How might Mirror (Andrei Tarkovsky, Soviet Union, 1974), a formally adventurous ‘art film’, be at odds with 1970s Soviet ideology?

Mirror (1974) is a film that is constantly discussed amongst cinephiles for many reasons, be it it’s visual beauty, symbolism, or it’s “true meaning”. Referring to Tarkovsky’s childhood, the film explores themes of faith, war, family, and time – and it was these, along with the methods the director chose to express them, that drew criticism from the upper echelons of Soviet society. To be at odds with Soviet ideology was to be at odds with the people of the Soviet Union, and when working within a Socialist regime, that was deemed to be a problem.

In 1974, the year of Mirror’s release, the Soviet Union was under the rule of Brezhnev, a leader who was primarily concerned with the economy, and “stabilising” Soviet society. At the dawn of cinema, the potential for the medium of film was celebrated, with Lenin stating that “Of all the arts, cinema is the most important”, and signing a decree to nationalise cinema. Due to the high illiteracy rate during this period, film was regarded the most useful tool for providing easily digestible propaganda to the Soviet people. Stalin also understood this, and made it cultural policy for all arts to fall into the genre of “Soviet Socialist Realism”. That is, realist cinema in which Soviet ideals are adhered to, and the proletariat is seen to have power and to work as one for the benefit of the Nation. After the repressive and violent regime of Stalin, the arts became liberalised under the reforms of Khrushchev, allowing for new creative freedom without fear of persecution. However when Brezhnev came in to power many of these new freedoms were taken away, with an example being made of writers Yuli Daniel and Andrei Sinyavsky, who were put on a public trial after being accused of “anti Soviet activity” (I.e not Soviet Socialist Realism) within their works. The kinds of works that were in favour at the first spark of Soviet Cinema, such as that of Eisenstein, Vertov, and Kuleshov were not only frowned upon, but could have led the directors to be sentenced to years of hard labour.

Within this fluctuating regime of liberalisation and conservatism was Andrei Tarkovsky. Celebrated internationally yet never fully accepted within the Soviet Union, his works are now deemed “art films” for their rejection of traditional realist conventions. Mirror is Tarkovsky’s most formally and thematically adventurous film, and could rival modern art films in terms of complexity and depth. Notably, the films non linear narrative is the main characteristic for its labelling of being art. The film switches between three time periods of a mans life, his childhood, his adolescence, and his adulthood – yet it does not do this chronologically as realist cinema would. Amongst this non chronological sequencing is a loose narrative – yet it can be argued that nothing really happens (in a traditional sense) when compared to a classic plot which has a beginning, middle, and end. As the title suggests, the film acts as a mirror, not only for the protagonist, but for the viewers also. There is a sense of realism in the fact that events worthy of a Hollywood film do not happen in a normal persons life, but it does in the world around them. The scenes from the varying points in time are contextualised with newsreel footage, to not only reflect on Alexei (the protagonist) and Tarkovsky’s past, but to look at the history of the Soviet Union itself.

The film is also considered to be artistic due to its use of symbolism – despite Tarkovsky’s rejection of the idea “Symbolism is a sign of decadence”. Casting the same actress as both Mother and Wife is not only Freudian, but can be seen to make a comment on the cyclical nature of life and relationships. There are also many dream sequences within the film which include the Mother (Maria) – one where she is washing her hair in a room which has water flowing down the walls. Another scene shows her levitating from her bed, and the final scene is a pregnant Maria intercut with shots of her as an older woman. It is unclear what these sequences mean within the plot, if they do have meaning or if they are simply dreams that Alexei has had. There are also surreal moments within the narrative, for example when a mysterious woman appears in Alexei’s home, and asks his son Ignat to read a letter by Pushkin. Following this, there is a scene of a young Alexei receiving rifle training, in which a dummy grenade is thrown. The rifle teacher sacrifices himself, or so he thinks – this is when the viewers are allowed to notice a growth on his head. Almost Lynchian in its body horror aesthetic, this growth pulsates and remains the focus until the end of the scene.

It is these accusations of Mirror being an art film that led to its rejection by the Goskino. They accused it of being elitist due to its complex structure. Fellow director Grigori Chukhrai suggested that “Cinema art is an art of the masses…and if the artist has something to say, he doesn’t put his thoughts into code, he says what he thinks.” (p. 70, 1987) Soviet film was meant to be by the people, for the people – and simple enough that the least educated person in the Union should have their morals reinforced. It was for this reason that the film was only granted a category 3 release, which only allowed a limited release, and no returns on profits.

The religious content of the film is directly at odds with Soviet ideology – it being one of the first states to aim for the elimination of religion. It was believed, inspired by Marx, that religion was a tool for the “stupefaction of the working class”. Tarkovsky’s previous film, Andrei Rublev was forced to have major cuts in order to be shown, due to this reason also. A poster for this film is shown briefly in a scene in Mirror, possibly another reflection on the directors part. Leonardo Di Vinci’s art is also prominent throughout, which contains frequent references to religion. The film is bookended with two parts that suggest that Mirror is a film about the presence of hope and faith in the most repressed of times. A pre credits scene shows a young man with a stammer, who with the help of hypnosis, is able to speak again – he now has hope. The final scene is accompanied by “Johannes-Passion” by Bach (who is heavily featured on the films soundtrack), the music’s words state “Lord, our Sovereign, whose glory in every land is magnificent!”. This means that God, or hope, is everywhere.

The film, it being a mirror that is held up to the Soviet Union, is negative in it’s representation of the State. It depicts the proletariat as being poor and unsatisfied. In a scene where Maria tries to have a shower at work, the shower does not function properly, making a comment about how Soviet society itself does not work. Le Fanu argues “The film is replete with the possibility that the present is enchained to the past : modelled on it but somehow also cursed by it, leading to a history of forlorn, nervous, and unsatisfied lives”(p 70, 1987). Releasing a film which stirred these emotions during the “Era of Stagnation” was highly problematic for those in power, had the film been shown to the masses, a reform could have been in order.

Visually, structurally, and thematically – Mirror is a film which goes against the years of Stalinist propaganda that preceded it. It says, the Soviet Union is not happy, it’s needs some form of hope in a time of poverty, war, and separation. It says “we are not one, we are individuals”.

Bibliography

Bálint Kovács, A.(2007)Screening Modernism: European Art Cinema,1950-1980. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Le Fanu,M. (1987)The Cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky. London: BFI.

Tarkovsky,A. (1994) Time Within Time: The Diaries, 1970-1986 . London: Faber.

Taylor, R. and Christie, I. (eds.)(1994)The Film Factory: Russian and Soviet Cinema in Documents, 1896-1939. London: BFI.

Lawton, A. (2003) The Red Screen: Politics, Society, Art in Soviet Cinema. London: Routledge.

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