Andrei Tarkovsky understood cinema in a way no filmmaker had before — and, quite possibly, in a way no filmmaker has since. That impression is reinforced by any of his films, five of which are available to watch free on Youtube. You’ll find them on the Youtube channel of Mosfilm, which was once the Soviet Union’s biggest film studio. It was for Mosfilm that Tarkovsky directed his debut feature Ivan’s Childhood in 1962. Based on a folkloric war story by Soviet writer Vladimir Bogomolov, the film had already been made by another young director but rejected by the studio. Tarkovsky’s version both satisfied the higher-ups and, with its international success, introduced the world to his own distinctive cinematic vision.
“My discovery of Tarkovsky’s first film was like a miracle. Suddenly, I found myself standing at the door of a room the keys of which had, until then, never been given to me.” These are the words of Ingmar Bergman, to whom Tarkovsky would much later pay tribute with his final film, The Sacrifice, produced in Bergman’s homeland of Sweden.
But in between these films would come five others, each widely considered a masterwork in its own way. Andrei Rublev offers a Tarkovskian view of the fifteenth-century Russia inhabited by the eponymous icon painter. Solaris adapts Stanislaw Lem’s science-fiction novel of a sentient planet and its psychological manipulation of cosmonauts onboard a nearby space station.
It was with 1975’s Mirror that Tarkovsky turned inward. Drawing as deeply as possible from the artistic potential of his medium, he created a cinematic experience rich with memory, history, reality, and dreams — a kind of “poetry” in cinema, as one often hears his work described. The resulting break with many of the conventions and expectations attached to motion pictures at the time polarized critical and popular reaction. But the intervening 47 years have venerated Tarkovsky’s artistic brazenness: in Sight & Sound‘s most recent 100 Greatest Films of All Time poll, Mirror came in at number nineteen, seven places higher than Andrei Rublev.
Despite having come in three spots below Andrei Rublev on the Sight & Sound poll, 1979’s Stalker is to many Tarkovsky fans far and away the auteur’s greatest achievement. Its apparently linear, vaguely science-fictional narrative presents a journey into “the Zone,” a mysterious region containing a room that grants the wishes of all who enter it. This simplistic-sounding premise belies a film of infinite depth: “I’ve seen Stalker more times than any film except The Great Escape,” writes Geoff Dyer (who once devoted an entire book to the former). “It’s never quite as I remember. Like the Zone, it’s always changing.” We watch Stalker — or indeed, anything in Tarkovsky oeuvre — not to see a movie, but to see “the reason cinema was invented.”
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.