An Interview: Andrei Tarkovsky

In your view, how is it possible to reconcile the historical truth with the tendentiousness of contemporary artists? There is no need to reconcile them. It will work out in any case, even if you only set yourself the task of reconstructing reality on the basis of historical materials. Artists are tendentious and are obliged to be so. Whether they want to be so or not, they are tendentious. If they speak up on something they are already expressing some kind of opinion, some kind of attitude.

In the film we are speaking about Andrei’s character, about the meaning of his art, and about his perception of his surroundings. And no historiographer can tell us that things were different. After all nothing is known about this. Violence against the material is not only admissible, but even necessary. Any events which the artist describes will always be deformed according to the ideas he professes.

To what extent did you concern yourself with the precise reconstruction of everyday objects and cultural monuments? We shot our film in Vladimir, Suzdal’, on the Nerl river, in Pskov, Izborsk, Pechery, and among architectural monuments from that era of the fourteenth-fifteenth centuries. But at the same time we always tried to avoid a museum-like attitude towards history. That is to say we did not seek to present these architectural monuments in any special way, we treated them in the manner in which, if we were shooting a film about modern life, we would treat regular buildings like those on the street. It was the same way with everyday objects; we wanted to avoid treating them as props or something exotic; we wanted the objects of material culture to be perceived from the screen just as the things that surround us in daily life are perceived. In this respect everything in the film is absolutely precise. The main thing for us was always the events themselves, the people that acted in them, and the characters of these people.

One could probably say the same about the language of the film? Yes, about the language, about the montage, and about our working method with actors: everything was in this way. We wanted to make a picture that would be comprehensible to the modern viewer without departing from the truth, without resorting to some special plastic expressivity that underscores the theme’s historicism and raises the story onto the “buskins of eternity,” which removes the protagonists from the real earth. In this respect Eisenstein’s historical films, for example, demonstrate the opposite tendency. In his films if he shows a chair, for example, then it looks like a palace. He plays on it as if it was the most unique relic from the Kremlin Armoury. We thought that such an attitude distracts viewers and obscures his perception of what is most important, while we tried to concentrate all attention on the problems, on the psychology of actions, and on human characters. We wanted the screen to provide, so to speak, a chronicle of the fifteenth century, to make the distance in time as unnoticeable and as shortened as possible. We tried not to shock and not to surprise, but to make the viewer feel all of it as flesh of the flesh, blood of the blood of Russia.

But the cruelty in the film is shown precisely to shock and stun the viewers. And this may even repel them. No, I don’t agree. This does not hinder viewer perception. Moreover we did all this quite sensitively. I can name films that show much more cruel things, compared to which ours looks quite modest. True, we showed this aspect of life in concentrated fashion, but at the same time with reserve. Moreover, as I have said, the time was so cruel that in this manner, increasing the tension in individual parts, we were able to preserve the necessary balance between the dark and light aspects of the time, a balance that was required by our fidelity to historical truth.

God, look at the chronicles. At that very same time in the fifteenth century Dmitrii, the prince of Smolensk, started eying the wife of one of his neighboring princes. Note that there were no social reasons for hostility, he simply “coveted his neighbor’s wife.” So what did he do? He attacked his neighbor, killed him, burnt his lands, sacked the city, killed a mass of people, and captured the prince’s wife. However, despite her reputation as a somewhat frivolous woman, she refused to go to him. Then he ordered her quartered on the square and thrown into the river Tver’. And our chronicles are filled with such events. One can’t simply be silent about it. Otherwise we would violate the truth of history.

I know why you mention this. It’s all because of those rumors… We didn’t burn the cow: she was covered in asbestos. And we took the horse from the slaughterhouse. If we didn’t kill her that day, she would have been killed the next day in the same way. We did not think up any special torments, so to speak, for the horse.

When The Battleship Potemkin was released Eisenstein was accused of all manner of things. They couldn’t forgive him the maggots in the meat, the woman’s runny eye, or the invalid who jumps around on his stumps, nor the famous pram that rolls down the staircase. It’s easy to say now: “Oh, Potemkin!” But what didn’t the director have to put up with at the time? Talk to people who witnessed all of this. They can tell you more. It’s always the same, this isn’t the first time. We are judged not by what we did or wanted to do, but we are judged by people who don’t want to understand the work as a whole or even to look at it. Instead they isolate individual fragments and details, clutching to them and trying to prove that there is some special, main point in them. This is delirium, it’s metaphysics that has nothing to do with an analysis of the work. And this occurs not only with respect to my picture. You see the same thing left and right. I want you to keep that in the interview.

Compare it to a mosaic. You can stick your nose into some fragment, beat it with your fist, and yell: “Why is it black here? It shouldn’t be black here! I don’t like looking at black!” But you have to look at a mosaic from afar and on the whole, and if you change one color the whole thing falls apart.

Too often we judge things by the details. We criticize a work, taking some detail out of it, not wanting to understand the function it performs in the whole. If we didn’t say anything about the cruelty of the epoch I am sure that the novella about the bell would never have attained such power, and the music and Rublev’s painting that is shot in color would not sound the same. Only here, together with the last shot, perhaps, does the general idea of the film develop. Unless we take pains about the separate details without contemplating the functional significance they have for the whole, we are not artists. And critics who judge us in this way are not critics. As far as the general idea of the film is concerned, I do not doubt it for an instant and am totally convinced that I am right, as is everyone else in fact. But we are pecked at for trifles…

How do you view other directors who have worked in the genre of historical films? Eisenstein in particular. It is difficult for me to speak about him because I am afraid of being misunderstood. Beyond a doubt, I consider Eisenstein a great director and regard him highly. I really love Strike, The Battleship Potemkin, and The Old and the New, but I cannot accept his historical pictures. I think they are unusually theatrical. Incidentally, Dovzhenko spoke exhaustively about this; perhaps they had some kind of problem with each other. Major artists often have sharp conflicts amongst themselves, but in any case his words “A daytime opera” seem correct. Because everything is flimsy. Cinema should capture life in the forms in which it exists and use images of life itself. It is the most realistic art form in terms of form. The form in which the cinematic shot exists should be a reflection of the forms of real life. The director has only to choose the moments he will capture and to construct a whole out of them.

In other words, cinema cannot adopt the degree of convention that Eisenstein used in Ivan the Terrible? It should not, in my view. Moreover I have information that in the last days of his life Eisenstein himself arrived at completely different positions on this matter, which he mentions in one of his letters. The point is that the mis-en-scene, which up to that point had been conventional in his films and expressed some general idea, was supposed to stop being like this. It was supposed to be a finished slice of life, and not to be subordinated to some exterior dramaturgy that always shows the viewer the ceiling against which he keeps hitting his head, and in the best case the viewer sees no further than the idea he is assigned. He feels as if he’s in a good theatre, but doesn’t see life in what is shown to him on the screen.

Let’s take Alexander Nevsky for example. There is the scene of the battle on ice, which is edited perfectly like the entire film. But Eisenstein ignored the truth of the instant and the truth of the very life he was filming. The characters wave their swords in a fake and forced manner, slowly and ridiculously. You can see it is staged, and staged badly. And all of it is edited in a particular rhythm to create the rhythm of the battle which the director needs. This lack of correspondence fragments the episode into disconnected parts. Moreover there are these wooden ice-floes which break up in a swimming pool according to an obviously intentional pattern. It’s impossible to watch. Cinema is an absolute art that cannot bear falsity in its movement. Therefore the film falls apart. The inner rhythm of its shots does not agree with the principle of montage. No matter how wonderful Prokofiev’s music is, no matter how masterfully Eisenstein edited it, it doesn’t save the picture. In the artistic sense I consider it a failure.

Did you use anything from Eisenstein’s work on historical film? No, nothing. Moreover, we wanted to do everything differently. If the action of Eisenstein’s films occurs in a kind of sterile, museum-like, almost artificial environment, we wanted the characters in our film to breathe the same air as today’s viewers, so that the events of the film were life itself, so that all of it was not spectacle, but human experience. Of course, Eisenstein uttered profound ideas in his pictures. But we would like to work in a totally different manner than Eisenstein with respect to plastics. That’s just natural. No self-respecting artist would adopt an alien creative conception. One should have one’s own.

And how do you feel about historical costume thrillers such as Cleopatra? What can I say about that? That’s a commercial spectacle intended to impress the imagination of simple people. And even then Cleopatra, I understand, was a fiasco. Viewers are no longer interested in such pictures. Historical pictures must not be staged as costume dramas. That’s a mistake. Take, for example, The Tale of Tsar Sultan, although that’s a somewhat different genre, a fairy-tale [1]. Everything there is fake, bad theatre, tasteless. It’s so monstrous that it’s not even worth talking about this film. But one could make such a grandiose film of it!