“The Mirror” - Andrei Tarkovsky (1975)

Andrei Tarkovsky’s fourth film, The Mirror (Zerkalo, 1975), was his most personal work, and perhaps that partly accounts for its great popularity among his admirers [1].  For the British Film Institute’s 2012 polls of critics and film directors concerning the all-time greatest films, The Mirror was ranked 9th on the directors’ poll [2] and 19th on the critics’ poll [3]. Tarkovsky’s own comments about the film reflect how special the film was for him [4]:
"As I began work on Mirror I found myself reflecting more and more that if you are serious about your work, then a film is not the next item in your career, it is an action which will affect the whole of your life. For I had made up my mind that in this film, for the first time, I would use the means of cinema to talk of all that was most precious to me, and do so directly, without playing any kinds of tricks."
In fact the film is virtually a testament to Tarkovsky’s insistence that the film medium transcends the limitations typical of textual narratives and engages the viewer on a direct existentially experiential level.  However, the film’s loose, nonlinear structure also makes it difficult to follow for the average viewer.  Many people only come to appreciate The Mirror after several repeated viewings. 

The subject matter of the film concerns the memories and reflections of a 40-year-old man, Alexei, who has been diagnosed with a terminal health condition. These are told in the form of various separate vignettes from the man’s childhood as well as from his present circumstances, and the sequences jump back and forth in time without much motivation or explanation.  So somewhat like the films created by Tarkovsky’s friend Sergei Parajanov, it is up to the viewer here to assemble these pieces into something meaningful – but we must bear in mind that Tarkovsky did not have a hidden (textual) “message” behind these elements.  They were put together by Tarkovsky from his own personal experiences in an intuitive manner to reflect his feelings rather than thoughts.  This approach led him to specifically use some elements from his own personal life in the filming:
  • The film features a number of poems that were written, and recited on the soundtrack, by his father, Arseny Tarkovsky, who was a famous Russian poet.  In addition the actor who appears in the film as Alexei’s father looks quite a bit like Arseny Tarkovsky did at the diegetic times (30-40 years prior to the filming) of his appearances in the story.
  • Andrei Tarkovsky’s own mother appears in a small but important role in the story.
  • Tarkovsky’s second wife, Larisa Tarkovskaya, also plays a small but significant role in the film.
But though he incorporated elements from his own life, Tarkovsky was still unsure how to structure the tale.  Even working with screenwriter Aleksandr Misharin, they entered into the filming process with many issues structurally unresolved [4]:
"The scripts of my earlier films were more clearly structured. When we started work on Mirror, we made it a deliberate point of principle not to have the picture worked out and arranged in advance, before the material had been filmed."
This is a dangerous way for a filmmaker to operate, particularly for a director like Tarkovsky who employed lengthy moving camera shots that must be mapped out prior to shooting (in the case of The Mirror, there are only about 200 shots making up the 100-minute film [4]).  Nevertheless, Tarkovsky had his own instinctive cinematic devices, and he once again employed atmospheric sound effects, such as the sound of dripping or slushing water and brisk wind-blowing noises, to provide a moody, contextually-grounded feeling to the film.

The story elements of the film are set in three distinct time periods associated with Alexei’s life:
  • Time1 – this appears to be 1935, when Alexei was about five years old.  Alexei lives in a country home with his mother, Maria, and his younger sister.  Alexei’s father, we later learn, had abandoned the family just prior to this time.
  • Time2 – some time during World War II, perhaps around 1942-43.  Alexei’s family has been evacuated to another area and live in a small cottage.
  • Time3 – around 1969-70.  Alexei is ill, and his face is never shown in the film.  He is divorced from his wife Natalie, and they have a son, Ignat, who is an early teenager.
The story elements appear out of chronological sequence without evident narrative motivation and are shot sometimes in color, sometimes in black-and-white, and sometimes in a sepia-toned monochrome.  Further complicating the viewer’s discernment is the fact that two key actors play multiple roles in the film:
  • Margarita Terekhova  plays two key roles
    • the thirty-something mother Maria in Time1 and Time2 and
    • the similarly-aged Natalie in Time3. 
  • In addition the same actor, Ignat Daniltsev, plays the young Alexei in Time2 and Ignat in Time3.
There is basically nothing done in terms of makeup or hairstyle to distinguish these multiple roles, so the viewer is clearly invited to partially merge these commonly-acted characters – something that presumably took place in the narrator Alexei’s imagination.  In fact Tarkovsky admitted that his conception of the film went through various stages as he thought about this film project over a number of years [4].
  1. His first conception was to make a film of his personal reminiscences “full of elegiac sadness and nostalgia for my childhood” [4].
  2. He later decided to incorporate his mother’s perspective by interspersing material he planned to obtain by conducting interviews of her.
  3. He finally decided to merge material from his own thoughts and his mother into a complex psychological fabric. 
And then it was only at the last minute that he and Aleksandr Misharin went further and decided to bring together the two major feminine rolls by having Margarita Terekhova play both of them.  This was a most important aesthetic decision, because it essentially makes the feminine roll of Terekhova into the film’s major visual focus.  Although the film consists of Alexei’s reflections, the major subjective theme is his mother and the effect she had on his consciousness.  Even Alexei’s failures with Natalie are cast in his mother’s shadow.

Although any identifiable plot structure to The Mirror seems to be obscure at best, we can say that the film does go through several phases of focus.

1.  Maria
The first phase of the film comprises several sequences, mostly set in Time1.  The focus here is on Maria, Alexei’s mother.   Initially, in a color sequence, she encounters a doctor who has lost his way and wandered over on to her homestead area.  In their brief conversation, the doctor tells her that people are rushing about everywhere and are missing out on the richness of their present existence.  He complains, reflecting Tarkovsky’s own spiritual views, that in this constant rush towards a future, we are not trusting the nature inside us.

Then in black-and-white, Alexei dreams of his mother having her hair washed in slow motion.  Maria here gazes at her reflection in the tiled wall and sees herself as an aged woman (from Time3).  So although the focalization is on Maria, we are reminded that this is all really Alexei’s vision.

After a telephone conversation between Alexei and his mother in Time3, there is an extended and atmospheric sequence showing Maria working for a publisher and being concerned over a possible editing error she has made after a publication has gone to print.  There is a sequence of four lengthy (~one-minute-long) tracking shots of her rushing past the working printing presses and looking for a final-edit copy that she can examine.  She is finally relieved to find out that she had not erred, but shortly thereafter she is reduced to tears when her close colleague unexpectedly and abusively tells her off and calls her a hopelessly selfish person whose ex-husband was right to abandon.  This sequence gets us into Maria’s character, a woman who can worry over work-time issues but can still stop and smile at life’s absurdities, such as subsequently when the water shuts off in the midst of her shower.

2. Alexei   
The next phase of vignettes shifts over more directly to Alexei.  There is a sequence in Time3 when Natalie and Alexei (who, of course, is never seen on camera) argue over who should have custody of their son Ignat. At one point later when Ignat is left alone in the house, he sees an unexplained (as to what her relation to the others in the film may be) woman asking him to read a passage from a book quoting Pushkin’s famous 1836 letter to Chaadaev:
“The division of churches separated us from Europe. We remained excluded from every great event that has shaken it. However, we had our own special destiny. Russia, with her immense territory, had swallowed up the Mongol invasion. The Tartars didn’t dare crossing our western borders. They retreated to their wilderness and Christian civilization had been saved.  To attain that goal we had to lead a special kind of life, which while leaving us Christians, had made us alien to the Christian world.”
This view of the Russian Slavic people’s unique character was undoubtedly a subject in which Tarkovsky, himself, had a strong interest, so he included it in this, his personal work.  After reading this passage, Ignat has to answer a knock on the front door, which reveals a woman that appears to be his grandmother, Maria. But neither the woman nor Ignat recognize each other, and the woman apologizes for knocking on the wrong door.  This brief segment is not only confusing to the viewer, it was confusing even to Tarkovsky [5]:
"There are many complications there which I don't even completely understand myself. For example, it was very important for me to have my mother in some scenes. There is one episode in the film in which the boy, Ignat, is sitting . . . in his father's empty room, in the present, in our times [Time3] ....And as he is sitting there we hear the doorbell, he opens the door. This is my mother. And she is the grandmother of this boy who opens the door for her. But why doesn't she recognise him, why doesn't the grandson recognize her?...one has completely no idea. That is...firstly, this wasn't explained by the plot, in the screenplay, and secondly...even for me this was unclear."
Clearly this was a moment when Tarkovsky’s intuition was dominating his rational faculties. 

This is then followed by material covering the period in Time2 when Alexei and his fellow teenagers were being trained by the Russian military to be snipers.  There is also black-and-white newsreel footage showing the famous Russian military crossing of Lake Sivash in the Crimean WWII campaign (Time2), as well as newsreel coverage of Russian atomic bomb blasts and also the Sino-Soviet conflict (Time3). Finally, there is a scene showing Alexei’s father returning from the war front and having a brief reunion with his children (Time2).

Most of these elements show us that Alexei’s concerns were more with external, real-world events in those days than with issues important to his own family.  In fact during another quarrelsome conversation with his divorced wife Natalie, she tells him about a writer she is considering marrying.  But Alexei dismisses the man, whom he calls “Dostoyevsky”, because he hasn’t published anything and is therefore a nobody.

3.  Visit with Nadezhda
The next (and perhaps oddest) phase of the film returns the focus to Maria and Time2.  She and the teenage Alexei go to visit the home of the doctor shown at the beginning of the film. Nadezhda is interested in purchasing some pearls from Maria, and the way she is portrayed appears to make a clear reference to Vermeer’s famous painting “Girl with a Pearl Earring” (1655).  Again we have a portrayal not of objective reality but of a colored and emotional landscape as remembered by the narrator.  The focus, though, is on Maria, her exhaustion in those moments, as well as her disturbed feelings when she is asked to slaughter a cockerel. 

Inserted in this section is a black-and-white dream shot from Time1 showing Alexei’s father stroking his wife’s hand while she floats in mid-air above her bed. 

4.  Closure
The final phase shows a growing conflation of Alexei’s memories as he nears death.  The young Alexei of Time1 is shown talking to his mother, Maria, in the yard, but when he looks at her he sees an old woman, the Maria of Time3.  There is also a memorable 90-second panning shot in Time1 that comes to rest on Alexei’s father and the presumably pregnant Maria lying in the grass and thinking about what will be the sex of their expected child. So Alexei’s reflections have finally come all the way back to the womb, back when he and his dear mother were one.

The final shots, including a contemplative 90-second panning shot to close the film, show the old Maria (Time3) walking with the young children and Maria of Time1.  All of Alexei’s memories have now converged into a jumble of impressions and feelings.

So what we have in The Mirror is a relatively unstructured look into the fragmented thoughts of a man’s consciousness.  For Tarkovsky, this kind of exploration was an example of what he considered to be the raison d’etre of aesthetic creativity [4]:
"The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good."
With specific regard to The Mirror, Tarkovsky said [4],
"I wanted to tell the story of the pain suffered by one man because he feels he cannot repay his family for all they have given him. He feels he hasn’t loved them enough, and this idea torments him and will not let him be."
Did Tarkovsky really succeed in this effort to probe and portray the raw essence of conscious experience?  I have my reservations about that, and I think what he has presented in this film does not quite compensate for the absence of an identifiable narrative journey.  Nevertheless it was to my mind a bold and innovative undertaking on the authors’ parts.  And it was immeasurably assisted by the magnetic performance of Margarita Terekhova in the two key emotive roles.  She evinces all the complexity and vitality that invigorates the life around us – if we only take the time to engage in it fully with all our love and compassion.

  1. Jugu Abraham, “146. Russian maestro Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Zerkalo” (Mirror/The Mirror) (1975)”, Movies that make you think, (2 June 2013).
  2. “Directors’ Top 100", Analysis: The Greatest Films of All Time 2012, Sight and Sound, British Film Institute, (2012).
  3. “Critics’ Top 100", Analysis: The Greatest Films of All Time 2012, Sight and Sound, British Film Institute, (2012).  
  4. Andrey Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema,  University of Texas Press Austin (1986, 2000), quoted in Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson (eds.), “Conversations About Great Films: Andrei Tarkovsky The Mirror 1974”, Goldenrod Handouts, Buffalo Film Seminars, (IX:13), The Center for Studies in American Culture, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY (16 November 2004).
  5. Matthew Sheldon, “Mirror, The (1975)”, Classic Art Films, (31 July 2015).        


Murtaza Ali Khan said...

Great write up... many congratulations!

Unknown said...

Just saw the film for first time yesterday and already planning the second. Your terrific write-up makes me anticipate the next viewing even more..thank you

Margarita said...

This was a fantastic read - super helpful for appreciating this piece! It was my second time watching and I'll definitely need to go for a third one.

Do you use Letterboxd by any chance? It would be great to follow your film watching activity there! Thanks for sharing.

isabella said...

it really helped me understanding it ! thank you