By Tony Williams.
After reviewing the disappointing Criterion Von Sternberg/Dietrich DVD Collection and noting the company’s inexplicable emphasis on popular films available elsewhere, it is a pleasure to see Criterion return to form with this three-disc version of Tarkovsky’s masterpiece. Subject of many fine critical books and articles, the film’s importance lies in its relevance to a significant context that refuses to go away, despite our changed historical situation. How can any sincere artist continue to be creative in an alienating and inhumane era along with struggling with personal problems, untrustworthy colleagues, and the pressure to conform to any society’s institutional dominant ideological norms? The film explores the role of a little-known artist in a particular historical area whose circumstances may reproduce quite easily those of a different era, such as a conformist-ridden capitalism forming a stark mirror image to that cultural Stalinism within which Tarkovsky grew and developed in his own struggle against its stubborn resonances. Concluding with Andrei speaking for the first time after a vow of silence and refusal to create, comforting young Boriska (played by the same actor who portrayed the young tragic hero of Tarkovsky’s 1962 first feature film, Ivan’s Childhood) who is intuitively employed an artistic version of St. Paul’s “Faith” as opposed to a traditional St. James version of “Works,” the film envisages their retreat to the security of a monastery to continue their different creative endeavors. For them, the monastery parallels F.R. Leavis’s dream of the university as a “creative center of civilization,” institutions representing ideals rather than everyday, brutal realities. However, earlier scenes depict problems existing in environments that are supposedly different from the world outside. Both Andrei Rublev and King Hu’s other masterpiece, Raining in the Mountain (1979), show otherwise.
Men are not the only survivors. As the presence of a female leading the February 1917 Revolution in October (1927) acquits Eisenstein from any accusations of total misogyny, so the reappearance of a smiling Duroshka (Irma Rausch who also played Ivan’s mother) accompanied by a child (presumably her own) leading a horse (Tarkovsky’s favorite symbol) suggests that this formerly tragic “holy fool” may have achieved her own form of “blessing” that Charlie Castle in Robert Aldrich’s The Big Knife (1955) never received.
Andrei Rublev belongs to a past era of cinema but one having resonances for our own bleak times. Creation is now a life or death struggle, whatever the circumstances. One may either sell out to the system, as the unfortunate apprentice Foma does, or struggle daily against adverse and grim circumstances. Andrei temporarily betrays his creative gifts due to despair and pessimism later in the film. Boriska is the victim of a neglectful and spiteful parent who dies without passing on his own creative talents to his son. Yet, both overcome past obstacles and engage in producing their own artistic versions of Resources of Hope, the title of one of Raymond Williams’ collection of essays. (1) They will also retreat to their own private island, like those brutalized working-class characters portrayed by John Garfield and Ida Lupino in Michael Curtiz’s The Sea Wolf (1941), scripted by Robert Rossen. (2) Whether in Kiarostami’s Iran, Cold War America, or its ugly anti-intellectual postmodernist conformist version today, struggle is important. As Hank (Wesley Addy) tells Charlie in The Big Knife, “Struggle, you may still win a blessing.”
The first two discs contain a new restoration of Tarkovsky’s preferred 183-minute version and the 2015 original version The Passion According to Andrei that one may compare and contrast both in terms of polished re-edits that the director aimed towards as well as extra footage often involving crudity and violence that appear in the full version. Like various critics on the supplementary features, viewers may choose which version they may want to concentrate on, Vlada Petric preferring the fuller version in his 1998 selected-scene commentary from the earlier 1998 Criterion DVD release. While that version only included the 205-minute cut, viewers now have the choice of running both cuts on two sets of DVD players on two monitors and engage in their own editorial preferences. Such are the benefits of new technology allowing the general audience to engage in intricate modes of perception, even if bereft of access to studio editing tables.
Other delicacies also exist in supplementary disc 3. Co-scripted with Andrei Rublev’s co-scenarist Andrei Konchalovsky, Tarkovsky’s 1961 45-minute student thesis film The Steamroller and the Violin appears, its color anticipating the experimentation occurring in later films such as the Mirror (1975), Stalker (1979) and Nostalgia (1983) along with imaginative, anti-naturalistic images intermittently opposing the narrative framework the young student needed to graduate from VGIK. The line spoken by the young boy’s rigid music teacher, “What do I do with you, Daydreamer?” is probably one that the young student filmmaker must have heard often. Yet he delivers a film not only worthy of graduation but also containing techniques he will develop in his later imaginative forays beyond the restrictions of narrative.
Encountering a friendly steamroller driver who takes him under his wing, the young boy agrees to meet him at a cinema later that evening where the socialist-realist Chapayev (1934) is still running at the Sunrise (italics mine) Cinema. Does one detect a film student joke here in contrasting two types of cinema, one of which represented by F.W. Murnau has long outlasted that approved by “The Great Leader” himself? Yet, the boy’s widowed mother prevents this “dangerous liaison” both between different classes and different males insisting that he remain in the maternal realm to be present for a visit with another mother and her daughter. (3) In the meantime, The Steamroller driver cuts his losses by agreeing to take her fellow female co-worker, now outfitted in an ugly frock representing post-Stalinist-dictated female fashion! However, as in later Tarkovsky films, one should never underestimate the power of dream as a liberating force, especially in an early work contrasting everyday reality with lyrical imagery in certain scenes. The film ends with the boy’s imaginative escape from his restrictive world to run after the steamroller, filmed in a high angle overhead shot anticipating one of the director’s visual trademarks.
An 18-minute, 50-second 1966 black and white documentary, “The Three Andreis,” about the writing of the script featuring Anatoly Solonitsyn (who plays Andrei Rublev), Tarkovsky, and Konchalovsky, follows. Next is a fascinating, silent, 5-minute, 19-second color footage of “On the Set of Andrei Rublev,” which reveals the filmmaking process, and a new 2018 documentary by Louise Milne and Sean Martin specially commissioned for this edition, Tarkovsky: Andrei Tarkovsky: A Journey, which contains many of the director’s surviving contemporaries. All participants contribute information concerning historical circumstances surrounding the film’s production, its problematic release, re-editing, and eventual acclaim five years later after being shown in France and gaining international recognition. The contributors all note that Tarkovsky was not making an historical epic in the acceptable manner according to then accepted patterns of fidelity and verisimilitude but engaging in a segmented structure entirely different from the usual form of Soviet narration in terms of his own type of mystic vision. It was never meant to be a religious film in the way it is now understood in post-Soviet Russia but one dealing with an artist’s relationship with a complex social reality not entirely confined to the historical world of the real Rublev, about whom very little is known.
A new interview with Tarkovsky scholar Robert Bird, author of the acclaimed Andrei Tarkovsky: Elements of Cinema (2018), continues further exploration into the director’s stylistic concerns in relation to his own type of historical excavation that was entirely different from the work of Eisenstein (whose historical films were pursuing other directions) and the type of Soviet cinematic historiography that was the norm until then. He sees Tarkovky’s Rublev as a “contemporary man” and the beautiful color display of icons at the end of the film not being religious in tone but “detheologized and abstracted” far from any religious context. The film is the director’s exploration of an unorthodox form of spirituality having very little, if any, connection with orthodox religion. Rublev is not the isolated artist outside society but is seen as part of a particular historical formation that defines him, whether he’s willing or not. He does not work as an individual creator but is part of a group who create religious images, one far apart from those who follow the coercive pattern of Last Judgement depictions to terrify observers. Like Tarkovsky, Andrei is not a didactic artist faithfully following any Party line, whether religious or Stalinist.
Vlada Petric’s meticulous selected scene commentary analyzing the formal characteristics employed in the film derives from the 1998 Criterion edition but is nonetheless welcome, since it both exhibits a rigorous expertise that few, if any, unaccomplished bloggers and podcasters ever manage to surpass, let alone attempt to compete with. This is one example where a feature from a previous edition is worth repeating.
The final item on this supplement is a new video essay by filmmaker Daniel Raim, “Inventing Andrei Rublev” that uses quotations from the director’s written comments and essays and applies them to selected extracts from the film. Running just under thirteen minutes, this is one of the best examples of the format available on any DVD so far. Using chosen quotations to illuminate key aspects of several scenes, Raim aims to educate the viewer to see visually rather than using obscurantist theoretical jargon to confuse and perplex to flaunt his theoretical expertise in the manner of a jaded scholastic “flaneur.” It is educational and informative in the best senses of these terms.
Accompanying the DVD is a folder containing J. Hoberman’s essay, “An Icon Emerges,” originally written for the Criterion Collection in 1998, and Robert Bird’s translation of Tarkovsky’s 1962 essay, “The Personality of An Artist.” While the latter short piece displays the director’s cinematic philosophic approach, Hoberman’s essay is generalized and adds little to understanding the film’s visual and thematic complexities. Perhaps using the earlier Criterion DVD material of rare interviews with Tarkovsky and Petric’s general essay on the director would have been more appropriate in terms of the retired scholar’s deep knowledge of Soviet Cinema.
Overall, this is a very valuable contribution film scholarship in general, as well as dissemination to the general informed public, an achievement for which Criterion deserves high praise.
- Raymond Williams, Resources of Hope: Culture, Democracy, Socialism, London: Verso, 1989.
- Jack London’s The Sea Wolf. A Screenplay by Robert Rossen. Eds. Rocco Fumento and Tony Williams. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1998, pp. 94-95.
- For the problematic issue of gender roles in Tarkovsky’s films see Christopher Sharrett’s recent analysis of The Sacrifice. http://filmint.nu/?p=24900.
Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and a Contributing Editor to Film International.