Tag Archives: Andrei Tarkovsky

CAPSULE: IVAN’S CHILDHOOD (1962)

Ivanovo Detstvo

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DIRECTED BY:

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.

Still from Ivan's Childhood (1962)

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.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Unlike Tarkovsky’s subsequent films, which began to rely more and more heavily on a minimalist approach and a reliance on long takes, Ivan’s Childhood has an eye-grabbing visual aesthetic that makes excellent use of elaborate camera movement, canted angles, and almost surreal compositions.”–James Kendick, QNetwork (DVD)

95. SOLARIS [SOLYARIS] (1972)

“”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

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Donatas Banionis, Natalya Bondarchuk, Jüri Järvet,

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.

Still from Solaris (1972)

BACKGROUND:

  • 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 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.


Criterion Collection trailer for Solaris (1972)

COMMENTS: Thirty minutes into Solaris Burton, a minor character, takes an almost five Continue reading 95. SOLARIS [SOLYARIS] (1972)

YOUR GUIDE TO MOSFILM IN ENGLISH ON YOUTUBE

Some of you may know that the venerable Russian studio Mosfilm recently dumped a bonanza of Soviet-era films, many of which have rarely been seen in the West, onto YouTube: a fantastic service to lovers of world cinema, right?  The only catch is that they listed all the titles and descriptions in Russian, with no indication of which movies are subtitled in English (many are). To make matters even worse, a few of the movie titles have been translated into English, but these seem to have been done at random: there’s no relationship between whether the title has been rendered in English and whether the dialogue has.

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]

OTHER MOVIES

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]

Full Moon (1998, d. Karen Shakhnazarov) – Movie about the “new Russians,” circa 1998. Continue reading YOUR GUIDE TO MOSFILM IN ENGLISH ON YOUTUBE

34. STALKER (1979)

“My dear, our world is hopelessly boring.  Therefore, there can be no telepathy, or apparitions, or flying saucers, nothing like that.  The world is ruled by cast-iron laws, and it’s insufferably boring.  Alas, those laws are never violated.  They don’t know how to be violated…. To live in the Middle Ages was interesting.  Every home had its house-spirit, and every church had its God.”–Writer, Stalker

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Aleksandr Kaidanovsky, , Nikolai Grinko, Alisa Freindlich

PLOT:  A mysterious phenomenon known as the Zone arises in a small, unnamed country.  The military sent soldiers in and the troops never returned; they cordon off the Zone with barbed wire and armed guards, but rumors persist within the populace that inside the Zone is a room that will grant the innermost wish of anyone who enters it.  A Stalker, a man capable of evading both the police and the traps formed by the Zone itself, leads a writer and a scientist into the Zone in search of the mystical room.

Still from Stalker (1979)

BACKGROUND:

  • For information on director Tarkovsky, see the background section of the entry for Nostalghia.
  • Stalker is very loosely based on a science fiction novel with a title translating to “Roadside Picnic” written by two brothers, Boris and Arkady Strugatsky.
  • After shooting the outdoor scenes for over a year on an experimental film stock, the entire footage was lost when the film laboratory improperly developed the negatives.  All the scenes had to be re-shot using a different Director of Photography.  Tarkovsky and Georgy Rerberg, the first cinematographer, had feuded on the set, and Rerberg deserted the project after the disaster with the negatives.
  • Tarkovsky, his wife and assistant director Larisa, and another crew member all died of lung cancer.  Vladimir Sharun, who worked in the sound department, believed that the deaths were related to toxic waste the crew breathed in while filming downstream from a chemical plant.  He reported that the river was filled with a floating white foam that also floated through the air and gave several crew members allergic reactions.  A shot of the floating foam, which looks like snow falling in spring or summer, can be seen in the film.
  • The Chernobyl nuclear disaster happened seven years after the film was released.  The quarantined area around the disaster site is sometimes referred to by locals as “The Zone,” and guides who illegally and unwisely take tourists there as “Stalkers.”
  • A popular Russian video game named “S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl” involves the player penetrating a “Zone” and evokes a similar visual sense as the movie.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Like most of Tarkovsky’s works, Stalker is a movie full of awe-inspiring visual poetry and splendor, making it hard to pick a single sequence.  One key scene that stands out is Stalker’s dream.  The film stock changes from color to sepia—but a very warm brown, almost golden—as the camera pans over a crystal clear stream.  A female voice whispers an apocalyptic verse and the mystical electronic flute theme plays as the camera roams over various objects lying under the water: abstract rock formations, tiles, springs, gears, a mirror clearly reflecting upside down trees, a gun, an Orthodox icon, a fishbowl with goldfish swimming in it.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Stalker is an ambiguous, but despairing, existential parable containing narrative non-sequiturs wrapped inside of strange and gorgeous visuals.


Scene from Stalker

COMMENTS: It’s not fair to the potential viewer unfamiliar with Tarkovsky to start a Continue reading 34. STALKER (1979)

25. NOSTALGHIA (1983)

“I wanted the film to be about the fatal attachment of Russians to their national roots, an attachment which they will carry with them for their entire lives, regardless of where destiny may fling them.  How could I have imagined as I was making Nostalghia that the stifling sense of longing that fills the screen space of that film was to become my lot for the rest of my life; that from now until the end of my days I would bear the painful malady within myself?” –Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Andrei Tarkovsky

FEATURING: Oleg Yankovskiy, Domiziana Giordano, Erland Josephson

PLOT: Andrei is a Russian poet is traveling around Italy in the company of a fetching translator, researching a biography of a Russian composer who studied in Italy before returning to Russia only to drink and kill himself.  Andrei becomes homesick and bored with the project, and with life in general, until he becomes fascinated by a insane man living in a small town famous for its natural mineral baths.  The madman gives him a simple symbolic task to perform—which Andrei procrastinates in completing— then leaves for Rome on a mission of his own.

Still from Nostalghia (1983)

BACKGROUND:

  • Tarkovsky was considered one of the finest filmmakers in the Soviet Union; he frequently ran into difficulty with the Soviet censors, however, particularly for his Christian viewpoints.  Although his films won acclaim at international film festivals, they were often shown to limited audiences in edited versions in his own country.  Work on the historical epic Tarkovsky was helming prior to Nostalghia had been halted by the Soviet censorship board because of scenes seen as critical of the state’s policy of official atheism.
  • Nostalghia was the first film Tarkovsky made outside the Soviet Union.  Originally intended to be a Soviet/Italian co-production, the state-owned USSR film production Mosfilm withdrew financial support for the project without comment after filming had already begun.
  • The film competed for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, but was awarded a special jury prize instead.  Tarkovsky claimed that the Soviet contingent applied pressure to assure that the film would not be awarded the grand prize.
  • Tarkovsky defected to the West soon after Nostalghia was completed, leaving his wife and son behind.  They were eventually allowed to leave the country when he was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1986.  Rumors persist that Tarkovsky did not die of natural causes, but was actually poisoned by the KGB in retaliation for his defection.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  There are many fine candidates.  The scene of Andrei attempting to carry a lit candle cupped in his hand across a drained spa may stick with the viewer, if not for its symbolism, then because it audaciously continues for over eight minutes.  But the final, static, picture postcard-like composition of a Russian homestead nestled inside an Italian cathedral perhaps captures Tarkovsky’s theme the best, and is shockingly beautiful, as well.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  The fluidity between the conscious and subconscious worlds. Although it’s almost always clear whether the events depicted actually occur or are imagined, Tarkovsky is much more interested in what is going on inside the heads of his alienated Russian poet and the Italian madman than in what is happening in the “real” world. He uses strong, sometimes obscure visual symbolism and dreams to convey an affecting mood of existential loneliness.

Video trailer for Nostalghia

COMMENTSNostalghia can’t be approached without a word of warning: this movie is Continue reading 25. NOSTALGHIA (1983)