Mirror stands as a monolith, both for Andrei Tarkovsky’s filmography and in the historiography of Soviet cinema. The poetic structuring of the film’s flow between dream-state, memory, and the present has become a cliche when thinking about Eastern European cinema of the 20th century, not to mention how Tarkovsky’s ear for choral music and eye for the natural textures of long grass and peeling paint have become the calling cards for “arthouse” films everywhere. But as I wrote about last week, film from the Eastern Bloc is often deprived of context, living in a vacuum of history and existing as ethereal artifacts rather than works by an artist in a specific culture at a specific time. It’s been eight years since I last watched Mirror, in that 200 level film history course, at a time I was getting a hunch (that would be proven correct after years and years of examination) that there was more going on with the cinema of the Soviet sphere and that Mirror was an important fulcrum in shifting aesthetics. Revisiting it after dedicating so much time trying to catch up to Tarkovsky in 1974—studying the history of Eastern Europe, reading Russian literature, becoming a student of their cinematic traditions—what I’m stuck by most, despite Tarkovsky and the film’s subsequent reevaluations, just how contemporary, how “Soviet” Mirror really is.
Mirror is discussed as a personal film. Weaving through a childhood in the 1930s, pre-teen years during the war, and the then-present tense of the 1970s, Tarkovsky’s film isn’t even a thinly-veiled retelling of his own life, but a full-fledged filmic reflection of his subjective experience. Most sequences play out in oneiric flows as his ghostly camera parses through his surreal mise-en-scene. In an early phone call with the mother character the present-tense Tarkovsky stand-in asks about her own recollection of an event we’ve already seen, trying to put his finger on when it happened. The camera glides through the stand-in’s decaying apartment, with an Andrei Rublev poster standing out amongst the barky walls. Mirror, both intentionally and not, is a demonstration of Tarkovsky trying to turn his collected experience into a thesis, revisiting and recapturing the images, moments, and memories he can’t get out of his head—what he knows are important but can’t quite grasp as to why.
The initial edits on the film were a mess; it was the kind of incomprehensible slog that the Soviet censors would later accuse the final version of being. A breakthrough happened when Tarkovsky decided to break up the archival footage: instead of one big narrative chunk, it would get interspersed with the sequences of memory, occasionally overtaking the neatly rendered recreation with the grainy, scratched reality. The archival footage is one of the least remarked-upon aspects of the film, at least in the West, likely because its historic specificity actually renders it more opaque than the more clearly emotive and “Tarkovskian” imagery. When taken in full and in context, the narrative Tarkovsky pieces together is obvious. There’s the stunning sequence of men rising to the heavens on balloons (footage that almost certainly inspired the opening to Rublev) juxtaposed with a military weather balloon sent up—a joyous fusion of the rigidly scientific Soviet world with the awe of nature.
There’s a collection of footage from WWII, of soldiers crossing a floodplain, carrying carts and equipment as if they were walking on water. Following this are images of victory and celebration quickly giving way to the same celebratory masses of Red China. Seemingly compatible images became oppositional in the late-1960s, as the Sino-Soviet split turned the world’s two largest communist powers from proletarian brothers to political enemies. One of the most heartbreaking images in the entire film is documentary footage from the border clashes of ‘69, where Soviet troops link arms, again in an empty riverbed, to create a human wall against their Chinese counterparts, who are waving Little Red Books at the backs of their former allies and arbitrary adversaries. It’s the world-historic as an example of the personal, wherein the political and cultural stagnation so indicative of Brezhnev’s era bleeds into contradictions of the soul—how are humans to reach a spiritual enlightenment when their upheavals seems to fall back onto cycles of conflict?
Both Mirror and Tarkovsky are exemplary of the contradictions inherent to Soviet society. Tarkovsky’s one of the best examples that the Soviet film schooling system worked, not just as intended, but exceptionally well, graduating VGIK (founded in 1919, the oldest film school in the world—after all, Lenin said, “of all the arts the most important for us is the cinema”) alongside the greatest generation of Russian filmmakers since the Montagists, studying under the legendary director Mikhail Room (who’s also make one of the defining dramas of the Thaw, Nine Days of One Year, starring Innokenty Smoktunovsky, who himself would go on to narrate Mirror). While in the 1950s and 60s, no one was sure what a film school was yet or what its purpose could be, in the USSR it was like an apprentice system, a tradition we conventionally think of now as being just for laborers but historically was essential, too, for artisans.
This allowed Tarkovsky to go straight from his thesis film (The Steamroller and the Violin) to directing in the industry (Ivan’s Childhood), both of which were highly acclaimed and uncontroversial for a director that would make a career of bothering bureaucrats at the censor. While contemporaries hailed him as something new, it’s easier to see in comparison to what else was coming out in the early-1960s that his first pictures were close to socialist realism, albeit with some Bergman-esque surrealism. It wasn’t until Rublev and his constant rewrites and redirections that he’d start to get himself into trouble, first with his co-writer and film school companion, Andrei Konchalovsky, and then with the government, as his biopic about the “Russian Michelangelo'' turned into… something else. More trouble with convention would come with his sci-fi follow-up Solaris, exemplified by his conflicts with the star, the classically-trained Lithuanian actor Donatas Banionis, who resented that Tarkovsky wouldn’t give him a complete script for the film, while Tarkovsky wanted Banionis to live in the uncertainty of every moment, just like in life. Pushing his form further on Mirror, to the point of breaking everything and somehow coming out the other side, is when Tarkovsky the Master was really born. It’s also when he first considered making films outside the Soviet Union.
While hailed by critics, domestic and abroad, as one of the great living filmmakers, he was often resented by his colleagues, not for his artistic talent, but his special status. While Tarkovsky loved to make a stink about how much the government held him back, his steadfast attitude did his well with the censors, often having his films uncut and released, with the notable exception being Andrei Rublev, which was both recut and shelved for a handful of years—radicalizing Tarkovsky to fight harder for his vision. Yet the trouble on Rublev was nothing that year for Tarkovsky when compared to his co-writer Konchalovsky, who also in 1966 had his sophomore feature, Asya’s Happiness, completely banned (one of only a handful of Soviet films to meet this fate). For Konchalovsky this would mean abdicating more to the whims of the censors, while Tarkovsky became the enfant terrible, constantly picking fights and somehow winning them.
When one goes and looks at the films of his contemporaries, it’s hard to see why the likes of Aleksei German, Kira Muratova, or Larissa Shepitko didn’t garner similar canonical places abroad. However, the difference between them and Tarkovsky is that Tarkovsky was more than willing to throw the system he came up through under the bus, including its rich film culture, in an attempt to associate himself more with his Western European counterparts because of a resentment for an industry he thought was holding him back. It would be wrong to say Tarkovsky wasn’t without hurdles in Russia, but it’s also incorrect to assume that the state-sanctioning of film-art wasn’t a huge boon for his work. As Konchalovsky would find out when he emigrated to Hollywood in the 1980s, it was much easier to get around censorship in the Soviet Union than it was in America, simply because everything there became a question of money—a sentiment more famously parroted by George Lucas in the 60 Minutes interview where he called Disney “white slavers.”
There’s a lynchpin for Mirror that isn’t often discussed. Early in the film a group of Muscovites are hosting a Spaniard in their apartment, sort of listening to him as he dramatically recounts tales of bullfighting. This little gathering of listless city-intelligentsia, seriously contrasting with the film’s rural imagery while the characters are taking refuge from the war in the countryside, harkens back to Marlen Khutsiev’s seminal Thaw-era film Ilyich’s Gate (eventually released as I Am Twenty after being partially reshot and recut). Late in the film, the main of the three coming-of-age boys at the center of Ilyich’s Gate’s portrait of contemporary youth finds himself at a party full of the Moscow upper-crust. The protagonist, Sergei (Valentin Popov), takes particular problem with a drunken partygoer, who can’t take anything seriously, least of which all that the recent ancestors fought for to leave them as a comfortable yet fatherless generation. The drunk is played by a young Andrei Tarkovsky.
If the thesis of Ilyich’s Gate has to do with a generation fighting for a socialist future in society that’s created one in name but loses it in spirit, then Mirror is about a similar loss of humanity in the Soviet project—the ideological suppression of spirituality in the name of the scientific, the materialist. It’s about the embrace of the ineffable in a world that seeks to shunt it in favor of systemization. Mirror opens with a stutterer cured by a doctor, not through medicine but by folk-healing. Tarkovsky plays this sequence out in an unbroken take, stating that this is unbelievable, that’s why it must be seen. Mirror tries to make people remember what’s lost along the path.