366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.
“For Proust the concept of time is more important than time itself. For Russians that’s not an issue. We Russians have to plead our case against time. With authors who wrote prose based on childhood memories, like Tolstoy, Garshin, and many others, it’s always an attempt to atone for the past, always a form of repentance.” –Andrei Tarkovsky
FEATURING: Margarita Terekhova, Ignat Daniltsev, Filipp Yankovskiy, voices of Innokentiy Smoktunovskiy and Arseny Tarkovsky
PLOT: Alexei’s life story is told through jumbled flashbacks and dreams that mainly involve his mother. Abandoned by his father, he spent his youth in a remote cabin with his mother and siblings. He grows up to have a child of his own, but his relationship with the boy’s mother is only cordial, and he’s grown apart from his own mother.
Originally conceiving the film as a memoir about his own childhood memories of WWII, but gradually adding in elements from his later life, Tarkovsky began work on this story as early as 1964.
The poetry heard in the film is written and read by Arseny Tarkovsky, Andrei’s father. Andrei’s mother appears as herself in the film.
Tarkovsky reportedly made 32 edits of the film, complaining that none of them worked, before settling on this as the definitive version.
The Soviet authorities refused to allow Mirror to screen at Cannes.
Mirror ranked #19 in Sight & Sound‘s Critics’ Poll and #9 in the Director’s Poll in 2012.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Maria floating in a dream while a dove flutters above her.
TWO WEIRD THINGS: Apparition history lesson; levitating mom
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Mirror is an intensely personal, extremely diffused meditation on the meaning of life from one of cinema’s greatest artists. Although insanely difficult, many cinephiles find it intensely moving as an accumulation of individual images that flow like finely crafted verses of surrealistic poetry.
Andrei Tarkovsky was dying as he made his final film, The Sacrifice (1986). It can be likened to the epic last testaments of Ludwig van Beethoven, Paul Gauguin, Gustav Mahler, Luigi Nono, John Huston, and David Bowie. Tarkovsky dedicated the film to his son, Andrejusja, “with hope and confidence.” Like Mahler, Tarkovsky exits in a universal communication: “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” Despite the milieu of finality that permeates The Sacrifice, it was a narrative that had long been percolating with Tarkovsky, who referred to it as a parable, open to multifarious interpretations. It should be noted it wasn’t intended as a coda, as he was planning a film version of “The Flying Dutchman.” The Sacrifice literally owes itself to Ingmar Bergman, whose company financed it. Aesthetically, Tarkovsky also dips into Bergman’s landscape, shooting on the island of Faro, where the Swede—possibly Tarkovsky’s only peer—lived and shot several films.
The Sacrifice stars Erland Josephson (from Bergman’s Autumn Sonata and Fanny and Alexander) as Alexander. It is a kind of extension of his role of the self-immolating Domenico in Tarkovsky’s previous film, Nostalghia. Dreaming of a birthday apocalypse, Alexander, the aged atheist professor, offers himself up to God as The Sacrifice so that his family be will spared. The film ends in another form of madness and immolation, the burning of Alexander’s house. Unfortunately, the first take was ruined, necessitating a costly rebuilding of the house and a second shoot.
Despite such dark themes and the tumor that was killing him, Tarkovsky’s wit is in full force. It is a testament to the filmmaker’s spirit and, yes, his defiance remains wet. He dares to bravely state his spiritual beliefs in a spiritually bankrupt, materialistic era. Penance in isolation and self-martyrdom are prevailing themes; and, despite the inherent humor, it is a magnificently difficult viewing, as Tarkovsky intended.
It’s doubtful that much of the contemporary movie audience, spoon-fed on the fallacy that film is merely entertainment, will mantle the patience required here, but that is a considerable loss of the rich rewards offered. The Sacrifice revels in its quaint magical mysticism, amiably weaving Tarkovsky’s personal Catholicism with a Kierkegaardian existentialism.
This is not an apocalypse born of mushroom clouds and bomb shelters, but rather of a small family on a Swedish island replete with Shakespeare, Ibsen, Leonardo’s unfinished “Adoration of the Magi,” and Bach’s “St. Matthew’s Passion,” along with a host of irregulars including an unfaithful wife, the pompous doctor she’s carrying on with, a daughter, a son (referred to as “Little Man”), an amusing necromantic bicycling mailman named Otto who loves his ghost stories, and a maid as sexual sacrifice for an Icelandic pagan fertility cult (echoing Andrei Rublev).
The dialogue is sparse and the camera work (by Sven Nykvist, Bergman’s cinematographer for The Magic Flute, Autumn Sonata, and Fanny and Alexander, among others) glides ponderously and memorably across the island terrain in stunning tracking shots; among the most memorable is the tree planting scene. At times, the film is almost inert and undeniably austere (the burning of that gorgeous house lasts almost seven minutes). Aptly, it’s one of the most challenging and poignant of Tarkovsky’s oeuvre; a private annihilation.
Andrei Tarkovsky is a staple at 366 Weird movies, so it’s only apt that we get around to what many believe to be his most personal film: The Mirror (1975). The title alone indicates as much. According to Tarkovsky’s memoir “Sculpting in Time” (an essential read), The Mirror began as a novella, reflecting on the artist’s years during the Second World War. He started the first of many script drafts a decade before filming commences, and with its pointed criticism of the Soviet Union, it’s remarkable that it was even produced, let alone distributed. Tarkovsky predictably found himself embroiled in intensive conflict with the Goskino film committee in pre-production, in production itself, and in post-production. The Mirror was given limited release in Moscow; Tarkovsky’s inevitable exile was a mere few years away. Post-production was reportedly a laborious process, going through approximately twenty extensive edits. Upon its release, both critical and audience assessments were sharply divided, with many finding it incomprehensible. Provoking much heated debate, The Mirror didn’t initially have the impact of Andrei Rublev (1966), Solaris (1972), or Stalker (1979). Yet, it has since become one of the most referenced Tarkovsky works among cineastes, and made Sight and Sound’s list of the top fifty films of all time.
Originally titled both ‘Confession” and “A White, White Day,” that changed when Tarkovsky brought his (divorced) parents and wife into the project. Arseny Tarkovsky (the father) reads from his own established poetry. Maria Vishnyakova (Tarkovsky’s tenderhearted mother) lends her visual presence to the film.
Although The Mirror vaguely covers bullet points from Tarkovsky’s childhood (the evacuation, Arseny’s abandonment of family, Maria’s influence on her son), it is a motion biography that metaphorically weaves through pasts that are past only compared to the more recent. Heightening the dissonance, actors are perpetually in motion, shifting roles: i.e. Margarita Terekhova plays both Tarkovsky’s mother and his wife Natalya. Her vanity is not blanketed, but it is as a maternal influence, educating her son in the arts and sheltering him from the threat of military service, that her portrayal becomes resplendently Orphic. The terminally ill narrator Alex (Innokenty Smoktunovsky)—never seen—is the film’s protagonist.
Tarkovsky’s childhood is represented as a bucolic pastoral disrupted by his father’s abandonment, symbolized in a building aflame. Tellingly, and with aching honesty, it is this betrayal, more than the war, that shatters and decimates Tarkovsky’s childhood. Abandonment by a loved one is the proverbial expulsion from a spiritual paradise. Yet, an undeniable supplemental element, born from the loss of innocence, is the latent political rage directed at a monstrously inhuman war.
The film imprints startlingly incandescent, fervent images that remain long after: Natalya washing her hair in a basin as a building collapses; the Soviet army crossing Lake Sivash; the juxtaposition of black and white with sepia and color imagery along with newsreel footage; the palm print of child dissipating into a lustrous surface; repeated mirror imagery; the arcane return of the prodigal father; a hot air balloon; the absurd training of cadets in a snowy (emotionally bankrupt) horizon; the loneliness of a dejected wife; an apparently arid day revealed in a window to be a transcendental monsoon. The personal and intimate are juxtaposed with a collective people. Time is indeed pliably sculpted.
The Mirror is possibly the closest cinema has come to evoking modernist poetry.
Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (originally titled The Passion According to Andrei ) is a 1966 film about a painter whom we never see painting. Furthermore, it’s about a 15th century artist who we know very little about, not even the exact years of his birth and death. Only one existing painting, “The Trinity,” can be authenticated as being entirely painted by Rublev. Yes, Rublev is one of those uncouth religious painters: an iconographer. This is anathema here today—and, when it was made, most especially in his Russian homeland. Despite all that, Rublev is a painter of legendary status. As enigmatic as he is, a film about such a figure would seem to be a recipe for disaster. Someone forgot to advise Tarkovsky, because he not only produced the most substantive film to date about a historical painter, but also one of the most astonishing and vexing accomplishments in cinema.
Rublev, scripted by Andrey Konchalovskiy and Tarkovsky, had a “sky’s the limit” budget (the biggest Soviet budget since Eisenstein). Its production swallowed up two years. Distribution proved to be an ideological purgatory, however, a politically complex and arduous endeavor. Along the way, it dawned on atheistic Soviet authorities that, as a film about a deeply religious painter directed by the starkly spiritual Tarkovsky, Rublev was an embarrassing reminder of Russia’s faith-contaminated past.
At a private screening, Moscow critics were incensed and demanded cuts. Tarkovsky conceded and trimmed the film from its original three-and-a-half hours to 186 minutes. Not satisfied, authorities demanded additional cuts, which Tarkovsky then refused. The film was cut without him, resulting in various running times, including an 81 minute travesty. Still, not satisfied, producers sat on Rublev until 1969, when the Cannes Film Festival requested a screening. The USSR submitted the 186 minute cut and Rublev won the International Critics award, despite being pulled from the competition. Soviet authorities were enraged; Leonid Brezhnev stormed out of the showing. Unmoved by its critical accolades, bureaucrats kept Rublev shelved until 1971, when it became a critical and box office success in its homeland.
Andrei Rublev is more of an iconographic than a biographical essay, focusing on a spiritual and artistic struggle, which might be seen as an icon of sorts for Tarkovsky himself. One is unlikely to encounter a more idiosyncratic and desultory odyssey in cinema. There is a quality about it that could be likened to the inflamed mysticism of Antonin Artaud. Tarkovsky’s mastery is in ample evidence from the enigmatic, tenebrous prologue; attempting to mount a hot-air balloon, a medieval daredevil provokes peasants who woozily chase after him, only to see his endeavor utterly fail when it crashes to the earth below. Cinematographer Vadim Yusov had his work cut out for him. He unquestionably triumphs when his cherubic camera pursues Heaven’s would-be gate crasher in a serpentine take.
The remainder of the film is grounded; and oh, is it grounded. Tarkovsky himself referred to it as a “film of the earth.” Unflinchingly brutal and oppressive, disheartening, experimental, bleak, saturated with nudity and bloodshed, it’s paradoxically intimate and epic; feverish and spiritually crepuscular; chaotic, and austere in its expansive silences; sublime in its depiction of sensual elements (mists, panoramic landscapes, rivers, the fire of candles, torches, and Rublev’s smoldering robe) and factitious symbols (bells, a white church, ladders, crucifixes). The film is equally haunting in its chimerical potpourri of beasts (the decaying corpse of a swan, snakes, birds, cats, geese, a herd of reindeer, and a striking black mare) and visually distressing sights (the pleating of a dead woman’s hair, unfathomable carnage, and extreme closeups of weathered Slavic faces).
When the ethereal Andrei Rublev (Anatoli Solonitsyn) remains true to the purity of his art by rejecting a commissioned “Last Judgment,” he virtually dismantles his career and embarks upon a haphazard journey, accompanied by two monks. Along the way, we see the sufferings of peasants (in a memorable scene, a jester is manhandled) and exotic, undiluted paganism (the queerly ritualistic Saint John’s Eve) met with startling, heart-breaking violence.
Rublev’s journey is authentic, deprived of a destination, and largely plays out under an umbrella of the artist’s vow of silence, rendering Tarkovsky’s opus not so much a film as a poem scrawled through the ashes of a dilapidated fresco.
FEATURING: Nikolay Burlyaev, Evgeniy Zharikov, Valentin Zubkov, Valentina Malyavina
PLOT: A twelve-year old war orphan serves as a scout for the Russian army, repeatedly sneaking over the border to report on German troop positions.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: In his debut film, Andrei Tarkovky’s work isn’t yet confidently weird enough, although his decision to wrap this Soviet war drama in dreamy melancholic flashbacks (in stark contrast to the aesthetics of Socialist realism ) was a strong signal of the pioneering direction he would be taking.
COMMENTS: In many ways Ivan’s Childhood is Andrei Tarkovky’s most conventional work; it’s in a recognizable genre (the war drama) without obscure philosophizing, it’s of a “normal” length (compared to his epic works), and, since the director had not yet begun his experiments with minimalism and ultra-long takes, the pacing is comfortable. There are four dream sequences, but they are all idyllic and tasteful, nothing that would alienate the average moviegoer. So, if you have a friend who is intimidated by slow-paced, three-plus hour philosophical epics like Stalker or Solaris, or if you yourself just want to start in the kiddie end of the Tarkovsky pool, Ivan is the go-to movie. Although it’s stylistically gentler than his later movies, that’s not to say that this debut film is intellectually shallow or atypical of the maestro’s output: all of Tarkovsky’s intelligence and poetry is already on display here. Themes from future masterpieces—the preeminence of the dream, the symbolism of water, careful use of ambiguity—all make their first appearance in Ivan. Anchored by a gritty performance by young Nikolay Burlyaev, who straggles into a base camp half-starved and starts ordering a lieutenant around with the arrogance only a kid can muster but has the right touches of tearful vulnerability at key moments, the story has an easy-to-locate moral and emotional center. Ivan’s childhood has been taken from him by the war. For the most part the wartime scenes are dingy and dark, set in trenches or dirty bunkers. Even the river, the boundary of Russian and German territory Ivan sneaks across the border under cover of darkness, is shot mostly at night, turning it into a cemeterial swamp lined by dead trees. Ivan’s dreams of lost childhood, by contrast, are bright and airy, full of spiderwebs and butterflies and stars that shine from out of wells. Even a ride on a horse-drawn apple cart during a thunderstorm is shot in a negative image so that the shadowy forest glows around the boy. The film’s rhythm of pleasant dream interrupted by gunfire and the call to duty is effective. A relationship between the nurse Masha and Kholin, one of the three officers who together serve as Ivan’s surrogate fathers, interrupts the boy’s story, but is an interesting aside. When the older man catches the dark beauty alone in a copse of white birches, and it isn’t entirely clear whether the dance the two characters engage in is a prelude to seduction or rape. Masha, the only female in the army with a platoon of potential suitors, seems frightened by his commanding demeanor and probing questions; their relationship is never resolved, but the scene develops a great, nervous erotic tension that provides us perspective on an adult world beyond what Ivan knows. His boyhood is inevitably destroyed by the war, but Tarkovsky finds a way to send Ivan off to a heaven thinly disguised as a dream. The ending is one of the enigmatic, just-oblique-enough to pass the censors spiritual moments for which Tarkovsky became famous. Vadim Yusov’s brilliant, fluid black and white camerawork adds immensely to the successful debut of a great cinema talent.
Tarkovsky was given the chance to complete this movie, based on a short story by Vladimir Bogomolov, after another director had failed. Tarkovsky rewrote the script from scratch, adding the dream sequences over the Bogomolov’s objections. Valentina Malyavina, the actress who played Masha, would later serve nine years in prison for murdering a fellow actor.
“This exploration of the unreliability of reality and the power of the human unconscious, this great examination of the limits of rationalism and the perverse power of even the most ill-fated love, needs to be seen as widely as possible before it’s transformed by Steven Soderbergh and James Cameron into what they ludicrously threaten will be ‘2001 meets Last Tango in Paris.'”–Salman Rushdie on the (since realized) prospect of a Solaris remake
PLOT: In the indefinite future, mankind has set up a space station orbiting Solaris, a mysterious planet covered by an ocean that exhibits signs of consciousness. Several of the crew members studying the planet demonstrate eccentric behavior and possible signs of mental illness, and psychologist Kris Kelvin is sent to the station to evaluate them and decide whether the program studying Solaris must be scrapped. On board the satellite Kelvin discovers an incarnation of his wife, who has been dead for seven years, and falls in love with the hallucination.
For information on director Tarkovsky, see the background section of the entry for Nostalghia.
Solaris was based on a 1961 novel by Polish science fiction author Stanislaw Lem. Tarkovsky’s version was actually the second adaptation; the story had been filmed previously by Boris Nirenburg for Soviet television. Steven Soderberg created an American version in 2002 starring George Clooney; it was a modest success with critics, but a commercial flop.
Solaris won the Special Jury Prize (the second most prestigious award) at Cannes; the Palme d’or was shared by two realistic, political Italian films (The Working Class Goes to Heaven and The Mattei Affair) that are now almost forgotten.
Although commentators frequently claim that Solaris was created as a reaction to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, cinematographer Vadim Yusov says that the director had not seen the 1968 space epic until filming had already begun. We can safely assume, however, that Soviet authorities were aware of the film, likely viewed it as propaganda for the American space program, and were more than happy to finance a 2001 response with cosmonauts as the cosmic heroes.
Tarkovsky liked Natalya Bondarchuk’s initial audition for the role of Hari, but thought she was too young for the role (she was only 17 at the time). He recommended her to another director for a different part and continued casting. A year later Bondarchuk had completed her movie, Tarkovsky still had not cast Hari, and she still wanted the role. The director was impressed enough with her work and persistence to relent, ignore the age difference between her and leading man Donatas Banionis, and make her his Hari. Later Tarkovsky would comment in his diary that Bondarchuk’s performance “outshone them all.”
The weird seascapes of Solaris’ surface were created in the studio using an acetone solution, aluminum powder, and dye.
American reviewers gave Solaris largely negative reviews on its Stateside release in 1976; in their defense, however, the version then screened here was badly dubbed and had a half-hour cut from the running time.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: During thirty seconds of scheduled weightlessness, Kris and Hari slowly rise in the air. A chandelier tinkles, a slow Bach organ chorale plays, and a lit candelabrum and open books float past them as they embrace.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Though Solaris is far from Tarkovsky’s weirdest movie—in fact, it may be his most accessible—any movie in which a cosmonaut falls in love with an avatar of his dead wife that’s been created from his memories by an intelligent planet starts off on an oddish note. When Tarkovsky points his dreamy camera at this scenario and applies his typically hypnotic and obliquely philosophical style, the weird notes push to the forefront. The currents rippling in psychologist Kris Kelvin’s troubled subconscious turn out to be as mesmerizing as the ultramarine undulations of the surface of Solaris itself.
Thanks to Russian translator and “friend-of-366” Irene Goncharova, who previously gave us the lowdown on Russian cult director Rustam Khamdamov, we’re able to provide you at least with some titles, guidelines and recommendations on exploring the musty archives of Soviet films—there are some real treasures hidden there. Irene painstakingly figured out which movies were subtitled in English and provided us with the translated titles and matching links, with some commentary of her own (her comments are marked “IG”). We’ve included IMDB links for more information on the films along with a direct link to the full free movie on YouTube.
UPDATE 6/27: I discovered that more films are subtitled than we originally thought (Irene estimates more than 280!) Although some of the Mosfilm movies have “hard” subtitles (on the image itself), there are additional movies that offer translations via “closed captioning.” Look for a little “CC” button in the bottom right area of the YouTube player; if you see this button and push it (it’s not available on all videos), you get a “pop-up” English translation. The button will turn red when the service is active. You learn something new every day!
If you have any additions or information, leave them in the comments and we’ll incorporate them into the guide.
Let’s begin with the giant of Russian weird films, the only name here known known to Westerners: Andrei Tarkovsky (whose films Nostalghia and Stalker already grace the List of 366). Several of the Tarkovsky pictures Mosfilm put up on YouTube (Andrei Rublev and Solaris) have already been taken down (we suspect at the request of the Criterion Collection). The Mirror (1975), which tells a man’s life in a series of disconnected flashbacks, dreams and historical re-enactments, remains available.
FILMS OF WEIRD INTEREST
Assassin of the Tsar (1991, d. Karen Shakhnazarov) – Assassin was a co-production between Mosfilm and a British studio. It stars Malcolm McDowell as a patient in an insane asylum who believes that he assassinated the Tsar in 1918. McDowell spoke Russian for the production and later dubbed himself into English, which can be disconcerting. [IMDB Entry] [Watch on YouTube]
Viy (1967, d. Georgi Kropachyov & Konstantin Yershov) – Read our review. Virtually the only Soviet horror movie, from a Nicolai Gogol story, with a witch flying on a coffin and a horde of demons at the end. An excellent film.
Zero Town (1990, d. Karen Shakhnazarov) – An engineer is sent to a small provincial town where everyone seems to be crazy, even the nude secretary. This looks pretty weird. “Staring Leonid Filatov, a very good actor.”-IG. [IMDB Entry] [Watch on YouTube]
Alexander Nevsky (1938, d. Sergei Eisenstein) – Prince Nevsky turns back the invading Teutonic knights in this epic war classic. Closed captioned (push the “CC” button for English translation). [IMDB Entry] [Watch on YouTube]
Ballad of a Soldier (1959, d. Grigori Chukhrai) – Romance set during WWII. Ballad is highly regarded, but little known in the West. [IMDB Entry] [Watch on YouTube]
The Battleship Potemkin (1925, d. Sergei Eisenstein) – A classic of world cinema; other movies quote from Odessa steps massacre scene all the time. Closed captioned (push the “CC” button for English translation). [IMDB Entry] [Watch on YouTube]