top of page

[Film/Poetry] The Poetic Cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-1986)

Born in Russia during the first 10 years of the Soviet Union, Andrei Tarkovsky is widely regarded as one of the greatest and most influential film directors and screenwriters of all time.

The equally great Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman even went as far as to proclaim Andrei Tarkovsky as, "the greatest [of us all], the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream", manifesting as a result of his poetic cinema and spiritual perspective towards the great mysteries of life, time and soul.

With the full force of the USSR behind him, Tarkovsky would become a hero to his mother Russia because of his genius and hypnotic mastery of cinema, gaining him international awards, and yet he was later exiled to never return after his films were banned during a time of complete political censorship.

Tarkovsky believed cinema served a higher spiritual purpose as an art form and throughout his career created films that transcended cinema as simply a form of entertainment, but a medium to reveal essential truths about reality, like how art symbolises the meaning of our existence.

One of the saddest aspects of our time is the total destruction in people's awareness of all that goes with a conscious sense of the beautiful. Modern mass culture aimed at the consumer is crippling people's souls, setting up barriers between man and the crucial questions of his existence, his consciousness of himself as a spiritual being. Art, like science, is a means of assimilating the world, an instrument for knowing it in the course towards absolute truth” (Sculpting In Time,1986)

Poetry is conveyed as a transient force in the films of Tarkovsky who conveyed deep sincerity towards the grandeur search for discovery and harmony that exists within nature, something which lies beyond the capability of humans to understand through reason or rationality.

“We cannot comprehend the totality of the universe, but the poetic image is able to express that totality” (Sculpting In Time, 1986).

Linguistically the origins of the word POETRY derives from the Greek ‘Poiesis’ meaning ‘to create’. Plato originally stated that mortals strive for immortality in relation to poiesis, in the sense that it is a movement beyond the temporal cycle of birth and decay. Aristotle later added that poiesis is an imitation of ‘physis’ meaning ‘nature’. Poetry itself can be traced back to the first recorded human story of the Epic Of Gilgamesh.

The great English poet William Wordsworth described poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” (1798). Over time naturally the terms and definitions of poetry have expanded however the nature of poetry in the films of Tarkovsky can be seen to directly channel poetry as a way of relating to nature and existence.

“When I speak of poetry I am not thinking of it as a genre. Poetry is an awareness of the world, a particular way of relating to reality” and often said that nature, rather than people, was the real protagonist of his films as ‘‘nature always gives us a sensation of truth” (Sculpting In Time, 1986)

Tarkovsky strived for authenticity and originality in his work, becoming an auteur known for his auto-biographical imaginings of his own experiences expressed in abstract forms and expressions beyond the use of language.

Unless there is an organic link between the subjective impressions of the author and his objective representation of reality, he will not achieve even superficial credibility, let alone authenticity and inner truth. The quality of beauty is in the truth of life, newly assimilated and imparted by the artist, in fidelity to his personal vision. (Sculpting In Time, 1986)

Cinéma pur was a term coined by French director Henri Chomette which he first introduced in his short film Five Minutes of Pure Cinema (1925). The concept was taken on strongly by the French New Wave movement of Cahier Du Cinema, with French director Robert Bresson once describing IN 1975 how,‘Cinematography is a writing with images in movement’.

Essentially it represents a belief that cinema in its purest form should utilise cinematography and atmosphere to evoke emotion and captivate the audience. Tarkovsky although never referencing the theory directly, was very much in line with this school of thought and once said,

A poet is someone who uses a single image to express a universal message” (Voyage In Time, 1983)

In Tarkovsky's films you experience poetical dialogue expounding timeless lines of wisdom;

“Has it ever occurred to you...that plants can feel, know, even comprehend. They don’t run about like us who are rushing, fussing, uttering banalities. That’s because we don’t trust the nature that is inside us” (The Mirror, 1975)

And yet the poetry of cinematography, rhythm and narrative, whilst not speaking in words, is equally as powerful.

“All creative work strives for simplicity, for perfectly simple expression: and this means reaching down into the furthest depths of the recreation of life...finding the shortest path between what you want to say or express and its ultimate reproduction in the finished image” (Sculpting In Time, 1986)

Tarkovsky told stories in film by enabling the poetry of the cinematic experience to manifest itself to the audience directly, in doing so developing the story by use of interpreation without the need for explanation.

“Never try to convey your idea to the them life, and they’ll find within themselves the means to assess and appreciate it” (Sculpting In Time,1986).

When speaking on finding the meaning of being a film director the great Tarkovsky described how;

"It was a search, a blind search for points of contact with poetry, only then did I realize that the cinema gives you the possibility of achieving spiritual essence.” (A Poet In The Cinema 1983)

Considering the concept of poetry derived from ‘poesis’, cinematically Tarkovsky lived and breathed the philosophy that mortals strive for immortality in relation to poetry. The belief that poetry is a movement beyond the temporal cycle of birth and decay is conveyed in his multi layered time periods formed from recollection and dreams spanning many life times. Tarkovsky was of the same school of thought as French philosopher Henri Bergson who proposed that;

“All our memories remain with us, and that a remembered past in becoming a mental picture coincides with, or becomes part of, our present. Time is not a linear sequence but a duration, - la duree - a whole, past and future which we know by intuition rather than analysis.”

Poetry in Tarkovsky's cinema is best described as an illumination of experience that one feels in response to themes such as time, mortality, memory and nature, all of which are inescapable and all encompassing.

Tarkovsky used Cinema as a tool to create philosophically charged stories which arose from his own experiences but adopted a universal nature that allow the audience to develop their own relation towards the meaning.

Tarkovsky moved to Europe to shoot his final two films, reflecting on his homeland and his family, before his death at the age of 54 cemented his place amongst the great artists and filmmakers of the 20th century. Upon developing cancer after the production of his final film The Sacrifice (possibly from filming on a chemical plant for his last soviet produced film Stalker), he proclaimed that he was infinite and not afraid to die. It is fitting then, that a man who dedicated his life to poetry, would die for it.

His book Sculpting In Time (1984) is a reflection on the metaphysical nature of life, nature, poetry and his unique approach to cinema.

Art could be said to be a symbol of the universe, being linked with that absolute spiritual truth which is hidden from us. (Sculpting In Time,1986)

Check out this gallery of classic Andrei Tarkovsky film stills ~



bottom of page