Today’s topic: Tarkovsky and his representation of life. We often watch movies and TV shows for the heck of it. We do it because we like to, we like action, we like plot, we like to have fun. It’s obvious. But rarely do we watch something just to really “watch it”. Analyzing films can be difficult, analyzing TV shows can be even more difficult, but sometimes it hits us. We find something in a certain image, a particular allegory that to some of us is unmissable. I mean to write about Andrei Tarkovsky’s influence on modern cinema, and when I’m finished I’d wish someone would watch an episode of True Detective, or any movie by Alejandro G. Iñárritu or Lars Von Trier and find out what I’m talking about because some discoveries can be quite illuminating.
Tarkovsky, for those who don’t quite know who he was, is regarded as per Ingmar Bergman “the most important director of all time”. He was a man with a revolutionary mind and an eagle’s eye for detail. For every movie he wanted to do, he battled with USSR’s authorities over the production and distribution costs, often coming out on the losing side. His movies would often be released three to four years after the filming was completed, sometimes that would never happen. He was a man who found light in darkness. His first feature debut, Ivan’s Childhood, from 1962, will be subject of today’s post. The story of a young Russian boy going behind enemy lines during the Nazi invasion of Russia, is still considered as one of the best if not the best directing debut anyone has ever put out. But what’s so special about it? The use of light. That’s it. In his later films Tarkovsky would use light as a symbol for religion (Andrei Rublev), courage ( The Sacrifice) and art (Nostalghia), but here, Tarkovsky uses light as a symbol for life and the danger that comes with it. The setting? Snowy Russia, a bunker, a deep marsh, wilderness. Ivan has lost his whole family and he’s come a long way to fight for his motherland. He makes his way to a small bunker where he finds a warm bed and a hot bath. The bunker is dark except for where Ivan’s sitting. He’s a boy and a boy means life. Youth is life and in times of war, youth is the only reminder of a better past and maybe, just maybe, a better future.
Tarkovsky’s way of blocking his actors and staging a scene is a form of art itself – in the middle of the main room is a wooden table, on the table is a lit candle that gives light and warmth to anybody who comes close to it. In fact if we look close enough, the few soldiers who stand distant from the table, in the dark corners of the dark bunker are those who later on lose their life with a bullet to the heart. Ivan is hope. And so is the candle that burns. The scalding wax dripping down to the floor. Ivan’s blond hair shines, the only part of his body that is never dirty, a reminder of a child’s innocence. When Ivan turns around to find some comfort in a long needed sleep, the bunker goes dark. Silence. We open up on a forest made out of birch trees. It’s daytime. An officer roams around, putting together his thoughts and ideas. Suddenly a girl appears out of nowhere. She’s an officer as well. They circle around, trying to catch one another’s look. They find it. And in one of the greatest kiss scenes of all time, they, well– they kiss. But what does Tarkovsky do to make this scene stand out? He puts light up against its enemy. He pans the camera down to a trench hole, achieving a low angle, and showing us this way two different realities, that of blind love in a peaceful world, and that of blind love in a world shaken by war. It’s powerful imagery and the more one thinks about it, the more it becomes revolutionary in its approach to the subject matter.
When bombs are dropped, everything goes silent. Everything dies. No one walks away. The only thing that stays is a cross. A cross that is penetrated by a ray of sunlight, that blows life into this quiet scene. It lifts our morale, it feeds us with hope. Is everyone dead? That could be our first question. But Tarkovsky aims higher. Is it worth being alive? That’s his question. We are constantly reminded that life is beautiful but living it comes always with a price. Only a small boy like Ivan could smile at times of war and bloodshed, and yet he doesn’t. That’s Tarkovsky’s reality. That’s his poetry and message. Whenever in doubt, look for a source of light, but watch out, you don’t want to burn yourself.