In Praise of Tarkovsky

When he died in Paris on July 29, 2012, filmmaker Chris Marker left behind more than 60 short films and features, most of which were experimental cinema essays and documentaries. Many were political in nature but he also dabbled in other favorite subjects such as cats (Cat Listening to Music, 1988), Japan (The Koumiko Mystery, 1965) and the contemplation of memory (Immemory, an interactive CD-Rom from 1997). His work rarely found an outlet in commercial cinema venues but was often celebrated at film festivals and archival/repertory mainstays. If his name sounds familiar to you, it is due to his landmark science fiction short, La Jetee (1962), which remains influential today for its innovative approach to visual narrative. What many don’t know, however, is that Marker directed several highly accessible tributes to favorite film figures such as Yves Montand (La Solitude de Chanteur de Fond, 1974), Akira Kurosawa (A.K., 1985) and Simone Signoret (Memoires pour Simone, 1986) and one of his finest achievements is One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich (1987). 

Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky (right) with cinematographer Sven Nykvist on the set of THE SACRIFICE (1986).

Originally commissioned for the French television series, “Cinema de notre temps,” this non-fiction work is an intimate and fascinating portrait of the acclaimed Russian director, Andrei Tarkovsky, recorded and assembled by Marker, a close friend. The title is an illusion to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s 1962 novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich which dealt with life in a Stalinist labor camp. Like the main character in that book, Tarkovsky experienced years of harassment of every sort from the Soviet authorities, even though he wasn’t a political dissident. It was merely the fact that he was an unconventional filmmaker and an intellectual that intimidated the Russian government and led to their persecution of the director, eventually driving him into exile in Europe.

Exiled Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky (right) on location in Sweden for a 1986 film shoot.

At the beginning of One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevitch, we see footage of Tarkovsky’s son and mother arriving in Paris (after being denied visas for five years). They are greeted by Tarkovsky’s wife, Larisa, who takes them to her ailing husband, now dying of cancer and no longer a threat to the Russian authorities. Yet, the reunion is joyful and Marker’s documentary integrates his footage of Tarkovsky’s final days with striking excerpts from the director’s films along with comments and personal anecdotes by Tarkovsky, his wife and various friends and associates, to create a warm and loving film essay on this enigmatic director.

Among the highlights are never-before-seen clips from Tarkovsky’s London stage production of Boris Gudunor, a sequence from his 1956 student film adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers in which he makes a cameo appearance, whistling “Lullaby of Birdland,” and an interview with Ingmar Bergman’s favorite cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, who photographed Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice (1986). In fact, Marker’s portrait was made during the making of The Sacrifice so there is ample behind-the-scenes footage of that production.

A scene from Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1956 student film THE KILLERS, an adaptation of the Ernst Hemingway short story.

There is also a fascinating account of a seance Tarkovsky once conducted in which the ghost of Boris Pasternak, author of Dr. Zhivago, allegedly informed him, correctly, that he would make only seven films – “but good ones.”

A Japanese DVD release of the Chris Marker documentary on Andrei Tarkovsky.

It is also interesting to note that One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevitch credits three different narrators depending on which language version you see. The French release has actress Marina Vlady narrating while the English version features Alexandra Stewart and the German edition has Fassbinder actress Eva Mattes providing the voice over.

For film lovers who haven’t experienced the films of this internationally acclaimed director, One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevitch is an excellent place to start as it features mesmerizing clips from his entire oeuvre: everything from his first feature, My Name is Ivan (1962), to his autobiographical dream work, The Mirror (1975), to his final film, The Sacrifice.

French filmmaker Chris Marker (1921-2012)

This portrait of an artist is also a great introduction to the work of Chris Marker, who has devoted most of his career to making poetic, idiosyncratic documentaries like San Soleil (1982) and politically engaged work like Le Joli Mai (1963), co-directed with Pierre Lhomme, Cuba Si! (1961), a pro-Fidel Castro essay, and A Grin Without a Cat (1977), an examination of the social unrest of the 1960s. The rare exception to his filmography was La Jetee (1962), a 28-minute futuristic fantasy which was later appropriated by Terry Gilliam for his 1995 remake, Twelve Monkeys.

A scene from Chris Marker’s highly influential sci-fi short LA JETEE (1962).

One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevitch earned praise from several prominent critics when it was screened in the U.S. Stephanie Zacharek of Salon wrote, “A voice-over narrative guides us through some of the most gorgeously intense moments in Tarkovsk’s work: the vision of lovers levitating (literally), an image that appears in not one but two of Tarkovsky’s movies; a vista that takes in both a flaming house and an open shore redolent of freedom. With “One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich,” Marker cuts a wide ribbon of light through the murkiness of death and sorrow. It’s an eternal flame meant to flicker not at a gravesite, but on a movie screen.” And renowned cinephile Jonathan Rosenbaum calls Marker’s documentary “essential viewing,” and states that “above all this is a work of film criticism and the best one dealing with Tarkovsky that I know, full of clarifying insights.”

Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky

One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich is not currently available on DVD or Blu-ray in the U.S. but you can stream it for a low fee on the Icarus Films website.

The French poster for A GRIN WITHOUT A CAT (1977), one of Chris Marker’s most famous film essays.

*This is an updated and expanded version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.

Other links of interest:


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