The great Russian master’s work offers hope in troubled times.
2016 has been one rolling piece of shit. Imagine the burning things Spartacus’ slave army roll down the hill into the advancing Roman army in Kubrick’s epic film, but imagine that the things on fire are bundles of shit and that will give you some idea of 2016’s unrelenting avalanche of bad, worse and worst news. Already reeling from the Bataclan and San Bernardino massacres from 2015, we’re now seeing people being shot, blown up, hacked with knives and axes and driven over by trucks – a failed coup in Turkey, a wedding party blown to smithereens, the endless horror of Aleppo. The geographical list now associated with individual atrocities is becoming depressingly long, blotting the Google map of our psycho-geography with cigarette burns of destruction. I know we shouldn’t succumb to terrorism; and I understand, statistically, I’m more likely to be killed from a bee sting than a car bomb, but it’s pointless to ignore the fact: the terror is working. The Western mind is closing: a deep Brexit of the soul has begun; the far right is on the rise; racism rears a brutish face and, as Yeats might put it, President Trump shuffles towards Bethlehem to be born.
So why am I watching the films of Andrei Tarkovsky? Why am I doing anything for that matter that doesn’t involve wailing and gnashing and the rending of garments? Well, the mundane reason: I need to review them. It’s summer and nobody else was up for three hours of a Russian monk trying to draw pictures on a church wall in black and white. But as I watched late into the night, each film seemed to echo my own doubts: ‘What’s the point? How can you continue? How can anyone continue?’
Tarkovsky’s first feature Ivan’s Childhood shows us a war child on the Eastern front, whose world is made up of rain-filled craters, nightmare forests and the constant possibility of violent death. For all that Ivan’s no victim. His childhood is more this war-torn present than the dreamlike memories of a time when his family were still unkilled by the Nazis and he is eager to be sent on suicidal missions behind the lines. Life during wartime is going to present its share of horror – as distinct from the terror we live with – but it was with Andrei Rublev that Tarkovsky gave his audiences a portrait of the nightmare of history and how it hammers people into submission, silence or death. Terror is everywhere in his 15th-century Russia. Whether it comes from a group of soldiers beating up a jester, the warring noblemen, two brothers locked in such deadly enmity that they will jealously blind artisans to stop them repeating their work, or invading Tartars: violence can be sudden and brutal and the art of the eponymous artist Andrei – the icon painter – is compromised by the violence of the church of which he is a member and its (and his) official patrons. Horses are often used throughout Tarkovsky’s movies as a symbol of hope, of life itself. In a horrific scene of siege, a horse gets thrown down a flight of stairs, swept into a river and finally stabbed to death in the field. That’s what happens to hope. That’s what happens to life. Following such violence, Andrei gives up. Stops working. There’s nothing to be said; no glory to be celebrated. Only guilt and withdrawal. Fear and loathing.
It’s a radical but not unusual revelation. The Holocaust makes poetry impossible. The rest is silence – but the silence will be broken by a young boy, the only surviving member of a bell-making family (another child Ivan) who supervises the casting of a giant church bell as he’s the only one left with the secret knowledge of how to do it. The Prince threatens death to the workmen if they fail, but miraculously, from earth, water and fire they cast this beautiful industrial machine that rings. It breaks Andrei’s silence as well who, inspired by the boy’s art, returns to the world, so to speak. But the boy is distraught. There was never any secret, he confides. This is the mystery of art for Tarkovsky: there is no mystery. The miracle is we don’t need miracles.
This empty mystery returns throughout Tarkovsky’s films: an enigma wrapped in a puzzle. In Solaris, it’s the sentient planet, trying to communicate via our memories, our love, ghosts and regret. In Stalker, it’s the Room inside the Zone, a room in which whoever enters gets what they always wanted. The catch is they don’t necessarily know what they want until it’s too late. An unhappy party of men journey to the Room, and one of them has a bomb. Can there be no good in the world? Must it always be destroyed? In Sacrifice, it is the end of the world in a nuclear war, played out as the nightmare of an aging theatre director. When history is rewound and war impossibly, magically averted, the director burns down his house as the doctors come to cart him off to the local looney bin, but his insanity is the most rational reaction to the crazier world-wide destruction that is threatened.
Throughout all of his films, Tarkovsky offers love, self-denying, self-sacrificing love as the only answer. For all their highbrow reputation, the films never shy away from raw emotion, just as his raw materials are as elemental as fire, water, earth – often all represented in the same masterfully composed shot: a fire burns, rain pours and a wind wants to tear the trees from the ground. The resilience of his vision and the reason they spoke through the pain of this moment in history, this shitty piece of 2016, is due to their confrontation with the pain and suffering of the world, the mediocre evils as well as the atrocious ones, and to still offer liberating hope. Albeit hope that risks being knocked down the stairs and stabbed with spears.