New Tarkovsky Documentaries

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Andrei Tarkovsky has achieved an unusually devoted following (even among film cultists) enticed by his public persona, which championed aesthetic perfection as a kind of mystical calling.  It’s easy to reach into introspection when parsing his films, as two new documentaries demonstrate by adopting personal lenses to frame the way the filmmaker shaped his work on and off camera.  Meeting Andrei Tarkovsky (screening at the Lincoln Center as part of a Tarkovsky retrospective beginning today) is an essay film by Los Angeles filmmaker Dmitry Trakovsky that explores Tarkovsky’s legacy through interviews with the filmmaker’s colleagues and admirers.  Rerberg and Tarkovsky: The Reverse Side of ‘Stalker’ (currently touring the festival circuit) is a tribute to Georgi Rerberg (1937-1999), the acclaimed cinematographer who shot Tarkovsky’s Mirror (1975) and the preliminary versions of Stalker that were discarded; the crisis prompted a bitter falling out between the two artists that lasted until their deaths.

In Tarkovsky: A Poet in the Cinema (1984), Donatella Baglivo records the filmmaker musing in a forest:

“Death doesn’t exist for me.  I once dreamt I was dead.  And it was such a relief–such lightness and incredible freedom! That very feeling of freedom and lightness made me believe that I was dead. That is, free from all bonds with this world. So death doesn’t exist for me.  There is just suffering and pain. People often confuse the two–suffering and death. I might think differently when I have to face it some day.”

Trakovsky immigrated from Russia as a young child in 1987 (the year after Tarkovsky’s death) and considers the filmmaker part of his cultural inheritance. Taking his cue from the quote above, he assembles a thoughtful (but eclectic and loosely structured) series of conversations regarding Tarkovsky’s continuing influence. UCLA’s Professor Vyacheslav Ivanov makes a fascinating link between Tarkovsky’s theory on cinematic time and Pasolini’s assertion that montage underscores the meaning of images just as death underscores life. In Rome, Nostalghia‘s Domiziana Giordano–who, amazingly, barely looks a day older than she does in Tarkovsky’s 1983 film–leafs through her copy of the script and recalls the production. Filmmakers such as Franco Terilli, Manuele Cecconello, Michal Leszczylowski, actor Erland Josephson, and Krzysztof Zanussi (“each genius makes us sensitive to things we haven’t noticed before”) offer their recollections and inspirations. Even the wry Ilya Khrzhanovsky–whose meandering fever-dream 4 (2004), which like nearly all atmospheric Russian films of the last three decades has been compared to Tarkovsky’s films–contemplates the correlations: “When you live in such a context, you naturally make cinema that seems to resemble, for example, the films of Tarkovsky, but this is our reality.”

Not all the participants are filmmakers. Trakovsky includes the pontifications of an Orthodox month in California inspired by Tarkovsky’s films, and the dissident philosopher Grigory Pomerants, who offers a Solaris-friendly metaphor by suggesting that it’s the goal of every person to break through confinement and touch a “spiritual ocean” within themselves. Trakovsky returns to his homeland by concluding in Yurevets, Russia, a town of Tarkovsky’s own youth (currently flooded due to hydroelectric engineering), and ponders the ability of art to transcend time.

Trakovsky effectively incorporates poetic clips of the filmmaker’s work for contemplative breathing spaces between the talking heads, and embraces unexpected visual detail (wind chimes and book clutter) and even interruptions (passersby and cellphone calls), intensifying the sense of being alive to the vagaries of the present moment. It’s a fitting tactic for a film charting personal exploration, but a more subtle theme emerges as Trakovsky travels the globe: the power of art to connect and enrich a wide diversity of people around the world.

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Igor Maiboroda’s self-described “documentary cinema novel,” Rerberg and Tarkovsky: The Reverse Side of ‘Stalker’ is the finale to a film series devoted to the artistic lineage of the Rerberg dynasty–Georgi’s father was a book illustrator, his grandfather was an architect–dating from the time of Peter the Great. It takes an equally private approach to understanding not only the cinematographer, filmed in a series of candid interviews around his home before his death in 1999, but also Tarkovsky: the story of the Stalker debacle is told here from Rerberg’s point-of-view after his silence on the matter for many years.

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Isfara

After the original location in Isfara, Tajikistan was abandoned due to an earthquake that devastated the region, Tallinn in Estonia was chosen to replace it. (Malboroda includes rare and striking location scouting photos.) The script–which Rerberg openly critiqued–was in a state of constant flux, scenes were being reshot multiple times in search of the proper tone, and tensions were mounting. Several crew members recall that Tarkovsky’s wife, Larissa, wanted to play the role of the Stalker’s wife, but Rerberg convinced Tarkovsky otherwise, which subsequently ensured her antagonism toward the cinematographer. The production used a Kodak stock that Rerberg had previous used to shoot Solovyov’s Melodies of a White Night (1978), which was successfully processed in Japan, but by the time Tarkovsky had filmed all his exteriors and depleted 2/3 of his budget, the exposed film was pronounced unusable. The Soviet lab blamed Rerberg and Rerberg blamed the lab.

By the time Stalker was finished in 1979, its production had become a microcosm of convoluted Soviet bureaucracy: the film had been fully rebooted three times over; Rerberg had been fired, another cinematographer (Leonid Kalashnikov) came and went, and a third (Alexander Knyazhinsky) eventually completed the film; a similar stream of art directors followed; production had been suspended for half a year, during which time Tarkovsky suffered a heart attack and the Stalker character was completely re-envisioned.

In the end, Tarkovsky only credited Knyazhinsky with the cinematography and himself with the production design even though those who had seen all versions of the film claim the images and designs are nearly identical (Maiboroda confirms this by comparing extant frames). A dark irony: the one authentic Rerberg shot that remains in the film is an image of a whirlwind swirling above a frothing, polluted river, an image often cited by those familiar with the production as a possible cause for the lung cancer deaths of Tarkovsky, Larissa, and actor Anatoli Solonitsyn a few years later. (For a more detailed description of the film’s tragic history, check out the fascinating article by Evgeny Tsymbal, who assisted on Stalker and appears in Maiboroda’s film, in Nathan Dunne’s Tarkovsky collection.)

Stalker has often been interpreted as a harbinger of the ecological ruin of Chernobyl, but Maiboroda goes one step further and suggests the film’s tortured production anticipated the disintegration of the entire Soviet Union in that “Tarkovsky lost mental and emotional control, leading to a collapse of human relations in the film crew.” In the film, Rerberg says, “Tarkovsky got his picture but through a heap of corpses and triple takes.”

Tarkovsky’s histrionic condemnation of Rerberg published in his diary speaks for itself:

“Rerberg is responsible [for the production’s initial failure] as well . . . he has made a mockery of the principles of art, of talent. He decided that talent was tatamount to himself–and therefore he degraded and destroyed it, as he did himself; through drink, lack of faith, baseness and vulgarity. He’s a disreputable whore.”

In their 1994 book on the filmmaker, Johnson and Petrie describe Tarkovsky’s interpersonal relations in vacillating terms:

“The loyalty, devotion, and love of most of those who worked with him are clearly attested to in what follows, and many, including Susan Fleetwood, Alexander Kaidanovsky, Margarita Terekhova, and Nikolai Grinko, spoke warmly of the ‘love’ and ‘kindness’ that they received in return. The often unpleasant obverse to this, however, was the irrational possessiveness that Tarkovsky displayed over those who worked with him . . . on the other hand, it may more innocently reflect another characteristic much commented on by those who knew and worked with him: his essentially childlike nature.”

Maiboroda’s point of departure is Rerberg’s stated opinion that “the process of creating a shot is determined by the life position of an artist, which is determined by the time and country he lives in, the cultural level of the artist, his human relations, as well as his psychological and physical characteristics.” Maiboroda traces Rerberg’s career from Andrei Konchalovsky’s first feature, The Story of Asya Klyachina (1966) to the international veneration of Mirror, still often cited as Tarkovsky’s masterpiece. Like Tarkovsky, Rerberg adored Leonardo da Vinci and “poetic naturalism,” and the cinematographers Sven Nykvist (who worked with Bergman) and Gianni Di Venanzo (who worked with Antonioni and Fellini). Rerberg, who considered his work on Mirror a career high, says, “Andrei made a film about himself and I made a film about myself; luckily, they were the same film.” Tarkovsky’s sister Marina states that “Mirror was the work of an ingenious director and an ingenious director of photography” who “knew how to shoot things in their history” in “dialectics of decay and extinction.” The stunning synergy of Tarkovsky and Rerberg’s success makes their subsequent parting over Stalker all the more painful.

Maiboroda’s film isn’t linear; it jumps between time frames in detailing the Rerberg dynasty, and spends a significant amount of time highlighting one of Rerberg’s artistic models, conductor Evgeny Mravinsky, for counterpoint, intercutting concert footage and interviews in which Mravinsky describes his structured creative process. The film is an unapologetic tribute to Rerberg, who spent his final years shooting television commercials in post-Soviet Russia, and it’s one that’s quick to build a case for Tarkovsky’s creative turmoil (though it reserves its most damning critiques for Larissa) even as it celebrates the astonishing work of the two artists at the peak of their powers.

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