MIRROR (1975)

  • Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
  • Writers: Aleksandr Misharin and Andrei Tarkovsky
  • Starring: Margarita Terekhova, Filipp Yankovsky, Ignat Daniitsev, Innokenty Smokunovsky, Maria Vishnyakova, Oleg Yankovsky, Alla Demidova, Anatoly Solonitsyn, Nikolai Grinko, Yuriy Nazarov, and Arseny Tarkovsky
  • Accolades: 2012 Sight & Sound Top 100 list (#19)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on The Criterion Channel

No matter how creative a director, it seems that many of them eventually make some sort of thinly veiled depiction of their own childhood. We’ve covered several of these to date on this site. But of these, few are more opaque, or more beautiful, or seem to have greater depths, than Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror. It is not a single narrative, scenes not following one from another but told on their own, nor is there any obvious main connecting structure. Yet it is all clearly of a piece, and few viewers come away not realizing that is the story of Tarkovsky’s family (particularly his mother) as he’s growing up, even though the characters are not always played by the same actors, the story is not told in order, and many of the sequences seem to be taken from dreams. I kind of love it.

Mirror may work best as less of a movie than as a form of collective therapy. Its images and scenes wash over someone watching it, acquiring a sort of cumulative effect. On a purely image level, few directors can match Tarkovsky. There is the early scene with the barn on fire, or the one with the mother washing her hair in very slight slow motion, water pouring down the walls around her, or the scene where the mother seems to levitate into the air. Even if you are not the sort of person who wants to watch what is essentially a non-narrative film for over an hour and a half, there are so many individual compositions in Mirror that are so memorable, I don’t think you can dismiss it.

The film functions less as a story than as Tarkovsky exploring his own psyche. The most significant role goes to the actress Margarita Terekhova, but sometimes she seems to be playing Tarkovsky’s mother, and other times to be playing his girlfriend or wife. That seems like a Freudian goldmine on its own, perhaps complicated by the fact that Tarkovsky’s actual mother, Maria Vishnyakova, also appears in the film. We also hear Tarkovsky’s father, Arseny, who was a famous poet in Russia at the time, though he never actually appears on screen. At couple of points the elder Tarkovsky reads his own poetry on the soundtrack.

Many of the individual scenes make sense on their own, but any deeper meaning remains elusive to me. In one of the longer sequences, Terekhova’s character rushes to her work at a printing house. She is terrified that she missed a typo on a print run that has already started. It turns out she was wrong, everything’s fine, but then a co-worker berates her for… being too stuck up, I think? There are a lot of Dostoevsky references involved. Anyway, she ends up in tears.

I have a strong feeling that Mirror is a bit less indecipherable for Russians of about Tarkovsky’s same age than it is for me. The place of each scene in its timeline is mostly defined by whether the scene takes place before the devastation of World War II, during, or after. Occasionally this is clear, but for me much of the time it was not. For Russians who lived through those years, however, I think that smaller clues might have made it obvious, the same way that the time-traveling characters on Doctor Who this week walked into a kitchen and could immediately make a guess as to what decade of 20th Century Britain they were in. The war itself is depicted in newsreel footage, found by Tarkovsky and his cinematographer while rooting through the depths of the Russian archives to find exactly what they wanted. To the footage he adds his own sound effects, making it all somehow still feel “directed” by Tarkovsky. The most memorable bits include Russian soldiers marching across what looks like an infinite, featureless plain, dragging their equipment. But it is actually a big salt lake, only a few inches deep, and Tarkovsky adds just the sound of their squelching footsteps. This is real historical footage of a real thing the Red Army did in World War II, but it very much feels like a scene Tarkovsky made up.

The film is, however, entirely bereft of actual battle scenes. Tarkovsky was still a child at the time of the war, and only experienced the big events through the newsreels. Instead, we see an injured veteran (Yuriy Nazarov) teaching a group of young kids what are supposed to be defense techniques, with guns and everything. One of the kids drops a grenade, and he jumps on it to smother it with his body. It is of course a “practice grenade,” and all the kids watch silently as he lies on the ground for several long moments.

Mirror was, in fact, a financial success in its native Russia, where this sort of movie just wasn’t getting widely released at the time. The Soviet government would only allow it to be shown at two theaters in Moscow, but those two theaters soon had lines going around the block. In the West, reception was initially more puzzled, but over time Mirror has risen to the status of one of the great cinematic works. It ranked 19th in the most recent Sight & Sound Top 100 poll of critics, and all the way up at 9th when the same publication polled prominent directors worldwide. Of those films near the top of these lists, it is certainly the most experimental and non-linear. 

My own somewhat cynical take is that Tarkovsky’s prowess as a director (and position as most acclaimed Russian director of his era) is undeniable, but his other most prominent films in the West are probably Solaris and Stalker, both of which are science fiction and therefore less “respectable” than the navel-gazing at the heart of Mirror. This is not a knock on this movie, mind you, but is a perhaps a longer discussion for another day. As it is, Mirror is not something anyone who sees it is likely to forget, which is perhaps the greatest compliment one can give a film.

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