May 18, 2014

Studying Andrei Tarkovsky's Use of Water & Fire in His Films: Is There Symbolism?

If you look through the books, documentaries, and websites dedicated to the legendary Russsian director Andrei Tarkovsky, you'll quickly find out that his work is often described as poetic. There's absolutely no doubt that his films, full of metaphysical themes and beautiful long takes, are visual poetry; they're emotionally resounding, and film theorists, critics, and students of film have spent decades trying to decode the poetic messages believed to be in his visual motifs, like his use of water and fire for example. However, is there really something there to decode, or did Tarkovsky avoid symbolism altogether?

Tarkovsky uses two elements quite frequently in his films: fire and water -- sometimes even at the same time, like in that gorgeous scene from The Mirror.

Because he uses them so often, many who admire and study his films believe that they have symbolic value -- that they represent something that Tarkovsky's trying to poetically say. Here's a video by Luis Enrique Rayas that shows Tarkovsky's extensive use of water in his films.

One of the reasons Tarkovsky is so near and dear to my heart is because he's a poet, and like many who feel this way about him (and other ways about him, too), we've watched his films and tried our hand at deconstructing the possible meanings behind his recurring visual themes, objects, and techniques.

Which is why it saddened me at first when I read in Andrei Tarkovsky: Interviews what he said during a 1981 Guardian Lecture at the National Film Theater:

There are some artists who attach symbolic meaning to their images, but that is not possible for me. Zen poets have a good way of dealing with this: they work to eliminate any possibility of interpretation, and in the process a parallel arises between the real world and what the artist creates in his work.

However, Tarkovsky has gone on record about the symbolic meaning behind certain objects in his films. In The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue, author Vida T. Johnson writes how the director discusses the things he frequently uses in his films -- rain, snow, and water -- and explains that they are "a symbol of faith." However, she notes that, yes, he's incredibly reluctant to attach any kind of meaning or symbolism to his visuals.

This doesn't mean, though, that he doesn't use these elements on purpose and with purpose. Tarkovsky has been asked time and time again by interviewers and fans why he uses certain objects in his films so often. One quote shared in a piece by Peter Green sheds more light on his thoughts about using these things so frequently. When asked about his use of rain and water, Tarkovsky replied:

There is always water in my films. I like water, especially brooks. The sea is too vast. I don't fear it; it is just monotonous. In nature I like smaller things. Microcosm, not macrocosm; limited surfaces. I love the Japanese attitude to nature. They concentrate on a confined space reflecting the infinite. Water is a mysterious element -- because of its structure. And it is very cinegenic; it transmits movement, depth, changes. Nothing is more beautiful than water.

And here's an interesting approach to studying one of the most famous shots of Tarkovsky's entire career: a video by Kevin B. Lee puts all 123 scenes of the film Nostalghia up on-screen, including 9-minute shot of a man carrying a candle, until they all fade out (like candles -- see what he did there).

Though neither of these videos really unravel any mysteries about Tarkovsky's symbolism (according to him, there is none), they certainly celebrate Tarkovsky's mastery. His philosophy on life, spirituality, and cinema is definitely worthy of study and celebration.

What do you think? Though a filmmaker doesn't intend to include symbolism in his/her work, do you think audiences should try to attribute meaning anyway? Can a symbol be made by a patron even after the work of the artist has been created? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Link: Tarkovsky's Poetic Cinema -- andreitarkovski.com

Your Comment

13 Comments

From what I've read about Tarkovsky and understood from his work is that he wants the audience to engage with it on a personal level and to have an emotive response like nostalgia or so on, which explains his evasiveness when asked about the symbolism of his work. That is in my opinion why his films are so amazing because you truly interact with them and work to find your own meanings and relate to the story on a personal level.

May 18, 2014 at 4:29PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Justin

Yeah, this makes sense to me based on what I have read about his work. I remember him saying very passionately that poetry can't be translated. Poems can't have an intermediary who gives you their best assessment of the words in a language you know. Along those lines, I think Tarkovsky wouldn't want to embed a symbolism in is films and act as a translator. Just watch it and make you're own meaning.

May 18, 2014 at 11:35PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Brick

I think you nailed it, Justin. To elaborate on his symbolic meaning would be to try and suggest what the images portray, when that is really something better left to the viewer. Once a poem, painting, or movie is released, each person enjoys that work based on their own life, experiences, feelings, etc.

May 19, 2014 at 11:33AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Tarkovsky was against symbols himself. In his Sculpting in Time he writes: "The poetics of cinema, a mixture of the basest material substances such as we tread every day, is resistant to symbolism", and it is really the connection and an experience that film brings from the screen to its audience, logical the sequence of events in film or not, at the end, it is either there or it is simply not, and everyone should look for a free form of interpretation that comes from within.

May 18, 2014 at 5:12PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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It is very interesting indeed. Altough Tarkovsky has been reluctant to say no simbolims exist in his movies, the process of the audience to create their own should be the matter of new philosophy and result as a vehicle to explore the infinite ways of cinema. Or maybe we should only experience his masterworks and then be quiet, and grow up as a human being just for the heck of it. Just to remember nature as it is. The microcosmos than we are against the universe. And then wait to grow up as humance race and confront the macrocosmos, and maybe, just maybe, there would be another Tarkovsky by then.

May 18, 2014 at 6:28PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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How does Manchild relate to this?

May 18, 2014 at 7:30PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Adam

Eh, "Andrey Rublev" is all about symbolism, showing a struggle of a painter in a brutal, medieval Russia vs. a modern artist's struggle against a rigid and oppressive Soviet regime.

May 19, 2014 at 1:28AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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DLD

"Sculpting in Time" is THE book to read if you want to know Tarkovsky's thoughts on the matter for sure. He talks a lot about the paradox of a cinematic image loaded with symbolic meaning in opposition to a "truthful" image i.e. Truth generates infinite meaning so why bother imposing your own symbolism onto a cinematic system when you could just observe "what is" etc.
This being said, anyone with a basic grasp of Jungian Archetypes could quite easily discover significant symbolism at work in Ivan's Childhood (the Mother and The Lake archetype, the star in the well) as well as all the Freudian somatic disturbances/dream sequences (dripping water). And that was his first film. Don't even ask me what Stalker is all about, I'll need at least another 20 years to figure that one out lol.

May 19, 2014 at 3:33PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Lupocide

To figure Tarkovsky out, one needs to know quite a bit about the Russian and the Soviet history. For example, just looking at the long opening take of "Stalker", I immediately hark back to the 1970's USSR, which did not let the outsiders in or the insiders out. And that's just for starters.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JYEfJhkPK7o

(in Russian with English subtitles)

May 19, 2014 at 11:10PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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DLD

Thank you V. Renée for posting a very interesting article on one of my favorites!

May 20, 2014 at 12:03AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Daniel

Tarkovski's films are inherent 'Russian' and the people of Mother Russia have very different understanding of his work than western person. Mirror would be very good example. Show this to western audience and the way it is viewing by audience will be very different than Russian audience 30 years ago. Tarkovski Russian orthodoxy cannot be separated from his films,also this is root in idea of 'Mystery'. Tarkovski would not want to water means it is symbol of such and such for this one of reasons being.

May 22, 2014 at 3:57PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Sergei

Andrei Tarkovsky's it's a character himself... but for me filmmaking first it's the image and storytelling.

For me film like THE CRANES ARE FLYING by Mikhail Katatozov's are much more interesting. My favorite film it's made by Sergei Paradjanov SHADOWS OF FORGETTEN ANCESTORS specially the first part of this film
the second part it's more darker in style but fit with the story.( you need to watch it you have shot i never see other place or film )The color of Pomegranates also from Sergei Paradjanov it's more a film about essay and experimental but it's important because it's show how he was developing it's creativity by exploring.

One film you must see it's not a Russian film it's KEOMA with the actor Franco Nero that it's an inspiring film.
For documentaries 2 great film too watch BARAKA and a more recent film PINA.

May 22, 2014 at 4:52PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Pierre Samuel Rioux

"We can express our feelings regarding the world around us either by poetic or by descriptive means. I prefer to express myself metaphorically. Let me stress: metaphorically, not symbolically. A symbol contains within itself a definite meaning, certain intellectual formula, while metaphor is an image. An image possessing the same distinguishing features as the world it represents. An image — as opposed to a symbol — is indefinite in meaning. One cannot speak of the infinite world by applying tools that are definite and finite. We can analyse the formula that constitutes a symbol, while metaphor is a being-within-itself, it's a monomial. It falls apart at any attempt of touching it" Andrei TArkovsky

July 13, 2014 at 4:55PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Vicky