A jumbled series of dramatised scenes, dream sequences and newsreel excerpts reveal the memories and present-day experiences of unseen protagonist-narrator Alexei. The traumas of Alexei’s rural childhood and experiences of war are mirrored in his urban adult life. His estranged relations with his ex-wife, Natalia, and son, Ignat, reflect the abandonment he suffered from his own father. A myriad of motifs echo across generations melding dream with reality and the personal with the political. Transcending autobiography, elements drawn from Tarkovsky’s own experiences (and those of his mother and father, who both feature in the film) are implicated within the wider traumatic socio-historical experiences of Soviet Russia from 1930 to 1970.
What is this film about? It is about a Man. No, not the particular man whose voice we hear. It’s a film about you, your father, your grandfather, about someone who will live after you and who is still ‘you’. There is no mathematical logic here, for it cannot explain what man is or what is the meaning of his life.1
Although Tarkovsky died after completing only seven feature films, his oeuvre is nevertheless both substantial and remarkably complete. Each of Tarkovsky’s films warrants serious study and contemplation, both for their philosophical dimensions and for their formal accomplishments. A master of film form, Tarkovsky stands with a handful of others as an artistic genius of narrative cinema. More than striving for formal cinematic perfection in each individual film, Tarkovsky created (intuitively perhaps) an imaginative web of interlocking images, sounds, motifs and ideas that stretches across and unifies his oeuvre into a singular vision or pattern. The consistencies are indeed extraordinary. The outline left by Tarkovsky’s work resembles something like a cycle; birth with Ivan’s Childhood arching round to death with The Sacrifice.
In the middle of this creative cycle stands Mirror, Tarkovsky’s most explicitly autobiographical film and also his most formally complex. Mirror is indicative of all of Tarkovsky’s work for its sublime, even miraculous imagery, as equally real as it is surreal. But the film is also unique in the director’s oeuvre for its radically disjointed structure. As Tarkovsky scholar Robert Bird notes, ‘at first screening it can be very difficult to work out the connections between the sequences.’ 2 Mirror bears no obvious logical narrative or temporal structure, features an unseen protagonist, uses actors to play multiple roles, alludes to a host of historical, artistic and religious references, utilises colour and black and white film in highly unreliable ways and incorporates documentary sequences, poetry and long dream sequences as well as dramatised scenes.
In spite of these difficulties there is in Mirror an emotional immediacy and power that other modernist art films of comparable formal ingenuity conspicuously lack. In an age of intellectualism, Tarkovsky valued emotion (often in a spiritual sense) as the source of creativity. In Tarkovsky’s own words:
“The empirical process of intellectual cognition cannot explain how an artistic image comes into being – unique, indivisible, created and existing on some plane other than that of the intellect.” (1986: 40)
Let this not be read as implying that Tarkovsky was intellectually ignorant or wilfully naive, but rather that he let his developed sense of intuition guide the course of his very complex and intellectually sophisticated work. One thinks of the guide in Stalker (Tarkovsky, 1979) leading the two intellectuals through the mysterious Zone.
In Mirror Tarkovsky took this intuitive approach to creativity to an almost paradoxically methodological extreme. Rather than first completing a scenario and shooting script for the film, Tarkovsky conscientiously allowed for Mirror’s content and form to develop through the creative process of its realisation. As early as 1967, in the first proposal for the film, Tarkovsky and his collaborator Alexander Misharin stated their case:
“[The film’s] concept seems especially interesting to us also because for the first time, cinema … comes directly into contact with the process of creation. that is, when the entire creative process deepens the original concept, shapes it and gives it its final features only at the very end of the rough cut.” 3
In other words, neither Tarkovsky nor Misharin pre-formulated the eventual narrative Mirror was to become. The film’s scenario was purposefully allowed to remain, in Tarkovsky’s words, ‘a fragile, living, ever-changing structure’ (1986: 131). Mirror was to grow, like a tree, into the form appropriate to it.
Such an open creative process comes with its complexities however. Throughout the more than decade-long process of Mirror’s realisation this principle of continual organic development left virtually nothing in the film unaltered, rearranged or significantly re-envisioned. Key aspects of the film’s scenario drafts were removed while substantial elements were introduced very late in the production process. (A long interview with Tarkovsky’s mother was scrapped, while the role of Alexei’s estranged wife Natalia was only introduced six months after shooting began.) The principal actors themselves knew very little of their parts. They were given their lines piecemeal, restricting their knowledge of the character to the here and now. Most significant were the major variations made in the editing suite to the overall structure of the film: the organisation of dramatic scenes, flashbacks, dreams and documentary sequences. Tarkovsky writes:
“There were some twenty or more variants. I don’t mean changes in the order of certain shots, but major alterations in the actual structure, in the sequence of episodes. At moments it looked as if the film could not be edited … it had no unity, no necessary inner connection, no logic. And then, one fine day. the material came to life. the film held together.” 4
So what is it that unifies this radically disjointed film? What makes it whole? The answer is far from self-evident, and yet key to comprehending Mirror. It certainly isn’t a causally linked chain of events (as is the case in conventional narratives). It isn’t really even the psychological centrality of the supposed narrator, Alexei, whose memories and dreams we seem to be witnessing. Other subjectivities, especially the Mother’s and Father’s, clearly take over the narration at different points in the film. (Tarkovsky was to reflect after completing the film that what had started as an autobiography became a story about his mother.)
In the search for the film’s unifying principle, some commentaries have suggested Mirror obeys a kind of musical form. Natasha Synessios writes:
“More than anything it resembles a musical composition; it is polyphonic in its use of disparate parts, but the sense of wholeness and harmony it creates makes it akin to a symphony .… emphasis is placed not on the logic, but the form, of the flow of events.” 5
No one seriously claims to intellectually comprehend the formal unity of a piano prelude by Bach while experiencing the music. It is more accurate to say that we ‘feel’ the unity of these musical pieces through the listening experience. The principle is perhaps similar in Mirror, although in this case we are asked to watch and listen. Giving some scientific framework for these ideas the Soviet critic, Maya Turovskaya, suggests that Tarkovsky attempted to ‘beam his message directly to the [brain’s] right hemisphere, thereby evading control of the later established, now dominant, left hemisphere.’ 6 ‘The right brain,’ to quote Colin Wilson, ‘deals with intuitions, “with overall meanings”, with patterns … [while] the left brain deals with language, with logic.’ 7 Such explanations would seem to imply that the intuitive method by which Mirror was made prevents it from being comprehended by the audience in any logical or cognitive manner. Indeed, if the filmmaker himself did not intellectually formulate a narrative while making the film, what narrative could there be for the audience to comprehend?
If, however, the film is to be approached intellectually, as a narrative or at least as a cinematic poem worthy of analysis, perhaps the best way to conceive of it is as a pattern of motific imagery. Like Tarkovsky’s oeuvre as a whole Mirror is unified by a collection of motific images and sounds, ideas and themes. Although it is not within the scope of this essay to point these motifs out, close attention to the film will reveal an ocean of carefully placed repetitions, which endow the film with perceptible form. The task for the spectator here is not so much to follow the film as to chart its correlations, to map out its narrative and find a poetic image.
For Tarkovsky Mirror’s highly unconventional motific narrative unity represented the discovery of a specifically cinematic language. Interviewed a year before his death, he explained:
“A film consists of separate shots like a mosaic, of separate fragments of different colour and texture. And it may be that each fragment on its own is, it would seem, of no significance. But within that whole it becomes an absolutely necessary element, it exists only within that whole. That’s why Mirror is in a sense the closest to my theoretical conception of cinema.” 8
It may seem wilfully paradoxical that Tarkovsky should describe an unformulated exercise in intuitive filmmaking in such theoretical terms. However, by allowing himself the freedom to develop Mirror without the strictures of narrative convention Tarkovsky was able to crystallise the filmic language of motific imagery that his earlier films aspire to and his later films refine. In this sense Mirror represents the high-water mark of Tarkovsky’s filmmaking ambition. After Mirror, Tarkovsky would consciously return to the traditional laws of narrative by engaging with a scenario of the strictest spatial, temporal and causal limitations, which he would then transgress by means of cinematic language. That next film was Stalker, a definably narrative film that marks both a return to the ground covered in Solaris and a further movement out into uncharted territory.
Perhaps most importantly, Mirror is a film about each of us, for it is we who individually construct the film’s story and endow it with meaning. We make it whole. We make the image. The fact that we are required to make such an effort to do this only intensifies the personal significance of the film’s meaning. As a worker from a Leningrad factory put it in a letter to Tarkovsky: ‘I can’t even talk about [Mirror] because I am living it.’ 9
1. From an anonymous note published in the Institute of Physics and Academy of Sciences wall-newspaper. Quoted in Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time, trans. Kitty Hunter-Blair, Austin, TX, University of Texas Press, 1986, p. 9.
2. Robert Bird, ‘Mirror’ in Birgit Beumers, (ed.) Directory of World Cinema, Bristol and Chicago, IL, Intellect, 2011, p. 205.
3. Andrei Tarkovsky and Aleksandr Misharin, ‘Proposal for the film “Confession”’ in Andrei Tarkovsky, Collected Screenplays, p. 260.
4. Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time, p. 116.
5. Natasha Synessios, Mirror, p. 4.
6. M. Turovskaya, Tarkovsky: Cinema as Poetry, London, Faber, 1989, p. 98.
7. C. Wilson, Rudolf Steiner: The Man and his Vision, London, Aeon, 2005, p. 73.
8. Andrei Tarkovsky, in Jerzy Illg and Leonard Neuger, ‘Andrei Tarkowskim Rozmawiaja’, Res Publica, 1987 (1), p. 137.
9. Quoted in Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time, p. 10.
Cast & Crew:
[Country: USSR. Production Company: Mosfilm. Director: Andrei Tarkovsky. Screenwriters: Alexander Misharin, Andrei Tarkovsky. Cinematographer: Georgy Rerberg. Editor: Lyudmila Feiginova. Music: Eduard Artemiev. Cast: Cast: Margarita Terekhova (Natalya/Maroussia – the Mother); Ignat Daniltsev (Ignat/Alexei – 12 years old); Oleg Yankovsky (the Father); Anatoloy Solonitsyn (Doctor); Larisa Tarkovskaya (Nadezha); Innokenty Smoktunovsky (adult Alexei – voice only); Arseny Tarkovsky (Narrator/Poet – voice only).
Robert Bird, Andrei Tarkovsky: Elements of Cinema, London, Reaktion, 2008.
Thorsten Botz-Bornstein, Film and Dreams: Tarkovsky, Bergman, Sokurov, Kubrick and Wong KarWai, New York, Lexington Books, 2008.
Nathan Dunne (ed.), Tarkovsky, London, Black Dog, 2008.
Geoff Dyer, ZONA: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room, London, Text Publishing, 2012.
John Gianvito (ed.), Andrei Tarkovsky: Interviews, Jackson, MS, University Press of Mississippi, 2006.
Peter Green, Andrei Tarkovsky: The Winding Quest, London, Macmillan, 1993.
Vida Johnson and Graham Petrie, The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky, Bloomington, IN, Indiana University Press, 1994.
Mark Le Fanu, The Cinema of Andrey Tarkovsky, London, BFI, 1987.
Herbert Marshall, ‘Andrey Tarkovsky’s The Mirror’ Sight and Sound, Spring, 1976, pp. 92–5.
Natasha Synessios, Mirror, London, I. B. Taurus, 2001.
Andrei Tarkovsky, Collected Screenplays, trans. William Powell and Natasha Synessios, London, Faber, 1998.
Andrei Tarkovsky, Time Within Time: The Diaries 1970–1986, trans. Kitty Hunter-Blair, London, Faber, 1994.
Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time, trans. Kitty Hunter-Blair, Austin, TX, University of Texas Press, 1986.
Maya Turovskaya, Tarkovsky: Cinema as Poetry, trans. Natasha Ward, London, Faber, 1989.
Peter Wuss, ‘Dreamlike Images in Fellini’s 8½ and Tarkovsky’s Mirror: A Cognitive Approach’, The Journal of Moving Image Studies, Vol. 2, No. 1, Fall, 2003.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.