, via „transgressing the phantasma“ of selfhood, morality and personality by elevating the subject to transpersonal entity that subjugates itself, and therefore becomes affiliated and absorbed into a higher, noumenal sphere, the sphere of transpersonal LAWS of existence. The instances that confront man with the abyss of existence, and with his own abyss (like the Solaris, the Zone, Italy or a real or imagined nuclear war), are unintelligible, probably irrational, probably even malicious. They are contingent and products of the hyper-chaos no less than man, and maybe need man as a mirror to achieve clarity about themselves. They are mirrors of man´s, and of a person´s own contigency. The ways men confront these instances are full of traps, the parcours through the Zone (which is nothing less than life itself) is complicated, and few take the risk of even consciously trying. The „sacrifices“ Tarkovsky´s characters undergo can barely be distinguished from acts of madness, from something completely useless and self destructive; the urges that drive his heroes to finally perform such acts can neither be barely distinguished from irrationality, megalomania or a wrong concept about the world. Despite that, it becomes clear that they follow not only a subjective logic and trajectory, but also an objective logic and trajectory. Their deeds – from Ivan´s stubbornness in fighting and defeating the Germans and to end the war, to Alexander´s personal sacrifice to overcome a collective desaster (as contemporary desasters would call for taking personal responsibility of all members of the collective in order to prevent collective desaster) – are supremely logical, both subjectively and objectively. Man wants to achieve happiness. To Tarkovsky, happiness, as such, does not exist. Happiness, as such, and as a permanent state, would be complete freedom of the will and freedom of the mind. Yet such a complete freedom of will and mind would completely isolate man from society and its customs. Luckily, society, the living world and its contingencies impose restrictions on man´s freedom of the mind. These restrictions might alienate him (from his „true self“). Freedom and happiness and overcoming contingency can thus be only achieved if personal freedom of the mind subjugates itself unto the LAW of existence. The LAW means the need for humans to organise their contigent lives and their contingent societies and their contigent histories in a good way. It is a (quasi-) noumenon. Via the sacrifice, man subjugates himself unto the LAW and becomes transpersonal. He becomes a subjective agent of the objective, a personal embodiment of the noumenal. Therein lies the greatest of all possible freedoms and the greatest and most permanent state of bliss. That is the meaning of religion. That is how the „phantasma“ of contingency is transgressed. And that is what the art of Andrei Tarkovsky is about. It is a peak in art that cannot be transcended. With his assessment of Tarkovsky as the most important filmmaker, Ingmar Bergman was probably, likely, correct.