Long before Christopher Nolan was plotting time and memory, narrative filmmakers were experimenting with film’s linear, imagistic qualities to express deeper psychological truths; one such masterpiece is Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror (1974). Long in development starting in the mid-‘60s, the film—co-written by Alexander Misharin and originally intended to focus on an interview with Tarkovsky’s mother—went through a series of titles (Bright, Bright Day and Confession), rewrites, and at least twenty-one different edits before becoming the form we know today. This was a film Tarkovsky intuitively constructed as he both resisted and appeased the Soviet censors, who requested numerous changes, culminating in the decidedly ambiguous: “Relieve the entire film of mysticism.”
Tarkovsky made three features before The Mirror and three after, all of them renowned for their long takes, elaborate tracking movements, and elemental motifs, but none of them have The Mirror’s dreamlike, nonlinear structure. The film juxtaposes fastidious recreations of people and places from Tarkovsky’s childhood in 1935 and during WWII (Natasha Synessios’ KINOfiles book is especially illuminating on this subject), a fictionalized present, visions, and documentary footage of events from Soviet history. The soundtrack is graced by the soaring music of Bach, Pergolesi, and Purcell, with Eduard Artemiev’s haunting electronica throughout; the poetry of Arseny Tarkovsky (the filmmaker’s father) comes and goes.
Tarkovsky creates an alter ego (whom he plays, largely offscreen) named Alexei, and two actors play dual roles each: Margarita Terekhova plays both Alexei’s mother, Maria, as a young woman, and his ex-wife in the present; Ignat Daniltsev plays both Alexei as a young boy, and his son in the present. Tarkovsky’s actual mother plays Alexei’s mother as an older woman. In this way, the film makes explicit a tendency for memory to construct associations between people and events, thus, the divisions between characters are loose, blending together like the film’s equally intertwined layers of fiction and non-fiction.
The Mirror’s mesmerizing images emphasize rustic simplicity bathed in the soft light of waning afternoons and dimly lit interiors. Its rich autumnal palette switches to black-and-white (or Mosfilm’s slightly greenish variety) and back again without a rigorous plan, adding one more duality for the filmmaker’s toolbox. Tarkovsky’s films bear his imprint so strongly that many commentaries overlook his collaborators. But as Johnson and Petrie write: “The Mirror was truly a joint effort—perhaps the most completely so of all Tarkovsky’s films—in which not only the scriptwriter but the cinematographer, main actors, and set designer felt that it was their experiences and their reality, as well as the director’s, that were being recreated for the screen.”
Igor Maiboroda’s 2008 documentary, Rerberg and Tarkovsky: The Reverse Side of ‘Stalker,’ emphasizes the contributions of cinematographer Georgi Rerberg (who later shot the lost, preliminary version of Stalker). Rerberg, who also worked with Konchalovsky and African filmmakers such as Abderrahmane Sissako and Souleymane Cisse, shared Tarkovsky’s artistic role models (Leonardo da Vinci and “poetic naturalism”) and fondness for antiquity and decay. “Andrei made a film about himself,” Rerberg says in Maiboroda’s film, “and I made a film about myself; luckily, they were the same film.”
That sense of shared experience is often expressed by viewers, as if the film is a reflection of their lives as well. Part of the reason for its power may be the dialectical energy it generates between vividly textured images and their unexpected or unusual arrangements; like dreams and poetry, the stronger the lucid bits, the more elusiveness compels interpretation. And there is great lucidity in The Mirror, from its physical settings (a family dacha, an aging Moscow apartment, a Stalinist-era printing factory, a snowy landscape dotted with figures) to its general atmospheric intensity.
One sequence can serve as an illustrative example of the way the film’s various elements work together. A young Alexei and Maria make a wartime excursion to a doctor’s house in order to sell some jewelry. Unlike the beloved dacha at the film’s beginning—where the interiors are underexposed so that each window reveals the lush, green world outside of it—windows in the doctor’s more affluent and cloistered house are curtained and drawn shut.
The doctor’s wife (played by Tarkovsky’s second wife, Larissa) uses the opportunity to gloat over her comforts, disturbing Maria, who decides to leave as soon as possible. But before she does, the woman asks her to butcher a chicken, becoming insistent and commanding, handing Maria the chicken and the axe.
Maria reluctantly chops off the head (offscreen), and as feathers float around the room and the chicken cries its last, a close-up features Maria with a strange contentment washing over her, and nature is momentarily transformed: she’s highlighted by an unnatural light emanating from below and water cascades behind her down the previously dry wall (an echo of a similar shot in Solaris).
It’s a very striking image, one obviously inflected with fantasy. As Maria coldly looks straight into the camera, Tarkovsky cuts to a black-and-white image of Alexei’s father, also looking directly into the camera.
He turns and caresses Maria, who is covered in a sheet and floating above a spartan bed behind him.
They exchange words of comfort, but only in voiceover, and as the camera tracks back, a dove momentarily flies into the shot before the scene cuts back to Maria and Alexei hurriedly fleeing the doctor’s house.
Connecting fantasy and reality with shifting moods, merging Alexei’s memory with what is presumably Maria’s reverie, and suggesting unexpected peace in a moment of violence are only three of the conflicting currents in this sequence, yet it all feels logical and cohesive. Seemingly random and unmotivated elements intensify the tone but tease the viewer to interpret their meaning. And since the edits pivot on emotional and psychological connections, such juxtapositions invite unbridled immersion.