Tarkovsky worked extensively as a screenwriter, film editor, film theorist and theater director. He directed most of his films in the Soviet Union, with the exception of his last two films, which were produced in Italy and Sweden. His films are characterized by Christian spirituality and metaphysical themes, extremely long takes, lack of conventional dramatic structure and plot, and memorable cinematography.
Following high school graduation, from 1951 to 1952, Tarkovsky studied Arabic at the Oriental Institute in Moscow, a branch of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. He did not finish his studies and dropped out to work for the Academy of Science Institute for Non-Ferrous Metals and Gold as a prospector. He participated in a year-long research expedition to the river Kureikye near Turukhansk in the Krasnoyarsk Province. During this time in the Taiga Tarkovsky decided to study film.
The early Khrushchev era offered unique opportunities for young film directors. Before 1953, annual film production was low and most films were directed by veteran directors. After 1953, more films were produced, many of them by young directors. The Khrushchev Thaw opened Soviet society and allowed, to some degree, Western literature, films and music. This allowed Tarkovksy to see films of Italian neorealists, French New Wave, and of directors such as Kurosawa, Buñuel, Bergman, Bresson and Mizoguchi. Tarkovsky absorbed the idea of the auteur as a necessary condition for creativity.
Tarkovsky’s teacher and mentor was Mikhail Romm, who taught many film students who would later become influential film directors. In 1956, Tarkovsky directed his first student short film, The Killers, from a short story of Ernest Hemingway. The short film There Will Be No Leave Today and the screenplay Concentrate followed in 1958 and 1959.
During his third year at the VGIK, Tarkovsky met Andrei Konchalovsky. They found that they had much in common as they liked the same film directors and shared the same ideas on cinema and films. In 1959, they wrote the script Antarctica - Distant Country, which was later published in the Moskovskiy Komsomolets. Tarkovsky submitted the script to Lenfilm, but was rejected. They were more successful with the script The Steamroller and the Violin, which they sold to Mosfilm. This film became Tarkovsky’s diploma film, earning him his diploma in 1960 and winning him the first prize at the New York Student Film Festival in 1961.
In 1965, he directed the film Andrei Rublev about the life of Andrei Rublev, the 15th century Russian icon painter. Andrei Rublev was not immediately released after completion due to problems with Soviet authorities. Tarkovsky had to cut the film several times, resulting in several different versions of varying lengths. A version of the film was presented at the Cannes Film Festival in 1969 and won the FIPRESCI prize. The film was officially released in the Soviet Union in a cut version in 1971.
He divorced his wife, Irma Raush, in 1970. In the same year, he married Larissa Kizilova (née Egorkina), who had been a production assistant for the film Andrei Rublev. Their son, Andrei Tarkovsky Jr., was born in the same year on August 7.
In 1972, he completed his film Solaris, an adaptation of the novel Solaris by Stanisław Lem. He had worked on this project, together with the screenwriter Fridrikh Gorenshtein, as early as 1968. The film was presented at the Cannes Film Festival and won the Grand Prix Spécial du Jury and the FIPRESCI prize and was nominated for the Palme d'Or. From 1973 to 1974, he shot the film The Mirror, a highly autobiographical film drawing on his childhood experience and incorporating some of his father's poems. Tarkovsky had worked on the screenplay for this film since 1967, under the consecutive titles Confession, White day and A white, white day. From the beginning the film was not well received by Soviet authorities due to its content and its perceived elitist nature. Presumably these difficulties made Tarkovsky toy with the idea of going abroad and producing a film outside the Soviet film industry.
During 1975, Tarkovsky also worked on the screenplay Hoffmanniana, about the German writer and poet E. T. A. Hoffmann. In December 1976, he directed Hamlet, his first and only stage play, at the Lenkom Theatre in Moscow. The main role was played by Anatoly Solonitsyn, who also acted in several of Tarkovsky's films. At the end of 1978, he also wrote the screenplay Sardor together with the writer Aleksandr Misharin.
The last film Tarkovsky directed in the Soviet Union was Stalker, inspired by the novel Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Work on this film began in 1976. The production was mired in troubles; improper development of the negatives had ruined all the exterior shots. Tarkovsky's relationship with cinematographer Georgy Rerberg deteriorated to the point where Tarkovsky hired Alexander Knyazhinsky as a new first cinematographer. Furthermore, Tarkovsky suffered a heart attack in April 1978, resulting in further delay. The film was completed in 1979 and won the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the Cannes Film Festival.
Tarkovsky returned to Italy in 1982 to start shooting Nostalghia. He did not return to his home country. As Mosfilm withdrew from the project, he had to complete the film with financial support provided by the Italian RAI. Tarkovsky completed the film in 1983. Nostalghia was presented at the Cannes Film Festival and won the Grand Prix Spécial du Jury, the FIPRESCI prize and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury. Soviet authorities prevented the film from winning the Palme d'Or, a fact that hardened Tarkovsky's resolve to never work in the Soviet Union again. In the same year, he also arranged the opera Boris Godunov at the Royal Opera House in London under the musical direction of Claudio Abbado.
He spend most of 1984 preparing the film The Sacrifice. At a press conference in Milan on July 10, 1984 he announced that he would never return to the Soviet Union and would remain in the West. At that time, his son Andrei Jr. was still in the Soviet Union and not allowed to leave the country.
During 1985, he shot the film The Sacrifice in Sweden. At the end of the year he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. In January 1986, he began treatment in Paris, and was joined there by his wife and his son, who were finally allowed to leave the Soviet Union. The Sacrifice was presented at the Cannes Film Festival and received the Grand Prix Spécial du Jury, the FIPRESCI prize and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury. As Tarkovsky was unable to attend due to his illness, the prizes were collected by his son, Andrei Jr.
Tarkovsky kept fairly regular diaries from 1970 until shortly before his death. The last entry was on December 15, 1986. His last words are "But now I have no strength left - that is the problem". The diaries are sometimes also known as Martyrolog and were published posthumously in 1989, and in English in 1991.
Tarkovsky died in Paris on December 29, 1986. He was buried on January 3, 1987 in the Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois Russian Cemetery in Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois in France. The inscription on his grave stone, which was created by the Russian sculptor Ernst Neizvestny, reads To the man who saw the Angel.
Tarkovsky's first feature film was Ivan's Childhood in 1962. He then directed in the Soviet Union Andrei Rublev in 1966, Solaris in 1972, Mirror in 1975 and Stalker in 1979. The documentary Voyage in Time was produced in Italy in 1982, as was Nostalghia in 1983. His last film The Sacrifice was produced in Sweden in 1986. Tarkovsky was personally involved in writing the screenplays for all his films, sometimes with a co-writer. To Tarkovsky a director who realizes somebody else's screenplay without being involved in the creation of the screenplay becomes a mere illustrator, resulting in dead and monotonous films.
Tarkovsky was, according to Shavka Abdusalmov, a fellow student at the film school, fascinated by Japanese films. He was amazed by how every character on the screen is exceptional and how everyday events such as a Samurai cutting bread with his sword are elevated to something special and put into the limelight.
In 1972, Tarkovsky told film historian Leonid Kozlov his ten favorite films. The list includes Diary of a Country Priest and Mouchette by Robert Bresson, Winter Light, Wild Strawberries and Persona by Ingmar Bergman, Nazarin by Luis Buñuel, City Lights by Charlie Chaplin, Ugetsu by Kenji Mizoguchi, Seven Samurai by Akira Kurosawa and Woman in the Dunes by Hiroshi Teshigahara. Among his favorite directors were Luis Buñuel, Kenji Mizoguchi, Ingmar Bergman, Robert Bresson, Akira Kurosawa, Michelangelo Antonioni, Jean Vigo and Carl Theodor Dreyer.
With the exception of City Lights, the list does not contain any films or directors of the early silent era. The reason is that Tarkovsky saw film as an art as only a relatively recent phenomenon, with the early film-making forming only a prelude. The list has also no films or directors from Tarkovsky's native Russia, although he rated Soviet directors such as Boris Barnet, Sergei Paradjanov and Alexander Dovzhenko highly.
Tarkovsky's films are characterised by Christian and metaphysical themes, extremely long takes, and memorable images of exceptional beauty. Recurring motifs in his films are dreams, memory, childhood, running water accompanied by fire, rain indoors, reflections, levitation, and characters re-appearing in the foreground of long panning movements of the camera.
Tarkovsky included levitation scenes into several of his films, most notably Solaris. To him these scenes possess great power and are used for its photogenic value and its magic inexplicability.
Water, clouds, and reflections were used by him for its surreal beauty and photogenic value, as well as its symbolism, such as waves or the form of brooks or running water.
Bells and candles are also frequent symbols. These are symbols of film, sight and sound, and Tarkovsky's film frequently has themes of self refelction.
Tarkovsky developed a theory of cinema that he called "sculpting in time". By this he meant that the unique characteristic of cinema as a medium was to take our experience of time and alter it. Unedited movie footage transcribes time in real time. By using long takes and few cuts in his films, he aimed to give the viewers a sense of time passing, time lost, and the relationship of one moment in time to another.
Up to, and including, his film Mirror, Tarkovsky focused his cinematic works on exploring this theory. After Mirror, he announced that he would focus his work on exploring the dramatic unities proposed by Aristotle: a concentrated action, happening in one place, within the span of a single day.
Several of Tarkovsky's films are shot both in color and black and white, including for example Andrei Rublev which features an epilogue in color, as well as Solaris, Mirror (Zyrkalo), and Stalker, which feature monotone sequences as well as in color. In 1966, in an interview conducted shortly after finishing Andrei Rublev, Tarkovsky dismisses color film as a "commercial gimmick" and doubts that contemporary films meaningfully use color. He claims that in everyday life one does not consciously notice colors most of the time. Hence in film color should be used mainly to emphasize certain moments, but not all the time as this distracts the viewer. To him, films in color are like moving paintings or photographs, which are too beautiful to be a realistic depiction of life.
Under the influence of Glasnost and Perestroika, Tarkovsky was finally recognized in the Soviet Union in the fall of 1986, shortly before his death, by a retrospective of his films in Moscow. After his death, an entire issue of the film magazine Iskusstvo Kino was devoted to Tarkovsky. In their obituaries, the film committee of the Council of Ministers of the USSR and the Union of Soviet Film Makers expressed their sorrow that Tarkovsky had to spend the last years of his life in exile.
Posthumously, he was awarded the Lenin Prize in 1990, one of the highest state honors in the Soviet Union. In 1989 the Andrei Tarkovsky Memorial Prize was established, with its first recipient being the Russian animator Yuriy Norshteyn. Since 1993, the Moscow International Film Festival awards the annual Andrei Tarkovsky Award. In 1996 the Andrei Tarkovsky Museum opened in Yuryevets, his childhood town. A minor planet, 3345 Tarkovskij, discovered by Soviet astronomer Lyudmila Georgievna Karachkina in 1982 has also been named after him.
Tarkovsky has been the subject of several documentaries. Most notable is the 1988 documentary Moscow Elegy by Russian film director Alexander Sokurov. Sokurov's own work has been heavily influenced by Tarkovsky. The film consists mostly of narration over stock footage from Tarkovsky's films. Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky is 1988 documentary film by Michal Leszczylowski, an editor of the film The Sacrifice. Film director Chris Marker produced the television documentary One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich as an homage to Andrei Tarkovsky in 2000.
Tarkovsky is widely considered to be one of the greatest film makers of all time. Ingmar Bergman was quoted as saying "Tarkovsky for me is 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". Film historian Steven Dillon claims that much of subsequent film was deeply influenced by the films of Tarkovsky.
Art is born and takes hold wherever there is a timeless and insatiable longing for the spiritual." -Andrei Tarkovsky