Zerkalo is an elusive autobiographical film poem in which Tarkovsky implicitly mixes his own childhood memories of the Russian countryside with a collective (Russian) history. This associative collage melts together the thoughts, emotions and memories of Aleksei as a child, adolescent and forty-year-old, and the poetry of Tarkovsky’s father Arseny, fragments of classical music by Bach, Pergolesi and Purcell, and archival material from the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War. He reminisces about his childhood before and during the war, about his relationship with his mother and his father’s sporadic visits. In the present, Aleksei is arguing with his wife over their son. Alternating between colour and black-and-white images, Zerkalo unfolds like a dreamy mosaic moving back and forth in time, chronicling the life of a man throughout the 20th century, in a zone where the past isn’t past but haunts the present. By having the same actress play both Aleksei’s mother and wife, Tarkovsky’s childhood – life with a single mother – is reflected in his own relationships. As Tarkovsky put it: “It’s the story of my mother and therefore a part of my own life... The film contains only true events. It’s a confession.” The film encountered such resistance from the Soviet authorities that Tarkovsky toyed with the idea of giving up filmmaking. However, letters from admirers kept him from doing so. In the introduction to his book Sculpting in Time he quotes one of these letters: “I am grateful to you for Zerkalo. I’ve had the exact same childhood... How could you know?”
“The subject of my film is a man who unites women and children. However, he is not accomplished as a son or a husband, and the children lack a man, a father. So, he’s the storyteller, he stays off-screen. We only see him when he is six, and then when he is twelve, during the war. Relationships have been broken and the storyteller has to renew them, in order to find his moral equilibrium, but he is unable to do so. He lives with the hope that he will be able to pay his love debt back, but that debt is one which nobody can get rid of. Women can only destroy everything. No, no, I’m joking. We can understand their role in this way, but we love them, they brought us up, they made us the way we are. They are steadfast, they want to maintain the child in us, whereas we are already old men. The Mirror is not a casual title. The storyteller perceives his wife as the continuation of his mother, because wives resemble mothers, and errors repeat themselves – a strange reflection. Repetition is a law, experience does not get transmitted, everyone has to live it.”
Bérénice Reynaud: Why Mirror?
Olivier Assayas: What interests me in cinema is not cinema itself, but what cinema, as an exploratory tool, catches in its nets. So for me Mirror is not a film, it is something that goes beyond cinema – to delve into issues of memory and remembrance, and relationship between memory and perception. Mirror is a first-person narration about a man who recounts sensations he once experienced and is attempting to “reconstruct” them, as Proust would say. And he does so not as a filmmaker, but a poet: he uses cinema to create correspondences between materials, odours, colours, faces, the way poetry, by putting words together, allows us to reconstruct a particular feeling. Mirror is a sort of dreamlike cinema verite, based on this idea which is crucial in Tarkovsy’s work – that the object of cinema is not to film the real, but to film perception.
Bérénice Reynaud in conversation with Olivier Assayas2
“A woman wrote from Gorky: “Thank you for Mirror. My childhood was like that... Only how did you know about it? There was that wind, and the thunderstorm... “Galka, put the cat out,” cried my Grandmother... It was dark in the room... And the paraffin lamp went out, too, and the feeling of waiting for my mother to come back filled my entire soul... And how beautifully your film shows the awakening of a child's consciousness, of this thought!... And Lord, how true... we really don't know our mothers’ faces. And how simple;.. You know, in that dark cinema, looking at a piece of canvas lit up by your talent, I felt for the first time in my life that I was not alone...” I spent so many years being told that nobody wanted or understood my films, that a response like that warmed my very soul; it gave meaning to what I was doing and strengthened my conviction that I was right and that there was nothing accidental about the path I had chosen.
“When film is not a document, it is dream. That is why Tarkovsky is the greatest of them all. He moves with such naturalness in the room of dreams. He doesn’t explain. What should he explain anyhow? He is a spectator, capable of staging his visions in the most unwieldy but, in a way, the most willing of media. All my life I have hammered on the doors of the rooms in which he moves so naturally. Only a few times have I managed to creep inside.”
“lf you look for a meaning, you will miss everything that happens... there’s no way [a work of art] can be analyzed without destroying it.”
“I am seeking a principle of montage that will allow me to expose the subjective logic – the thought, the dream, the memory – instead of the logic of the subject.”
“I’ve noticed, from my experience, if the external, emotional construction of images in a film are based on the filmmaker’s own memory, on the kinship of one’s personal experience with the fabric of the film, then the film will have the power to affect those who see it.”
“Even after all these years, the reminiscences of Marsha in Tarkovsky’s film remain unforgettable for me. Under the rules of the Chinese Communist Party, every single one of our actions was political. Our lives were bound by politics, with no way out. Our emotions and our spirits were alienated. We could not give free rein to happiness and love.”
“For the first time," he resolved, "I would use the means of cinema to talk of all that was most precious to me, and do so directly, without playing any kind of tricks." Tarkovsky needed twenty rough cuts before arriving at the film’s intricately interflowing system of flashbacks and archival footage, often interpreted as unfolding in a dying artist’s final rays of consciousness. While Mirror, like all Tarkovsky’s films, pays homage to painting, music, and poetry, it also makes plain that the Russian director understood Mnemosyne to be the mother of the muses. Being a poet, he sought not only to retrieve the past but to reveal its essence – and in so doing to redeem an inherently flawed present. "The story not of the filmmaker’s life," observes Tarkovsky scholar Robert Bird, "but of his visual imagination.”
Harvard Film Archive
Tonino Guerra: What images do you think you’ve “stolen” from someone else, even though you’ve obviously transformed them into your own style?
Andrei Tarkovsky: I’m generally very wary of this and I try to avoid it. I don't like the suggestion that I may not have acted in such or such a situation with complete independence. Yet, lately, these references begin to interest me. In The Mirror for instance, there are two or three shots that are very clearly inspired by Brueghel: the boy, the small silhouettes of men, the snow, the bare trees, and the river in the distance. I created these shots very consciously and deliberately, not with the idea of copying or to show culture but to bear witness to my love for Brueghel, of my dependence on him, of the deep impression that he has made on my life.
Tonino Guerra in conversation with Andrei Tarkovsky5
- 1Andrei Tarkovsky, ‘The Artist Lives Off His Childhood like a Parasite: An Interview with the Author of The Mirror,’ interview by Claire Devarrieux, Le Monde, 20 January 1978. Reprinted and translated in Andrei Tarkovsky. Interviews, ed. by John Gianvito (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2006).
- 2Bérénice Reynaud, ‘Tarkovsky. Seeing is Believing,’ Sight & Sound, January 1997, vol. 7, issue 1.
- 3Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time. Reflections on the Cinema (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1989).
- 4Ingmar Bergman, The Magic Lantern: An Autobiography (Penguin Books: New York, 1988).
- 5Andrei Tarkovsky, ‘Stalker, Smuggler of Happiness,’ interview by Tonino Guerra, Télérama, no. 1535, 13 June 1979. Reprinted and translated in Andrei Tarkovsky. Interviews, ed. by John Gianvito (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2006).