Andrei's Childhood

By James Norton


Andrei Tarkovsky in conversation about the legacy of his father

You don’t expect to find Andrei Tarkovsky in a hotel lobby off Oxford Street and yet, here he is, youthful and elegantly attired... “I talked to Andriushka today in Moscow. He is 1m 68 now – exactly the same height as I am!” the film-maker wrote in his diary. His son, also named Andrei, was then aged almost 15. He is now 37, and was visiting London to launch Bright, Bright Day, a book of Polaroids taken by his late father and an accompanying exhibition at the White Space Gallery. Also included are a selection of photographs by Tarkovsky’s uncle Lev Gornung of the family in the 1930s, the infant Tarkovsky, his poet father Arseniy, his mother and their rustic home, imagery which was a source for Mirror, whose original title was Bright, Bright Day.

A somewhat similar book, Instant Light, was published in 2004, with Tarkovsky’s Polaroids reproduced to size. Antonioni gave Tarkovsky the camera in 1979 and the photographs date from then until 1984, depicting family in Russia and collaborators in Italy and glowing, atmospheric landscapes in both. In the book aesthetic historian Boris Groys compares the images to paintings by the German romantics and the world of Mirror as a Utopian throwback to bourgeois Chekhovian domesticity, which is accurate but misses a crucial point: the primeval potency of cinema derives from it being a 19th century invention applied to the phenomena of later ages. It has eyes older than ours.

In fluent English, Andrei explained: “With the first book we kept to the original size to underline the Polaroid aspect of these pictures. This time we blew them up, and now you can look at them and now they’re no longer just Polaroids, they’re pictures. It’s amazing, his eye, how he could use this small machine to make art… Actually, these Polaroids are the only photographs he ever took.” What they gain in visibility from being blown up, however, is at the expense of both the materiality and distilled mysticism of the original Polaroids.

There is a plaque marking Tarkovsky’s apartment in Florence – on the Via San Niccolò – and Andrei still lives there (not that we want to encourage nostalgic stalkers), maintaining the Tarkovsky Institute, based in Florence and housing his archive, which must be the greatest collection of cultural riches in the city after the Uffizi Galleries. “There are more than 11,000 papers there. It’s mostly a written archive, his screenplays, the ideas for films, his diaries, and for each film there is a working diary which we are planning to publish. There are 5000 photographs together with the Polaroids. We’re trying to scan all the material and make an archive on the internet.” There are also publications and screenings of Tarkovsky’s work and those of his favourite directors, chief of whom, according to Andrei, was Bresson: “in the last year in Paris they met a lot. He was an incredible person and my father always watched one of his films before starting a new work.”

Tarkovsky’s diaries are full of yearning for his son and his wife Larissa who were held hostage by the Soviets when he insisted on remaining in the West. Andrei didn’t see his father from the age of 12 until he 16 and was only allowed to travel to him because he was dying in Paris. “For me it was terrible because it’s a period for a child when you especially need parents. For him it was a tough time. On the one side it’s good to live and work with quite a normal life and artistically with lots of possibility. On the other side he was really Russian and Russians are really bad emigrants, so he needed Russia. He needed his family specially.”

In 1996 Andrei made a commemorative documentary, Andrei Tarkovsky, a Reminiscence, and is currently making another, Martyrology, based on the diaries, retracing his father’s locations in Russia and Italy. He had the uncanny experience of multiple nostalgia, seeing their country house in Russia completely reconstructed in Tuscany for Nostalgia, which he first saw in Russia, and only moved to Tuscany, a place he only knew through the film, after his father’s death.


Chris Marker’s marvellous filmed essay One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich records the eventual reunion of father and son at Tarkovsky’s deathbed. Marker also notes the similarities between the opening shot of his debut feature Ivan’s Childhood with Ivan clutching a tree trunk and the closing shot of The Sacrifice, with the boy lying at the foot of the miraculous tree, commenting that Tarkovsky’s “entire life’s work lies between two trees and two boys” which, coupled with images of the reunited father and son, imply a connection between Andrei and the boys in the films.

Andrei agrees. “My father always used really personal and autobiographical things. That’s why it’s impossible to copy. In the diaries you see his dreams and scenes from the films, taken from real life.” In Nostalgia, separated from his wife, child and homeland, Tarkovsky was recreating them for himself in exile. “The wife and the house and the scene with the fog, the horse, I remember when I was a child because he used to show us these surroundings. When I watch these films there is some really personal relationship because I’m seeing scenes from our lives and seeing something that maybe for a common spectator they don’t quite understand. He really loved me, we had this really interesting relationship and from the beginning he was talking to me as though I was an adult, like in The Sacrifice, when Alexander spoke with the boy, and it’s really funny because I couldn’t understand it really, even now some of what he said, it wasn’t a dialogue, more a monologue…

“He tried to adjust your vision, it was all about vision, all his films are about the way you see things. He always wanted us family members to participate in his vision so he always explained and communicated a lot of his way of seeing. So he would wake you in the middle of the night, saying you have to see that, the big moon glowing, and it was a particularly beautiful experience to be near him because every time there was a new surrounding he created. Paradjanov was very similar, he entered the room and everything changed, he could create art out of anything, a piece of paper, and I think my father was this kind of man, a person who could rearrange reality and show you some totally different point of view.”

Tarkovsky’s diaries, which he titled Martyrology, begin in 1970, just a few months before Andrei was born, and possibly there was a connection. “You can never say because actually he always kept the diaries for himself. For him it was just a way to free himself from all the problems and he told me that he had to write because it’s a good exercise to concentrate on your work, to concentrate on your life, not losing or wasting time and maybe it was a period for him in which he became more concentrated and more aware of his work. The working diaries are also quite interesting, the day-by-day shooting and how the scenes changed on the set.”

Tarkovsky often calls Andrei ‘Tyapa’ in the diaries, and his son explains: “I gave it to myself, I was three years old, I was writing funny stories, giving names and I said: “don’t call me Andrei anymore, I’m Tyapus.” Perhaps he wanted a different name to his father.

There is a bizarre incident in the diaries when Andrei was five. Tarkovsky was asleep one evening and his wife and son saw a “mushroom shaped patch of light” which “came straight at them, enveloping everything and spreading as it advanced… Tyapa was very scared and for several days talked of nothing else.” It was conjectured that this was a nuclear blast or, as Andrei remembers. “we all thought we saw a UFO at that time because we had no explanation, it was a strange glowing, geometrical shape. (My father) was really upset we didn’t call him, he was sleeping already.” One can imagine the chagrin of the director of one of the most celebrated science fiction films missing out on a UFO, although perhaps the experience seeped into The Sacrifice.

“My mother worked with my father so I have been aware of cinema since I was born. I remember there was always a creative atmosphere in the house and he never separated his life from his films. My first memory was the shoot of Mirror. The first film I saw was Mirror, in a private projection for friends, but Stalker for me was the most interesting because I was present at the shoot in Moscow studios, and my father was also the art director of the film so all the art work was done at home. The first film I saw at the cinema was Solaris, which was quite strong for me, I got sick, I had a fever for a couple of days, but I liked it a lot.”

Tarkovsky’s penultimate diary entry reads: “I must talk to Andriushka about cinema and literature, find out what he knows.” He hoped his son would follow him into the cinema, and took him onto the set and explained the preparations, but Andrei initially rebelled and pursued other subjects. However, “slowly I returned. It’s quite difficult to make a film, being the son, because they always judge! That’s why I’m not quite ready yet to make my stand because I’m always in relation to what he would say, and he was quite a severe critic about things. Although now cinema has changed so much and that kind of cinema doesn’t exist any more. Nobody approaches cinema with this seriousness, and that’s why maybe there is a lot of interest in his work now, from young people, and the diaries which we edited sold out, and we have just published the Russian edition. They had never been published in Russia. It’s normal, no prophet in your own country.”

While in Italy, Tarkovsky wrote: “A young man on the roadside. Hitchhiking. He puts his hand up, nobody stops. Sad looking, with fair hair. I was reminded of Tyapa. He will grow up as well, become an adult, and will feel lonely.” As all adults do or was it a specific premonition for a young man without a father far from home?

Bright, Bright Day is published by the White Space Gallery:

James Norton is a writer on cinema and researcher of television arts programmes.