Also: Andrei Arsenevich Tarkovsky; Andrey Tarkovski; Andrey Tarkowski; Andrey Tarkovskij
b. April 4, 1932. Zavrazhe, Ivanono, Russia (now Belarus).
d. December 28, 1986. Paris, France
Tarkovsky's first credited work is the 20-minute short Ubiytsy (1956), an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's 1927 short story, The Killers, about a pair of pitiless hitmen who descend on a rural diner to kill a mark named "The Swede." Tarkovsky co-directed the film with classmates Alexander Gordon and Marika Beiku while studying at the All-Russian State Institue of Cinematography (VGIK), under the tutelage of Mikhail Romm. Hemingway's collected works had recently been published for the first time in the Soviet Union, which led to another first: No students prior to Tarkovsky and his collaborators were given approval to use a foreign work of art as their subject. Hemingway's very American tale, with its Prohibition setting and cuttingly spare dialogue, loses much of its tension in this mostly sluggish film version.1 The machine gun-toting miscreants are too baby-faced to be legitimately threatening, and the boy-to-man emotional arc of frequent Hemingway figure Nick Adams, the story's peripheral heart, barely registers. Tarkovsky directed the opening and closing scenes in the restaurant (the middle segment set in "The Swede's" room is noticeably more conventional in terms of camera placement, performance and rhythm) and you can see him trying things out for effect: a canted-angle here, a deep-focus perspective there—a raw talent experimenting. A brief shot of one of the killers adjusting his cigarette is particularly evocative; as the entrails of smoke slowly twist in the harsh light, you briefly sense the man who would, paraphrasing his own words, sculpt time so miraculously. That this moment comes just before the onscreen arrival of Tarkovsky himself (playing an oblivious customer who whistles "Lullaby of Birdland"2 while waiting for his order of two liver sandwiches) feels like some kind of stars-aligned harbinger of greatness to come.
There is some confusion surrounding the production of a second VGIK short Kontsentrat (Concentrate, aka Extract) (1958). This page at the Tarkovsky site Nostalghia.com collects several critical write-ups of a film that sounds highly promising in abstract: On a dark, stormy night, a geologist waits dockside for a boat carrying samples from his latest expedition, the bad weather and emotional tension increasing as time passes. Tarkovsky's facility with mood and atmosphere are extolled in these accounts. An uncredited writer for Facets.org: "Though shot on interior sets, the story takes place on an outdoor pier during a stormy night when the waves are crashing and the wind gusting. Unable to realistically recreate these weather effects, Tarkovsky, with help from his fellow students, cleverly suggested them through light and sound…" The problem is, Kontsentrat was never shot. At least that's the tale told by Tarkovsky's younger sister Marina (who married the director's film school collaborator Alexander Gordon) in this interview. Tarkovsky reportedly wrote the script in a single sitting, basing it on a 1953 trip he made to Siberia as a science assistant. It was given the highest grade (a "5") by his instructor, but not produced. Years later, Marina and Alexander collaborated on the script for a documentary about Tarkovsky, for which they adapted scenes from this never-realized project. (The husband and wife were ultimately unhappy with the direction of the documentary and had their names removed.) Perhaps the writers praising the promising virtues of this early short saw these after-the-fact, what-if? recreations and took them as Tarkovsky's actual work? The curse of infatuation with a great artist: We long for, dream of—and sometimes see—more than there actually is.
Tarkovsky's actual second short for VGIK, Segodnya uvolneniya ne budet (There Will Be No Leave Today) (1959), does exist, though it was thought lost for many years, a probable victim of an archival purge at Soviet Central Television, which cofinanced and distributed the 45-minute end result on the anniversary of the German defeat in WWII. (Naum Kleiman, the director of Moscow's Cinema Museum, located the negative in the 1990s.) Tarkovsky once again worked with Alexander Gordon on screenwriting and directing duties. The production had the full support of the Army (understandable given the film's pro-military slant), while the influx of cash from Soviet Central Television allowed for the hiring of professional actors like Oleg Borisov and some impressively large-scale setpieces. In terms of both narrative and tone, the film resembles Henri-Georges Clouzot's classic suspense feature The Wages of Fear (1953) with a dash of Bulgakovian absurdism: After a construction crew unearths 30 tons of unexploded ordnance in a provincial Russian city (forcing a full evacuation), a team of soldiers are assembled to collect the shells, drive them to a secluded field, and detonate them. There are a few story-padding threads, and its clear from the movie's overall triumphalist timbre that Tarkovsky is working within the paramaters of propaganda and patriarchy. Yet he and his collaborators fully exploit the anxiety-inducing possibilities of the scenario. The early scenes are pointedly humorous (it takes several tries for the construction crew head to report the explosive discovery since the apathetic bureaucrat he's trying to reach keeps lifting and immediately dropping the phone receiver). And the tension is expertly built and maintained throughout; it's a mark of Tarkovsky's innate talent that a moment when one of the soldiers suddenly cradles a bomb as if it were a baby doesn't defuse our apprehension, but heightens it. (And still we laugh out loud.) The young director's formal mastery is awe-inspiring. At 27, he already had a full grasp of narrative cinema's potential—the better for him to subsequently reinvent the form in his own inimitable ways.
1 The short story provided the taut opening of Robert Siodmak's stellarly cynical 1946 adaptation-cum-expansion with Burt Lancaster. And Don Siegel would mostly depart from the letter of the source in a down-and-dirty, Lee Marvin-headlining take from 1964, which also boasts Ronald Reagan as a misogynist heavy with a slicked-up pompadour and somehow gets the Gipper into the same car with John Cassavetes, Angie Dickinson and Three's Company's Norman Fell.
2 According to the supplements on the Criterion DVD set of the Siodmak/Siegel films, on which the student short is included as an extra, it was Tarkovsky's idea to include this popular song from 1952, likely because it "was widely regarded as a symbol of freedom."
- Gianvito, John, ed. Andrei Tarkovsky: Interviews (Conversations with Filmmakers Series). Jackson, Mississippi, U Press of Mississippi, 2006. (Amazon) (Google) (University Press of Mississippi)
Video and Audio
- The Criterion Collection page for The Killers on which the Tarkovsky short Ubiytsy (1956) is a supplement.