Tarkovsky after The Soviet Union

“The Artist exists because the world is not perfect” –  Tarkovsky in interview.

When considering what makes a cinema officially national, what elements are really being held to account?  No matter what is said, there will always be anomalous results that mean certain visuals, techniques and scores don’t actually define a national cinema but are simply used by it.  Perhaps the birthplace of the director holds most weight, especially in auteur theory with that person being the sole creative puppet master.  Yet Andrei Tarkovsky and his cinema present us with a perfect problem for this rationalising of national cinema and one that will be the crux of this essay.  Previously it was discussed how his cinema was overtly Russian in just about every aspect.  It was hinted however that these ideals are also shared with what some call the second world cinema or more lyrically, the European art house.  There is still something extremely Russian about Tarkovsky’s films yet his move away from the Soviet Union to Europe meant that his cinema changed and his last two films are extremely hard to define nationalistically.  The historical dynamics are completely different for the two countries his final two films are produced in.  As an auteur, he’s still carrying the cultural baggage of Russia and the Soviet Union, yet it is projected through a visual flair of Italy and Sweden.  The Sacrifice (1986) in particular, seems to fit so well in the Bergman/Dreyer mould of European art house, without knowledge of whom it was by, there would be very little to give away its director’s Russian origins.

So what exactly does this tell us about national cinema the relationships between its cultural traditions and histories?  Perhaps the relationship between these is held on a personal level and not the level of a country’s population.  The history of Russia is in the blood of Tarkovsky and still bleeds through even into his “European” films, yet the location, actors and even sometimes the language is changed in both Nostalghia (1983) and The Sacrifice.  Tarkovsky has always been influenced by European directors and is famous for actually not being overly interested in Russian cinema itself so perhaps this is why the transition between the purely Russian Stalker and the Italian Nostalghia is so smooth.  This brings into question the validity of the initial assignment task with the question implying that different national cinema reflect the cultural and historical traditions present of those countries.  Leaving auteur theory aside for one moment means that logically a move to Italy for Tarkovsky’s cinema could have resulted in the production of a film not dissimilar to something by Federico Fellini, Vittorio De Sica or Michelangelo Antonioni.  National cinema does however not work like this and outside auteur based cinema, the question of the effect of cultural and historical tradition seems insignificant without the personal history of the directors being their defining feature.  This also means that European art house cinema, which is dominated by auteurs anyway, has a natural affiliation to nationalistic cinema but the relationship is also counter dependant meaning that only auteur based cinema can be authentically nationalistic without being overly patriotic like so many Hollywood films are.

Tarkovsky grew to loath the Soviet Union and the anti-Soviet messages gradually growing in his films were allowed to roam free in his final two pictures.  The Sacrifice in particular pays homage to Ingmar Bergman, even using one of Bergman’s favourite actors (Erland Josephson) but smuggles in a message about selfish sacrifice in the face of nuclear war.  However The Sacrifice is less applicable for the question in hand due its Bergman like nature.  Tarkovsky is wearing his European art house influences on his sleeve and this makes the film far less interesting to analyse from a cultural and historical perspective as it’s clear where the ideas for some of the visuals and score came from.  Nostlaghia on the other hand presents us with many different issues of national identity.  Being the first made after Tarkovsky left the Soviet Union, tying down its visuals, score and technique will be an analysis that brings to the surface many nuances and tricky questions about the true nature of cultural and historical influence on his work.  More importantly it will raise discourse about the actual question in hand and therefore a detailed overview of the film is essential.

Nostalghia (1983)

The question that Nostalghia asks most simply is: can an artist survive and flourish in a country other than his own?” – Le Fanu (1987, p.112)

Just like in Stalker, Nostalghia opens in sepia print, tying down the visuals on show specifically to a past memory rather than evoking the down trodden grit of the totalitarian world of The Zone.  As the opening credits role by, the music initially played is a piece of Russian traditional folk song.  Played over shots of the Italian countryside, this appears at first to be confusing, yet the music gradually fades out and is replaced by music of Verdi.  This shift instantly enlightens the viewer as to the change in Tarkovsky’s work and the effect of leaving the Soviet Union is already changing Tarkovsky’s film mere minutes in.

Though being a film clearly influenced by its surroundings, unlike films made by Italian auteurs, it fails to represent a typical beautiful Italy.  It is an Italy seen from an outsider’s point of view (as the narrative also makes clear) and all aspects of the film reflect this.  Even with the use of Verdi, which may perhaps signal a very slight change in cultural and historic dynamics, seems tourist like in its use.  Almost even as an ironic leitmotif.  “The film’s gloominess comes from a kind of resistance to Italy” states Le Fanu commenting on the film’s clear desire to fight off its surrounding influences (1987, p.112).

The narrative itself seems hauntingly autobiographical with the film following a Russian musicologist staying in Italy while he researches an 18th century Russian composer who stayed for some time in the country.  Even the title’s translation into Russian doesn’t specifically mean a mild longing for the past but an actual pain for the return to it.  No matter what his surroundings are and even his choice of visuals and music, Tarkovsky is still presenting a Russian form of cinema even with the similarities between his ideals and the European art house there for all to see.

Music is used very specifically throughout the film.  Apart from the said opening there is very little score to be found even with a running time of well over two hours.  It seems that Tarkovsksy is more interested a leitmotif approach to the film rather than the open-ended approach taken in Stalker.  The Russian folk music occurs again and again when the film is in sepia making further connections to the character’s memory.  This longing that the character has for Russia and his family has obvious parallels to its director and clearly reflect his cultural experiences of Russia rather than Italy (of which he had many from visits starting from the 1962 Venice film festival).  Some way into the film, the musicologist meets a so-called mad man (played by Erland Josephson again acknowledging Bergman) who causes him to fall out with his translator.  This mad man plays a vital role in attempting to rekindle the musicologist’s faith in mankind.  Apart from giving him a candle, which comes to play a vital role in the film’s finale, the mad man sacrifices himself by setting himself alight.  After a speech given to the public on top on a monument, he sets fire to himself to the sound of Beethoven’s 9th symphony (again).  Unlike in Stalker, the music isn’t mocking the character.  The piece itself is actually digetic and is heard by everyone in the scene due it being played on a tape deck.  This however means that the music cuts and stalls as the tape is chewed up sound tracking the man gradually burning to death.  Nostalghia uses the 9th to convince the people of the mad man’s view and faith in the decency of people.  Yet as it’s blaring away, none of the bystanders help him, as he burns alive.  The churning and stalling of the tape, which mixes and distorts the 9th represent the inadequacy of mankind and play to Tarkovsky’s vision of man’s incompatibility with life instead.

This is a highly personal motivation, which Tarkovsky is presenting in his film.  The lack of passion shown between the musicologist and his female translator speak volumes about the gentle cynicism present in the narrative yet visually and aurally most of the film seems determined to make aware that this is foreign territory for both its main character and the film’s director.  The burning scene even seems to want to interrupt the apparent “cinematic illusion” as Kalinak calls it.  “The farther music and image drift from a kind of mutual dependency, the more potential there is for disruption or even destruction of the cinematic illusion” (Kalinak, 1992, p. 22).  In many ways Tarkovsky’s use of music seems so idiosyncratic that using it as baton to dispel even the most complex theories of film score theorists is relatively easy but at the same time pointless.

All of these ideas are born out of the initial longing for a country and there are various parallels to be found with the European art house and even Italian cinema.  The screenplay is co-written with Tonino Guerra who produced scripts for Antonioni among others.  His script for L’eclisse (1962) even covers similar themes of the eventual decay of love between men and women.  Therefore has the cultural and historical currency of the country the film was made in produced a new kind of style for Russian cinema or Italian cinema?  It’s already been stated that there are obvious Italian influences but in the end the film still remains distinctly Russian.  Even with the differing use of Beethoven’s 9th, the use of high art and almost Kantian choices for the sublime makes it purely Tarkovsky.

With the final shot of the house ever present in the memories of the main character, a slow pan out reveals that the house is built inside a derelict cathedral.  All throughout the film this aspect was hidden but also here it is implied that these memories were of the dead rather than the living due to the writer’s collapse moments before.  The man has died to return to his memories of the past in Russia.  A country represented again through the use of the traditional Russian folk music as the pan shows the cathedral in all its glory.  Proof if ever that national cinema is embodied in the individual, the auteur and the artist rather than the genre, the collective and, ironically, the nation.

Tarkovsky on Film Music and Conclusions about Influence on Nationalistic Styles of Film.

“Nevertheless, it is quite possible that in a sound film that is realised with complete theoretical consistency, there will be no place for music: it will be replaced with sounds in which cinema constantly discovers new levels of meaning.  That is what I was aiming at in Stalker and Nostalghia” – Tarkovsky.

Tarkovsky’s view on the use of music in film seems so refreshing that it could be tempting to view it as nationalistically Russian.  In this sense, the music is used so specifically that the nature of its usage rather than its cultural heritage makes it seem nationalistic and definitive rather than evocative of the time and places where the pieces were originally composed.

He calls the typical use of music in film “pretty mechanical and arbitrary way of tagging music onto the picture, a facile system of illustration, with the object of intensifying the impression made by each episode”.  This seems typical of his approach to cinema in general and the desire to be honest and step away from emotional leading is something he again shares with the art house.  Yet his affinity with sound is essential according to Chion who states ironically “A silent film by Tarkovsky would not be conceivable” (Chion, 1990, p. 17).

Analysis of two of his films revealed that his use of music is as specific and deliberate as any of his visual ideas.  Does this therefore mean that this usage created a president for the general use of music in the national cinema of Russia?  There are of course similarities (especially with the aforementioned Aleksandr Sokurov) yet it seems typical of human nature to try and see patterns in things that aren’t necessarily there.  There will be creators and those who they influence yet national cinema seems to buck its own trends just when they appear to become finite.  Even film movements like the French New Wave and German Expressionism only truly exist if chosen by viewer to do so.  It is doubtful whether filmmakers from those periods sort to make a French New Wave film and went out of their way to make it look and sound like one.  Even within the movements there are micro-genres, individualists and anomalous directors and it seems arbitrary to catalogue something that was so obviously in flux when it was created.  Kant again tried to do this in his “Of National Characteristics, So far as they depend upon the Distinct Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime” section of his Observations and Feelings work yet his deductions not only feel dated by its mass generalisations but are also before the creation of a trans-national society which is increasingly changing what the term national even means in art.

Andrei Tarkovsky’s films prove the inconsistency in defining national cinematic styles and his work presents a strong argument for the individualist and auteur theory rather than for the development of an apparent nationalistic film style or genre even with his massive influence on Russian cinema.  His work is most definitely affluent in the cultural and historic dynamics of his country of origin (his first two films were about Russia’s role in the second world war and Russia’s most famous Icon painter Andrei Rublev) yet the relationship between this influence on the director and the influence on the cinema of a country as a whole is too generalising to simply agree with and in the end director’s will have their own roots to return to.  It’s a simple choice that has given beautiful and questioning pieces of art to the public yet its apparent creation of trends as a simple coincidence adds to this beauty and makes it a serendipity whose irony Tarkovsky would have no doubt revelled in.

Adam Scovell

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