Tarkovsky in exile: how the Soviet Union’s foremost auteur lost his homeland

Andrei Tarkovsky on the set of The Sacrifice (1986)

Andrei Tarkovsky directed just seven features in his career. The final two of these – more than a quarter of his full-length output – were made outside of the Soviet Union in his mid-eighties exile to the West: Nostalghia (1983) in Italy, The Sacrifice (1986) in Sweden. Many would doubtless see something fitting in this ultimate departure from the USSR. It seems to accord with received notions about both Tarkovsky and his homeland: the individual genius rejected by the hidebound system. How could his biography have ended in any other way? Perhaps if his life had not been cut short by cancer in 1986, Tarkovsky would have continued making the rounds of the western arthouse circuit – the international aesthetic fraternity to which he truly belonged.

This is not the whole story of Tarkovsky’s curtailed life, though – nor is it the story that he himself told. He did not travel to Italy to work on Nostalghia with the intention of staying put. That film, and the Swedish sojourn of Sacrifice, are explicitly concerned with alienation and dislocation – from nation, from culture, from family. In their own way, they are as autobiographical as Tarkovsky’s great self-portrait Mirror (1975). We can only make sense of this final chapter in the filmmaker’s life if we understand Tarkovsky as a Soviet director first and foremost; indeed, as a Soviet auteur cut adrift from the system that created and constrained him.

Born in 1932, Tarkovsky was part of the generation that inherited the post-war Soviet Union. He was midway through his studies at Moscow’s prestigious VGIK film school when Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech” on the abuses of the Stalinist era kickstarted what became known as the “Thaw” in Soviet politics and culture, perfectly placed to reap its rewards. If the dog days of Stalin’s rule had seen film production wither on the vine, then the Thaw saw an explosion in funding, production, and audience numbers as censorship was loosened and directors began to tackle the trauma of the war and the frustrations of everyday life. Italian neo-realism, French cinéma verité, and the Japanese masters – all of which would have a profound influence on Tarkovsky – became available to urban audiences. This was also the point at which the Soviet film industry was institutionalised, with studios establishing “creative workshops” to train new generations of film artists.

Tarkovsky was an auteur because of, not despite the Soviet system. It’s just that the notion of the “Soviet auteur” was a schizophrenic one from the off

The film scholar Sasha Prokhorov has argued that directing workshop run by Mikhail Romm, where Tarkovsky studied, can be seen as ground zero for Soviet auteurism, the place where “the period’s new and original filmmakers… [learned that] the imprint of philosophical and artistic individuality is the prime factor of cinematographer’s identity.” Other alumni included Andrei Konchalovsky – the co-author of Tarkovsky’s first two features, Ivan’s Childhood (1962) and Andrei Rublev (1966) – Larisa Shepitko, and Gleb Panfilov. For Prokhorov, Romm’s influence is reflected in the way the narrative structure of his 1961 feature Nine Days in One Year was taken up by his pupils: “[an] intellectual demiurge tries to bring together a world, the internal coherence of which has been lost. This lost harmony finds visual expression in the fragmented narrative structure of films – usually a set of episodes from the life of a protagonist, who resists the discrete structure of experience.” It is remarkable how accurately this synopsis describes the outline of all of Tarkovsky’s films, from the wartime psychodrama of Ivan’s Childhood to the fractured family memoir of Mirror and the philosophical sci-fi of Solaris (1972) and Stalker (1979).

Tarkovsky was an auteur because of, not despite the Soviet system: the concept of the auteur originally having been coined by French and American critics to describe the way individual genius expressed itself within industrial studio production. It’s just that the notion of the “Soviet auteur” was a schizophrenic one from the off. In the 1970s, Tarkovsky’s most productive decade, Soviet film was split in two. The Thaw was long gone, censorship back in full swing. Artistically, this was a period marked by emigration and exile, but also by material security, consumer culture, and mass entertainment. Cinema seemed to split into “conformist” and “non-conformist” camps: the likes of Kira Muratova, Aleksei German, and Sergei Parajanov were persecuted, while the comedies of Leonid Gaidai and Eldar Ryazanov dominated the box office. Rather than outright protest – which would have been quickly snuffed out – in the films of Tarkovsky and others, we see a recurring focus on questions of individual conscience; filmmakers adopting the problematic role of moral authority in the face of the instrumental politicisation of mainstream Soviet culture. The two sides of this coin were not always distinct either: profitable films were used to fund “auteur” films; sometimes the pursuit of international prestige meant that a film was released for festivals but not domestically. In his 1998 memoir Dirty Truths, Konchalovsky claimed: “Tarkovsky and I grew up under the sign of negation of much that existed in cinema [at the time].” The reality was that even its misfits were part of the dysfunctional system.

Oleg Yankovsky in Nostalghia (dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, 1983)

With this in mind, the events that unfolded around Nostalghia smack not of inevitability, but of painful irony. The film was intended as an Italian-Soviet co-production, although Mosfilm would later withdraw from the arrangement. Still, Tarkovsky never imagined the film, which tells the (clearly personal) story of a Soviet author (Oleg Yankovsky) who travels to Italy on a research trip and confronts his own conflicted feelings about his national culture, might mark a permanent separation. In Ebbo Demant’s 1988 documentary The Exile and Death of Andrei Tarkovsky, an essential account of the director’s final years, Tarkovsky is adamant that he planned to return to Russia: “I had made a film about a man who can’t live outside of the Soviet Union, but regardless [Soviet state film agency] Goskino did everything to compromise me.” He is referring to the farrago surrounding the 1983 edition of the Cannes Film Festival, to which the Soviet Union sent establishment director Sergei Bondarchuk as their jury representative, a move Tarkovsky was convinced was intended to deprive him of the Palme d’Or. He resolved not to put himself at the whims of the bureaucrats again. In July 1984, he finally announced that he would never return to his homeland – and even as he did so, he stated for the cameras: “I am not a Soviet dissident.”

Nostalghia, which already feels heavily indebted to its director’s own life experiences, takes on added intensity with this in mind. It is as though, through the film, Tarkovsky created a premonition of his own predicament. “I wanted to talk about the Russian form of nostalgia, the state of mind which is so specific to our nation,” he tells Demant. “In this I saw my patriotic duty… How could I have assumed that this condition of desperate sadness that dominates the film would become the fate of my own life?” At one point in the film, narrative and autobiography collide directly. Eugenia, the tour guide assigned to Yankovsky’s Gorchakov, attempts to engage him in a conversation about the poet Arseny Tarkovsky: the director’s real-life father. Gorchakov rebuffs her; she responds: “How can we get to know each other?” He replies: “By abolishing frontiers between states.”

Tarkovsky never adapted to the “petty bourgeois mentality” of the West – indeed, his peripatetic time there convinced him that there could be no “heaven on earth”

At one point in his documentary, Demant interviews the great Georgian director (and fellow Soviet exile) Otar Iosseliani, who claims that Tarkovsky always insisted that he stayed in the West “to hurt ‘them’”, in pointed reference to the Soviet authorities. It was a negative act, not one of affirmation: Iosseliani states that Tarkovsky never adapted to the “petty bourgeois mentality” of the West – indeed, that his peripatetic time there convinced him that there could be no “heaven on earth”.

If Nostalghia had been conceived as an act of patriotic duty, then The Sacrifice was perhaps intended as a reckoning with the false paradise Iosseliani evokes. The film is usually understood as an homage to Tarkovsky’s beloved Ingmar Bergman: the crew was replete with Bergman regulars, including leading man Erland Josephson and cinematographer Sven Nykvist, and the island setting of Gotland was a stand-in for Bergman’s summer retreat of Fårö. But Tarkovsky claimed that here, too, he was in dialogue with Russia – specifically with the ghost of Leo Tolstoy, who believed that in order to serve his people, the committed artist would first have to understand and transform his inner self. That transformation plays out in the film through the character of Alexander (Josephson), a wealthy lecturer residing in a lavish seaside manor who makes a deal with God to forsake his worldly possessions in order to avert nuclear apocalypse. The plot is allegorical, but for Tarkovsky, the prospect of renouncing every structure of personal and social meaning had concrete precedent. Swedish dialogue notwithstanding, we are firmly in the world of the Soviet auteur, that “intellectual demiurge [who] tries to bring together a world, the internal coherence of which has been lost.”

The Sacrifice (dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, 1986)

Reception of The Sacrifice is forever coloured by the knowledge that during production Tarkovsky was sick with the cancer that would kill him. He was diagnosed during filming, edited the footage from hospital, and was too ill to attend its premier at Cannes. In a remarkable essay about the director’s illness, the late Robert Bird – who himself died of cancer in 2020 – questions whether Tarkovsky’s death robs Alexander’s titular sacrifice of its intended redemptive power. “Only Tarkovsky’s characters’ faith, or rather their contrarian desire to believe, turns mortal dread into redemptive sacrifice… [but] Tarkovsky’s cancer threatens to place a stamp of irredeemable contingency on everything that preceded it.” Bird cites a dream that the director recorded in his diary on 30 September 1986:

I dreamt of a quiet monastic cloister with its enormous ancient oak tree. Suddenly I become aware of a flame rising up at a point among the roots, and I realise that it is the flame of many candles burning in the secret underground recesses of the monastery… Then the flame leaps high, and I see that by now it is too late to put out the fire – almost all the roots have become burning embers. I am deeply saddened by this, and I try to imagine what the cloister will be like without the oak tree: it will be useless, meaningless, miserable.

The dream uncannily combines images from the climaxes of Tarkovsky’s final two features to capture the spiritual sensation of his exile, and the sickness that cut it short: the flickering candle flames of the madman Domenico in Nostalghia, and the conflagration that closes The Sacrifice. The fire destroys the structure that houses it, just as exile had done for Tarkovsky. Freedom always entails some kind of loss: “all the roots have become burning embers.”

Watch Nostalghia and The Sacrifice on Klassiki now.