To show life, to save one’s soul: Tarkovsky on filmmaking and faith

From an interview* with Andrei Tarkovsky by Charles H. de Brantes in 1986:

de Brantes: Some folks have questioned the intertwining in your work, especially in THE SACRIFICE, between Christian motifs, for example the recitation of the “Our Father,” and ideas more archaic, more pagan, such as the character of Maria, the “good witch.” This leads to a certain confusion . . . Are you or are you not a Christian filmmaker?
Tarkovsky: I believe that it’s truly not important to know if I subscribe to certain beliefs, whether pagan, Catholic, Orthodox, or simply Christian. The important thing is the work itself. It seems to me better to judge the work from a general perspective, and not to be searching for contradictions which some wish to see in my work. A work of art isn’t always a mirror reflection of the inner world of the artist, particularly when it comes to the smallest of details. While it’s true, there exists a certain logical connection . . . it’s possible for there to be an opposition to the personal beliefs of the artist.
     Also, when I directed this film, I was convinced it had to address itself to all types of audiences.
     When I was very young I asked my father, “Does God exist—yes or no?” And he answered me brilliantly: “For the unbeliever, no, for the believer, yes!” This problem is very important.
     I want to say in relation to this that it’s possible to interpret the film in different ways. For instance, those who are interested in various supernatural phenomena will search for the meaning of the film in the relationship between the postman and the witch, for them these two characters will provide the principle action. Believers are going to respond most sensitively to Alexander’s prayer to God, and for them the whole film will develop around this. And finally a third category of viewers who don’t believe in anything will imagine that Alexander is a bit sick, that he’s psychologically unbalanced as a result of war and fear. Consequently many kinds of viewers will perceive the film in their own way. My opinion is that its necessary to afford the spectator the freedom to interpret the film according to their own inner vision of the world, and not from the point of view that I would impose upon him. For my aim is to show life, to render an image, the tragic, dramatic image of the soul of modern man. In conclusion, can you imagine such a film being directed by a non-believer? I can’t.

Later in the interview:

de Brantes: You’ve said that man should create in the image and likeness of the Creator . . .
Tarkovsky: It’s all together important and not important. For me, it’s like breathing air . . .
de Brantes: But how do you distinguish the artist from the monk and from the saint?
Tarkovsky: These are truly different paths. The saint, the monk, refuses to create because he’s not participating in life. The banner of the saint or the monk is non-participation. This has a lot in common with Buddhist and Oriental philosophy. . . . But the artist, the poor artist . . . he finds himself again in the mud amidst everything that happens. But we also know about the example of the French poet who rejected being a poet, Rimbaud. There are a lot of people like that.
     For the monk, I fee a sort of compassion, because he lives with only part of himself. As for the artist, he has a tendency to scatter himself, to make mistakes, to sully himself, jeopardizing his soul. But this isn’t to characterize the saint and the poet as angel and devil. It’s quite simply people who find themselves in some very dissimilar situations. The saint will have salvation, the artist perhaps not. In this sense I believe in the grace which descends upon you from above, just like that . . . Herman Hesse had this thought: “All my life I aspired to be a saint, but I am a sinner. I can only count on inspiration from on high.” What he’s saying is that he’s unable to be consistent.
     There’s a parallel between the saint and artist, but there are some different problems. . . . The essential thing is that one live in a just and proper way; seeking to imitate the Creator, or seeking his salvation, saving oneself, or searching to create a far richer spiritual climate for the entire world.
     Who knows how much time remains for any of us? One must live thinking that tomorrow we may have to deliver our soul up to God. You ask me a question to which some geniuses have dedicated their whole life. That’s what it is to make a film. I want to speak to this in my film about Saint Anthony,** in order to understand and explain this unbearable problem for man. In the end to die or not to die isn’t a problem, we all will die, either together or one after the other . . .

* This interview was found in Andrei Tarkovsky Interviews, ed. John Gianvito, 2006, Univ. Press of Mississippi.
** Andrei Tarkovsky died before he could make his film about Saint Anthony. He was fascinated with Saint Anthony because, for him, the saint represents the choice to forsake “everything for the desert.” That includes forsaking communion, which is important in the Orthodox Church, for the purpose of saving himself. Tarkovsky was an artist fascinated with that kind of religious tension.

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