Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror
The Mirror and Poetry
The Mirror (Zerkalo or The Bright, Bright Day) is a poem. This is the key to understanding the movie. It is a ciné-poem, complete with metaphors, allusions, references, historicity, lyricism, concrete and abstract images, a number of voices, motifs and symbols, autobiography, stanzas and refrains. Some images correspond to a line in a poem, while the refrains and links are the shots of fire which fade to black. If one thinks of The Mirror poetically, then the form – the overlapping, the montages, the merging of imagery and events from the past and present – becomes clear. The spectator has to make an effort to unravel the components of the piece, has to fill in gaps and re-order the events, but it makes sense in the end.
The Mirror begins with one of the most poetic ten or fifteen minutes in cinema: from the moment where Maria is sitting on the fence, to the house on fire, then after that to the hair-washing and rain-filled room sequence. There is so much going on, so much that is startling. Only a few movies – like The Magnificent Ambersons or Akira – have a similarly miraculous first reel. Oliver Assays reckoned (in 1997) that the post-credits sequence is “one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen in the movies”. Absolutely.
The Mirror is Andrei Tarkovsky’s beloved project, one he (seems to have) wanted to make for a long time (it remained his favourite movie, and closest to his concept of cinema). It is loosely autobiographical, and combines many elements, from poetry read in voiceover by the director’s father Arseny Tarkovsky, to dream sequences, flashbacks, newsreel and mnemonics (memory devices). The movie is a poetic exploration of childhood: the long dolly shots around the old house in the country and the Moscow apartment explore the spaces of childhood, the geography of memory: the table was there, the chair was here, the window was there, and so on. A movie of acutely remembered places. Film as personal psychogeography, self-reflexive, even indulgent, recalling Federico Fellini’s 8½ (1963) and Amarcord (1973), classics of the autobiographical or personal movie genre (Ulysses’ Gaze (Theo Angelopoulos, 1995) is another). For Oliver Assayas, The Mirror was about film perception, a film which went beyond cinema, into “issues of memory and remembrance, and the relationship between memory and perception”.
One of the fan letters (which Andrei Tarkovsky quoted in his diary) enthused about The Mirror:
“it is your best film, it is a film about life, the most truthful and realistic film of life that we have ever seen. How is it that you have such amazingly subtle understanding of all the confusion, complexity and splendour of life?”
“I believe if one tells the truth, some kind of inner truth, one will always be understood”, Andrei Tarkovsky commented, pace The Mirror. In cinema, Tarkovsky said he wanted both the documentary, factual approach, in which every detail must be accurate, and the emotional, subjective, inner truth.
(But although The Mirror would be “a film built in its entirety on personal experience”, it wouldn’t, as Andrei Tarkovsky maintained in Sculpting in Time, be Andrei Tarkovsky talking about himself. It was, rather, ultimately a movie about feelings: about his feelings towards his loved ones and relatives, and about his own inadequacy – “my feeling of duty left unfulfilled”).
In a 1975 interview, Andrei Tarkovsky said pace The Mirror that “there are no entertaining moments in the movie. In fact I am categorically against entertainment in cinema: it is as degrading for the author as it is for the audience.” That’s a typical Tarkovskyan comment (but he’s totally, utterly wrong about entertainment, I think). Tarkovsky also took a dim view of art’s ability to educate, too: “art cannot teach anyone anything, since in four thousand years humanity has learnt nothing at all.” Art shouldn’t explain, or prove, or answer questions, Tarkovsky said.
According to Andrei Tarkovsky’s diary, The Mirror was allocated 622,000 roubles (a small budget; about $2.5 million) and 7,500 metres of Kodak film. Filming began in September, 1973 and finished in March, 1974. The Mirror was not sent to Cannes (Tarkovsky and co-writer Alexander Misharin blamed Filip Yermash, Goskino’s chairman, for this). It was released in the Soviet Union in early 1975 at a third (then second) distribution category.
The 1975 film had a number of titles. It was The Bright, Bright Day (or The White, White Day) for a long time (this title comes from one of Arseny Tarkovsky’s poems). In February, 1973 Tarkovsky wrote: “I don’t like The Bright Day as a title. It’s limp. Martyrology is better, only nobody knows what it means; and when they find out they won’t allow it. Redemption is a bit flat, it smacks of Vera Panova. Confession is pretentious. Why Are You Standing So Far Away? is better, but obscure.” It’s not just in pre-1989 Soviet Russia where filmmakers were forbidden to use a title by state institutions. In the West, titles are not copyrighted (at least in the UK), but it would be a foolish company, however, that tried using names such as “Disney”, “MacDonald’s” or “Coca Cola” on a product or service, those corporations being notorious for the number of litigations they pursue). But Tarkovsky is not to referring to another studio, company or artist who might prevent him from using a title, but to the Soviet authorities.
Mirror started to take shape around 1968, when Andrei Tarkovsky worked with his co-writer, Alexander Misharin (Tarkovsky had asked Misharin to help him edit the script of Andrei Roublyov, which Misharin had been reluctant to do, because Andrei Konchalovsky was the writer, but wasn’t around at the time. Misharin helped Tarkovsky to cut out a whole section of Andrei Roublyov).
Andrei Tarkovsky had originally planned filming interviews with his mother with a concealed camera, using questions such as “when did you begin smoking?”, “do you like animals?”, “are you superstitious?”, “are men or women stronger, do you think?”, “do you ever have friends outside your circle?”, “do you always speak the truth?”, “what would make you especially happy now?”, “have you ever envied youth?”, “which are your favourite poems?”, “are you capable of hatred?”, “which part of your life would you say was happy?”, “what do you think about space travel?”, “do you like Bach?”, “what do you remember about the war with Spain?”, “what was the funniest thing that ever happened to you?”, “are you a good swimmer?”, “do you remember the day when you sensed you would become a mother for the first time?”, “which is your favourite season?”, “have you ever starved?”, “what do you think about war?”, “what is freedom?”, “how many years did you work at the printers?”, and “are you scared of the dark?”.
The Mirror, according to the script A Bright, Bright Day (Mosfilm, 1973), was going to have less documentary footage and more memories of Tarkovsky’s childhood. The narrator was going to quote from Aleksandr Pushkin’s “The Prophet” (a favourite Tarkovsky text) and walk past a funeral at a cemetery, encouraging the narrator to muse on life and death.
The Bright, Bright Day screenplay had opened with a scene in a cemetery, and a funeral. Scenes included the demolition of a church in 1939; the mother selling flowers in a market; a horse riding lesson; a scene at a ractrack; and a forest scene at night.
“I wanted to tell the story of the pain suffered by one man because he feels he cannot repay his family for all they have given him [Tarkovsky wrote in Sculpting in Time]. He feels he hasn’t loved them enough, and this idea torments him and will not let him be.”
The Mosfilm movie would be about a mother, Andrei Tarkovsky said: “any mother capable of arousing an interest in the authors,” Andrei Tarkovsky and Alexander Misharin wrote in their proposal for The Mirror (when the film was called Confession): “as all mothers, she must have had a full and fascinating life. This must be the ordinary story of a life, with its hopes, its faith, its grief and its joys”. The concept, according to Misharin and Tarkovsky, was to trace the “spiritual organization of our society” through “the rightful fate of one person; a person whom we know and love, who is called Mother”.
The narrator in The Mirror is strictly a narrator, in the technical, literary sense of the term. Rather than being the narrator of a novel, however, The Mirror’s narrator is the narrator of poetry, because The Mirror is a ciné-poem, rather than the cinematic adaption of a novel. (And, to reinforce that, The Mirror quotes from poetry far more than novels). So, although he is heard off-screen, interacts with characters (chiefly with Natalia), and is glimpsed briefly on his death bed, he is still not really meant to be a flesh-and-blood character like Maria, Ignat or Natalia. He is the narrator of the poem that is the movie.
The script continually evolved, with daily rewrites (that’s normal on many movies, but The Mirror had a loose structure, which could accommodate all sorts of additions or alterations. As Andrei Tarkovsky wrote in Sculpting in Time, “a great deal was finally thought out, formulated, built up, only in the course of shooting”). Tarkovsky acknowledged that The Mirror was the most complex of his films structurally and dramatically. The stuttering and hypnotism scene (which opens the film) was probably going to be put somewhere in the middle of the film, because the twelve year-old Ignat is seen turning on the television in the present-day Moscow apartment. Ignat would thus have been introduced differently. A likely opening of The Mirror would have been: (1) the titles followed by (2) the long tracking shot around the narrator’s apartment, establishing the present-day location, and the narrator, then (3) the printing works scene, then (4) the mother and doctor scene in the field.
The post-production of The Mirror was troublesome because the first rough cuts of the movie didn’t work (and it wasn’t simply a case of the filmmakers hating the first rough cut, as they so often do). The Mirror was “extremely difficult to edit”, Andrei Tarkovsky confessed (my emphasis). The movie, as Alexander Misharin noted, had too many scenes and too many themes, and they couldn’t be arranged by editor Lyudmilla Feiginova into a form that satisfied everyone. If the scenes were arranged in a particular pattern, Misharin said, some other scenes would be left out. There was a moment of revelation when the 34 or so scenes fell into the final form. As Misharin told it, Tarkovsky’s wife Larissa had sewn a kind of sack with pockets in it, which they hung on the wall and placed the scenes in each pocket. As if by a miracle, Misharin remembered, both he and Tarkovsky had seized the scenes at the same time and shuffled them into the same order. After that, the post-production of The Mirror continued without problems.
Alexander Misharin recalled that the writing process on The Mirror had been intense for a time: he and Andrei Tarkovsky had shut themselves away for three or so weeks and wrote every day. They employed a common practice among co-writers: they wrote scenes on their own, then swapped them and edited the other’s scenes. Misharin said people reckoned they knew which were the scenes Tarkovsky had written and which were his, but often the opposite was the case. The Mirror was not only about Tarkovsky’s past and family; there was plenty of Misharin’s background in there, too. Misharin recalled that he and Tarkovsky only fell out seriously once or twice.
The newsreel footage in The Mirror is a substantial element in the movie. It is gathered from all sorts of sources, the result of anonymous camera teams, and from so many places – throughout Russia, but also in China, in Berlin, in Spain, in Prague, and in Hiroshima. A lot of the footage is familiar from the countless documentaries on World War Two, on Russian history, on Nazi Germany, and on 20th century history (there are whole cable and satellite channels now dedicated to airing this kind of material).
But Andrei Tarkovsky deploys it in quite different manner from the typical TV documentary. There are no captions and no voiceovers identifying the many images and historical events. And none of the characters in The Mirror refer to the footage, or even to the events depicted in the newsreels. Instead, Tarkovsky relies on the viewer’s knowledge of history to fill in the gaps. Some of the newsreel will be familiar (the nuclear bomb explosions require no gloss). But much of it will be unknown to many in the audience. At the same time, viewers will not need to know where and when some of the newsreels were shot. The remarkable footage of the Soviet balloonists, for example, or the moving images of soldiers trudging doggedly through mud and water do not require the viewer to know all the details. (Editor Lyudmilla Feiginova does employ one of the standard devices of TV news and documentaries: she and sound man Semyon Litvinov add studio sound effects to footage that was shot silent (as a lot of it was).)
Some viewers and critics were confused by the use of the same actors for different roles in The Mirror (even though this is a not uncommon strategy: it’s used in the Back To the Future series [1985-90], for instance, and other time travel movies. A famous instance occurs in The Wizard of Oz , although that’s not time travel).
Part of the point of using the same actors and actresses for the mother/ wife and narrator/ son is to show that the past and present are connected and interfuse. The present exists beside the past, not only in dreams and memories, but also in people, in their faces, personalities and actions. There is a historical, social and personal continuity. One cannot escape the influence of the past, and the same situations are re-enacted (for example, the 1930s family is broken, and the present-day husband and wife have parted). Cinema works at the point of viewing in a continuous present, yet it is always, as Jean Cocteau said, “filmed death”. The past and present are bound up tightly together in the last shot of the film: Maria is there, and Maria as an old woman with Maria’s two children (the old woman doubles as a grandmother). Matriarchy and female solidarity is affirmed, as is generation-to-generation continuity, ambiguity and sadness.
“I should like to ask you all not to be so demanding, and not to think of The Mirror as a difficult film”, Andrei Tarkovsky asserted in 1975. It is no more than a straightforward, simple story. It doesn’t have to be made any more understandable.
Structurally, there are two moments in the past that are explored in The Mirror: 1935-36, 1942-43, and the present (c. 1974). The movie principally takes place in these three time zones (discounting the newsreels), and in, primarily, two locations: a modern day apartment in Moscow, where the narrator lives (but is not seen); and the dacha (house) in the country, where the narrator lived as a boy with his mother, while his father was away at war or in the services. Characters are compared to each other, while others are irreconcilably opposed. (The newsreels, though, are roughly chronological).
Past (1935 and 1942) > Present (about 1974)
Maria, the mother > Natalia, the modern wife/ mother
Children’s grandmother > Maria as an old woman (and the narrator’s mother)
Aleksei, aged 5
Aleksei, aged 12 > Ignat, aged 12
Father (soldier) > Aleksei, the narrator
The mother and the boy of the past also dwell in the present. There are further complexities: Andrei Tarkovsky’s real father reads his own poems (but the poetry in the movie is not identified as by Arseny Tarkovsky), while Tarkovsky’s own mother appears as the grandmother (Maria as an old woman), and the grandmother in the 1935-36 scenes (or she is Maria as an old woman transposed to the past).
Pier Paolo Pasolini had cast his mother to play the aged Virgin Mary in The Gospel According to Matthew (and Martin Scorsese liked to use his mother in minor roles). Andrei Tarkovsky’s own step-daughter was the red-haired beloved of the teenage Aleksei, and Tarkovsky’s second wife, Larissa Tarkovskaya, played the doctor’s wife. The dacha of the past is built on (the foundations of) Tarkovsky’s real childhood home (it was important for Tarkovsky to build his childhood home in the exact spot it had once stood). The movie is one long evocation of one person’s childhood. It might have turned out self-indulgent and pretentious. Instead it is magnificent and profound.
The Mirror as Spiritual (Auto)Biography
“The function of the image, as Gogol said, is to express life itself, not ideas or arguments about life. It does not signify life or symbolise it, but embodies it, expressing its uniqueness.” – Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting In Time
As an evocation of childhood, the yearning, mystery and pain of it, The Mirror is unsurpassed in cinema. True, Andrei Tarkovsky does simplify things by missing out the agony of adolescence. Instead he chooses two ages, five and twelve, in which children are still children, and not restless, disaffected, disappointed teenagers. The movie could be extended indefinitely through a variety of age ranges: 2, 8, 15, 19, 26, and so on. Tarkovsky also excludes a crucial part of childhood – education and school; also, the child’s relations with other children. By leaving out school and friends, Tarkovsky presents a highly selective view of childhood. For Tarkovsky, childhood is largely a lonely experience, with parental affection a rarity.
The Mirror also acts as the spiritual biography of an age: the eras of 1935-36 and 1942-43 are so poignantly evoked by the newsreels. These images, seemingly a world away from an intimate portrait of childhood, fuse beautifully with the rest of the film. There are moments of forced symbolism – the narrator releasing the bird, for instance, which is intended to relate to his death. It is a motif out of the dumbest pop promo (don’t Queen have a video where Freddie releases a white dove?). The movie, though, soars above pretension and artifice by the magnitude of its passion. There is no denying the lucidity and poetic authenticity of these mnemonic images. The Mirror is the closest thing in cinema to a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, Arthur Rimbaud or C.P. Cavafy, those masters of the poetry of nostalgia. Like the poems of Rilke, Cavafy and Rimbaud, The Mirror is a dense mesh of constellations of images and memories, a veritable mnemonic banquet. It is a movie of fierce self-reflexive intensity – something like Rimbaud in his poem of childhood ‘Les poètes de sept ans’. Among the thousands of mainstream (Hollywood) movies that try to depict children and childhood, very few come close to the luminous authenticity of The Mirror. Yet The Mirror never slips into easy sentimentality (although it does come close once or twice). It never becomes complacent or banal. It is marvellously self-reflexive, yet avoids all the traps of inwardly-looking art. Though unashamedly introspective, The Mirror virtually achieves a universal transcendence.
This text was originally published as ‘Mirror’ in Andrei Tarkovsky. Pocket Guide, published by Crescent Moon Publishing in 2011.
Many thanks to Jeremy Robinson
Images from Zerkalo [The Mirror] (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1975)