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Tarkovsky’s Philosophical Portrait

Lecturer: Valery Vinogradovs

Originally Taught: Winter School 2019

Ingmar Bergman observed once: ‘There was a man who could express that which I always wanted to but was not able, -- that was reassuring and inspiring. Andrei Tarkovsky is for me the greatest, the man who invented a new language, true to the nature of film as mirror of life, life as a dream’.

It must be a testing experience to witness the WWII as a child, to go through adolescence and educational training when totalitarian regimes take turns. Such reality must be particularly stimulating for a genius. After all, genius is a raw creative energy and freedom. And all freedom defines itself when limited.

Andrei Tarkovsky’s genius is universally applauded for his pioneering and deeply meaningful films. His genius was that of an artist, a poet who tackled serious existential and metaphysical problems. During the Soviet period, only five of Tarkovsky’s projects came to fruition, in a twenty year period. During this period, it was immensely difficult to get original and thought-provoking work screened without being forced to compromise material, one’s vision of art and life. As a Soviet citizen, occupying an ordinary flat, Tarkovsky was often in debt, with no money to support his family. Still, an author of one of the most influential ensemble of films of all time, Tarkovsky never compromised his dedication to truth, never forcefully changed a line in his artwork.

Our course will investigate five (out of seven) Tarkovsky’s films: Ivan’s Childhood, Andrei Rublev, Solaris, Stalker, and Sacrifice. The first goal of these lectures is an understanding of the prominent philosophical themes explored in films selected. As Nietzsche pinpoints, however, an author’s work is like an autobiography. Indeed, these themes can be nothing else but the key philosophical problems Tarkovsky wanted to address in his interesting life. Possibly, Tarkovsky’s films tell us a dramatic story about the author’s ideals, struggles, beliefs, passions and commitments. If this is so, then these films can be studied to ascertain Tarkovsky’s philosophical portrait, its modifications over his career. This is the second and ultimate goal of this course.

Course Schedule

Ivan’s Childhood: Experience of Suffering

Tarkovsky’s first full-feature film sets out to explore a rather Dostoevskyian theme: the problem of suffering. More specifically, the role of human sacrifice and martyrdom, through which the world and mankind can be salvaged. Here, Tarkovsky develops an idea of the unity of our shared fate that demands sacrifice from each individual. At the centre of this movie for Tarkovsky is the question of individual responsibility, the question he will take up once again in the last film.

  • Green, P (1993) ‘Ivan’s Childhood’, in Andrei Tarkovsky: the Winding Quest, London: The Macmillan Press, pp. 24-39
  • Efirt, R (2009) ‘Dreams, Mirrors and Subjective Filtration in Ivan’s Childhood’, Studies in Russian and Soviet Cinema, vol. 3: 289-308

Andrei Rublev: Destruction and Aesthetic Hope

In this masterpiece, Tarkovsky deals with the problem of human striving. An existentialist epic captures a human being as it strives to create meaning. To create something lofty and eternally valuable despite the world plunging into illusion, lies, misery, treacherous passions, and empty pleasures. Perhaps the key question Tarkovsky addresses here is the purpose of high art. Rublev is a response to this question.

  • Tarkovsky, A (1987) ‘Art: a Yearning for an Ideal’, in Sculpting in Time, University of Texas Press, pp. 36-56
  • Efirt, R (2007) ‘Andrei Rublev: Transcendental Style and the Creative Vision’, Journal of Popular Film & Fiction, vol. 35: 86-93

Solaris: Absurd Being and the Birth of Individuality

Tarkovsky’s Solaris is a philosophical thought-experiment. The author removes the characters from ordinary life, removes all distraction. One’s attention is thus drawn to a seemingly purposeless relationship between oneself and the rest of the world. This way, all that is hidden, that is private and unknown, comes to the surface, -- all the fears, dreams, insecurities, desires and regrets. On the whole, Tarkovsky’s position in this film seems to be a distinctly Hellenistic one: an individual should not only live in the moment but also in eternity.

  • McLenachan, T (2014) ‘Truth is Stranger than Science Fiction: The Quest for Knowledge in Andrei Tarkovskii’s Solaris and Stalker’, Slovo, vol. 26: 8-29
  • Žižek, S (1999) ‘The Thing from Inner Space: on Tarkovsky’, Angelaki, vol. 4: 221-231

Stalker: a Zone of Possibilities

Stalker marks a change in Tarkovsky’s worldview. There are no signs of harmony, symmetry, and hope for beauty. The image of the horse is replaced with a dog; an apple with a rotten orange. Man is a groundless creature that nonetheless aspires to an ideal: to become who s/he is. In this film, Tarkovsky re-evaluates human reality, our tasks and possibilities. To become a new man, Tarkovsky urges us to neglect the ‘all too-human’ and to become a stalker, one who pursues being. Hence, a new man is the one who has to leave behind the redundant habits, beliefs, people, and even family, -- whatever is necessary. As Stalker suggests, this radical project may be worth it.

  • Johnson VT & Petrie G (1994) ‘Stalker’, in The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue, Indiana University Press, pp. 137-156
  • Foster, D (2010) ‘Where Flowers Bloom but Have no Scent: the Cinematic Space of the Zone in Tarkovsky’s Stalker’, Studies in Soviet and Russian Cinema, vol. 4: 307-320

Sacrifice: Contemplating the Fallen World

The last work of Tarkovsky is devoted to the catastrophe of the world. Not a possible, future catastrophe, but one that is immanent. It is rooted, according to Tarkovsky, in the fact that people have lost faith in lofty personal ideals. In this film the urgency of an individual and collective action is tangible. The represented world is fragile, its beauties are thin. Happiness may re-turn, provided we abandon the idea of happiness for now.

  • Tarkovsky, A (1987) ‘The Sacrifice’, in Sculpting in Time, University of Texas Press, pp. 217-231
  • Azgin, B (2018) ‘Tarkovsky’s Philosophy of Love: Agape in Stalker and Sacrifice’, Journal of History Culture and Art Research, vol. 7: 205-215

To achieve our goals we will first and foremost draw from Tarkovsky’s films, their aesthetics; and on top of the primary readings, from the works of the philosophers he knew well, such as Heidegger, Bergson, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Kant and, of course, Plato. The main secondary text used for this course will be I. Evlampiev’s Artistic Philosophy of Andrei Tarkovsky, of which my own translations will be provided.