Andrei Tarkovsky: Mirror

MirrorDuring the course of a man or woman’s life there are certain films which will forever be burnt into our consciousness, films which are not necessarily the greatest works of art or fiction, which are not necessarily the most entertaining or spectacular examples of spectacle; but films which boast a quality which evades conventional description, a quality which transcends the critical, eludes the analytical; a quality which affects us deeply and how we view every film from here onwards. The majority of this perception can be put down to combination of subjective factors, firstly our experience in cinema up to this point and secondly the state of mind we were in when we were first introduced to said films. Personally I can think of five such films what have steered the course of my cinema viewing, the first is Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future from 1985, which might seem something of a bizarre choice. I can't have been much more than five years old when my father hired a video recorder and two VHS' over our summer holiday. The other film did not get watched once, Back to the Future was watched so many times the VHS was nearly worn out. Interestingly enough for a childhood film I think it has stood the test of time and is actually a much better film than anyone gave it credit for. I remember laying on the living room rug at my childhood home, as close to the television as I could possibly get, watching Marty McFly jumping over Biff’s convertible and landing on his skate board as clearly as if it were yesterday. The second film is Michael Mann’s Heat from 1995: This was the film which demonstrated to me how good cinema could really be for adults, all my friends at school hated it when it came out at the cinema, but I secretly loved it and could never understand why until I watched it on VHS later. It is a film that introduced me to Al Pacino, and Robert De Niro, and by association it also introduced me to The Godfather films, Dog Day Afternoon, The French Connection and 1970's American cinema in general. More than anything Heat made me want to be an actor, something which would evolve in years to come. I can remember watching the highly choreographed bank robbery shootout and knowing that there was something fundamentally different about this sequence to the other shootouts I’d watched in the past. One day the penny dropped - there was no music. I started to understand the way films are made and how a creative director can challenge conventions. The third film was The Thin Red Line: I remember sitting in silence in the car ride back after watching this film in the cinema (to the point where my brother assumed I'd hated the film), it had such a profound effect on me and like Heat before it redrew the boundaries of cinema in my mind and allowed me to appreciate the artistry of cinema in a new way. The fourth film was Takeshi Kitano’s Hanna-Bi from 1998: A bit of an odd choice this but it really is the film that got me started on world cinema. I had watched the likes Three Colours Blue and The Seventh Seal year’s earlier but neither of them had the same effect on me. I think part of its appeal lies in the fact it's incredibly violent which drew me in only to find a film with levels of complexity I'd never considered. I'd loved Three Colours Blue but didn't understand why, whereas with Hanna-Bi I knew why and I understood how much more cinema had to offer again. The fifth film is the one I wish to talk about today, a film I first saw in 2006 some thirty-one years after it was first released, and that film is Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror. If Hanna-Bi turned the key, then Mirror kicked open the doors. From here I discovered world cinema and finally understood what film was capable of. Of course I'd watched lots of world cinema before I saw Mirror, including Solaris from the same director and many others that are too numerous to list, but it was around the time I first watched Mirror that I began to watch more films from around the world than films just from America. If I hadn't seen Mirror then I might never have started Left Field Cinema. I realise that this is something of a peculiar way to open this article but I feel it is appropriate in two ways, (1) Mirror is essentially a film about memories, so what better way to discuss the film than in the context of my own personal memory of it and (2) Mirror is a film I can watch over and over again and never tire of, it is a film which impresses just by the mere fact of its existence. It is an impossible, miracle of a film; a film that breaks all the rules of cinema and in doing so creates an unforgettable work of art.

Mirror is not the sort of film which one can accurately attribute a plotline to. The film centres on the memories of a dying man in his forties. He recollects his childhood and adolescence, but these memories do not conform to a traditional flashback structure, instead they grow and mutate into other people’s memories and fantasy’s. They are intercut with archive footage and are punctuated by readings of poetry which elusively serve the whole. It is difficult at first to differentiate the different times, it is difficult to distinguish what is real and what is imagined. Although Tarkovsky used a combination of sepia, black and white, monochrome and colour footage, he deliberately refrained from co-ordinating this mixture with the varying levels the film operates on. Tarkovsky has been boldly moving further and further away from narrative lead cinema and Mirror represents the closest he would ever come to total abandonment of what most people would consider the most important aspect of any film – a coherent story. To clarify: structurally the film is divided into three distinct levels: (1) the present reality of the film where the dying man exists; (2) the past, flashbacks of an earlier time accompanied by older news footage from the periods in question; and (3) fantasies and dreams which can merge with both the present and past timelines without a clear dividing boundary. It would be fair to describe Mirror as a “difficult” film and I would advise all who view it not to seek answers or search for plotlines as you will leave disappointed if you do. The best way to view Mirror for the first time is to relax and let the imagery and poetry wash over you, the second time you watch the film it will make more sense, but still not in its entirety. I’ve now watched Mirror six times in three years and on my latest viewing I still picked up small visual motifs and clues that I missed the first five times. To my mind there is no other film that can be this rewarding after so many viewings. Mirror is a mysteriously beautiful film that challenges and critiques the workings of the human mind.

MirrorIt is remarkable that the film was ever completed, although it is often argued that had Tarkovsky been born in the West then he’d never have been able to make his first five films in the way he did under Soviet rule. For all their restrictions, the lack of commercial concerns meant that Tarkovsky did not need to create works that would make money. That said he did have an uphill battle and when the film was finally completed (after twenty different cuts) the Soviet authorities balked at its personal and confessional tone, the Union wanted propaganda films about the state and country, they did not want personal films which idolised the individual. They did not warm to the film and gave it a “Category 2” release, this meant there would be no premiere and that it was only screened in two cinemas in the whole of the Soviet Union. They also refused to send it to Canne for fear it would win the top prize. Tarkovsky had suffered similar problems with his earlier production Andrei Rublev, but where that film had been viewed as a stealthy attack on the current Soviet government, this film was seen as narcissistic and self-indulgent. Tarkovsky based the majority of the film on his own experiences. He felt that for this film only his own personal experience would be convincing enough for an audience to invest in. He built the foundations of this film from his own past and his own memories, Tarkovsky had this to say on the matter in his diary Time Within Time:

“[The success of Mirror] has demonstrated to me yet again how well founded was my conjecture about the importance of personally experienced emotion in telling a story from the screen. Perhaps cinema is the most personal art, the most intimate. In cinema only the author’s intimate truth will be convincing enough for the audience to accept”

MirrorHe went so far as to recreate the wooden home from his childhood using old photo’s and his memory as a guide, but Mirror is not exclusively about Tarkovsky the man, despite what it might outwardly appear. Mirror has an almost organic sense of timing which was dictated by instinct rather than planning, the films rhythm feels like the rhythm of a deep and powerful dream, its fluidity and movement brings a universal quality to the proceedings. We’ve all experienced dreams; we’ve all experienced fragmentary memories, the way Tarkovsky brings these together in his films means that his dreams and his memories feel like your dreams and your memories. As a British national who grew up in the 1980’s and 90’s I have little in common with a Russian who grew up in the 1930’s and 1940’s, yet these did feel like my memories and they did feel like my dreams. It’s as if Tarkovsky tapped into the psyche of humanity and showed us something that we all have in common. The authors presence within the film is clear to anyone with a little background knowledge of Tarkovsky’s past, however there is a wonderful anonymity in Mirror; the narrator whose dreams and memories we’re witnessing is never seen completely, the moments in present time often obscure his face or are entirely constructed from first person point of view shots. The universality of the film would not have been possible with out this particular choice, and yet this is not the way Tarkovsky had envisioned the film, he’d originally wanted to make Mirror very clearly about his own past and was even considering playing the central part himself (out side of the film directing Tarkovsky was also a recognised film actor and had stared in three films in the 1950’s and 60’s) but Tarkovsky was convinced not to proceed in this manner by one of his artistic directors. The film would almost certainly lost some of its impact had Tarkovsky refused to change his approach.

Tarkovsky’s visual style arguably reaches its majestic zenith in Mirror. He combines a plethora of techniques; his stylistic arsenal is used to maximum effect. As already mentioned, the film frequently uses monochrome, sepia, colour as well as black and white imagery, combined with extended tracking shots and almost imperceptible slow motion whilst the audio remains at the correct speed to discombobulate the audience. People walk past the camera then the camera catches up with them. Images do 360 degree turns, giving the environment a spherical feel rather than limiting it to set of standardised 180 degree camera angles. Paradoxically the film is also deliberately restrained. Natasha Synessios had this to say about the matter in the Kino Files Film Companion to Mirror:

“This Olympian calm of form is what prompted those of Tarkovsky’s colleagues who were expecting intense scenes between the protagonists to call the film dull; it is what turns the burning shed from a destructive accident into an epiphany, and why the grenade the military instructor throws himself on is a dummy… Tarkovsky admired Checkhov for removing the first page of his stories, in order to eradicate the ‘why’. He himself removes pages throughout the story, leaving us with fragments, whose meaning and motivation is not easily decipherable. We are left instead with a feeling for a particular mood, atmosphere or emotion – and a world of juxtapositions and correspondences, to which we must bring to bear our own sensibility.” (P52)

MirrorTarkovsky repelled from prettiness and deliberately cut sections which people commented were particularly beautiful. Ironically Mirror has some of the most beautiful film imagery I’ve ever had the privilege to witness. Georgi Rerberg’s gorgeous cinematography and Lyudmila Feiginova’s editing combine and endow many of Tarkovsky’s scenes with an elusive mystical quality and kaleidoscopic intensity. Mirror is comprised of a series of beautifully captured and bewitching images and scenes. Sometimes logical, but often appearing totally random with no apparent rhyme or reason for their placement. As with the films opening moments, we see a young boy turning on a television, this is followed by a short film of a young man being cured of his stutter, whether this is what the boy is watching on TV or a separate unrelated scene is not certain. As the young man is cured of his stutter by the speech therapist he states: “Now I can speak loud and clear” and Mirror begins its title sequence – Tarkovsky does neither in the following one hundred and eight minutes, he does not speak loudly or clearly, but he does speak truthfully. At first this random combination used in Mirror’s prologue does not make full sense, but as the film develops we realise that it is a perfect introduction, the young boy turning on the television represents us as the audience and as the film continues we can see Tarkovsky stuttering, expelling images and thoughts but not managing to make complete sense, only at the end does it finally come together for us and we can hear what Tarkovsky is saying “loud and clear”.

As the film proceeds we’re greeted by a series of sublime and scenes and sequences, an early moment sees Aleksei (the man whose memories we’re witnessing) recall his mother as played by Margarita Terkhova, she sits on the hand made wooden fence overlooking a field of long grass. She longs for her husband, tears stream down her face. From the distance a doctor approaches played by Tarkovksy regular Anatoli Solonitsy. He tries to flirt with her and sits on the fence as well, it collapses sending both the mother and doctor falling to the ground. He burst into hysterical laughter (one of the few times this would ever happen in a Tarkovsky film) but the mother is not impressed with his antics, after more discussion it becomes apparent that her husband maybe dead (we’re not entirely sure), as the doctor gives up and leaves a sudden gust of wind can be heard and its effect can be seen on the field as the long grass is violently brushed. This occurs again and the scene ends. Once again it is a potentially irrelevant yet beautiful sequence, there has been a passing of information and context, but the doctor who has been so clearly established will not be returning for the rest of the film. Many such characters will appear and disappear as the film progresses; the only visible and consistent face we’ll continue to see is that of Terkhova. To make things even more confusing Terkhova also plays Aleksei’s ex-wife Natalya, in a single line of dialogue he explains that when he recalls his mother it is always with her face. Although the mother and Natalya are clearly distinguishable by attitude and manner (and Terkhova’s performance) it is easy to get the characters mixed up on account of the fluidity of the films action, if you miss that one line of dialogue then the appearance of Natalya and the Mother will be continually confusing. This duel casting continues through the film with the young Ignat Daniltsev (in his only film appearance) playing both Aleksei’s son and Aleksei himself at the age of twelve; and other actors very deliberately playing more than one part as so to connect the individuals beyond the narrative realm.

MirrorThere are many parts of Mirror which are rendered confusing and or disorientating, away from the casting choices we can also find that the flashbacks are not the exclusive domain of Aleksei, a flashback to the print works where his mother works for example, this sequence sees her arrive worried and stressed that there has been an error in the printing; the severity of her reaction to this potential problem indicates how terrifying the consequences might be for her in Soviet Russia, especially under the “Red Terror” (Stalin’s rule). This scene remains one of Mirror’s few political attacks at the Soviet system. It is miraculous that the scene was not excised given its content but also because Aleksei could not have possibly witnessed these events. In a later sequence, a young Aleksei remembers an incident with a drill instructor where a young boy Ignant was disciplined for insubordination, during a moment of panic a dummy grenade is thrown into the firing range and the drill instructor instantly jumps on the grenade to prevent the deaths of all the young children. This is not Aleksei’s memory but it is an important part of Mirror, for whilst these scenes adds to the confusion they also enrich the tapestry of the film.

The four elements are important part of Mirror’s cinematic make-up. It is often noted that they play a significant part in most of Tarkovsky’s films, water in particular being prominent in Stalker, Solaris, and Nostalgia; fire being prominent in The Sacrifice in particular. However Mirror makes the most of all four elements, all the characters are surrounded by earth at all times, the majority of the film is set in the countryside (although much of it appears to be in more urban areas the deliberate lack of establishing shots means that it is hard to say exactly where we are at any given point). Water plays a significant role in a number of scenes, but perhaps no more so than in one of Aleksei’s recalled dreams. The film turns monochrome as his mother bathes her hair in old cast-iron water tub, her long hair drapes over her face as she leans over and she begins to sway side to side (post The Ring films and this image has a particularly eerie quality). Inexplicably, water begins to fall through the ceiling above her and large portions of the ceiling plaster begin to collapse. The mother breaks the fourth wall – looking directly into the camera. It is one of Mirror’s many distinctive and memorable scenes. In another scene we see water run from the roof of Aleksei’s childhood home, a small dacha in the country side, gravity demands the water will drop, but in the background another dacha is ablaze, the fire burns with horrendous ferocity and with no consideration to gravity or anything else. Whilst water can extinguish the fire, here it does not. Tarkovsky juxtaposes the two and views them as paradoxically exclusive and interconnected. Fire also has exclusive moments within the film, rising up from a poker, framed behind a hand; the entire palm is illuminated bright red as the heat pushes into everything around it including human flesh, later a gas light turns off and on again at will as the flame can not quite take hold. Fire is portrayed as powerful and weak, as the provider of light and warmth but also the destroyer of homes and families.

MirrorWind is seen slightly differently, it remains powerful throughout but is far less threatening and also far less useful. In the aforementioned scene with the doctor wind plays an important part of what makes the scene so memorable. But of greater intensity and significance than this is the reoccurring image of the wind sweeping through the trees near Aleksei’s childhood home, each time this image is slightly different, we see it sway the trees and rustle the branches as it approaches and outdoor table and begins to knock over items which rest atop. A boy runs from the wind in slow motion, the wind is following him, he can not escape.

There are moments when Mirror resembles a horror movie, with frequently creepy and disturbing scenes, the aforementioned bathing dream with Mother’s long wet hair for example, or the shooting range scene which contains almost unbearable tension whilst the drill sergeant conceals the grenade against his stomach lying on the ground. The horror of this scene is then compounded by a the revelation that under the drill sergeants hat was a plastic dish used to protect an area of his head where the skull is no longer present (probably as a result of an earlier war time injury), we see the skin pulsating where his brain is throbbing underneath.

MirrorBut the most clearly horror influenced scene (and possibly the best scene in the film) with a bold supernatural presence, comes when the young Ignat is left in the house by himself, he turns away from the door where his mother just exited and finds two elderly ladies waiting in the adjacent room, one appears to be a maid, the other instructs Ignat to read from a book. Ignant reads about the history of Russia, the woman stares at him from her seat across the room. A cup of tea and a plate of biscuits are visible on the table next to her. There is a knock from the front door, Ignant stops reading a goes to open it, another old woman is waiting outside, she apologises for she has come to the wrong address and leaves, Ignat returns to the room to find that the woman who asked him to read has disappeared completely along with her cup of tea and plate of biscuits, only a condensation mark is left on the wooden table which slowly evaporates from view, with the aid of increasingly sinister music which seems like the audio equivalent of being placed in a pressure chamber. The tension is broken by the phone ringing and the film continues, never explaining this most bizarre of encounters. Eduard Artemyev’s music is crucial in this scene, and in general is also an area worthy of note, his dark haunting moody atmospherics lend Mirror an otherworldly feel, his music did much the same in Tarkovksy’s Solaris a few years earlier. As well as the score, Tarkovsky also pillaged numerous pieces of classical music for his film, Bach’s St. John Passion runs over the films final sequence, despite the heightened and dramatic nature of one of Bach’s most famous pieces it never seems out of place within Tarkovsky’s film, partly because the source recording used is so rough and suffers from poor quality, but also because Tarkovsky’s imagery and vision is of the same level as Bach music. Synesssios discusses Tarkovsky’s take on music:

“Tarkovsky always maintained that he used the laws of music as the film’s organising principle. He considered film to have much in common with a musical ordering of material, where emphasis was placed not on the logic, but on the form, of the flow of events. And form for him was ultimately linked to time – the duration and the passage of time in each shot. But he did not approach time as an abstract, philosophical concept; rather, it was an inner psychological reality and he believed that one of the aims of the film director was to create his unique sense of time in a film, which was independent of real time.” (P48)

MirrorFrom my view Tarkovsky succeeded in creating this “unique sense of time” in Mirror, although perhaps never again. Mirror’s unstructured and inconsistent movement back and forth through time, with changing perspectives and fantasy sequences, is unlike anything else in cinema. Alain Resnais’ Last Year in Marinbad or Fedrico Fellini’s Roma could not hope to be so audaciously experimental. Mirror flaunts its most original of narrative structures, the film totally abandons logic in favour of chaos and within chaos it finds its own consistency. The use of archive footage throughout, shots of the atomic bombs detonating and civil unrest in Spain and China. Men attached to small balloons hovering by a larger balloon. The archive footage adds a fourth dimension to the film, but it’s place within the larger canvas of Mirror seems positively obscure at first, but it all adds to a sense of national memory as well as personal memory, our personal lives are surrounded by public events, those of us in the UK will all remember what we were doing when Lady Diana died and everyone across the globe knows exactly where they were when the Twin Towers collapsed in New York. Our lives and memories are linked by these sorts of events.

Is the illogical and inconsistent approach Tarkovksy takes to Mirror only appropriate because of the subject matter? A person’s memories are vague, inconsistent and illogical and so the approach fits stylistically and thematically, but were the film about anything else then would it be a less appreciable style? Possibly, we may never know how well this approach might have worked on some of Tarkovsky’s films or anyone else’s for that matter. One thing is for certain though; Tarkovksy’s film does capture a sense of memory like no other film before or since. Mirror is not necessarily “about” memory; what are we as human beings? We are our memories, we are the events which befell us, we are the events that befell those closest too us. We are the events of our cultural past. We are our fantasies, we are a summation of our entire lives - we are our past. I am curled up in front of the television watching Back to the Future, I am confused by peers hatred of Heat, I am silent in the car after seeing The Thin Red Line, I am amazed by the technique in Hanna-Bi, I am stunned in confusion and excitement whilst watching Mirror for the first time – I am my memories. As Aleksei lies barely lucid in his final moments, the voyage comes to a conclusion - there is nothing left to remember. Perhaps Tarkovsky’s Mirror is not about memory - it is about human life in all its tragic fascination. It is a describing of a dream and we agonise over the possibility of waking up. Mirror is Tarkovsky’s greatest masterwork, something totally original, deeply moving and inspiring and from my memory to date - it is the single greatest film ever made.


Wonderful article! I enjoyed

Wonderful article! I enjoyed it very much. I agree completely in your assessment of Mirror. I find all of Tarkovsky's films mesmerizing and something to "watch over and over" but Mirror most of all. I just recently ordered a hard-to-find copy of the Ruscico DVD of Mirror with the original mono soundtrack and I'm eagerly awaiting its arrival as it has been quite a while since I've seen it.


...that was a mindblowing read.....can't wait to actually watch the film now.



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