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The great Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky directed only seven feature films, one documentary and a handful of short films between 1958, when his earliest student shorts were filmed, and 1986, when he died at the age of 54 from lung cancer. The tragedy of Tarkovsky’s death at such a young age is heightened by the realisation that of the few films he made, all of them are classic works of cinema, and it is almost heartbreaking to think of what he could have done given a few more decades on this Earth.
Tarkovsky’s work is hard to pin down because, quite simply, before he came along, no one had made films the way that he did, and despite influencing legions of great film-makers like Terry Gilliam, Lars von Trier and Ingmar Bergman, who said that he considered Tarkovsky the greatest film-maker, no one has done since. Films like Stalker, Solaris and Mirror are beautiful, spiritual and often intimidatingly meditative works that examined some of the biggest themes that art can possibly consider; life, death, love, nature, and the apocalypse all feature heavily, and his ouevre can be as emotionally nourishing as it can be narratively obtuse, or intellectually daunting.
Given the ethereal, elliptical nature of much of Tarkovsky’s work, it can be difficult to pin down what is so special about them in writing; they are films that can only be understood through being watched, not described. It’s incredibly admirable, if possibly foolhardy, that Sean Martin has endeavoured to tackle Tarkovsky’s work in a single book, and his passion for the subject largely overcomes the problem of trying to capture in words works that, by Tarkovsky’s own edict, should only be experienced emotionally, and not over-intellectualised.
After discussing his short films and the general themes that run throughout his filmography, Martin breaks Tarkovsky’s body of work up into three phases, each of which is defined by the chief subjects of the films – History, Family and (more cryptically) Triptych – before focusing on each individual film, providing plenty of insights into the production and critical reception, both in the West (where they were all hailed as masterpieces) and in the USSR (where they were often received coldly during Tarkovsky’s lifetime, only to be re-evaluated after his death) of each one, as well as providing a much needed cultural context to explain how Tarkovsky was able to produce incredibly personal, non-ideological work within the restriction the decidedly idelogical Soviet film industry.
Whilst this overall approach favours breadth over depth, something which may disappoint any cineastes desperate for detailed and exhaustive discussion of each and every Tarkovsky film, the book provides a thorough and compelling overview that provides newcomers with an idea of what exactly Tarkovsky means to film history – not to mention, through the judicious use of some gorgeous photos of stills from Tarkovsky’s films, an indicator of just how beautiful his films looked – and those already familiar with his work with plenty of interesting information about the production of the films. Most importantly, as Martin notes in his introduction, the book serves as a great enticement for readers to actually sit down and watch Tarkovsky’s films, and there can be no more noble purpose for a book like this than that.
The book is out now published by Kamera Books
words edwin davies