The measured unrolling of a Tarkovsky retrospective in arthouse cinemas has been one of the pleasures of this summer, at least in the UK, and no film has been more welcome to watch in a darkened chamber on a large screen, with an appreciative audience creating a rapt mood, than Mirror.
Tarkovsky strikingly said that he knew this private, sometimes baffling film – to the reason, if not to the eye – would strike a deep chord in a Russian audience. So it proved. This intersection of the intimate life of a family with public Soviet history (the episode at the publishing house in the 1930s, the Spanish Civil War, crossing Lake Sivash during WW2, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, clashes on the Soviet-China border at Damansky Island in 1969 etc.) is a way many of us experience great events: where were you when Kennedy was shot, when the Berlin Wall was breached, when the Charlie Hebdo offices were attacked, when the UK voted Brexit? But as important is the film’s re-creation of the Tarkovsky dacha, this plot of memory-freighted space, this bit of bourgeois property-enjoying, this summer refuge from winter misery. This element is instantly appealing to anyone who has had a family holiday cottage or a regular family holiday destination, the pleasure of first acquaintance being reinforced by subsequent encounters and renewal of the magic. I feel it especially acutely at the moment because I am editing (digitally) my 8mm film diaries from the late 60s and 70s in which Scottish holidays regularly feature.
What baffled me when I first saw the film was a failure to unravel the relationship between the different generations of the family; I learnt on subsequent viewings that Maria is mother, wife and grandmother, that the narrator is looking back to childhood before the war and boyhood during it, and then as father of a boy. Get some sort of a handle on this and you can open a door to the time layers in the film. It is all beautifully explained in Natasha Synessios’s study of Mirror (IB Tauris 2001) which also includes photographs by Lev Gornung of the Tarkovsky family at their dacha in the 1930s. Even when ropily printed, you can see what evocative photographs they are, the potency of which the making of the film has doubled.
Gornung’s photo of T’s mother, Maria, in 1932 (above)