Andrei Tarkovsky: The Master of Poetic Cinema

H. Jacob Sandigo
Apr 5, 2018 · 7 min read

During my first week in film school, my teacher showed the class a five-minute clip from Stalker. It was the scene where the Stalker, Writer, & Professor fall asleep in The Zone. We enter a dream sequence where the Stalker’s dog walks through the water to be by his side. This scene hit me full force as I had just lost my dog and got me thinking about my life, past and present. Andrei’s work was what I had been searching for all along, his films an example of poetry in motion, literally! Just that small taste of Tarkovsky magic inspired me to scrap the script I was working on and rewrite it completely. My eyes never left the screen, each image was like a portrait, framed with utmost care. Each scene was a meditation on the landscape, with characters entering a leaving frame, becoming one flowing organism. Andrei utilized nature as a character rather than have it simply be the setting, taking advantage of natural light to emphasize a mood or bring attention to a certain object or character. This clip began my addiction to the Russian filmmaker’s work, soon after I got a public library card and checked out his entire body of work to study. Today is Andrei’s birthday, I write this article as a thank you, this is what his film and writing have taught me about cinema.

NATURAL LIGHT: A majority of Tarkovsky’s scenes are filmed using natural lighting, be it the overcast tint of the day or an amass of candle light for interior shots, there are no Hollywood elements about his work, each shot has realism as if the viewer is present within the film watching it all unfold. In low lighting, shadows are emphasized, reflection is sometimes used from mirrors causing a character’s silhouette to be projected upon the wall. He often looked for unexpected ways to light the scene, having characters introduce light sources or take them away. Each choice of light had purpose, it set the tone of the scene and was often used to introduce or break us away from a dream sequence. Even in his black and white film Ivan’s Childhood light is used to give the film a haunting effect. Studying these films has caused me to see a setting far differently, I look for ways to utilize natural lighting to its full potential when I’m on set.

LONG SHOTS: The attention span of the consumer has diminished greatly since Tarkovsky’s time, most films rely on the quick cut or excessive action sequence to move the viewer along. Tarkovsky chose to sculpt with time, embracing it rather than running away from it as some directors tend to do. Time is a reminder of our mortality, it is linked to death, and produces faith. If we had never been introduced to time perhaps we’d never have faith in a greater being or a life after death. His faith and appreciation for God can be seen through his work as well. Tarkovsky is an example of the long shot done right. He allows the viewer to feel a sense of time and reality passing but is also able to transport us out of our usual realm, warping in and out of memories and dreams causing time to feel infinite. The character and setting complement one another. The setting can influence the character, swaying their emotion as the landscape’s elements begin to change. He utilizes the space rather than have it be a simple backdrop or serve as eye candy. Each shot tracking the water flow or the dancing of the trees was thought out to emphasize what the viewer would be seeing. Fire & mist are some reoccurring elements I noted when dissecting a Tarkovsky nature shot. A form of symbolism that is left up to the viewer’s interpretation, each shot has a unique message. He builds an atmosphere with the landscape and uses it to tell a story. Often we are given moments without dialogue, it is completely silent except for the birds chirping, the flow of the water or sound of footsteps. We learn about the character and see their progress through action rather than rely on dialogue to feed us all the info. Tarkovsky often includes aspects of childhood or memories in his film, during Mirror, Sacrifice, & Stalker I found myself reflecting on my own life while still being fully engaged with the picture. I visited parts of my mind that had long been neglected, feeling emotion for the first time in a while. Stalker brought me to tears and I have no shame in that. Art is for the people, it is supposed to move us and allow us to see the world from different perspectives. Tarkovsky was a poet in the truest sense, for a poet’s duty is to tell what others are afraid to express and help his fellow human get through life. (Thank you, Andrei).

The opening shot of Solaris will always be embedded in my mind. From the sway of the plants in the field to the hypnotic flow of the algae in the water, each sequence resembles a walk through an art gallery. I can’t get enough. I’m appreciative that we have seven films to experience but I do wonder what was taken from us, had he not faced opposition from the Soviet authorities how much longer would his filmography had been?

SPEAK POETRY: Andrei is the son of Arseny Tarkovsky, who is considered one of the greatest twentieth-century Russian poets. Andrei often quoted his father’s work throughout his films, usually when recalling childhood or in a dream sequence between two characters. To me poetry is truth, it is the heart communicating, without a filter, to the outside world. The character often speaks intellectually, asking life’s biggest question, becoming philosophical. Each sentence its own verse, Tarkovsky does it in a way that is still believable and not over the top or overcompensating. No word is a filler, everything is calculated, nothing coincidental. I watched a documentary Andrei Tarkovsky: A Poet in Cinema in which he gives advice to young directors. He didn’t think about directing as “work,” but more as his play time. “It’s not hard to learn how to glue the film, how to work a camera,” Tarkovsky says. “But the advice I can give to beginners is not to separate their work, their movie, their film, from the life they live. Not to make a difference between the movie and their own life.” This message is clear throughout his films, each one being deeply personal, almost autobiographical. He takes from real life experiences and presents them in a way that is relatable and allows the viewer to submerge themselves in the film and view it as if they are the character themselves and each memory or dream is their own. “Cinema is a very difficult and serious art,” he continues. “It requires sacrificing of yourself. You should belong to it, it shouldn’t belong to you. Cinema uses your life, not vice versa.” Tarkovsky liked to pull from elements of various art mediums and use them in film, combining poetry, photography, and paintings as one masterpiece.

Andrei died at 54 from Lung Cancer in Paris. He was a visionary and to me one of the greatest directors to ever live. His body of work will go on to inspire generations of filmmakers for years to come. I gravitated towards his work after seeing the way he worked with nature, he not only showcased elements of nature but utilized it tell a story. He was able to get the viewer to feel emotion, to allow them to truly think and enter a lucid state for two hours or more. My goal with a film is to get others to think and feel emotion to move them and spark conversations within their lives. Tarkovsky showed me the power of cinema and the possibility it has for telling stories. I’m a writer first and venturing into cinema scared me. I feared I’d neglect writing and lose it all together. But that is impossible, I’ve always felt I was put on this Earth to write and film has only strengthened my ability to tell a story. When we pull from life, we are coming from a place of honesty, telling what we know and have experienced. Andrei has changed the way I viewed cinema and the world around me. Thank you for all the wonderful work you left us. To any serious cinephiles or directors, I recommend the work of Andrei Tarkovsky, there is no equivalent viewing experience, just sit back and allow yourself to be submerged within his portraits.

Now if you’ll excuse me I shall return to my Tarkovsky marathon, Solaris your up next! Happy birthday old sport, may you rest easy.

H. Jacob Sandigo

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Writer, filmmaker, creator, and occasional poet. Our words hold weight, ensure that yours are impeccable. Founder of 27 Stories