Among the Tarkovsky Fanatics at an Underground Retrospective in Berlin

Since 1985, a literally underground movie theater has hosted an annual summer retrospective of the legendary Soviet auteur's time-bending films.

Ben Mauk

Ben Mauk

Still from 'Stalker' (1979) by Andrei Tarkovsky

For the past 30 years, an underground movie theater in Berlin has hosted an annual summer retrospective of all seven of the feature-length films of Soviet auteur Andrei Tarkovsky. By underground I mean that the theater, Arsenal, is literally subterranean. You descend via the glass elevator outside the Billy Wilder restaurant, and the doors slide open to reveal a narrow basement room with a glass-ceilinged view that reconciles itself, after a vertiginous second or two, as Potsdamer Platz's garishly psychedelic circus tent.

In this bizarre space—beneath what was once a barren, bombed-out stretch of Berlin Wall and is now a triumphant carnival of market capitalism—we enter into a tunnel of time. Tarkovsky time. You can't talk about Tarkovsky without harping on time. (For one thing, there's the title of his book-length manifesto, Sculpting in Time, along with the documentary about the making of Nostalgia, Voyage in Time—and even his diaries, published with what I can only assume were no feelings of superfluity as Time Within Time.) One goes to some movies—Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, say—to waste time, others to experience the quiddity of time itself. A Tarkovsky film slows your pulse and maybe even Earth's orbit, as your senses readjust to their new powers of receptivity.

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So it goes with Arsenal's Tarkovsky retrospective, which receives minimal advertising and as far as I know doesn't even have a special name, and which is nevertheless a time-bending tradition of its own, especially for Berlin, a city that sometimes seems allergic to its own past. Berlin looks forward, the thinking goes, always in the process of becoming, never of being or reflecting. Yet the retrospective is perennially popular. "Tarkovsky's back at Arsenal—it must be August," Berliners are known to quip (or so I'm told). International filmgoers book their flights as soon as the schedule is released, some in order to see the same set of films they saw last year. Judging from my seatmates at several screenings, the appeal crosses generational as well as national divides. The people want Tarkovsky, they want him on celluloid, and they want him whole: the complete and unabridged oeuvre.

To a non-novitiate, such devotion year after year might seem a bit surprising. After all, Tarkovsky is famous for his long and not exactly toe-tapping stories of Dostoevskian spiritual crises. But he has a special history in the German capital owing to the Arsenal Institute for Film and Video Art—formerly Friends of the German Film Archive—a cinema and distributor founded in 1970 and relocated to Potsdamer Platz in the 2000s. It was as a distributor that their relationship with Tarkovsky began, as members secreted a copy of Stalker into the West to screen at the 1981 Berlinale.

"At the time it was very difficult to get the prints of Tarkovsky out of the Soviet Union, and there was huge interest in them," Milena Gregor, one of Arsenal's artistic directors, told me.

In East Berlin, too, Tarkovsky was a favorite of intellectuals. Science fiction was popular throughout the GDR, and Tarkovsky's exploits in the genre were unlike anything then available. Not only was the Soviet filmmaker delivering masterpiece after undeniable masterpiece, but to anyone with a liberal-arts education, his films were filled with coded doubts about the competency of the Communist state—doubts shared by many viewers. The mother of a friend of mine who moved from the country of Georgia to Prenzlauer Berg in the 1980s recalled that she followed Tarkovsky's Eastern Bloc output religiously. It was her expression of dissent.

In 1985, a year before his death, Tarkovsky came to West Berlin on a prestigious DAAD arts fellowship and presided over screenings of his work; so began the retrospective, Gregor said. The 1987 program was already describing the event as Arsenal's "traditional summer festival."

Now it's August again, and if you're in Berlin there's still time to catch a few final screenings. When I first moved here a year ago, I'd just missed the retrospective entirely, and had to endure endless (you might say Tarkovskian) conversations about its singular excellence, or its excellent singularity, with other cineastes at the strange Hollywood-themed watering hole I lived across from, unimaginatively named Filmbar. "You have to go," a young bartender and film student pleaded with me. "It's one of a kind."

For a certain type of sensitive melancholic, Tarkovsky's movies are infectious. You see one and have to track down them all, a true cinephilic quest in the decades before DVDs, Netflix, and Karagarga, the obscurantist torrent site where I downloaded my way through his body of work in grad school. In 2015, however, everything from his student films to his final feature is available for free on the website Open Culture.

Still, there's nothing like the big screen, and nothing like warm, fuzzy-edged film stock, accompanied by the sprocket hum of the filmstrip's perforated Chiclet gutters. Arsenal keeps their own Tarkovsky prints in the vaults ("They've had a long run, but the quality is no longer good," Grego said), but they have sourced other reels from around Europe for the annual showings. Even these are scratched and unstable. With every screening, they disintegrate a little more. One day they'll be gone, leaving only Criterion DVDs and the original negatives locked in their Moscow vault.

At Arsenal I was most excited to see Ivan's Childhood, Tarkovsky's first full-length feature and a breakthrough 1961 war film. Its realism and brutality know none of the limits propagated in Hollywood in those days by Hays Code propriety, and in later years by the self-censorious sensibilities of Steven Spielberg and company. The story of a war orphan on Hitler's eastern front, Ivan's Childhood depicts not only random, useless acts of wartime violence but also the general miasma of violence—its mental anguish, its sour boredom—that war less spectacularly engenders. The film prefigures by almost two decades the vocabulary of Vietnam-era war films that has long since passed into self-parody (Tropic Thunder, Animaniacs cartoons). Flares expire in weak parabolas over a bleak and devastated landscape; soldiers mope around, play records, and force themselves on women. The plot gyres; characters die off-screen without ceremony. In the final act, an inscrutable mission demands a midnight raid through waist-deep bog, past ruined tree stumps and the flash of falling shells. Only Kurtz's "the horror, the horror" is missing.

Tarkovsky's next film, Andrei Rublev, the story of Russia's greatest icon painter, stretches on for more than three hours of 15th-century action. Yet it managed to establish the director as the Soviet Union's foremost filmmaker—and a favorite at Cannes—even though the film was initially banned in his home country for its sympathetic depiction of Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

Solaris is Tarkovsky's most famous film—particularly now, thanks to the Soderbergh update—and it was by far the most crowded screening I attended at the festival. Adapting a Stanislaw Lem novel, Tarkovsky found himself filming inside a gritty, disused space station set that looked like something out of Star Wars, and as a result the film, which is often billed as "the Soviet response to 2001," was the director's least favorite. But the power of its central narrative of memory and desire (featuring a dead wife's eternal and uncanny return to her husband) is undiminished, even if the sets have aged. At the end of the screening, I noticed an old woman in the theater wearing an exact copy of the wife's iconic shawl.

With the autobiographical Mirror, Tarkovsky leaped into new cinematic space-time, leaving many fans behind. In Sculpting in Time he recalls the incensed letters he received from filmgoers after its release, and quotes from them liberally: "Half an hour ago I came out of Mirror. Well!!... Comrade director! Have you seen it? I think there's something unhealthy about it..." Mirror is a montage-like assemblage of moments from the director's childhood, interspersed with scenes of adult life and his father's poetry—all of it astonishing. Not a single frame is out of place. It's one of those films for which you thank the Soviet powers that be for its creation, a film whose commercial prospects were nonexistent, a film—according to conventional wisdom—Hollywood could never have produced.

Mirror's follow-up, Stalker, is if anything less accessible, although it's a great brooding road movie of the soul, The Wizard of Oz as written by Samuel Beckett and filtered through woozy Kodachrome. The plot, however, is thin: In a distant country, a meteorite has created a forbidden area of uncertain dangers, the innermost sanctum of which zone is reported to grant any visitors their deepest desires. Three men go to visit. Yet within this undercooked premise the film manages to produce moments of purest cinematic wonder.

All of Tarkovsky's films—excepting the last two, Nostalgia and particularly The Sacrifice, which even I have to admit muddles through a lot of forgettable spiritual pabulum before its conflagration of a finale—are basically free of cliché or convention. Each proceeds as though it were the very first work in a newfound genre, a celluloid Upanishad or Pilgrim's Progress. Watching all of them over a period of a month proved to be a pretty grueling experience, not because the films aren't brilliant and world-blossoming, but precisely because they are, and because they test your deadened heuristics of sensibility so exhaustively. And they resist the sort of sense-making a quickie review like this ought to provide. If Tarkovsky does lean on any stylistic tic or predilection, it is probably the long and virtuosic single-shot scenes at the very ends of his last five films— Solaris, Mirror, Stalker, Nostalgia, and The Sacrifice—all of which present some irreducible image to simultaneously fill the mind with beauty and empty it of whatever interpretive gloss you may have hoped to leave the theater with. After each screening I reemerged into the throngs of tourists at Potsdamer Platz without much to show for my effort, only the memory of time spent in various zones of exclusion from the familiar and banal.

For information on the Tarkovsky Retrospective at Arsenal in Berlin, click here.

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