Had he lived, Andrei Tarkovsky would have celebrated his 86th birthday today. One of the greatest poets of the silver screen and our eternal hero we’ll continue to worship until he draw our last filmloving breaths, Tarkovsky died young, in exile, but was turned into a myth through the love of his art, the mystery of his character and the intrigue and tragedy of his life. The filmmaker to whom film scholars often attribute “the invention of a new cinematic language” made only seven feature films through the course of his career, but practically all of them became classics you simply can’t avoid in your personal quest of exploring the incredible depths and scope of the world of film. The legacy, influence and sheer power of his films continue to mesmerize today, more than a half of century after his feature film debut, Ivan’s Childhood, was made. For those of you who want to learn more about the Russian master, who’d like to explore both his work and life in more detail, the 2012 documentary called Sacrifices of Andrei Tarkovsky is a legitimate, even highly recommended option. This 54-minute-long film was made in 2012 specifically for the 80th anniversary of Tarkovsky’s birth.
The author is Denis Trofimov, and his work is distinguished by his use of rather unique materials providing a precious insight into the years Tarkovsky spent in Florence, Italy. The documentary is further elevated by the personal accounts of friends and professionals who had the privilege of working with him, like actor Oleg Yankovsky and screenwriter Tonino Guerra. Moreover, Sacrifices of Andrei Tarkovsky allows the viewers access to the shooting locations of masterpieces such as Stalker, Nostalghia and The Sacrifice, at the same time examining his relationship with his crew, the meaning of Solaris and to what degree Mirror reflects Tarkovsky’s personal life. There are plenty of treats here that we simply don’t want to spoil in the introduction: the house in which Nostalgia was made, parts of the cult Time of Travel documentary, even images of young Tarkovsky on set… The documentary is a must-watch, as it seemingly effortlessly brings us closer to the man to whom contemporary filmmaking owes so damn much. As always, thanks to Charles M, a fantastic YouTube account dedicated to Andrei Tarkovsky related materials.
The following interview with Andrei Tarkovsky was conducted by Aleksandr Lipkov on February 1, 1967. It originally appeared in Literaturnoe obozrenie 1988: 74–80. It is published at nostalghia.com for the first time in English. Translation copyright by Robert Bird (University of Chicago, Slavic Languages and Literatures).
THE PASSION ACCORDING TO ANDREI:
AN UNPUBLISHED INTERVIEW WITH ANDREI TARKOVSKY
When I am asked: “How did you approach the historical theme in your film; what were your ideas of a historical film; what conception of history did you profess?” I become uncomfortable. I don’t want to divide cinema up into genres for it has so merged with viewer experience that, like this experience, it cannot be fragmented. The meaning of cinema and its colossal popularity is based on the fact that the viewer approaches it in search of his own un-accumulated experience, so to speak. I am not speaking of inexperience in life, but of the fact that our age offers one such a large amount of information and people are so busy that they do not have time sometimes even to find out what is surrounding them on a day-to-day basis. Cinema’s task is to substitute for this lacking experience. It stands before the very serious and profound task of speaking truthfully and sincerely, never deceiving the viewer. And if this viewer goes to see even wholly commercial films, this doesn’t mean that he likes them. Perhaps he doesn’t even know himself what draws him to the cinema. I think that he is drawn by the need for knowledge, the desire to hear questions that arise for his contemporaries, and the aspiration to participate in the solving of problems which he has no time for in life.
As far as our film is concerned, as contemporary artist we naturally made the film about issues that relate to us as well.
I don’t know a single artist, regardless of whether he paints canvasses or makes films, writes poetry or casts sculpture, who would aspire only to restore the past and remain within the limits of historiography. Take Shakespeare, Pushkin, or Tolstoy. All of them were concerned with wholly contemporary issues when they wrote about Julius Caesar, Boris Godunov, or the war of 1812. The same goes for us. Of course we collected material, read sources and historical and historiographical works, based ourselves on chronicles, on the studies of art historians dedicated to Rublev and his contemporaries, and on everything that we could read about the epoch. And yet we were concerned with other issues.
The first is the role of the artist in society. We wanted the viewer to leave the film with the idea that the artist is society’s conscience as its most sensitive organ who is most perceptive to what occurs around it. A great artist is able to make masterpieces because he is capable of seeing others clearer and to perceive the world with joy or exaggerated pain. For us Rublev was such an artist.
One might think that the scope of his art and its influence on those around him were quite limited. One might think that, living in the time he was fated to live in, he could see nothing but tragedy. This was a tough and blood-drenched epoch for Rus, which had not yet coalesced as a nation and was gripped by internecine conflict and suffered annual raids by the Tatars. One might think that Rublev had nothing to lean on in his environment in order to create any radiant images. And yet he did not carry the terrifying images of his time over onto his boards. As if in protest, in opposition to what surrounded him and to the reigning political atmosphere in Rus, in literally all of his works this artist bore forth the idea of brotherhood, cooperation, and mutual love. He incarnates the ethical ideal of his time.
I know no great work of art in all of world culture that would not be linked to an ethical ideal, that is based on some other motives such as on the dark aspects of life. There some talented works of such a nature, but no masterpieces.
What about Picasso’s Guernica?
I will address that. An artist’s oeuvre is always composed of various works, especially for such a tireless seeker as Picasso, who has painted hundreds or even thousands of sheets and pages. He never stops at what he has achieved, although he has always spoken of the same things. Compare him to Tolstoy, let’s say, with his most profound work War and Peace: here you will see on one hand a furious protest against everything dark in life, and on the other hand an affirmation of joy, love for man, faith in him and in the power of his soul, in the ability of his reason to work out the most complex problems, and a readiness to stand firm in the face of severe examination. This is only natural. Life is varied, it is composed of contrasting planes, and by focusing on only one of them an artist will illuminate it one-sidedly, failing to give his word, the screen or the painted canvas a complete image of the world and to comprehend the true profundity of phenomena.
Take for example Raphael’s Sistine Madonna. She is beautiful and humane precisely because of the tragic plot that lies at her base. A plot that is commonly known and is taken from the Gospels: Mary must sacrifice her son to people. But the artist humanized the Mother of God; although from the religious point of view she was not even a person, in a certain sense, he depicts her precisely as a person. The power of the work’s effect is due to the fact that Mary is afraid and suffers in the face of events which await her son. She knows that everything is foreordained, that the infant was born for torments, and that she is obliged to give him up, but on her face one reads not only fear but also a question for people and hope that what is foreordained will not occur. This precise balance between preordination and hope is what creates that deeply human image, which is turned towards us and raises the work to the height of a masterpiece.
One may cite a multitude of other examples. All of Chaplin is based on the tragic content of plots in which a small and cowed man, abused by the capitalist city, tries in some way to preserve himself and to oppose to the oppressive circumstances: his individuality, some kind of craftiness, or complexity of character. In a word, the essence of Chaplin’s character, borne by the artist through numerous pictures, is the combination of a profoundly tragic content and comic form, which is disarmingly humane, full of love for people, goodness, and sympathy.
I think that by concealing the shadowy aspects of life it is impossible to reveal deeply and fully what is beautiful in life. All the processes occurring in the world are born from the battle between old and new, between what has died and what is accumulating strength for life. And the cinema, like any other art, is mostly interested in this process: life in its movement. All great works are based on this. Rublev is a genius because his work is oriented towards the future: in difficult times, when the nation could only dream of a life without war, without violence, and of the most elementary happiness and calm, when it was not allowed even to open its mouth to cry out in protest, precisely at this time Rublev created his Trinity, all of which cries out, thirsts goodness, calm, and harmony in people’s interrelations.
We wanted to show that Andrei Rublev’s art was a protest against the order that reigned at that time, against the blood, the betrayal, the oppression. Living at a terrifying time, he eventually arrives at the necessity of creating and carries through all of his life the idea of brotherhood, love for peace, a radiant worldview, and the idea of Rus’s unification in the face of the Tatar yoke. We found it extremely important, both from the historical and the contemporary viewpoints, to express these thoughts.
Unfortunately we succeeded in relating only a portion of what has been written about the epoch in historical sources. It was so blood-drenched that literally every page of the chronicles and of historical studies tells us about betrayal, desertion, treason, blood, arson, Tatar raids, destruction, death and so on and so forth. In our picture we were able to show not even half of that for our story was also about a lot of other things and it is necessary to preserve a certain proportion in order to avoid distorting the truth. Our historical consultants who read the screenplay did not find any departures from the historiography.
The recreated epoch interested us not only in our search for an answer to the question concerning the meaning of true art. Our Andrei Rublev passes through the narrative not as the main protagonist. For us he provided the occasion and ground for speaking about what is most important: the spiritual and ethical power of the Russian nation which, even in a state of absolute oppression, proved itself capable of creating hugely spiritual values. Confirmation of this is given both by Andrei Rublev and by the architects who are blinded on the prince’s order, and the young craftsman Boriska who casts a bell at the end of our picture. We set ourselves the task of seeing and revealing the sources of the Russian nation’s indestructible creative energy in that distant epoch, of its strength, and therefore also of our authorial faith in this strength. And at the same time we wanted in a way to tell our viewers about themselves, so to speak, to knock on their door and tell them: “Each of you is capable of a moral labor,” to awaken in them the desire to create—in the broadest meaning of this word. It is not necessary to paint icons or cast bells (after all our film is historical, and is therefore to some degree a trope), but, for example, to build homes or do some other necessary work.
We made our picture with the greatest love for the people whose stories we were telling. It was they who bore on their shoulders the future of our culture and of all our life.
As an example of a man from the people who incarnates the principle of creativity we drew the bell-founder Boriska, played by Nikolai Burliaev. His vivacity, his self-confidence, his unshakeable desire to work, to create almost to the point of emaciation, until exhaustion knocks him from his feet and makes him fall asleep literally right there in the mud and clay, all of this makes him a kind of harbinger of great historical events. For us this was practically a young Peter the Great (naturally on a very limited scale) who will awaken Russia, shake it to its foundations, and change its face.
Another important problem of the picture is the so-called vow of silence which Andrei Rublev gives in response to the terrifying events of surrounding life.
We, the authors of the film, make Andrei fall silent. But that doesn’t mean that we share his position. On the contrary, the subsequent episodes were intended to persuade the viewer that Rublev’s vow of silence was ridiculous and insignificant in the face of impending events, which Andrei as an artist is no longer able to respond to in any way, in which he is incapable of interfering in. For us this silence is filled with the broadest, most abstract, and even symbolic meaning. The very episode during which he is silent sees the main events connected to the denouement.
The film has a character of the village idiot girl, the blessed girl [blazhennaia], who suddenly departs with the Tatars. She simply takes a liking to one of them and takes off with him. Only a madman at that time could see something radiant and joyful in these conquerors. And the fact that she is retarded was intended to underscore the ridiculous nature of the situation: no normal man could have acted in this fashion. And Andrei should have interfered and prevented his ward from being harmed (after all in Rus the blessed were revered as saints: harming a blessed one or holy fool [iurodivyi] was at that time horribly sinful), but he doesn’t interfere; he gave his vow and cannot say a word. Andrei not only fails to step in for his neighbor, but is even incapable of standing up for himself. The jester [skomorokh], played by Rolan Bykov, thinks that Andrei was the one who denounced him to the guards because he noticed Andrei among the spectators for whom he danced and sang those rather frivolous but socially risqué songs about a boyar. And much later, after returning from exile, beaten and having suffered many torments, the buffoon accuses Rublev of betrayal amongst a crowd of people, and he can’t defend himself and explain his innocence; he is mute. People come to him and call him to paint the walls of the Trinity Cathedral, but again he is silent. He is shut up in himself, has buried his talent in the ground, and behaves like a madman. Everything is upside-down. Rublev not only acts in a manner unbecoming to a normal man, but also in a manner unbecoming to an honest man who loves his nation, to a citizen. And it is only Boriska who, with the force of his conviction, with his faith, the obsession with which he puts all of himself into the casting of the bell, wakes Andrei from his silence. The strength, the visible strength of human creativity, resilience, and faith in one’s calling makes Rublev break his sinful vow.
In this manner we wanted to express the human ideas that our own day needs. We tried never to depart from facts in our depiction of Russia as she was in that epoch, but at the same time to illuminate what we depicted with a new ideological attitude. Naturally we understand that the reality was somewhat different, that we do not command sufficient knowledge to reconstruct everything as it actually was in history, and that if we suddenly got such an opportunity then the ideas which emerge from our story would not be the same. But as contemporary artists we consider ourselves empowered to express our own view of Rublev and his time and to tell of our own issues. We wanted the protagonist’s character and the atmosphere of his epoch to express our demands from contemporary artists, our faith in the Russian nation, and our belief in its creative power. It seemed extremely important to speak of this today.
In your view, how is it possible to reconcile the historical truth with the tendentiousness of contemporary artists?
There is no need to reconcile them. It will work out in any case, even if you only set yourself the task of reconstructing reality on the basis of historical materials. Artists are tendentious and are obliged to be so. Whether they want to be so or not, they are tendentious. If they speak up on something they are already expressing some kind of opinion, some kind of attitude.
In the film we are speaking about Andrei’s character, about the meaning of his art, and about his perception of his surroundings. And no historiographer can tell us that things were different. After all nothing is known about this. Violence against the material is not only admissible, but even necessary. Any events which the artist describes will always be deformed according to the ideas he professes.
To what extent did you concern yourself with the precise reconstruction of everyday objects and cultural monuments?
We shot our film in Vladimir, Suzdal’, on the Nerl river, in Pskov, Izborsk, Pechery, and among architectural monuments from that era of the fourteenth-fifteenth centuries. But at the same time we always tried to avoid a museum-like attitude towards history. That is to say we did not seek to present these architectural monuments in any special way, we treated them in the manner in which, if we were shooting a film about modern life, we would treat regular buildings like those on the street. It was the same way with everyday objects; we wanted to avoid treating them as props or something exotic; we wanted the objects of material culture to be perceived from the screen just as the things that surround us in daily life are perceived. In this respect everything in the film is absolutely precise. The main thing for us was always the events themselves, the people that acted in them, and the characters of these people.
One could probably say the same about the language of the film?
Yes, about the language, about the montage, and about our working method with actors: everything was in this way. We wanted to make a picture that would be comprehensible to the modern viewer without departing from the truth, without resorting to some special plastic expressivity that underscores the theme’s historicism and raises the story onto the “buskins of eternity,” which removes the protagonists from the real earth. In this respect Eisenstein’s historical films, for example, demonstrate the opposite tendency. In his films if he shows a chair, for example, then it looks like a palace. He plays on it as if it was the most unique relic from the Kremlin Armoury. We thought that such an attitude distracts viewers and obscures his perception of what is most important, while we tried to concentrate all attention on the problems, on the psychology of actions, and on human characters. We wanted the screen to provide, so to speak, a chronicle of the fifteenth century, to make the distance in time as unnoticeable and as shortened as possible. We tried not to shock and not to surprise, but to make the viewer feel all of it as flesh of the flesh, blood of the blood of Russia.
But the cruelty in the film is shown precisely to shock and stun the viewers. And this may even repel them.
No, I don’t agree. This does not hinder viewer perception. Moreover we did all this quite sensitively. I can name films that show much more cruel things, compared to which ours looks quite modest. True, we showed this aspect of life in concentrated fashion, but at the same time with reserve. Moreover, as I have said, the time was so cruel that in this manner, increasing the tension in individual parts, we were able to preserve the necessary balance between the dark and light aspects of the time, a balance that was required by our fidelity to historical truth.
God, look at the chronicles. At that very same time in the fifteenth century Dmitrii, the prince of Smolensk, started eying the wife of one of his neighboring princes. Note that there were no social reasons for hostility, he simply “coveted his neighbor’s wife.” So what did he do? He attacked his neighbor, killed him, burnt his lands, sacked the city, killed a mass of people, and captured the prince’s wife. However, despite her reputation as a somewhat frivolous woman, she refused to go to him. Then he ordered her quartered on the square and thrown into the river Tver’. And our chronicles are filled with such events. One can’t simply be silent about it. Otherwise we would violate the truth of history.
I know why you mention this. It’s all because of those rumors… We didn’t burn the cow: she was covered in asbestos. And we took the horse from the slaughterhouse. If we didn’t kill her that day, she would have been killed the next day in the same way. We did not think up any special torments, so to speak, for the horse.
When The Battleship Potemkin was released Eisenstein was accused of all manner of things. They couldn’t forgive him the maggots in the meat, the woman’s runny eye, or the invalid who jumps around on his stumps, nor the famous pram that rolls down the staircase. It’s easy to say now: “Oh, Potemkin!” But what didn’t the director have to put up with at the time? Talk to people who witnessed all of this. They can tell you more. It’s always the same, this isn’t the first time. We are judged not by what we did or wanted to do, but we are judged by people who don’t want to understand the work as a whole or even to look at it. Instead they isolate individual fragments and details, clutching to them and trying to prove that there is some special, main point in them. This is delirium, it’s metaphysics that has nothing to do with an analysis of the work. And this occurs not only with respect to my picture. You see the same thing left and right. I want you to keep that in the interview.
Compare it to a mosaic. You can stick your nose into some fragment, beat it with your fist, and yell: “Why is it black here? It shouldn’t be black here! I don’t like looking at black!” But you have to look at a mosaic from afar and on the whole, and if you change one color the whole thing falls apart.
Too often we judge things by the details. We criticize a work, taking some detail out of it, not wanting to understand the function it performs in the whole. If we didn’t say anything about the cruelty of the epoch I am sure that the novella about the bell would never have attained such power, and the music and Rublev’s painting that is shot in color would not sound the same. Only here, together with the last shot, perhaps, does the general idea of the film develop. Unless we take pains about the separate details without contemplating the functional significance they have for the whole, we are not artists. And critics who judge us in this way are not critics. As far as the general idea of the film is concerned, I do not doubt it for an instant and am totally convinced that I am right, as is everyone else in fact. But we are pecked at for trifles…
How do you view other directors who have worked in the genre of historical films? Eisenstein in particular.
It is difficult for me to speak about him because I am afraid of being misunderstood. Beyond a doubt, I consider Eisenstein a great director and regard him highly. I really love Strike, The Battleship Potemkin, and The Old and the New, but I cannot accept his historical pictures. I think they are unusually theatrical. Incidentally, Dovzhenko spoke exhaustively about this; perhaps they had some kind of problem with each other. Major artists often have sharp conflicts amongst themselves, but in any case his words “A daytime opera” seem correct. Because everything is flimsy. Cinema should capture life in the forms in which it exists and use images of life itself. It is the most realistic art form in terms of form. The form in which the cinematic shot exists should be a reflection of the forms of real life. The director has only to choose the moments he will capture and to construct a whole out of them.
In other words, cinema cannot adopt the degree of convention that Eisenstein used in Ivan the Terrible?
It should not, in my view. Moreover I have information that in the last days of his life Eisenstein himself arrived at completely different positions on this matter, which he mentions in one of his letters. The point is that the mis-en-scene, which up to that point had been conventional in his films and expressed some general idea, was supposed to stop being like this. It was supposed to be a finished slice of life, and not to be subordinated to some exterior dramaturgy that always shows the viewer the ceiling against which he keeps hitting his head, and in the best case the viewer sees no further than the idea he is assigned. He feels as if he’s in a good theatre, but doesn’t see life in what is shown to him on the screen.
Let’s take Alexander Nevsky for example. There is the scene of the battle on ice, which is edited perfectly like the entire film. But Eisenstein ignored the truth of the instant and the truth of the very life he was filming. The characters wave their swords in a fake and forced manner, slowly and ridiculously. You can see it is staged, and staged badly. And all of it is edited in a particular rhythm to create the rhythm of the battle which the director needs. This lack of correspondence fragments the episode into disconnected parts. Moreover there are these wooden ice-floes which break up in a swimming pool according to an obviously intentional pattern. It’s impossible to watch. Cinema is an absolute art that cannot bear falsity in its movement. Therefore the film falls apart. The inner rhythm of its shots does not agree with the principle of montage. No matter how wonderful Prokofiev’s music is, no matter how masterfully Eisenstein edited it, it doesn’t save the picture. In the artistic sense I consider it a failure.
Did you use anything from Eisenstein’s work on historical film?
No, nothing. Moreover, we wanted to do everything differently. If the action of Eisenstein’s films occurs in a kind of sterile, museum-like, almost artificial environment, we wanted the characters in our film to breathe the same air as today’s viewers, so that the events of the film were life itself, so that all of it was not spectacle, but human experience. Of course, Eisenstein uttered profound ideas in his pictures. But we would like to work in a totally different manner than Eisenstein with respect to plastics. That’s just natural. No self-respecting artist would adopt an alien creative conception. One should have one’s own.
And how do you feel about historical costume thrillers such as Cleopatra?
What can I say about that? That’s a commercial spectacle intended to impress the imagination of simple people. And even then Cleopatra, I understand, was a fiasco. Viewers are no longer interested in such pictures. Historical pictures must not be staged as costume dramas. That’s a mistake. Take, for example, The Tale of Tsar Sultan, although that’s a somewhat different genre, a fairy-tale . Everything there is fake, bad theatre, tasteless. It’s so monstrous that it’s not even worth talking about this film. But one could make such a grandiose film of it!
Which other directors in the area of historical film appears most significant to you?
I love Kurosawa, although I don’t like his Throne of Blood, for example. I think he copied Shakespeare’s plot in a superficial manner and transferred it to Japanese history, without really succeeding. Shakespeare’s Macbeth is much more profound, both in the character of its protagonist and in the tragedy that penetrates the action. I love The Seven Samurai and Sanjuro. Remarkable pictures. Remarkable director. One of the best in the world, what can I say.
Your opinion of Throne of Blood surprises me.
It has some remarkable scenes. For instance the beginning, where the protagonists are lost in the fog, is shot incredibly. But the finale didn’t impress me at all. The arrow that penetrates his throat is badly done. You can see it’s glued on from both sides. It ruins the impression. Cinema doesn’t permit any such faults. But I still love Kurosawa a lot: in the historical genre he has achieved more than anyone.
What in your opinion is Kurosawa’s greatest achievement?
The main thing is his modern characters, modern problems, and the modern method of studying life. That’s self-evident. He never set himself the task of copying the life of samurai of a certain historical period. One perceives his Middle Ages without any exoticism. He is such a profound artist, he shows such psychological connections, such a development of characters and plot-lines, such a vision of the world, that his narrative about the Middle Ages constantly makes you think about today’s world. You feel that you somehow already know all of this. It’s the principle of recognition. That’s the greatest quality of art according to Aristotle. When you recognize something personal in the work, something sacred, you experience joy. Kurosawa is also interesting for his social analysis of history. If you compare The Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven, which share the same plot, it is especially visible. Kurosawa’s historicism is based on characters. Moreover these are not conventional characters, but ones which issue from the circumstances of the protagonists’ life. Each samurai has his own individual fate, although each possesses nothing except the ability to use a sword; and, not wanting to do anything else because of his pride, each finds himself serving peasants to defend them from the enemy. There is a text of pure genius at the end of the film, remember, over the grave, when they plant rice: samurai come and go, but the nation remains. That’s the idea. They are like the wind, blown this way and that. Only the peasants remain on the earth.
But The Magnificent Seven is a typical western with everything that issues therefrom. The director remained totally within the framework of the genre. Why is Kurosawa so good? Because he doesn’t belong to any genre. The historical genre? No, this is more likely resurrected history, convincingly true, not bearing any relation to the canons of the “historical genre.” On the contrary, in The Magnificent Seven everything is based on the canons which it is impossible to break. Everything is known ahead of time. The viewer knows ahead of time what is supposed to happen, but he watches because it is all performed so brilliantly according to the generic and stylistic canons of the western. This isn’t art. This is a commercial enterprise. No matter what good ideas are placed therein, it’s all fake, false, ridiculous. It seems sort of the same thing: the same peasants, just as kind, the want to bury the Indian, etc. But what a sense of discomfort! It’s all a stretch, accidental, it’s a laugh.
What do you think about the relationship between the individual personality and history in a historical film?
That was a very important question for us. We want the main protagonist of our film to be the events and the people, the nation in its mass. We didn’t even want to separate out Rublev as an individual on whom the course of events depends. Usually in historical pictures there is always some active character: a tsar, a general, etc., whose will determines the course of events, who introduces some reforms, in other words, who makes history. I think this is the coattails of a tradition that was formed under Stalin. I can’t explain it any other way. Of course the role of the individual in history cannot be denied. The influence it exerts on the destiny of the epoch is very significant. But to explain everything by the actions of tsars and supermen is, in my view, an anti-historical approach. In any case, I’m glad that we were able to make do without any such moralizer, without a character with a raised index finger, without the creator of fates who makes history according to his whim. Even great people are led by events, by history.
In this light what do you think of a film like Peter the Great?
I don’t remember it very well. It was some kind of gigantomania, there some something inhuman in the character. On the contrary, the figure of Chapaev was resolved in a manner of genius. Just think, a man who doesn’t even know what the International is, who conflicts with his commissar, who declares that a commander shouldn’t ride ahead on a warrior horse but should remain behind his detachment and should die fighting only in his underwear! Everything seems backwards compared to the ideal cinema protagonist. And only because of this do we see him as a normal, everyday man; he becomes immortal in our eyes. Chapaev, as played by Babochkin, was a totally unique phenomenon. Of course, all praise is due to the Vasiliev brothers who edited down the material of an enormous two-part film into a normal-length film, but the result is like a diamond where every facet contrasts with another, giving birth to a character.
It’s so grandiose! That’s what a real historical picture is! And, by the way, remember how many obstacles Chapaev had to overcome, how much discussion there was: “how is that possible?” “why show that?”. [It was necessary to show this] precisely because its hero is a man and therefore immortal. For some reason it is thought that historical personages should be placed onto buskins. I don’t know why. We, in any case, tried to make our characters understandable to our viewers, to make them as close as possible to the current day, not in the content of events, not in their actions, but in their psychology, in their interrelations. They even speak the contemporary language.
That thundering sound during the finale with shots of icons: is that a jet plane? Is that also a way of making the story more modern?
No, you’re wrong. It’s just thunder, normal thunder. You may have felt that, but we did not try for that. In general I can’t bear any interpretations, any “fingers hidden the pocket”; that’s the worst thing possible. That’s not art. I reject that out of hand, I swear! But if it seems similar, then what can you do? It really is similar. But there’s no “finger” here. In this respect we cleansed the screenplay with all possible diligence, and if we found anything that could be interpreted as a hint at some contemporary situations we purged it mercilessly. The only thing that was important to us was to express our idea, our view of the nation, of the era, of people, of art. We didn’t want any deviation from the historiography. Even without that the limits were sufficiently broad to express everything we needed to.
Are you planning to continue your work in the realm of historical film?
Right now I don’t have any such desire. Not now, but after a couple of pictures, I would like to shoot the Life of Archpriest Avvakum. He’s a colossal figure. Fascinating. Moreover you don’t have to write any screenplay. It’s enough to take the Life and make the picture according to it. He’s a remarkable character, deeply Russian, the character of an indestructible man. A story where man triumphs. A tragedy equal in strength to Aeschylus. The death of the protagonist engenders within us the feeling, we understand how great this figure was, how grandiose the power of the human spirit can be. This concerns me. I would like to do this.
What are the two films you would like to do first?
One plan I am keeping in secret, but the other is Solaris based on Stanislaw Lem.
A science-fiction film; that’s also a kind of historical film, only oriented towards the future, not the past.
Yes, and we know as little about the future as we do about the past.
But we try to guess ahead of time.
Just the same as when we try to reconstruct in historical films the way things were, and we have just as little chance of success as with predicting the future. But that’s not important, that’s of secondary importance, the main thing is the ideas which we express. If a fifteenth-century man watched Rublev he would probably be terribly confused and wouldn’t recognize anything. It could not be otherwise. After all we are speaking of art. That’s what distinguishes it from science.
And what if people will watch Rublev in the year 2200. How will the viewer approach the film then?
Well. We tried in 1966 to make a picture as close as possible to history, as accurate as possible in terms of costumes and other such accessories of the age, with the sole exception of the dialogue. What year did you say? 2200? I hope that intelligent and educated people will live then, they will understand that this is a work of art, and will not make the kind of demands that we are subjected to today.
Historical films often rest on some literary source. In this case the director faces the task of double interpretation: of the literary work, and of the historical event.
I think our task in making our film on Rublev was simplified precisely due to the lack of any firm information about our protagonist. His character, his personality are so mysterious, obscure, and encoded, that we were able to construct our story freely, to imagine Rublev’s biography without fear of complicating our relationships with historians and art historians. They can’t prove to us their objections to our depiction of Andrei. And, by contrast, if the facts of his life were known in detail, no one would forgive us the violation of historical truth.
To what degree, in your view, does the artist have a right to make things up?
The artist has a right to any fiction; that’s why he’s an artist. He does not misrepresent his depiction as the truth of life. He battles only for the truth of the problem and the truth of the conclusions which he presents. And the fact that art is based on fiction is proven loudly by its entire history, from its very sources…
It’s easy to make things up with regard to Rublev’s epoch. But what about the events, for example, of the Second World War?
It’s still the same. Perhaps the artist even has it slightly easier here. In order to make things up, you have to know what you are rejecting. You absolutely must know this. You can’t say: “Well, I’m going to shoot a film about the Archpriest Avvakum, although I know nothing about him or his time.” Nothing will come of this. The more we know, the more are our opportunities. But the artist has the right to reject something and change something. He has the right to his own interpretation of events in the name of the task he has set himself.
What do you think about Pasolini’s Gospel according to Matthew? That’s also a kind of historical film.
Of course. I like the picture. I like it precisely because its director did not succumb to the temptation of interpreting the Bible. The Bible has been interpreted for two thousand years and no one can reach unanimous agreement. So Pasolini did not set himself this task, he just left the thing in the form in which it was born. Many feel that the image of a militant cruel Christ was made up by the author of the film. Not true! Read the Gospels and you will see that this was a cruel, cantankerous, irreconcilable man. Moreover with what genius was it written! On the one hand he’s God and the Church has been relying on him for two thousand years, but he succumbs to doubt in the garden of Gethsemane. What could be simpler than to call for help from his father and avoid dying on the cross, but he doesn’t do this. He is all back-to-front…
Would it be possible to film Hamlet in the same way, avoiding the temptation of interpreting the source?
This is a more serious matter. I have long dreamed of doing a production of Hamlet and I hope to stage it someday in the theatre and maybe in the cinema. The thing is that Hamlet does not need interpretation. It is necessary, I think, simply to read what Shakespeare said. And insofar as he spoke of absolutely eternal problems which are always of principal importance, Hamlet can be staged according to Shakespeare’s design, in any age. Such miracles sometimes occur with works. The artist sometimes achieves such a profound insight into events, characters and human conflicts, that even centuries later what he wrote has enormous significance. Only no one knows how to read Hamlet properly.
What about Kozintsev’s?
I don’t like it.
No again. They both try to modernize Hamlet in some way.
Peter Brook? I mean the theatrical staging.
No, I don’t like his either.
You mean there has never been a Hamlet that…
Yes, in my view, there never has been the Hamlet that Shakespeare wrote. Perhaps there was in the Elizabethan age, when he personally participated in the Globe theatre. Maybe… Hamlet shouldn’t be interpreted; it shouldn’t be stretched onto some contemporary problems like a shirt which rips at the seams, and even if it doesn’t rip it hangs as if on a clothes hanger, absolutely formlessly. There are enough ideas there which remain immortal to this day. One only has to learn to read them… All of this is really complicated when you deal with such canonical figures… You see, there are two kinds of screen adaptation. The first is when you use classical works, masterpieces, which are so saturated with meaning for millions of years ahead, for ever, unto the ages and ages, so that it’s necessary only to communicate them. By the means which exist. Cinema exists, so you can do it by means of cinema as well. And if no one has succeeded in filming Shakespeare as he wrote, it is still necessary to do it.
But then there are pieces which merely give the director or screenwriter an impulse, material which they can use to speak with their own voice and express their own ideas. Incidentally Shakespeare himself, for example, wrote about Julius Caesar something different than what corresponds to history, to the works of Plutarch and Suetonius. He wrote as he saw fit. He said whatever he thought about this issue. And this path is not so bad, by the way. If a book is merely material to help you express your ideas, then you can’t avoid using contemporary issues, otherwise you are not an artist, otherwise your film will be popular science, historiography, without artistic merit. And if you are adapting an immortal work you need a completely different approach.
They say that great works like Hamlet need a new reading for each generation.
With respect to Hamlet that is not correct.
But history shows that’s the way it has been.
Yes, thus it has been, unfortunately. But Shakespeare wrote a significantly more profound work than the performances which we have seen, which we know. For how many years, for how many decades was Hamlet portrayed as a languid youth with long hair and a black tunic with puff sleeves, in a camisole with a golden chain! But it is known for sure that Shakespeare envisioned a completely different, thirty-year-old man suffering from shortness of breath. To think that era was closer to Shakespeare than our own. But they acted the role as they liked. It was a fashion. As soon as Hamlet becomes such a languid prince, everything is lost. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is dead… I would do it completely differently, and the scenery would be different. But that’s not important. It’s my decision as a director how to shoot it. But the characters and the idea of the piece should be preserved by all means because they are absolutely immortal. The idea of Hamlet is the conflict of a man of the future with the present. He overtook his era intellectually but was obliged to live amongst his physical contemporaries.
He continually reflects. Why? What’s the problem? What’s the main issue?
The main issue is his inability to act. Perhaps he is unsure of everything or he thinks he’s weak? Nothing of the sort. Hamlet understands perfectly well that the conflict is insoluble. This is why he says, “To be or not to be?” The conflict is insoluble, whether he interferes in it or not. Hamlet sees the pointlessness of conflict in advance. He is fated. And as soon as he begins to act he perishes for himself as well. Imagine by what means he has to fight in this world! What a “mousetrap” this must be! What a duel! In other words he adopts the position of his enemy. He should fight with their weapons in the same base manner as they do. And the result is inevitable death. Because it is impossible to change anything. Hamlet has overtaken his own time by many years. He understands the world he lives in and that only the future times, to which he belongs spiritually, will be capable of changing anything.
How can man act upon time? Or is he helpless?
No, he is obliged to act. Hamlet decides correctly. He must act even though he understands he will perish. He will perish like Giordano Bruno, like many revolutionaries and defenders of ideas. After all Hamlet fights for an idea. He can’t become a vulgar townsman and accept everything that surrounds him, although he knows that he is doomed. Hence the greatness of his spirit and his genius. Hamlet hesitates because he cannot triumph. How should he be? What can he do? He can’t do anything. This will always be the way. But he must still say his word… And the result is a pile of corpses. And four captains carry him out. This is the meaning of Hamlet, not “to be or not to be,” “to live or die.” Nonsense! It has nothing to do with life and death. It has to do with the life of the human spirit, about the ability or inability to become acclimatized, about the responsibility of a great man and intellect before society.
Man must still act! Hamlet acts although he knows he is incapable of breaking this world, this castle. In the best case he will himself become its king. It could be done in this way! And then the piece would be understandable for all ages.
Progress exists. But there is a man who has overtaken progress. He has come from afar, has studied for a long time, and has not participated in all the internecine conflicts. He is a member of the intelligentsia, of the highest class. Only Russians can understand what that means. Do you know what is said about the intelligentsia in the famous Britannica Encyclopedia? There are two sections: the intelligentsia, and the Russian intelligentsia. And we have already forgotten about that.
How do you understand that?
The Russian intelligentsia was always extremely active and independent. It was never in the service of the princes of this world, it defended truth, sought, moved forward. “Intelligentsia” is a Russian word. The members of the intelligentsia suffered privations in the name of its ideas, underwent repressions, and were considered idealists. Recall the social-democrats: Belinsky, Dobroliubov, Pisarev, all of them stood for an idea and were outcasts. But no matter how hostile reality was to them they believed in truth and fought for it. And what is the intelligentsia in the West? A private person, uninterested in contact with the masses.
In other words to be a member of the intelligentsia is a profession…
Yes, it is a social calling. Lenin, after all, was also intelligentsia.
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