A Conversation between Andrei Tarkovsky and Tonino Guerra (1979)

Tarkovsky at the Mirror

The following is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview with Andrei Tarkovsky, conducted by Tonino Guerra. Reference: "Panorama," no. 676, April 3, 1979, pages 160-161, 164, 166, 169-170. The piece was translated from Italian into English exclusively for Nostalghia.com by David Stringari of Fairfield, Connecticut, U.S.A. The interview commences after a brief introduction...


Heroes of human stature, houses, objects, sounds that become music, true memories, fantastic images. From the meeting between the Italian poet-scriptwriter and the greatest Soviet film director, the secret story of an idea that becomes a film.

Five rooms on the thirteenth floor of a large building in the midst of many large buildings on the Lenin Hills, in Moscow, the living room with vaguely gothic furniture, the cupboard with glass decorated with blue patterns, a large dog that wanders about; in front of the windows, hanging from threads, pieces of wood, roots, which resemble sculptures or animals, on the walls some paintings by friends and many drawings by the son. It is the home of Andrei Tarkovsky, 47 years old, the greatest Russian film director and amongst the greatest in the world today, author of Ivan's Childhood (winner of the Golden Lion at the 1962 Venice Film Festival), Andrei Rublov, Solaris, Mirror, and Stalker. Mirror arrives these days in Italy: the national premiere will be at Saint-Vincent on the first of April. And Tarkovsky will be coming from Moscow.

It will not be the director's first trip to Italy. But Tarkovsky will certainly be looking around with more attentive eyes. For the past two months he has been working together with Tonino Guerra in Moscow on the story-treatment of his next film: Voyage to Italy. Guerra, a poet (his poems in Romagnol dialect will appear in May in the Soviet journal Inostrannaya Literatura, translated by Bella Achmadulina, Yevgheni Solonovic, and Roman Sev), novelist, and one of the greatest Italian scriptwriters: precisely in these very days, Francesco Rosi's Christ Stopped at Eboli and Suspicious Deaths by Jacques Deray, whose scripts he co-authored, are playing.

In the Soviet Union, Guerra has begun writing a Guide for Loving Moscow, a book of advice, of little secrets, of encounters, an adventure in the cold. But besides the "guide," Guerra has been working on Tarkovsky's Italian film. The director should be coming to film it for RAI television next summer. It will be an adventure in the heat: the experiences of a curious and restless traveler who looks at Italy from the inside and remembers distant Russia.

In the last few weeks, Guerra has also spoken to Tarkovsky about Mirror and, above all, Stalker. Mirror is about the attempt of an ill man around forty years old to take stock of his life. Stalker is Tarkovsky's latest film, which he completed on March 16th. The director has worked on it for two years. Due to a technical accident, he had to reshoot half the film.

Stalker is almost a science-fiction story. A poor wretch, a vagabond who is something between an idealist and a Don Quixote, who lives in a shack with his wife and daughter, and whose "job" consists of guiding whoever turns to him into a forbidden zone, avoiding the surveillance of the police and military. It would also seem that a spacecraft landed in the central point of the Zone and then departed leaving behind a sort of mysterious energy, a magical power, capable of rendering real the desires that a person wishes to express. The film is the story of one of these trips: the "guide" accompanies a writer and a scientist into the Zone. It is an adventure, always risky, which transforms itself into a confession and a three-way conflict, in which each of the protagonists reveals the reason that pushed him to take part in the undertaking. The three arrive at the "magical place," at the wonderful "room," and, as in mystery films, it is best not to reveal what occurs there.

Guerra has seen a rough cut of Stalker (he is one of the very few who have). He was very impressed ("It is a masterpiece," he says) and spoke at length about it with the author. But the discussion then went beyond the film, it became a discussion about cinema between two great men of the cinema. There was a tape recorder running in the living room of Tarkovsky's home. So here, for the readers of Panorama, is that conversation.

GUERRA: What does the word "Stalker" mean?

TARKOVSKY: It is a word derived from the English verb "to stalk," to approach furtively, very quietly. In the film it indicates the profession of those who cross the borders and penetrate into a forbidden Zone with a specific aim: a bit like a gangster, or a bootlegger, a smuggler. A Stalker is a sort of job that is handed down from generation to generation. Actually, it seems to me that the spectators should doubt not only the existence of other stalkers, but also the existence of the forbidden Zone. Perhaps even the place where wishes are realized is only a myth. Or a joke. Or perhaps it is only a fantasy of our protagonist. For the public this remains a mystery. The existence, in the Zone, of the "room" in which wishes are realized, serves only as a pretext to discover the personalities of the three protagonists of the film.

What kind of character is your stalker?

He is an extremely honest man, clean, and, so to speak, intellectually innocent. His wife characterizes him as "blessed." He guides men into the Zone to "make them happy," as he puts it. He dedicates himself with the maximum disinterest, totally, to this idea. It seems to him that it is the only way to make men happy. His story is essentially that of the last idealist: that of a man who believes in the possibility of a happiness independent of man's will and his efforts.

His profession gives a total and exclusive meaning to his existence: like a priest in the Zone, the stalker leads men down there, so that they may become happy. Actually, nobody can maintain with precision if anyone effectively became happy or not down there. At the end of his voyage into the Zone, under the influence of those whom he is guiding, he loses his own faith: the faith in the possibility of making anyone happy. He is unable to find individuals capable of believing in this Zone, in the possibility of finding happiness, of reaching the "room." In conclusion, he rediscovers only his own idea of the happiness of men obtained with the help of a pure faith.

When did you get the idea for this film?

You are not the first, Tonino, to pose such a question to me. How did I get the idea to make this or that film? I have never been able to give an interesting answer. The idea of a film always comes to me in a very ordinary, boring, manner, bit by bit, by rather banal phases. To recount it would only be a waste of time. There is really nothing fascinating, nothing poetic, about it. Ah, if only one could represent that moment like a sort of sudden illumination! In an interview Ingmar Bergman, if I remember correctly, told how the idea, or rather the image, of one of his films came to him suddenly, while observing a ray of light on the floor of a dark room. I don't know, evidently it happens. It has never happened to me. Naturally it occurs that certain images emerge suddenly, but then they change, perhaps inadvertently, as in a dream, and often they transform, vexingly, inexorably, into something unrecognizable and new.

Nevertheless, is there a story behind the birth of Stalker?

At one time I had recommended to my friend, the director Georgy Kalatozisvili, that he read the short novel Roadside Picnic, thinking that perhaps he might be interested in making a cinematic adaption of it. Then, I don't know how, Kalatozisvili was not able to come to an agreement with the Strugatsky brothers, the authors of the novel, and so he abandoned the idea for that film. Every once in a while, that idea began to come to my mind again. Then increasingly it seemed to me that from that novel one could make a film with a unity of place, of time, and of action. These classic Aristotelian unities, it seemed to me, allow one to arrive at authentic cinema, which for me is not the so-called action cinema, exterior cinema, outwardly dynamic cinema. I believed that the subject which the screenplay would be based on permitted one to express in a very concentrated manner the philosophy, so to speak, of the contemporary intellectual. Or rather, his condition. Although I must say that the screenplay of Stalker has only two words, two names, in common with the Strugatskys' novel Roadside Picnic: Stalker and Zone. As you see, the story behind my film is rather disappointing.

Does the material that has already been shot suggest a precise idea to you about the musical comment?

When I saw the material that had been shot for the first time, I thought that the film did not require music. It seemed to me that it could, that it should, rely only on sounds. Sounds possess a special expressivity: perhaps they are not able to replace music in general, but they can superbly replace illustrative music, "film music" to be precise. The spectator of ten guesses in advance the moment when such music starts up; he hears it and thinks: "there we are, fine, now everything is clear." I would like to avoid this at all costs.

In any case, I understand that there will also be music in Stalker.

I would like to try a muffled music, barely distinguishable through the noise of the train that passes underneath the windows of the Stalker's home. For example, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony (the Ode to Joy), Wagner, or, perhaps, the Marseillaise, music, in other words, that is rather popular, that expresses the sense of the movement of the masses, the theme of the destiny of human society. But this music must barely reach, through the noises, the ear of the audience, so that, until the end, the spectator does not know if he is really hearing it or if he's dreaming.

Then I would like for many of the noises and sounds to be "composed" by a composer. In the film, for example, the three characters travel for a lengthy distance on a railway trolley. I would like for the soundc of the trolley on the tracks not to be naturalistic, but elaborated by a composer with the aid of electronic music. But not in such a way that it becomes clear that it is music and not natural sounds. In other words, the sounds must be partially transformed by electronic music in such a way that they present themselves with a new, let us say, more poetic, resonance.

But will there be a main theme?

There will be, and I have the sensation that it must evoke the Far East, that it must be charged with a, so to speak, Zen content, whose principle is concentration and not descriptiveness. The principal musical theme will have to be stripped of emotion, on the one hand, and of thought, on the other, of any programatic design. It will have to independently express its own truth about the surrounding world. It will have to be enclosed in itself.

Is there anything autobiographical in Stalker?

Perhaps even more than in Mirror, in Stalker I had to make use of emotions, even memories, that are very personal. In Mirror there is the physical resemblance of the actors to real people, of the settings to real places. In Stalker there are more moments that evoke in me a sort of strange sense of nostalgia. Let's take the writer. It seems to me that the actor, Solonytsin, followed my indications very scrupulously: so that at times I recognize my own characteristics, my way of speaking, in a certain way of behaving, in a certain intonation of voice: even though the writer is a character who, in general, I don't like very much.

Who do you feel sympathy towards?

Mostly towards the protagonist, towards the Stalker. In a certain sense I am convinced that there is something within me that connects me to him. I would like to help him in some way, to defend him. Let's say that for me he is like a brother. A lost brother, perhaps, but a brother nevertheless. In any case, I feel, in a heart-rending manner, his moments of conflict with the world that so easily wounds him. I feel that his psychological make-up, his approach and reaction to reality, are similar to my own. So much so that, despite being an outlaw, he is much more cultured, educated, and intelligent, in the film, than the writer or the scientist, who nevertheless, as characters, express the very idea of intelligence, science, education. From the very beginning I had the urge to make a bookshelf stuffed full of books appear, suddenly, in the film. And it appears in the film's finale, in a scenography that is entirely inappropriate for such an object. I would like to have such a bookshelf in my home. I've never had such a bookshelf. And I would like to have it in the same disorder in which the Stalker keeps his.

There are objects that return in your films. At least in your latest films.

It's true. Starting with Solaris, and then in Mirror, and in Stalker there are the same objects, always the same. Certain bottles, certain old books, mirrors, various little objects on shelves or on windowsills. Only that which I would like to have in my home has the right to find itself in a shot of one of my films. If the objects are not to my liking, I simply cannot allow myself to leave them in the film, even though my characters are very different from each other and do not resemble me. And nevertheless, from this point of view, I eliminate and annul, with maximum intransigence, any thing that I do not like from the shot.

With regards to Solaris and Mirror, are there links between these films and Stalker? Are there any with Andrei Rublov, with Ivan's Childhood?

I think there are, and I'll try to clarify. Stalker allowed me to capture with great precision the idea that was almost implied in the preceeding films. I now understand what it is. I do not seem to believe in the strength of so-called "strong" men; nor in the weakness of those whom we habitually call weak. It is not so simple. Or, simply, it is not so. This idea came to mind when I began working on this film. It was my intention to tell the story of precisely a man of this sort: an effectively weak man, an effectively strong man. But suddenly I understood that even my previous films were about these type of men. Ivan's Childhood, for example. A film about a boy. A boy who died in the war at the age of twelve. A boy, a child, thus a weak being, thus a victim. But in effect that boy seems to me to be stronger than many of the characters who surround him.

Let's take Andrei Rublov. A humble monk, whose very monastic life induces humility, meekness; in any case, not a strong man, in the common sense of the term. But he reveals himself to be the strongest: not only because he manages to survive the horrendous cataclysims that besiege, around him, Russia and his era: but also because he knew to bring with him, through his terrible biography, the thirst for creation.

Or let's take Kelvin in Solaris. A typical petit-bourgeois, a somewhat weak personality. At the beginning he is a figure that, less than anyone else, intends to emerge individually, he does not desire anything exceptional, any thing exclusive. On the contrary. Even though he is a scientist, a psychologist. And yet, he reveals himself to be a strong personality when he struggles with the problems of his own conscience and knows to oppose them with his own human dignity. And so it is with the Stalker. He seems so weak, and he reveals himself to be the strongest in his desire to serve other men, in his intention to make them happy. This is what unites my films.

But this leading idea...

I followed it unconsciously. In other words, it's as if I always told the same story about the same character: about a man whom, for some reason, society considers to be weak and which I consider to be strong. I am convinced that precisely thanks to personalities of this sort, society can be strong and look courageously to the future and resist everything that aims to destroy it. Likewise in Mirror the protagonist is presented as an extremely weak, reflective, being. An ill man, who remembers his own life during a crisis of his illness, without knowing if he will come out of it alive or not. It is precisely for this reason that he remembers what he remembers. And instead here is this moribund man, this very weak man, who reveals himself to be very strong, because despite everything he does not belong to himself. He belongs to the persons whom he remembers, he belongs to the love that he gave them. And if he suffers, it is only because he did not love those who loved him enough. Is this perhaps weakness? This is strength.

And instead, who knows how, many reproach me because my heroes are not heroes. There is a tendency to think that a hero must be something mighty, tough, a sort of robot. My heroes are not like that, and they could not be like that, because I am convinced that men of that sort do not exist. And they cannot exist, and they must not be imitated, because one should not imitate emptiness. And the public perceives this. It will never be able to believe in a hero made of iron.

Would you be willing to tell me the end of the film, shot by shot, as if I were a blind man?

It's a very interesting question. Probably it would be nice not to make films, but only recount them to the blind. A beautiful idea! One only needs to acquire a tape-recorder. "Thought expressed is a lie," as the poet said.

Alright, I can't see any thing. Tell me.

A close-up: an ill little girl, the daughter of the Stalker, is holding a large book in front of her. She is wrapped in a scarf. We see her in profile in front of an illuminated window. The camera slowly tracks back and frames a portion of the table. A table in close-up, covered with dirty dishes: two glasses and a jar. The girl puts the book down on her knees, and we hear her voice repeating what she has read. She looks at one of the glasses. And under the power of her gaze, the glass begins to move towards the camera. Then the little girl shifts her gaze towards the other glass and the other glass also begins to move. Then the girl looks at the glass in the middle of the table and we see that it too begins to move under the power of her gaze. It moves and falls to the ground, but it does not break. We hear a train passing near the house, it makes a strange noise, the walls shake, they tremble increasingly. The camera returns to the close-up of the little girl, and with this sound, with this noise, the film ends.

Which shots, which images, in your films do you believe you "stole" from someone, naturally refashioning them in your own way? In this sense, what paintings, or films, or works of art have exercised some influence over you?

In general, I'm very afraid of these things and I always try to avoid them. And I don't like when someone then reminds me that in this or that case I did not act with complete independence. But now, recently, quotation is also starting to become interesting to me. Mirror, for example, has a scene, a shot, which could very well have been filmed by Bergman. I reflected on the opportuneness of filming the scene that way. Then I decided that it wasn't important. Oh yes, I thought, it will be a sort of homage that I make to him. It is the scene in which Terekhova sells her earrings and Larissa, the doctor's wife, tries them on and looks into the camera, as in a mirror. Terekhova's face, looking in the mirror, and behind her, Larissa's face, who moves, approaches the camera and tries on the earrings, gazing at her own image reflected in the shadows: I don't know why, it seemed to me that it was a scene that was very similar to something Bergman might film.

Another quotation?

Again in Mirror, take the shots of the episode with the military instructor. There are two or three that are clearly inspired by the paintings of Brueghel: the boy, the tiny figures of the people, the snow, the naked trees, the river in the distance. I constructed these shots very consciously. Almost deliberately. And not with the idea of stealing or to show how cultured I am, but to testify my love for Brueghel, my dependency on him, the profound mark that he has left in my life.

In Andrei Rublev I believe there is a scene that could belong to Mizoguchi, the late great Japanese director. It was casual. I only realized it when the film was completed, at the moment it was screened. It is the scene where the Russian prince gallops across the countryside on a white horse, and a tartar on a black horse. It seemed to me that the quality of the image in black and white, the opacity of the grey day tended to resemble a landscape sketched with black China ink. The two horses run one next to the other, suddenly the tartar shouts, whistles, whips his horse and begins passing ahead of the Russian prince. The Russian launches in pursuit, but can't manage to reach him. In the following shot, they are still. There is no longer anything. Only the memory of the Russian prince trying with his horse to reach the tartar and failing to do so. It is a shot entirely extraneous to the development of the story. Rather it attempts to render a state of mind and to illuminate the relationship between these two men. It is like a game between boys: one runs in front of the other and says: "You can't catch me!"; the other runs after him, trying with all his might to reach him, and he can't do it. But then, immediately afterwards, they forget the game and stop running.

Essentially, to pretend that one does not quote is like pretending that one does not have any father and grandfathers and...

I too am convinced of this. It seems to me that every original aspect in the work of genuine writers, genuine painters, musicians, filmmakers, always has deep roots. Therefore, finding references from far back in the past, is inevitable. I don't even know what it originates from. Perhaps it is not a characteristic of our spiritual stance, but a typical aspect of our time. Because time is nevertheless reversible. At least that is what I believe. We often discover something that we have already experienced. When I am working, it helps me a lot to think of Bresson. Only the thought of Bresson! I don't remember any of his works concretely. I remember only his supremely ascetic manner. His simplicity. His clarity. The thought of Bresson helps me to concentrate on the central idea of the film.

And do you ever think of any Italians? Have you ever had the urge to quote from them?

At times Antonioni comes to mind, his black and white period, L'Avventura, my favorite of his films. Or the Fellini of 8 1/2, but not from the figurative point of view. From the purely figurative point of view I am interested in the formal solutions, of a, so to speak, spiritual nature, of his Casanova, the use of the plastic material. In that film, in my opinion, the formal aspect is of an extremely high level, its plasticity is incredibly profound. At times, when I am shooting a color film, another of his shots comes to mind, from his episode in Three Steps Into Delirium [Translator's note: this is a French/Italian anthology film from 1968 that was distributed in the U.S. that year under the title Spirits of the Dead. Fellini's brilliant 40 minute segment is entitled Toby Dammit and stars Terence Stamp as a burned-out alcoholic British actor who comes to Rome to star in the Vatican sponsored first "Catholic western" and keeps glimpsing the devil in the form of an eerie little girl bouncing a white ball. Although the other two episodes that make up this anthology film are utterly forgettable rubbish, Fellini's episode is an unjustly neglected little masterpiece that ranks with the best of his work], of the actor who comes to act in a film in Rome. A splendid shot, at the airport: a panoramic shot inside the airport, backlit, in the evening, a yellowish scene, with the camera framing from above, the people, the airplanes behind the panes of glass, the light. It is not my style, certainly. I would like to be as primitive, as banal, as possible.

Are you thinking of doing something immediately after Stalker? To begin work on some new film?

I would like to shoot the film that we have decided on: Voyage to Italy. But you can speak about this film much better than I can. In any case, I think that we will know how to avoid boring cinema, commercial cinema. Which does not mean that we will lose spectators. I would like to make a film which would result in us losing some spectators and acquiring other, new, numerous, spectators. I would like for our film to be seen by diverse people, that cannot be called cinema spectators.

Someone told me that you would like to completely change your way of making cinema. Is this true?

Yes, only that I still don't know how. It would be nice, let us say, to shoot a film in complete freedom, like amateurs make their films. Reject large financing. Have the possibility to observe nature and people, and film them, without haste. The story would be born autonomously: as the result of these observations, not from oblidged shots, planned in the tiniest detail. Such a film would be difficult to realize in the manner that commercial films are realized. It would have to be shot in absolute freedom, independent from lighting, from actors, from the time employed in filming, etc., etc. And with a reduced gauge camera. I believe that such a method of filming could push me to move much further forward.  end block

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