Across Time: Filmmakers Reflect on Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror
The year after I graduated college, I’d go to Andrei Tarkovsky double bills a lot. In the New York of the mid-1980s, there would be a Tarkovsky retrospective every few months at Film Forum and now-shuttered spots like the Thalia and Metro Twin. The Russian director’s 1975 Mirror would always be the second film on the program—Andrei Rublev and Mirror, Stalker and Mirror, Solaris and Mirror—so, I wound up seeing Mirror many times. This was partly due to fatigue. My day job was writing grants for a nonprofit. I’d see these movies after work and would invariably drift off during them. I believe it was Raúl Ruiz who once said he liked to make films that people would fall asleep to and then wake up thinking they were in a different movie, and this was precisely my experience watching Mirror. After a three-hour journey into inner/outer space or the life of a 15th-century icon painter, I’d doze for a tiny while, and upon awakening I’d be both confused but somehow also in sync with Tarkovsky’s dreamlike fugue. I saw the film so many times just to make sure that I eventually caught it all.
This past spring, after a year of isolated home viewing, I wanted my return to the cinema to be a worthy one, so I went to Mirror, this time at one of the theaters at Lincoln Center’s Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center and in a new Mosfilm restoration released by Janus Films. It had been years since I’d seen the film, and, masked, sitting alone in the back row, memories came rushing back, as well as entire sections that felt entirely new to me.
I’ve long considered Mirror my favorite Tarkovsky, and that assessment hasn’t changed. Of all of Tarkovsky’s work, its mysteries feel the most durable. After seeing the film, I went on a deep Google dive, something I couldn’t have done back in the ’80s, but I wanted more—particularly, I wanted to know what sort of hold the film might still exert on contemporary directors I admire. So, I’m grateful to Michael Almereyda, David Barker and Salomé Lamas for the incisive essays that follow, pieces I’ll reread in the years to come as I continue to revisit Tarkovsky’s bewitching and elliptical masterpiece.
The new restoration of Mirror is now available via Criterion in an edition that, among other bonus features, includes a documentary on the director by his son, Andrei A. Tarkovsky.—Scott Macaulay
“Of all the inarguably great filmmakers in the history of cinema, Tarkovsky is the one lacking a sense of humor.” When I hear this sentiment from viewers less tolerant and more sophisticated than myself, I point to the early scene in Mirror when a confidently flirtatious doctor sits on a fence beside the film’s ostensible protagonist, a young version of Tarkovsky’s mother. The man’s weight causes the fence’s crossbeam to snap, sending them both crashing to the ground—a gag that Buster Keaton might have appreciated. The doctor’s laughter—“It’s nice to fall with a pretty woman!”—is a bit overemphatic, but here’s proof that the magnificently brooding Tarkovsky could admit laughter as a force in the world, even if it’s outweighed, outdistanced, overwhelmed by his signature moods of wonderment and yearning.
Wonderment asserts itself soon enough, as the doctor amiably retreats, walking into an open clearing, and a fantastic wind sweeps through surrounding branches and grass. (The effect was achieved using a helicopter; common knowledge now, but when I first experienced the scene, 40 years ago, it seemed miraculous.)
Mirror is Tarkovsky’s most female-centric film, or, put another way, its splintered, discontinuous story centers most firmly and sympathetically on female characters, even as significant sequences admit how history turns on aggressive impulses and actions initiated by men, particularly men in uniform.
Tarkovsky’s posthumously published diaries tell us that the not-so-great working title was The Bright, Bright Day (translated from Russian, of course) and that the mirrored double casting of Margarita Terekhova, as the mother of a young boy in the 1930s and the wife of that boy when grown into a more vocal (but largely unseen) man in the 1960s, was not part of the original scheme. This is fairly startling, as Terekhova’s compounded presence, at once cool and warm, wary and tender, is a huge part of what makes the film comprehensible and uncanny. Without wearing much makeup and barely adjusting her ash blonde hair, she inhabits overlapping time frames and delivers a performance that’s tremendously nuanced, prismatic and moving, even as few of her scenes involve extended dialogue.
Years after I first saw them, the images of childhood rapture and dream carried such a powerful impression that I was surprised, on revisiting the film, to take in so many episodes collaged out of archival material, black and white footage as raw, unaccountable and unerringly selected as in a Bruce Conner film.
Tarkovsky is telling us something about history, national memory fusing with private memory, childhood impressions of his mother’s independence, his father’s wartime absence and also his father’s poetry, read in voice-over throughout the film, less as a commentary or key, I think, than as bridgework linking scenes and themes. (I tend to drop out a bit, actually, when Tarkovsky Sr.’s poetry droningly drops in.)
The film was designed to be intensely personal, elliptical and allusive, but Tarkovsky confides in Sculpting in Time that he was “desperate” while editing it: “The film didn’t hold together, it wouldn’t stand up, it fell apart as one watched, it had no unity, no necessary inner connection, no logic.” It took more than 20 variants, he tells us, before the structure clicked, and the film “came to life.”
“I can speak,” announces the becalmed young man dramatically cured of his stutter, in the film’s first scene. But what is there to say? Mirror’s abiding beauty and towering stature correspond to the film’s title: We’re presented with a shifting mirror that reveals new things in its details, its silences, its shimmering corners, on every viewing.
The charmingly lost doctor at the start of the film never reappears, but he’s played by Anatoliy Solonitsyn, Tarkovsky’s favorite actor: his Rublev, his Hamlet. Before departing, he asks the mother (as he stands, brushing himself off, without apology for the busted fence) whether she wonders if plants and trees “are capable of feeling, being aware… even perceiving? …They’re in no hurry, while we rush around and speak in platitudes.”
The film’s dream logic, its sustained sense of privacy and mystery, reasserts the intuition that yes, of course, nature is sentient, communicating apart from and beyond human striving. Water, earth, wind and fire provide an elemental framework that reflects and transcends conscious thought. And history—am I reading this right?—is inescapably part of the flow, whereby time, memory and imagination merge, and the most appropriate reaction to it all may be, at the end of the movie, the child’s spontaneous, celebratory shout before the restless camera glides on, into the obscuring trees, taking in the sky’s last light.
In memory of Diego Cortez
Although I often read of Mirror as though it was a Tarkovskian Death of Ivan Ilyich, the film doesn’t occur to me to be as much a reflection on the life of an individual as it is a reflection on what it is to be a human being during the middle years of the 20th century.
A boy is looking at the world and trying to understand how to be in it. He gets no guidance from those closest to him, so he turns his gaze out into the world, with just as little luck. How does a soul find its way through this?
In the middle section, the references to Leonardo intercut with World War II and the Spanish Civil War seem to run parallel to the argument that philosophers Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno make in Dialectic of Enlightenment. Here are the first two sentences:
“In the most general sense of progressive thought, the Enlightenment has always aimed at liberating men from fear and establishing their sovereignty. Yet the fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant.”
For Horkheimer and Adorno, rationality and instrumentalization are inseparable, so the flip side of the advances in technology and medicine in health are the two world wars and industrialized mass murder such as the Holocaust.
Tarkovsky isn’t saying the same thing as Horkheimer and Adorno. It’s more likely he may be saying something along the lines of from this high point of human creativity, look what a vile mess we have created. It’s a bit more Christian, a story of Eden. So, the film looks at that society produced on top of the achievements of the Enlightenment, but it looks from a place approaching the pure being of a soul.
My experience of the film each time I have seen it is the same. I watch and try to understand what’s going on, the connection between the episodes, what is happening inside the people.
I don’t think this is an accident but rather a dramatic principle. We relate to the boy as he does the same, looking out at the world, trying to make sense of it. As an editor, this is something I often look for: a way to align the audience’s cognitive experience of a film with the central dramatic question.
The figure of a child trying to make sense of the world of adults recurs across Tarkovsky’s work, but I find it particularly effective in Mirror, where understanding and seeing is dramatized for the audience as well, connecting it with the viewer’s own experience.
After watching the film recently (in the fantastic restoration whose colors seem totally different than the versions I had seen), I found myself remembering one of my earliest memories: I was in my grandparents’ house, peering through legs to watch a relative or friend of theirs doing the Cossack dance, squatting low on the floor, legs kicking. Adults drinking cocktails and smoking, it was loud, there was music. Some sort of celebration in which I could neither participate nor understand. It’s a memory that remains with me as an image of the strangeness and unknowability of the world of adults.
If movies are, above all else, a way for humans to think about themselves in time and space as constituted in the 20th century, perhaps all movies could be called Mirror.
In the film Mirror, Tarkovsky reaches the apotheosis of his solipsistic investigations. I remember watching the film at home for the first time as a youngster by randomly pulling a DVD out of the family’s shelf. Mirror triggered the watching of the entire monographic DVD collection, and not long after, I came across Sculpting in Time (1984). There, Tarkovsky recounts that he decided to chronicle one man’s life through the 20th century with a narrative that moves backward and forward in time, a life lived not solely in the present but also in some complex temporal zone between past and present, one where the past remains present to us, where the past is not past. This man, named Alexei in the film, is a surrogate for Tarkovsky, who makes a brief appearance near the end of the film, in bed, cupping a bird in his hand until he releases it into the air. “It’s nothing,” he says. “Everything will be all right.”
Our existence is condemned to vacuums of time and space. The complementary perspectives—freedom that can be achieved with disillusion and captivity that can grow out of our incapacity to maintain illusion—are both emotionally charged.
Memory is raw, stripped and utterly unconscious, but is it reliable? The question is not whether we guide our experience by our visions of the past. The question is whether we do so to the extent that we alter our memories. This is very expensive. We cannot ignore the darkness, the desert, the dangers, the terror of life. We cannot throw away the condition or free ourselves from it, but we can accept it, and from that can come a feeling, a strong emotion, of joy. Mortality is inevitable, but we can love life as mortals.
San Sebastián, 19th of June 2021