Andrei Tarkovsky’s Very First Films: Three Student Films, 1956–1960

The great Russ­ian film­mak­er Andrei Tarkovsky made only sev­en fea­ture films in his short life. (Find most of them online here.) But before mak­ing those, he direct­ed and co-direct­ed three films as a stu­dent at the All-Union State Cin­e­ma Insti­tute, or VGIK. Those three films, when viewed as a pro­gres­sion, offer insights into Tarkovsky’s ear­ly devel­op­ment as an artist and his strug­gle to over­come the con­straints of col­lec­tivism and assert his own per­son­al vision.

The Killers, 1956:

Tarkovsky was for­tu­nate to enter the VGIK when he did. As he arrived at the school in 1954 (after first spend­ing a year at the Insti­tute of East­ern Stud­ies and anoth­er year on a geo­log­i­cal expe­di­tion in Siberia) the Sovi­et Union was enter­ing a peri­od of lib­er­al­iza­tion known as the “Krushchev Thaw.” Joseph Stal­in had died in 1953, and the new Com­mu­nist Par­ty First Sec­re­tary, Niki­ta Khrushchev, denounced the dead dic­ta­tor and insti­tut­ed a series of reforms. As a result the Sovi­et film indus­try was enter­ing a boom peri­od, and there was a huge influx of pre­vi­ous­ly banned for­eign movies, books and oth­er cul­tur­al works to draw inspi­ra­tion from. One of those new­ly acces­si­ble works was the 1927 Ernest Hem­ing­way short sto­ry, “The Killers.”

Tarkovsky’s adap­ta­tion of Hem­ing­way’s sto­ry (see above) was a project for Mikhail Rom­m’s direct­ing class. Romm was a famous fig­ure in Sovi­et cin­e­ma. There were some 500 appli­cants for his direct­ing pro­gram at the VGIK in 1954, but only 15 were admit­ted, includ­ing Tarkovsky. In The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visu­al Fugue, Vida T. John­son and Gra­ham Petrie describe the envi­ron­ment in Rom­m’s class:

Rom­m’s most impor­tant les­son was that it is, in fact, impos­si­ble to teach some­one to become a direc­tor. Tarkovsky’s fel­low students–his first wife [Irma Rausch] and his friend, Alexan­der Gordon–remember that Romm, unlike most oth­er VGIK mas­ter teach­ers, encour­aged his stu­dents to think for them­selves, to devel­op their indi­vid­ual tal­ents, and even to crit­i­cize his work. Tarkovsky flour­ished in this uncon­strained envi­ron­ment, so unusu­al for the nor­mal­ly stodgy and con­ser­v­a­tive VGIK.

Tarkovsky worked with a pair of co-direc­tors on The Killers, but by all accounts he was the dom­i­nant cre­ative force. There are three scenes in the movie. Scenes one and three, which take place in a din­er, were direct­ed by Tarkovsky. Scene two, set in a board­ing house, was direct­ed by Gor­don. Osten­si­bly there was anoth­er co-direc­tor, Mari­ka Beiku, work­ing with Tarkovsky on the din­er scenes, but accord­ing to Gor­don “Andrei was def­i­nite­ly in charge.” In a 1990 essay, Gor­don writes:

The sto­ry of how we shot Hem­ing­way’s The Killers is a sim­ple one. In the spring Romm told us what we would have to do–shoot only indoors, use just a small group of actors and base the sto­ry on some dra­mat­ic event. It was Tarkovsky’s idea to pro­duce The Killers. The parts were to be played by fel­low students–Nick Adams by Yuli Fait, Ole Andreson the for­mer box­er, of course, by Vasi­ly Shuk­shin. The mur­der­ers were Valentin Vino­gradov, a direct­ing stu­dent, and Boris Novikov, an act­ing stu­dent. I played the cafe own­er.

The film­mak­ers scav­enged var­i­ous props from the homes of friends and fam­i­ly, col­lect­ing bot­tles with for­eign labels for the cafe scenes. The script fol­lows Hem­ing­way’s sto­ry very close­ly. While two short tran­si­tion­al pas­sages are omit­ted, the  film oth­er­wise match­es the text almost word-for-word. In the sto­ry, two wise-crack­ing gang­sters, Al and Max, show up in a small-town eat­ing house and briefly take sev­er­al peo­ple (includ­ing Hem­ing­way’s recur­ring pro­tag­o­nist Nick Adams) hostage as they set up a trap to ambush a reg­u­lar cus­tomer named Ole Andreson. One notable depar­ture from the source mate­r­i­al occurs in a scene were the own­er George, played by Gor­don, ner­vous­ly goes to the kitchen to make sand­wich­es for a cus­tomer while the gang­sters keep their fin­gers on the trig­gers. In the sto­ry, Hem­ing­way’s descrip­tion is mat­ter-of-fact:

Inside the kitchen he saw Al, his der­by cap tipped back, sit­ting on a stool beside the wick­et with the muz­zle of a sawed-off shot­gun rest­ing on the ledge. Nick and the cook were back to back in the cor­ner, a tow­el tied in each of their mouths. George had cooked the sand­wich, wrapped it up in oiled paper, put it in a bag, brought it in, and the man had paid for it and gone out.

In Tarkovsky’s hands the scene becomes a cin­e­mat­ic set piece of height­ened sus­pense, as the cus­tomer wait­ing at the counter (played by Tarkovsky him­self) whis­tles a pop­u­lar Amer­i­can tune, “Lul­la­by of Bird­land,” while the ner­vous cafe own­er makes his sand­wich­es. Our point of view shifts from that of George, who glances around the kitchen to see what is going on, to that of Nick, who lies on the floor unable to see much of any­thing. “Tarkovsky was seri­ous about his work,” writes Gor­don, “but jol­ly at the same time. He gave the cam­era stu­dents, Alvarez and Rybin, plen­ty of time to do the light­ing well. He cre­at­ed long paus­es, gen­er­at­ed lots of ten­sion in those paus­es, and demand­ed that the actors be nat­ur­al.”

There Will Be No Leave Today, 1958:

Tarkovsky and Gor­don again col­lab­o­rat­ed on There Will Be No Leave Today, which was a joint ven­ture between the VGIK and Sovi­et Cen­tral Tele­vi­sion. “The film was no more than a pro­pa­gan­da film, intend­ed to be aired on tele­vi­sion on the anniver­sary day of the World War II vic­to­ry over the Ger­mans,” said Gor­don in a 2003 inter­view. “At the time, there was only one TV sta­tion and it would often screen pro­pa­gan­da mate­r­i­al on the great­ness­es of the USSR. This par­tic­u­lar film was broad­cast on TV for at least three con­sec­u­tive years. But this did not make the film par­tic­u­lar­ly famous, because you could see films like that on TV all day, at the time.”

There Will Be No Leave Today is based on a true sto­ry about an inci­dent in a small town where a cache of unex­plod­ed shells, left over from the Ger­man occu­pa­tion, was dis­cov­ered and–after some drama–removed. The pro­duc­tion was far more ambi­tious than that of The Killers, involv­ing a com­bi­na­tion of pro­fes­sion­al and ama­teur actors, hun­dreds of extras, and var­i­ous shoot­ing loca­tions. It was filmed in Kursk over a peri­od of three months, and took anoth­er three months to edit. Gor­don pro­vid­ed more details:

With respect to the con­tri­bu­tion done by the two directors–I and Andrei–I believe that Andrei con­tributed the major­i­ty. We wrote the script togeth­er right at the start. There was an addi­tion­al scriptwriter, who was sub­se­quent­ly replaced by anoth­er group of scriptwrit­ers. Col­lab­o­ra­tion was very good dur­ing this first stage. Dur­ing the sec­ond stage, Andrei fin­ished up the script, with the scenes in the hos­pi­tal and the sto­ry of the vol­un­teer who det­o­nates the bomb–these ideas were Andrei’s. It was a jovial atmos­phere, we dis­cussed the scenes in the evening. The main sto­ry­line was cre­at­ed in the begin­ning, when we wrote the script, and no great changes were made to it. It was very easy work.

Despite the scope of the sto­ry, and occa­sion­al com­par­isons to Hen­ri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 thriller The Wages of Fear, it’s clear that nei­ther Gor­don nor Tarkovsky took the film very seri­ous­ly. It was sim­ply a learn­ing exer­cise. Per­haps the only sur­pris­ing thing is that Tarkovsky, who would lat­er strug­gle bit­ter­ly with Sovi­et bureau­crats over the artis­tic integri­ty of his work, would sub­mit so read­i­ly to mak­ing a pro­pa­gan­da film. “VGIK pro­posed that we make a prac­tice film intend­ed for TV audi­ences, a pro­pa­gan­da piece on the vic­to­ry of the USSR over the Ger­mans,” said Gor­don, “and we just chose an easy, uncom­pli­cat­ed script. We did not set out to do a mas­ter­piece. Our focus was on learn­ing the ele­men­taries of film­mak­ing, through mak­ing a film that was rel­a­tive­ly uncom­pli­cat­ed and also easy for the peo­ple to con­sume. Andrei was hap­py with this. He had no prob­lems with this approach.”

The Steam­roller and the Vio­lin, 1960:

Watch the full film here.

Tarkovsky’s first work as sole direc­tor, The Steam­roller and the Vio­lin, is an artis­ti­cal­ly ambi­tious film, one that in many ways fore­shad­ows what was lat­er to come. As Robert Bird writes in Andrei Tarkows­ki: Ele­ments of Cin­e­ma:

When the door opens in the first shot of Steam­roller and Vio­lin one sens­es the cur­tain going up on Andrei Tarkovsky’s career in cin­e­ma. Out of this door will pro­ceed an entire line of char­ac­ters, from the medieval icon-painter Andrei Rublëv to the post-apoc­a­lyp­tic vision­ar­ies Domeni­co and Alexan­der. It will open onto native land­scapes and alien words, onto scenes of medieval des­o­la­tion and post-his­tor­i­cal apoc­a­lypse, and onto the inner­most recess­es of con­science. Yet, for the moment, the open door reveals only a chub­by lit­tle school­boy named Sasha with a vio­lin case and music fold­er, who awk­ward­ly and ten­ta­tive­ly emerges into the famil­iar, if hos­tile court­yard of a Stal­in-era block of flats.

The young direc­tor expressed his plan for The Steam­roller and the Vio­lin in an inter­view with a pol­ish jour­nal­ist, lat­er trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish by Trond S. Trond­sen and Jan Bielaws­ki at

Although it’s dan­ger­ous to admit–because one does­n’t know whether the film will be successful–the intent is to make a poet­ic film. We are bas­ing prac­ti­cal­ly every­thing on mood, on atmos­phere. In my film there has to be a dra­matur­gy of image, not of lit­er­a­ture.

The project was Tarkovsky’s “diplo­ma film,” a require­ment for grad­u­a­tion. He wrote the script with fel­low stu­dent Andrei Kon­chalovsky over a peri­od of more than six months. It tells the sto­ry of a friend­ship between a sen­si­tive lit­tle boy, who is bul­lied by oth­er chil­dren and sti­fled by his music teacher, and a man who oper­ates a steam­roller at a road con­struc­tion site near the child’s home. The boy needs a father fig­ure. The man is emo­tion­al­ly trou­bled by his wartime expe­ri­ences and finds solace in work. He resists the flir­ta­tions of women. When he sees a group of chil­dren bul­ly­ing the boy on his way to a vio­lin les­son, he comes to the child’s aid and they become friends. “Those two peo­ple, so dif­fer­ent in every respect,” said Tarkovsky, “com­ple­ment and need one anoth­er.”

The film marks the begin­ning of Tarkovsky’s cin­e­mat­ic obses­sion with meta­physics. Accord­ing to Trond­sen and Bielaws­ki, “VGIK archive doc­u­ments reveal that the direc­tor’s inten­tion with The Steam­roller and the Vio­lin was to chart the attempts at con­tact between two very dif­fer­ent worlds, that of art and labor, or, as he referred to it as, ‘the spir­i­tu­al and the mate­r­i­al.’ ” The inner world of the boy is sug­gest­ed in pris­mat­ic effects of light sparkling through water and glass and images split into mul­ti­ples. The work­er’s world, by con­trast, is con­crete and earth.

When Tarkovsky fin­ished his film, not every­one at Mos­film, the gov­ern­ment agency that fund­ed the project, liked what they saw. “Sur­pris­ing­ly,” writes Bird, “it was Tarkovsky’s sub­tle inno­va­tion in this seem­ing­ly harm­less short film that inau­gu­rat­ed the adver­sar­i­al tone that sub­se­quent­ly came to dom­i­nate his rela­tion­ship with the Sovi­et cin­e­ma author­i­ties. Unlike­ly as it seems, Steam­roller and Vio­lin was hound­ed from pil­lar to post by vig­i­lant aes­thet­ic watch­dogs and was lucky to have been released at all.” As part of the process of earn­ing his degree, Tarkovsky had to defend his film dur­ing a meet­ing of the artis­tic coun­cil of the Fourth Cre­ative Unit of Mos­film on Jan­u­ary 6, 1961. The crit­i­cisms were var­ied, accord­ing to Bird, but much of it came down to resent­ment over the por­tray­al of a social­ly elite rich boy in con­trast to a poor work­er. Tarkovsky’s response to his crit­ics was cap­tured by a stenog­ra­ph­er:

I don’t under­stand how the idea arose that we see here a rich lit­tle vio­lin­ist and a poor work­er. I don’t under­stand this, and I prob­a­bly nev­er will be able to in my entire life. If it is based on the fact that every­thing is root­ed in the con­trast in the inter­re­la­tions between the boy and the work­er, then the point here is the con­trast between art and labor, because these are dif­fer­ent things and only at the stage of com­mu­nism will man find it pos­si­ble to be spir­i­tu­al­ly and phys­i­cal­ly organ­ic. But this is a prob­lem of the future and I will not allow this to be con­fused. This is what the pic­ture is ded­i­cat­ed to.

Despite the back­lash at Mos­film, the author­i­ties at the VGIK were impressed. Tarkovsky grad­u­at­ed with high marks, and over time the film has acquired the respect and appre­ci­a­tion its mak­er desired. “The Steam­roller and the Vio­lin,” write Trond­sen and Bielaws­ki, “must be regard­ed as an inte­gral part of Tarkovsky’s oeu­vre, as it is indeed ‘Tarkovskian’ in every sense of the word.”

NOTE: All three stu­dent films will now be includ­ed in our pop­u­lar col­lec­tion of Free Tarkovsky Films Online.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Stan­ley Kubrick­’s Very First Films: Three Short Doc­u­men­taries

Mar­tin Scors­ese’s Very First Films: Three Imag­i­na­tive Short Works


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