Two Encounters With Andrei Tarkovsky
[This conversation between Swedish director Vilgot Sjöman and Andrei Tarkovsky took place in Moscow, in the evening of November 29, 1977. --Nostalghia.com editors]
Now, about another film.
It was based on a novel by two brothers, Arkady and Boris Stru..., excuse me, how is that spelled? Stru-gat-sky, is that it? And what's the name of the film?
"Picnic by the Roadside!"
An enclosed territory. Perhaps a meteorite fell there at one time. That's why it was closed off, to investigate the situation. Rumors begin circulating. The people outside the enclosed area feel they are in grave danger. But this time anxiety about the unknown draws people like a magnet. They want to find out for themselves what's going on, see it with their own eyes.
What was the film?! A political allegory?
Tarkovsky was silent.
"Science fiction, but without the science!"
However, the symbols in the film explode like dynamite - fear, barbed wire barriers... And he wanted to get all this through bureaucratic obstacles?
Was that really possible?
It turns out that the enclosure can be entered from all sides through some holes. Various agile types get through to satisfy their curiosity. What can people like that be called? The English verb for what they do is "to stalk." And so, they are called "stalkers."
In the film the director portrays two of the curious - a scientist and a writer (what is this, a return to Solaris?).
But now these images take on another, metaphysical overtone. Within the enclosure not only death lurks, but something unidentified, something unknown. There is a rumor that inside the enclosure the rules of nature no longer operate. The scientist simply cannot conceive of this. He wants the physical universe to be preserved. But for some reason the writer resists this. Why? A problem arises here in the conversation. I cannot understand why he should defy a miracle?
Perhaps something escapes me, some indiscernible nuances that sometimes cannot get across the language barrier, that lose in the translation.
Tarkovsky shot his film in Tallinn. But now a real shock awaited me: it turned out that the shooting was stopped mid-way.
I suspected that the reasons were political. I supposed someone was worried about anti-Sovietsism.
"No," said Tarkovsky.
He was the one who stopped the project. For technical reasons.
"I had to film the first part and send it to Moscow for developing. But what did I get back? Something I couldn't use at all!"
How come? A simple accident? Or was something more serious behind it?
Tarkovsky, however, was insistent.
"Soviet labs don't have the right kind of materials for color film."
Another problem had to do with foreign currency. The director wanted to use equipment (color film, etc.) that can only be obtained in the West for foreign currency, but the bureaucrats didn't want to sacrifice expensive dollars on fantasy film.
"Comrade Tarkovsky, please use black and white film stock!"
What can an artist do if he doesn't have the right equipment for his idea? Some work with what they have. But Tarkovsky couldn't.
He stopped the filming!
The Picnic by the Roadside was an uncompleted picnic.
I can't imagine a more terrible situation than that. Enormous financial and human resources were wasted for nothing.
However, I know what kind of reaction is elicited by such a position taken by a director. At any rate, I can imagine what the Moscow lab might have protested:
"Comrade Tarkovsky is blaming everything on us! The truth is that he no longer believes in his film. We're just his scapegoats!"
The film's cameraman was Georgi Rerberg. His work on The Mirror was superb. How did he explain why the shooting was stopped? Did he view it as a vote of no-confidence, or did he feel it was his own defeat? Could he continue working with Tarkovsky? Work relations were very complicated. Why, for instance, couldn't the film crew expect some additional pay or a bonus? Otherwise it could never be insured against any accidents. And it had to take the material and moral losses.
It is common knowledge that the quality of an artist's work cannot be judged ina court of law. An accident on public transportation can, but an accident with color film cannot.
Tarkovsky could have, of course persisted in his case, but he couldn't succeed unless he found support in the party hierarchy and, of course, at a higher level than that of the lab's manager. He would've had to find some authorities who would say to him:
"You are justified in your demand, Comrade Tarkovsky!"
Let us suppose that he would've won the fight! Would he have had the energy to complete his giant project? Most likely he would've had to start all over again!
"Do you have the strength?"
Tarkovsky nodded, "Yes, of course." And then, with less confidence, "Maybe."
But then he would've had to look at this material from another angle. Because his credo was:
"I can't film the same thing exactly that way again!"
And so, he had to go back to mixing his clay again, shaping new figures and images out of it and breathing new content into it. It's impossible to plagiarize oneself. Impossible.
One image was already beginning to emerge, the embodiment of new ideas: the one who walks softly and warily. Stalker.
At first the stalker was the personification of evil. he led the curious into the enclosure, and then robbed them.
"But more and more I'm seeing him as a tragic figure."
I felt that Tarkovksy already realized very well that his career as a director was over. Picnic by the Roadside represented a dead end. The lack of modern equipment meant he was finished as an innovator!
So, there was Ivan's Childhood. There was Rublov, and then Solaris and Mirror. It seemed as though those four films were the summation of his life.
The rest was so far unknown.
We talked about that quite seriously.
I expected Tarkovsky to be more upset. I expected deep disillusionment! And that he should arm himself with this!
"But after The Mirror I also thought - this is my last movie!"
Perhaps he was already used to the situation?
We etched in our memory: Moscow, 1977, November 29, the day was over, almost midnight. [My] car was covered with fresh wet snow. Tarkovsky waved goodbye, "Avanti, Avanti!"
I would have gladly remained in Moscow another few days and endured the wet snow and cold weather if I had had the slightest chance to see the ruined rolls of Picnic by the Roadside.
The author adds the following footnote in the 1984 reprinting of the article:
The movie was eventually finished and called Stalker. I could imagine a conversation with Tarkovsky: "Where do you get the strength to start all over?" "What did the commission say? What was the lab's reaction? And finally, what was the response of Georgi Rerberg, the cameraman?" "He turned down the job, so the new version was filmed by Alexander Knyazhinsky." "Did the new version contain anything that had been shot in the summer of 1977??"
Vilgot Sjöman (b. 1924) is a Swedish director, actor, writer, scriptwriter, critic. The above is an excerpt from Vilgot Sjöman, Moscow Twice, Two Encounters With Andrei Tarkovsky, taken from Sjöman about Film, Stockholm 1984. Translated by Paula Garb. Reprinted in About Andrei Tarkovsky, Memoirs and Biographies, Progress Publishers, Moscow 1990. ISBN 5-01-001973-6 (also available in Russian, see this site's Bibliography section).
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