| Arts & Culture
Movies Looking into the Reflections of Andrei Tarkovsky’s ‘Mirror’
The filmmaker’s retreat from the conventions of Socialist realism—patriotism, militarism, subservience—becomes a journey to locate the self outside the strictures of state ideology.
I was in a small town by the river, waiting for a train back to Moscow. Summer stars were out. The air was strange and unfamiliar. Beside a monument to Soviet workers, an overweight man dropped his bag, scattering coins on the platform. I rushed to help gather them, but he brushed me off.
“Nyet,” he said. “Nyet.”
Minutes later, when the train arrived, I felt a surge of feeling known to many travellers: a mix of thrill and anxiety. The night, I sensed, would be long. When I found my carriage, there was a scent of burnt coffee and old prayers. And also: pee. I dumped my bags on a lower bunk and began to shift the neat pile of pillows and blankets. Almost immediately, a woman dressed in a dark-blue uniform appeared in the doorway. She had a roughshod arrogance that came with her authority as a steward. In Russian, they are known as provodnitsy and have legendary tempers. Mine was no exception. She began dressing me down, breathlessly, and when it became clear I couldn’t understand her, she began to shout.
I weighed my words, deciding on silence.
She gave an ill-tempered, “Pah!”
Left alone, I found myself sitting in the dark. With such an antique train, the lights were faulty. I listened to the sound of other passengers boarding, the exquisite patter of their footsteps, the thump of their luggage, the little spats between couples and cousins and children.
I was in Russia at the invitation of a curator, Sasha Ahmadshina, who’d organized a festival celebrating the filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. Having first encountered Tarkovsky’s work in college, my enchantment at its grand entanglement of history, memory, and poetry had only deepened. I found myself unable to look away from the screen, its images and themes seeping into my days, particularly when I was in situations that vaguely resembled its scenes. Whenever I encountered a German shepherd at twilight, was caught in summer rain, or glimpsed horses grazing by a stream, I recalled Tarkovsky’s haunted, indelible world.
At the festival, I gave a talk focused on the film Mirror , first shown in 1975, and how its retreat from the conventions of Socialist realism—patriotism, militarism, subservience—makes for a profoundly personal work of art, a journey to locate the self outside the strictures of state ideology. The film follows the memories of a dying poet, Aleksei, and how events in his life reflect historical moments in the Soviet Union. It’s strange, portentous, and sublime. It’s unabashedly literary, with references to Chekhov, Pushkin, Dostoevsky, and Dante. It also does its best to refuse easy summation (such as I’m attempting here) and makes use of newsreel footage to take viewers deep into the twentieth century. Barefoot Russian troops cross Crimea’s Lake Syvash in World War II; families flee Franco’s bombs in the Spanish Civil War; and cosmonauts preparing for a race to the moon take part in surreal, and sometimes fatal, parachute displays.
Mirror is semiautobiographical. After completing the films Ivan’s Childhood, Andrei Rublev , and Solaris , this was to be one straight from Tarkovsky family lore, its intimacies, frustrations, and mysteries. During the preparation for shooting, in 1972, the artist wrote in his diary: “I have started to feel that the time has come when I am ready to make the most important work of my life.” His mother, Maria Vishnyakova, appears in the film as the brooding matriarch; his father’s poems, “First Meetings” and “Life, Life” are recited in sombre voiceover; and Tarkovsky’s rural childhood is evoked throughout.
Returning to the film intermittently over the last two decades, the scenes that have etched themselves in my mind are ones featuring a dacha—that is, a summer house. It is the anchor, woven into the film’s collage-like structure, appearing and reappearing in different light: sunlit, shadowy, and ominous. Characters move in and out of its doors, entering different time periods in Aleksei’s life. Curtains are drawn on a prewar idyll, before a barn burns down and the ceiling falls as his mother washes her hair. The war is coming, along with the disintegration of a marriage.
At times, the house appears to merge with the landscape, becoming a character of its own. This sense of time travel becomes possible because of the way Tarkovsky—and his cinematographer, Georgy Rerberg—captured the quality of late-afternoon light in the forest of Ignatievo, outside Moscow. A spell is cast by sundown, one infused with a melancholy cadence that belongs to old sepia photographs. During pre-production, Tarkovsky drew on a cache of family portraits to help recreate the tactile sense of his childhood. He recreated the compositions of the images, with their double-exposures, reflections, and formal symmetry. Actors wore the same clothes, adopted the same poses. Even the smallest details were critical. Not only did he build an exact replica of the summer house on its original foundations, but he also asked members of the local kolkhoz, a farming collective, to sow the fields with white flowers, just as it had been in the summer of 1935. He wrote in his diary, simply, “At the dacha the buckwheat blossomed.” After a long struggle, everything was in place.
Its retreat from the conventions of Socialist realism—patriotism, militarism, subservience—makes for a profoundly personal work of art, a journey to locate the self outside the strictures of state ideology.
When I encounter the scenes with the summer house, it’s as if I’ve been slipped a pill that allows me to be present in the room with the screen and also to leave the apartment in my mind, taking the stairs to the street. I begin to run, down to the traffic lights and across Bickerton Road and then Dartmouth Park Hill and all the way down past the fruit shop and the strange empty deli and the empty bus stop and the weird construction site with its blinking yellow lights and passed a blonde woman fixing her hair and a balding doctor with blood behind his ear shouting “TOMSHINO.”
Why is an organ playing Bach?
I breathe steady, trying to focus, recalling my own youth: the feel of driving an old Toyota across a muddy field days after I first got my license, the taste of water that came out of the garden hose near the strawberry patch on my grandmother’s farm in the small town of Eureka in Australia, the moment at sunset after I had climbed a hill on my twenty-first birthday and looked back at the city lights, thinking no, there could be no more sublime a sight, only to hear the church bells come on, one by one.
Or as Tarkovsky’s father writes in the poem “Testament”:
I am the first of all your birthday guests
It has been granted me to live with you
To make my way into your nightly dreams
And be reflected in your mirror.
The train was in a tunnel. When we emerged out of the dark, the land spread out to the horizon. Bushes rose among craggy hedges and wooden huts. The lights in farmhouses had the glow of tiny fires. My view was speeding up. Silhouettes of church domes grew out of villages. Birch trees dazzled, close-knit, in silver and pale blue, with flashes of silver light reflected in the damp forest floor. It was very quiet. Or was it? A portable radio was playing somewhere, a sports match, or maybe an orchestral recording from the 1950s. I looked at the shape of my hands in the low light. I looked back out at the steppe. The land was uninterrupted, open to pilgrims. We passed under a bridge and then what looked like the shapes of tanks but might have been trucks or rusted school buses. A night bird drifted on the breeze, above it all.
It grew cold. I was tired and overwrought. My mind rested just below the surface of sleep, and as the train slowed a little, I dropped into a strange dream. I was playing cards with elderly Russian men. Queen of hearts? King? One of them accused me of cheating and began slapping me, over and over. My face was red and swollen. I pleaded with the man but he wouldn’t let up. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m sorry,” before I woke up, my pulse racing. We rattled by cows and a lone figure in high-viz carrying a rake. One of the overhead lights came on, momentarily, before there was a sharp zap, the bulb giving up. I ate a muesli bar and downed some warm orange juice. Shifting along the bed, I felt the juice sloshing around inside me.
I thought of the scene in Mirror where a boy raises his rifle in the snow.
I thought of my grandparents, long dead, and wondered if I would see them again soon.
Looking out among the birches, I longed for someone to hold my hand, to step off the slow-moving carriage into the Russian night. Maybe this hand and I would find a place to sit among the mint grasses until the dawn broke; maybe we’d kiss each other’s palms and whisper about the gulag. Roots, everywhere. Sticks and twigs underfoot. Fish playing in a stream. “How many millions died in World War II?” We would amble about in search of a proper breakfast in Dvoriki or Skekshovo or Yakar and talk about the viral clips of influencers tripping over the wreaths laid out for Putin’s birthday.
An announcement over the tannoy. Something about a delay.
The train passed large piles of rocks and a row of gray warehouses. Telegraph poles sat upright, perfectly in line, as if hammered by a great hand. I tried taking a photograph of one pole, covered in vines, but it was all blur. Trees disappeared. Feather grass was everywhere, occasionally broken up by shallow ravines and gullies. I was hungry and went in search of the dining car, but of course, there was no dining car. In the outer carriage, I had another clash with the provodnitsy. She shoved a menu into my hand, no bigger than a business card. I used an app on my phone to hover over the Cyrillic and discovered the only food available on a Russian night train was pot noodles. Two flavors. “Plain” and “Plain +”—I have no idea what the plus meant, and reader, although I was briefly tempted, I saved my rubles.
Prior to boarding, I had purchased a Russian copy of Nietzsche’s The Gay Science from a second-hand bookshop. My plan was to use the same app that translated pot noodles to decipher Nietzsche’s short paragraphs. When we stopped briefly at a station, the clock on the platform said 4:50AM. My limbs were stiff and sore. I figured any further chance at sleep was unlikely and opened the book. The page lit up under my phone light.
Not wit h my h and alo и e I write:
My foot wants to pa яя ticipate.
Fi я m and f r ee and b б ld, my feet
Run acr o ss t he field—a и d sheet.
Nietzsche seemed to be talking about Mirror . The lines were from a short section called “Writing with One’s Feet.” They stuck in my throat. I began to picture the fields around the summer house, how the children break free of adults to run through the grass and the weeds, how the young Aleksei trips on a hidden branch at the sound of his father’s voice. The fields in my mind’s eye, from Mirror , then began to map onto the dark fields I could see out the window, the ones that marked the earth between grain silos and shrubs. Nietzsche wrote: “Run acr o ss t he field—a и d sheet.” It is blank, first, and then the hand and foot pa яя ticipate. The sheet is filled.
The fields in my mind’s eye, from Mirror, then began to map onto the dark fields I could see out the window, the ones that marked the earth between grain silos and shrubs.
The translation app was miraculous, in its way, a magic wand. But still, it was full of glitches. Cyrillic to English is a tough shift, especially in real-time. The slippage of Nietzsche’s language on my phone, the Wheel-of-Fortune flips, put me in mind of Stalin, ста́лин in Russian. During a black and white scene from Mirror set in the 1930s, Aleksei’s mother, Maria, believes she has made an error proofreading Stalin’s name. Overcome with panic, she trawls through the paper, which has already gone to print. Language, here, is dangerous. The mistake could cost her life, or worse, have her exiled to Siberia. When she finds that her great mistake was only in her mind, that Stalin’s name is safe from harm, she is overcome with relief and flees to the shower. The ideological creep of the printing house is heard in the pipes’ hiss and drone. Maria laughs, free for a moment.
In the prologue to Mirror , a teenager with a stutter is cured. He says, “I can speak.”
Skyscrapers were growing in the distance. The train was coming into Moscow. Sunlight spread out over steel bridges and tower blocks with white lines of washing. Conference centers and kiosks with broken windows popped up between car parks. Statues commemorating the Soviet space program loomed over children’s playgrounds. I was listening to Oscar Peterson play “Take the A Train,” a song I’d last heard on the British Airways in-flight radio. My ears were all piano.
When we finally stopped, the night behind me, I said goodbye to the provodnitsy . She gave me a firm nod as if I’d passed a test. Outside the station, the long line of passengers dispersed into taxis and alleyways and snaking sidestreets. I walked and walked, pulling my luggage behind me. Rounding a turn, a car went by, flashing its lights, and for a moment I was on the steps of the summer house. It was 1932. It was 1975. I knocked, waiting to be let in, waiting for my turn at the mirror.