Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Release date: 22 August 2016

Distributor: Curzon Artificial Eye

Director: Andrei Tarkovsky

Writers: Arkadi Strugatsky, Boris Strugatsky, Andrei Tarkovsky

Based on the novel by: Arkadi Strugatsky, Boris Strugatsky

Cast: Aleksandr Kaidanovsky, Alisa Frejndlikh, Anatoli Solonitsyn, Nikolai Grinko

USSR 1979

163 mins

Stalker transcends the traditional trappings of the science fiction genre to create an elegiac vision of the remnants of the past, a tangible present and an imagined future.

Ingmar Bergman deemed him to be ‘the greatest of us all’, and to enter Andrei Tarkovsky’s world is to have your appreciation of cinema as an art form forever enriched. Perhaps the clearest crystallisation of Tarkovsky’s power and lasting influence as a filmmaker came in the shape of Stalker, his second foray into science fiction after the adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s novel Solaris in 1972. Produced by Mosfilm Studios and loosely adapted by Tarkovsky and the Strugatsky brothers, Arkadi and Boris, from their own equally critically acclaimed novel Roadside Picnic, Stalker is a visually extraordinary exploration of man’s search for fulfilment, knowledge and emotional nourishment. Largely shot around two abandoned hydro-electric plants and an old Flora chemical factory in the post-industrial wastelands of Tallinn, Estonia, during the Brezhnev era, Stalker depicts a ravaged future in which the citizens are desperate for a release from the constraints of an oppressive, beaten down society. It draws from the social nightmare of the former Soviet Union at the time and, retrospectively, is a prescient precursor to the visual and mental horrors of the Chernobyl disaster. The film’s narrative (part allegorical, existential road movie and part socio-philosophical tract) transcends the traditional trappings of the science fiction genre to create an elegiac vision of the remnants of the past, a tangible present and an imagined future.

The titular Stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky) is a professional, but highly illegal, guide to ‘the Zone’, a forbidden region surrounding a decaying, unnamed city, where time, space and reality constantly shift, where the slightest deviation from the path can be fatal and where at its heart a mysterious room is supposedly able to make one’s deepest desires come true. Thought to be the by-product of a visiting alien civilisation, the Zone is consequently rendered off limits by the fearful government, and the knowledge of its apparent powers suppressed from the masses. The Stalker’s latest clients - the Writer (Anatoli Solonitsyn), a fractious, despondent dreamer, and the more logical, sceptical Professor (Nikolai Grinko) - have different but equally obsessive reasons for risking their lives in the pursuit of enlightenment and an imagined subsequent peace of mind. The physical journey through the Zone mirrors the inner psychological trip made by the Writer and the Professor as they wrestle with personal torments, existential angst, each other’s worldviews and, eventually, the hidden motivations that threaten not just themselves, but society as a whole. In Tarkovsky’s hands, the linear, simple plot of Stalker is the framework around which the formation of indelible, haunting imagery and soundscapes, the excoriation of the human condition and provocative cultural, social and political dialogue are wrapped.

The dreamlike atmosphere and otherworldly quality that pervade the film are realised through the complete integration of camerawork, sound, colour, image and dialogue. The bleak, repressive world outside of the Zone is filmed in a sepia tint that, even in depicting a future time, makes the images reminiscent of engravings, Victorian-era photographs or woodcuts, thus conjuring up the idea of a society rooted to the past. In contrast, the Zone is shot in colour, introduced in a seamless but striking shot, symbolising the three travellers’ emergence into an unfamiliar, potentially liberating and diametrically opposed space to that from which they have ventured. Tarkovsky muddies the waters between the two distinct environments, in keeping with the overall ambiguity of the narrative, by alternating the sepia tint and colour sequences during a dream sequence inside the Zone and latterly as the Stalker is reunited with his wife and daughter during the film’s fourth wall-shattering climax.

Tarkovsky’s long, at times glacial, takes and subtle camera movements are an essential element to Stalker, as is Eduard Artemyev’s score. Artemyev, responsible for scoring Solaris and Mirror, responded to the director’s appeal for sounds that represented ‘space frozen in a dynamic equilibrium’ with a trance-like, synthesised, partly distorted score encompassing both Western and Oriental rhythms and instrumentation, and natural sounds taken from the film itself. By mixing the score in with the sounds emanating from the screen (rushing water, heavy winds, machinery and vehicles) and also through the intermittent disconnecting and overlapping of those sounds from and with their source imagery, Tarkovsky instils the sense of everything, both on-screen and off, being intrinsically linked, of bleeding into each other but also, specifically in relation to the scenes in the Zone, of being constantly in flux.

The blasted, atrophied landscape of the city and the Zone, with its industrial edifices, abandoned tanks consumed by vegetation, strewn detritus and chemically poisoned river, is fully exploited by Tarkovsky and provides a startling and unsettling environment for the characters to inhabit. That these images, shot in the late 1970s, and the terms ‘Stalker’ and ‘the Zone’ would themselves come to be associated with Chernobyl in the 1980s speaks for the film’s lasting influence on contemporary culture. Suffused with quasi- and outright religious imagery, an ambiguity allowing for multiple interpretations and exuding a uniquely realised visual aesthetic, Stalker is a towering achievement both for its greatly missed director and for the medium as a whole. Essential viewing.

This review was first published for the release of Stalker as part of Artificial Eye’s Andrei Tarkovsky Collection box set in June 2011.

Neil Mitchell



Format: Cinema

Release date: 29 July 2011

Venues: key cities

Distributor: ICO/Arrow

Director: Lee Chang-dong

Writer: Lee Chang-dong

Original title: Shi

Cast: Yun Jung-hee, Ahn Nae-sang, Kim Hira

South Korea 2010

139 mins

When Mija, played with ornate naturalism by veteran actress Yun Jung-hee in her first role in 15 years, is informed that her grandson was involved in a gang rape that led to the suicide of a high-school girl her expression shows little visible change. She proceeds with her daily routine, attending to her daycare service for an elderly disabled man, and continuing to feed the teenage boy as part of her maternal obligations. Hints of forgetfulness lead to her discovery that she has developed Alzheimer’s, yet not even this realisation jolts her into dismay as she carries on with her life as if little had changed. Nevertheless, underneath her skin panic is freezing her blood and her heart is sinking in dread; rather than descending into sentiment, director Lee Chang-dong chooses to depict trauma by slowly filtering the emotions in a process that denies grandiose gestures.

In an attempt to keep hold of her memories perhaps, Mija begins to attend local poetry lessons and readings where she is advised to observe the small details of everyday life for artistic inspiration. No matter how hard she tries, however, she seems to be incapable of finding words for her feelings and struggles to put her thoughts into verse. Instead, Lee’s camera takes on the task, its eye surveying the minute subtleties of Mija’s personality. The plot progresses at a leisurely pace, often pushed into the background in favour of mood as if the film shared its protagonist’s absent-mindedness; as in many good poems, the storyline is hidden behind the language and the feelings it elicits.

Together with Mija, the film searches for the beauty of life to translate into poetry, yet struggles to direct its lens away from the indecent behaviour that surrounds and continually interrupts its quest. The parents of the teenage rapists and the school are far more concerned about the future of their children and their soiled reputation, acting on the assumption that money will solve such matters. Mija’s grandson and friends show no remorse about the heinous act they committed, seemingly unaware of the implications, and they don’t suffer any consequences. In such an abhorrent world, it is difficult for Mija to discover pure moments of creativity in which to scribble onto her white pad, which remains painfully empty throughout the film. Only spots of rain pen the bare pages in beautiful patterns that convey the melancholy that pervades the film.

Nonetheless, Mija is not as innocent or clueless as her distrait conduct might at first suggest. Like a poem, Yun Jung-hee’s performance allows us to read Mija’s gestures from varying angles, encouraging a multitude of interpretations in a role Lee wrote specifically for her. Her sexual favour for her disabled client seem a selfless act of compassion at first, yet the tone subtly changes when it is suggested that this is to be used as blackmail to cover the cost of silencing the dead girl’s family. Most of Mija’s actions seem to have little logical motivation and remain unexplained, and we are left to figure out to what extent her behaviour is impulsive and whether her dreamy demeanour is simply a strategy to veil her inner turmoil. Her visits to spaces the young girl once occupied, places where she was raped and where she decided to die, suggest the death has had a substantial effect and haunts Mija. It is a memory she is unable to erase from her steadily deteriorating mind. In effect, Mija’s failures as a poet are more than compensated for by Lee’s camera and its ability to capture the complexities of its subject. Her quiet gestures, gentle gaze and tender pose transform themselves into stanzas as they rhyme with Lee’s cinema.

Julian Ross

The Sacrifice

The Sacrifice

Format: DVD box-set

Release date: 13 June 2011

Part of: The Andrei Tarkovsky Collection

Distributor: Artificial Eye

Director: Andrei Tarkovsky

Writers: Andrei Tarkovsky

Original title: Offret

Cast: Erland Josephson, Susan Fleetwood, Tommy Kjellqvist

Sweden/UK/France 1986

142 mins

An ex-actor turned theatre and literary critic, Alexander is celebrating his birthday with his son, who is recovering from a throat operation and can’t speak, as well as with the family doctor, his grown daughter, his English actress wife, two maids and an eccentric postman called Otto. In the midst of the ‘celebrations’, some kind of apocalyptic attack takes place, the roaring of jet planes is heard overhead and the end of the world is nigher than nigh; it’s actually here. The only way to reverse everything, he is told by Otto the postman, is to sleep with the maid Maria, who might be a witch.

And so to recap: literary critic has to sleep with maid to save world from nuclear holocaust. You have to admit it is original as far as excuses go. And that this dirty diggler of a scribe spends the first hour and 50 minutes of the film railing against a modern society that has lost its spirituality makes the hypocrisy all the riper.

The gigantic problem with this film is just how seriously to take it and what exactly it is we’re taking seriously. Offret (The Sacrifice) could very easily be a comedy, and yet it is rarely seen as one, and in a way this is understandable. For one reason, it’s in Swedish, and although I fully expect there are rafts of Swedish comedies, this is the Sweden of Ingmar Bergman - the actual island where he lived as it happens - and Bergman’s cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, provides a similar palette and tone.

Secondly, it’s Tarkovsky’s last film, made while he was dying of lung cancer (rumoured to be of unnatural [i.e. KGB] origin). Thirdly, Tarkovsky likes his long takes and a soundtrack heavily ladled with Bach and in particular Saint Matthew’s Passion, the prelude of which runs over the long opening credit roll, which informs us sombrely that catering was provided by Puck Jansson, who was also the caterer for Göta kanal eller Vem drog ur proppen? (Who Pulled the Plug?), the 1981 Swedish comedy (a-ha!). And finally there is the end of the world, which Tarkovsky shows in a series of bleached-out slow-motion overhead shots of a desolate street scene.

But Tarkovsky has a sly wit that runs all the way through the film. Otto, the postman, clowns around in an overly buffoonish way, but he is also the messenger of the plot’s main improbability and therefore a kind of puckish saviour of humanity. There is Alexander’s own creeping about in his Japanese dressing gown, which takes on elements of French farce. Isn’t there also something ludicrous in a man who rails against modern life, only to be delighted when his telephone rings and he switches his lamp on and off? Despite Alexander’s renunciation of acting the theatre has become his life. His wife has just stepped out of an Ibsen play; the doctor has the Chekhovian declaration that he is going, not to Moscow, but much more sensibly to Australia; Alexander quotes Macbeth and has his Hamlet moment of soliloquy. Even the nuclear attack (if that’s what it is) is stage-managed rather than portrayed. It represents not so much the end of the world as the arrival of Godot. ‘It is what I have always been waiting for,’ Alexander confesses. And like a theatrical production the film allows itself the magic of rewinding the story to start anew.

There is also the possibility that very little of this ever was happening. At the very beginning of the film, Alexander is seen in a long take amiably waffling away. At a certain point he realises his son is no longer with him. Suddenly his son jumps onto him, scaring the bejesus out of the poor man. Alexander collapses, clutching his heart. The incident is never referred to again.

Could not the rest of the film be a psycho-drama taking place in Alexander’s head as he dies? A corrective purgatory, teaching the misanthropic Alexander the true value of the world as it is, rather than as some distant fantasy, his loopy Japanese obsession? The burning of his house is (again in theatrical terms) a catharsis. And the film is finally free to combine its comic and tragic impulses, with a fairly demented Alexander running around in a flapping kimono being chased by his family and the men in white coats who turn up with suspicious alacrity, as if they had been waiting in the wings all along.

John Bleasdale

Andrei Rublev

Andrei Rublev

Format: DVD box-set

Release date: 13 June 2011

Part of: The Andrei Tarkovsky Collection

Distributor: Artificial Eye

Director: Andrei Tarkovsky

Writers: Andrei Konchalovsky, Andrei Tarkovsky

Original title: Andrey Rublyov

Cast: Anatoli Solonitsyn, Ivan Lapikov, Nikolai Grinko

USSR 1966

165 mins

Made in 1966, Andrei Rublev was only Andrei Tarkovsky’s second feature film, and although it was suppressed by the Soviet authorities, its epic scope, lyrical beauty and inspired visions won it the International Critics’ prize at Cannes in 1969. Recounting the life of the titular 15th-century icon painter through a series of elliptical chapters, it is a slow-paced, dreamlike meditation on art, mysticism and power.

The film starts with an enigmatic prologue that appears to show a man evading a crowd by climbing up a church tower and escaping in some sort of hot-air balloon. As the camera adopts his point of view, we fly with him over land and water for an exhilarating moment before the contraption crashes into the river. This introduction may be an Icarus-inspired allegory that presages what is to follow, but its mystery resists interpretation. The images of a beautifully desolate, watery land seen from a sky-high viewpoint, and the virtuoso, fluid camera movement are perfect guides into the poetic world of the film.

Andrei’s life is told through a chronological succession of disconnected tableaux that weave together a complex tapestry of echoing themes and images. Andrei is a man tormented by his talent, and the way it is used by a tyrannical authority. Called to decorate the cathedral, he is unable to start because he refuses to scare people by painting The Last Judgement, commissioned by the Grand Prince. Instead, he decides to represent The Feast. This is also the title of a previous chapter, in which he comes across nude pagan revellers in an enchanting sequence; he is both repulsed and fascinated by their rituals, and one sensual naked woman in particular. Events and encounters repeatedly challenge Andrei’s conception of faith, and it seems that in this instance, he learns from the pagans, deciding that religious art should be about a joyous celebration rather than the threat of punishment.

The film is a spiritual quest and there are religious motifs throughout, most notably a striking depiction of the crucifixion set in a snowy Russia. Andrei himself has a Christ-like quality, and there is a Jesus and Judas theme that runs throughout the film. Andrei is contrasted with one of his fellow monks, Kyrill, who is jealous of his talent; Kyrill’s betrayal appears in a displaced form: it is not Andrei he denounces, but a jester whom they both saw mock a boyar. Later, the jester will accuse Andrei of the act, confusing him with Kyrill, in a blurring of the Jesus and Judas roles. This motif also appears in the Prince’s rivalry with his brother. Learning that the men who have worked on his palace are now on their way to his brother’s to make him an even more beautiful house, the Prince lets them go, only to have his men treacherously ambush them in the forest, and blind them. The image of the eyeless men, blood dripping from their empty orbits, piteously wandering around the forest, is one of the most chillingly memorable in the film. Later, the Prince’s brother allies himself with the Tartars against his own people in the sack of Vladimir, another sequence of breath-taking medieval horror on the theme of brotherly betrayal.

The jester’s mistaking of Andrei as the traitor is telling. Andrei is no hero; he is an anguished, sometimes indecisive man who, for a large part of the film, does nothing about the violence and injustices he witnesses. That is, until he acts to protect a mentally retarded girl he has become attached to during the hellish attack on Vladimir. He will subsequently atone for his violent deed through a vow of silence and a refusal to paint. Only the spectacle of the extraordinary determination of a young boy, son of a bell-maker - an echo of Andrei’s younger self - will make him change his mind. The epic struggle of the boy in making the bell, the hoisting of the enormous artefact up the tower and the first sound of its ringing are wonderfully filmed, thoroughly mesmerising moments. Here again, Andrei is thinking about the purpose and use of religious art: it is because he has seen the joy that the boy’s bell has given to people that he decides to return to painting.

Although the film is about an icon painter, we never see him paint, and we don’t see his work until the end. The film concludes with a series of images of the real Andrei Rublev’s icons, slowly succeeding one another on the screen, their colours contrasting with the eerie, misty black and white of the rest of the film (Tarkosvky would use the contrast between monochrome and colour again to different effects in Solaris and Stalker). As water falls on a painted surface the sound of rain is heard, and this mutates into the final image of three horses standing by a river in the rain. The penultimate shot seems to be an echo of a powerful earlier sequence: after the destruction of Vladimir, Andrei watches snow fall inside the cathedral. A central image for Tarkovsky, it memorably recurs in Stalker (1979): finally finding themselves on the threshold of the sacred room at the heart of the Zone, three men watch rain fall inside. In both cases, it is a miraculous moment: the occurrence of something that shouldn’t happen, something both magical and fearsome, an irruption of nature inside the temple of God, erected by man. A perfect image for Tarkovsky’s visionary cinema as a whole, it stirs something deep inside that is beyond words.

Virginie Sélavy


Immaterials: Light Painting Wi-Fi (Timo Arnall)

I was in Berlin when I last thought of Tarkovsky. The crisp February cold gripped my bones and made mincemeat of the coat and scarf I’d brought from London. The buildings looked like photographs already filtered through nostalgia apps and lens flare. Berlin is a city built for thinking about cities.

Tarkovsky, in particular Stalker, had been mentioned by several speakers at the conference I was in town for. His vision of guides navigating physics-defying Zones had a romantic allure for young designers and developers in the audience, desperate to find a path through the strange landscape that new design principles and opportunities are offering them. But while most of them treated that metaphorically there was one film on show that fit the mood of exploration and alien physics just beautifully.

Immaterials: Light Painting Wi-Fi is a material exploration conducted by Timo Arnall, J&#248rn Knutsen and Einar Sneve Martinussen for the Institute of Design at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design in Norway. It’s a three-minute film featuring strange lights and maps of things that don’t exist, burning light into long-exposure photography through several long winter nights.

What the team are doing involves hooking up LED lights to a computer programme that senses where the fields generated by Wi-Fi networks are active. The LEDs glow when there is a signal to receive. These LEDs are attached to a four-metre high staff, which they carry through the streets to map the fields in the city.

To most people, Wi-Fi feels like magic. So as the team trace a landscape of signals through the streets of Oslo there is the sense that they’re mapping something close to ley lines. The streaks of light in the darkness are what provide homes with the means of Skyping far-flung grandparents, or offering students the bandwidth to download the complete works of Shakespeare. Where black spots appear in the signal you concoct strange explanations, reasoning that some terrible power has punched a hole in the field, preventing the people from connecting to one another.

And while the network is the primary component on display in the film other things become apparent. The lines traversed in the dark leave traces of human footprints in the snowdrifts, markers of human input that hammer home the industry necessary to realise the film. The staff themselves look heavy and awkward, and Martinussen hauls the camera through the streets with a stoicism that betrays how important the whole process seems. And when we cut away to the production of this strange spectacle every inherited assumption about research and design is brushed aside in a montage of wiring, testing, screwing and examination.

The fundamental idea we take away from this is that where we assume a computer must already be able to map this field we are shown, repeatedly, that it takes effort and sweat. We are shown that it takes commitment to show people things that aren’t there.

The light painting film is one of several projects that the Oslo-based team have conducted and documented under the umbrella term of Immaterial exploration. The Ghost in the Field, produced in 2009, captures the field generated by RFID readers – the things you tap your Oyster Card on – and the reciprocal field it triggers in the counterpart chip – the little component in your Oyster card that tells Transport for London who you are.

The infinite peace and patience etched into Arnall’s face during the interview segments allow this film to exist in two spaces; the infomercial and the aspirational. As he and Jack Schulze describe the process and the findings, they wear teacher-like expressions, their hand gestures similar to what one might have seen on Tomorrow’s World or Blue Peter. Their willingness to communicate and gentle eloquence simplify complexity and engender trust in the viewer, boiling the ‘magic’ down into something that can be articulated in crude and simple shapes. This helps to place the technology in the same all-pervasive context within which we already situate power cables and satellite dishes.

Instead of the romantic visual language of a city at night, they use a locked camera and a mid-shot from a documentary to demonstrate just how painstakingly slow and detailed the research process was; every pin-prick of light took a steady hand and a chunk of determination. Here we see fluctuating fields and careful attention to the finest of details, in the name of generating not just research data but also, crucially, a logo. That’s the biggest marker of the film’s second purpose; this isn’t just about the scientific exploration, but about showcasing products and offering space to imagine applications.

Both Immaterial films carry the professionalism and the deft focus changes of commercial filmmaking, and sell the ideas being discussed. They create exactly enough product that you can invent a use for this new map of Wi-Fi, or to work out how this human-scale visualisation of it can benefit us.

Like Tarkovsky’s Stalker, these films guide us through the immateriality of the Zone, but offer us the choice of what to do with the power at the heart of it.

Matthew Sheret



Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Release date: 25 July 2016

Distributor: Curzon Artificial Eye

Director: Andrei Tarkovsky

Writers: Aleksandr Misharin, Andrei Tarkovsky, Arseni Takovsky

Cast: Margarita Terekhova, Filipp Yankovsky, Ignat Daniltsev

Original title: Zerkalo

USSR 1975

102 mins

In Mirror there’s always something happening, and it’s usually surprising and strange.

As I’m watching Tarkovsky’s 1975 masterpiece Mirror on the TV in the bedroom, the sounds of Warner Bros cartoons are echoing through from the living room, where my partner Fiona is watching the amorous adventures of animated skunk Pepe le Pew on YouTube. And I hold back a pang of jealousy, because I’ve been taught to associate Tarkovsky with effort and Chuck Jones cartoons with relaxation. But this is wrong: my whole cinematic philosophy is based on an unreasoning insistence that there’s no difference between films in which a black lady cat gets a stripe painted down her back due to an improbable plot contrivance and is mistaken for a skunk, and films in which a series of images form a stream of consciousness/unconsciousness, taking us from an exercise in mesmerism to a rainstorm outside a print works, to a book containing a Leonardo drawing left on a table outside in a wood.

A man who sold movie posters told me at an impressionable age that he gave up seeing Tarkovsky films after Andrei Rublev, because his interest in films was an interest in enjoyment. I also require some form of pleasure in cinema, but in fact I find, as I belatedly get to some kind of tentative grips with Mirror, that Tarkovsky, though not enjoyable in entirely the same way as a skunk who sounds like Charles Boyer, offers rare and interesting pleasures.

First, Mirror isn’t long in the way that Solaris (the first Tarkovsky film I saw, pan-and-scanned on Channel 4 when I was a teenager) undeniably is. At a modest 100 minutes it’s about the length of 15 Pepe le Pew cartoons. And while it’s customary to call Tarkovsky’s films slow, this one isn’t slow in the way that The Sacrifice, my second Tarkovsky viewing experience, is slow. By that time, Tark (I call him Tark) had evolved an approach almost calculated to alienate a sensation-hungry teenage boy, filming dialogue scenes from too far away to see the actors’ faces, with a camera that moved too slowly to really offer a discernible sense of momentum or development. You became aware that the composition had changed in the way that you notice that the minute hand of a clock has moved. My teenage self wasn’t impressed by Tark’s five-minute opening tracking shot, since I calculated that his camera covered less ground in that time than Max Ophüls would get through in a whole reel.

But in Mirror there’s always something happening, and it’s usually surprising and strange. And Margharita Terekhova’s face is paid close attention by the camera, her baleful eyes fixing us and her unconsciously active mouth, chewing her own lips or twitching through smiles and frowns at double-speed, creating an effect just as hypnotic as those slightly slo-mo tracks down corridors in the printing plant.

And I was also noting the weird and possibly destructive influence the film had obviously exerted on other filmmakers. The child, backlit in a doorway by a blaze of orange, must have caught Spielberg’s eye because he used it in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. A shot where Tarkovsky moves from a reflection of the window, opening on what seems to be a dry day, to the window itself, which reveals a rainstorm, as if an amount of time had passed (hours, days, years?) during that single shot, bending time in quite an Ophülsian way, might explain what’s usually thought of as a continuity error in Spielberg’s UFO epic, although if it’s a homage it’s a resolutely inexplicable and pointless one. And the oneiric, almost paranormal rainstorm that breaks out, advancing like an invisible monster across the landscape, reminded me of Lars von Trier’s Tarkovsky dedication on his ill-thought-out film Antichrist, which features, in one scene, an inane walnut downpour. And a palm print slowly fading from a shiny surface, and a child viewed from a window advancing into a rural landscape, made me suspect that Lynn Ramsay had based her entire film Ratcatcher on a series of pilfered moments from Mirror.

What all those filmmakers do succeed at, I suppose, is presenting their swipes with a level of confidence that inspires trust, which Tarkovsky also does with his own, original images. Rather than following the logic of cause-and-effect storytelling, or openly interpretable symbolism, he assembles sequences answerable only to his inner sense of cinematic beauty, whose meaning is irreducible and can only be got at by looking at what’s there, and listening to it. So he’s not a difficult filmmaker, really, but the light bulb will go off probably at the end, or after the end, and not from interrogating the action for meaning but by meditatively subjecting yourself to it.

There is stuff you can figure out. Since Mirror‘s protagonist is essentially an off-screen presence, talking to the actors from behind the camera, it’s a moment of revelation to spot the Andrei Rublev poster in his home and realise he’s Tarkovsky. Knowing that the poetry read on the soundtrack is written and read by Tarkovsky’s father only comes from reading up on the film afterwards, but I did manage to recognise the opening of Dante’s Divine Comedy in there, which helped me see the film as an artist’s journey through the imagery and personalities of their world, inner and outer life interweaving and blurring.

I think my teenage self might have liked Mirror, because he was impressed by technical feats, and the film is full of them. Tarkovsky likes long takes, and he likes the impression of things happening naturally, and the way he creates the latter effect, which might seem to be ruled out by the choreography of a long, complex camera move, is to do things so technically troublesome that the mind simply refuses to accept that they could have been engineered, so they must have just happened. A wind ripples the grass at just the right moment; and an unattended bottle rolls off a table of its own accord, in the middle of a long camera move that will reveal to us a building on fire. Like a magician, Tarkovsky deceives us by taking such an improbable amount of trouble to do something that we are forced to assume it must have been achieved some other way.

And it all follows the logic of sound and image and has a unique rhythm. Through Mirror, I feel like I’m coming to Tarkovsky for the first time, and am intrigued to return to the films that frustrated me when I was too immature to accept them.

This review was first published for the release of Mirror as part of Artificial Eye’s Andrei Tarkovsky Collection box set in June 2011.

David Cairns

Ivan’s Childhood

Ivan's Childhood

Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Release date: 27 June 2016

Distributor: Curzon Artificial Eye

Director: Andrei Tarkovsky

Writers: Vladimir Bogomolov, Mihkail Papava, Andrei Konchalovsky, Andrei Tarkovsky

Cast: Nikolai Burlyaev, Valentin Zubkov, Yevgeni Zharikov

Original title: Ivanovo detstvo

USSR 1962

90 mins

Tarkovsky’s first feature-length film established him immediately as a major new talent in Soviet and world cinema.

A boy, a war orphan, dressed in tattered clothing and shivering, is brought before a young officer, who tries to find out who he is. The boy insists that the captain alert his superiors and upbraids the captain for his scepticism, warning him of repercussions. Disconcerted, the captain finally gets through to the right officer and he is told to treat Ivan well, and that someone will pick him up. Ivan, apparently, is an asset and something of a hero. He is also the result of total war. His family has been killed in the conflict and his only function now is to help facilitate the military operations of the Soviet army. With his blond hair and ferocious and obstinate zeal he could just as easily be a poster boy for the Hitler youth, except that youth is a superficial accident with Ivan. In fact, the childhood of the title is problematic, a part of his life that seems as distant and unapproachable to Ivan as it is to any of the war-weary adults with whom he fits in. And yet he is still a child, who has dreams and on occasions nightmares, and who greets his officers, his handlers, with a hitherto unsuspected emotional warmth, leaping into Captain Kohlin’s arms when he arrives at the dugout.

It is the adults who define childhood for Ivan. It is the young captain who alone in the film (and then only at the beginning) treats Ivan like a child, doubting and scolding him and finally carrying the exhausted boy to his bunk. Ivan’s superiors are obviously emotionally invested in him, desperate that he be removed from the front to a military academy in the rear, a plan Ivan predictably has no time for. Ivan had joined a band of partisans earlier in the war, has witnessed a death camp and has run a number of missions across the river: what could a military academy possibly teach him about war? Ivan runs away when they appear intent on this plan. In a startling vignette, he meets an old man standing in the ruins of his house, looking for a nail with which to hang a picture. The futility of attempting to maintain ordinary life seems confirmed, and once Ivan is found, it is agreed he will be sent on another mission.

Ivan’s pre-war childhood is given to us in a series of dreams: a beautiful opening sequence of Ivan taking flight, his mother at a well, on an apple cart with a girl in ridiculously torrential rain, horses on the beach eating apples. Each sequence has an understandable oddness - the too heavy rain, his mother’s poetic story about the star in the deep well, ‘it’s day for us but night for the star’ - and the summery quality of the brightly lit imagery contrasts with the darkness and wintery grey of war. And yet, the uncanny nature of dream seeps into the portrayal of war, not least in Ivan’s own status as a hardened war veteran who the adults ultimately defer to. The dugout is a rag-and-bone shop of the soul, a place where men wait to go and die, bored, tinkering with gramophones and listening for the bombs. Outside, trucks lurch about in the mud, and flares are sent up and drift one after the other with numbing regularity. The quick stab at a romance seems half-hearted and desperate at the same time. Masha is in charge of the hospital, ineffectively in charge, according to the young captain who is obviously in love with her and looking for any excuse to send her away from the fighting. Captain Kohlin also makes a pass at her, kissing her as he holds her over a trench, her feet dangling. The wish for love is as forlorn as the wish for a normal childhood for Ivan or the old man’s search for a nail.

The culmination comes with the final crossing of the river, a sequence that takes on a mythological resonance. It is after all an actual Styx, with two dead Russian soldiers hung at the bank with a placard proclaiming ‘welcome’ in German. To this is added the mist, the flares that land ever closer, the relentless panning shot that accompanies the soldiers and Ivan in the boat, and Tarkovsky’s masterful use of sound. Throughout the film, sound has played a role; the dripping of rain water or the cracking of logs in a stove evoke not only place, but the heightened perceptions of men who are living every day as if it were their last.

Tarkovsky’s first feature-length film, Ivan’s Childhood established him immediately as a major new talent in Soviet and world cinema. It won prizes at several festivals as well as taking the top prize, the Golden Lion, at the Venice Film Festival where it premiered in 1962. Tarkovsky benefited from circumstance; a thawing of the political situation allowed for the film’s more critical depiction of the war, and an earlier version of the story had been abandoned, leaving the door open for him. In a way it was a false dawn for Tarkovsky, whose relationship with the Soviet authorities would become increasingly problematic, leading him to make his last film, The Sacrifice, in Sweden. Ivan’s Childhood remains a stunning debut, a moving and immersive film that both denounces war and evokes its dreamlike beauty.

This review was first published for the release of Ivan’s Childhood as part of Artificial Eye’s Andrei Tarkovsky Collection box set in June 2011.

John Bleasdale

Bobby Fischer against the World

Bobby Fischer against the World

Format: Cinema

Release date: 15 July 2011

Venues: UK wide

Distributor: Dogwoof

Director: Liz Garbus

USA/UK/Iceland 2011

90 mins

Liz Garbus’s absorbing documentary tells the strange and tragic story of Bobby Fischer, a self-taught chess prodigy from Brooklyn who won the Cold War for the USA in 1972 by beating the USSR’s Boris Spassky in the World Championship at the grand age of 28. Fischer became massively famous, but if America wanted an uncomplicated poster-boy for the game of kings they had backed the wrong horse. He had achieved greatness through a monomania about the game, to the exclusion of everything else, and once he had reached the apex of his world he had nowhere else to go, apart from seriously off the rails. In a masterclass of self-sabotage he forfeited his title through obsessive demands about gaming conditions, and set about alienating pretty much anybody who might have helped him find another life.

Garbus’s film goes some way towards exploring the mystery of why a Jewish boy genius could end up falling for The Protocols of the Elders of Zion hook, line and sinker and spend the second half of his life spouting anti-Semitic bilge, ranting about Mossad, nuclear Armageddon, the russkies, the CIA, and popping up on Tokyo TV to crow as the twin towers fell. His chaotic and unsupportive family background is explored, along with the theory that greatness at chess pretty much goes hand in hand with a helping of crazy: ‘a good chess player is paranoid,’ states one expert, and plenty of examples are found among previous grand masters to back this up.

The film is a briskly paced montage of well-chosen footage, Life photographer Harry Benson’s remarkable stills, some welcome explanatory graphic animations and an impressive roll call of talking heads including Henry Kissinger, Malcolm Gladwell and Gary Kasparov. It charts Fischer’s meteoric rise, concentrates on the 1972 Championship games to establish his genius, and then follows his decline through increasingly long lenses as he became a fugitive, first from the media, and then from the United States after he broke a UN embargo to play a rematch with Spassky in Yugoslavia during the civil war.

Garbus tells the tale well, and does a good job making the matches exciting even for those, like me, who don’t play the game. But Fischer still remains a bit of an elusive figure, largely, I suspect, because nobody actually knew him very well. He was a loner in hiding for much of his life, a man who disowned anybody who criticised him and antagonised those who tried to remain on friendly terms. Maybe, apart from those great games, there just isn’t much to know. We are left with footage of a man, socially maladroit and forever ill at ease in front of a camera, cheekily self-assured when talking about his ability and status, lost, tense and nervous when discussing anything else.

Mark Stafford

Cell 211

Cell 211

Format: Cinema

Release date: 15 July 2011

Venues: key cities

Distributor: Optimum Releasing

Director: Daniel Monzón

Writers: Jorge Guerricaechevarría, Daniel Monzón

Based on the novel by : Francisco Pérez Gandul

Original title: Celda 211

Cast: Luis Tosar, Alberto Ammann, Antonio Resines

Spain 2009

113 mins

On the day before starting a job as a prison guard, Juan Olivier (Alberto Ammann), decides to take a tour of his new place of work. This turns out to be a very bad move, putting him in the high-security block at the same time that lifer Malamadre (Luis Tosar) has chosen to start a riot. In a desperate, split-second decision, Juan decides to pretend to be a new prisoner. The block erupts, hostages are taken, the media crews and SWAT teams close in and the tension rises. Juan’s future and his chances of getting back to his pregnant wife (Marta Etura) seem ever more doubtful in the midst of murderous cons, trigger-happy screws, corrupt cops and the duplicitous, weaselling authorities. Who can he trust, and what will he do to survive?

Daniel Monzón’s Cell 211 is a terrific, angry piece of genre filmmaking. It has the pace, the twists and turns and the forward momentum of a Hollywood production, but is a tougher, sweatier proposition; it doesn’t pussy out in the last reel, and has a political edge rare in mainstream entertainment. This is a complicated world of shifting alliances, black humour and sudden brutality where the police and government can get you killed just as fast as a psycho with a shiv, given authenticity by using real ex-cons in a genuine prison location. To be sure, some of the plot swings, the speed of the developing relationship between Olivier and Malamadre for instance, seem unreal in the cold light of day. I don’t believe that these events would happen like this in the real world, but for 113 tense, charged minutes I was wholly swept up in them.

Mark Stafford



Format: DVD

Release date: 11 July 2011

Distributor: Second Run

Director: Zoltán Huszárik

Writers: Zoltán Huszárik, János Tóth

Based on the stories by: Gyula Krúdy

Cast: Zoltán Latinovits, Eva Ruttkai, Eva Leelossy

Hungary 1971

90 mins

Much of the merit of Zoltán Huszárik’s Szindbád (1971) is likely to be lost on those uninitiated in Hungarian cinema and literature. The film has little narrative to speak of: what story there is centres on the title character Szindbád, who sails, like his namesake, but in a metaphorical sense. Szindbád has spent his life navigating seas of women, without ever quite fathoming the depths of their emotions. Set mainly at the end of this Lothario’s life, at the turn of the 20th century, the film follows him as he visits ageing former lovers and recalls his previous conquests in flashbacks, some lasting a few seconds, others several minutes.

The most accessible charm of this film is its aesthetic. Szindbád begins with a series of intriguing extreme close-ups, mainly of objects from the natural world: smouldering wood, a lock of blonde hair, rain dripping from roof tiles, lilies unfurling, all to a haunting soundtrack of dissonant piano notes and a woman’s playful laughter. The entire film is punctuated by similarly surreal shots of everyday objects, filmed so close that they become strange. The film’s extreme long shots are equally appealing, and capture the lyrical quality of the Central European countryside in every season: mist-wrapped mountains; onion-domed churches watching over lush green meadows; leaf-littered graveyards; snowy tree-lined avenues. Szindbád also benefits from saturated colour photography that emphasises the beauty and variety of the landscape, objects and costumes.

In spite of its surface beauty, there is something rotten at the heart of Szindbád. Scenes from Szindbád‘s later years are permeated with a tiresome malaise that cannot be attributed to fin-de-sií¨cle decadence. Szindbád’s unease comes from the regret of never having formed a meaningful bond with any of the scores of women he encountered: at the end of his life, he is left only with memories of fleeting pleasures. For the women, it is the sickliness of unsatisfied desire, which knows no end: they continue to languish after the unworthy womaniser.

Thankfully, Second Run’s new DVD release comes with clear and concise liner notes in which Michael Brooke gives the necessary background information to Szindbád. He explains that it was a daring adaptation of the work of Hungarian modernist Gyula Krúdy, whose Szindbád stories were driven by observations rather than events. The film is also remarkable in terms of its reception: despite being set in a bourgeois turn-of-the century milieu, it was approved by the censors, and despite its artistic ambition, it became a popular success. Even now, it ranks high among the favourites of Hungarian film critics and public alike.

The DVD includes just one special feature, but one so good it is almost all that is necessary. Peter Strickland, director of the Hungary-set Katalin Varga (2009), engages in an ‘appreciation’ of Szindbád: a discussion of the film’s merits that is thoughtful and detailed, yet disarmingly personal and relaxed. If you finish watching Szindbád and aren’t convinced that it was worth your while, let Strickland try to change your mind.

Alison Frank