Seeing was believing

Film 1 - Bryan Appleyardon the screenplays of the great Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky

The paradox of oppression is that it strengthens that which it most desires to eradicate. So, in their stupidity, philistine bureaucracies ennoble and sanctify the artist.

"Every act of creation," writes Natasha Synessios in a new collection of Andrei Tarkovsky's screenplays, "acquires a remarkable gravity and relevance for those on the receiving end; it becomes an anchor and a beacon."

In the Soviet Union in the 1970s Tarkovsky was a saint of the cinema. "His viewers' exultant, grateful letters," writes Synessios, "affirmed the potency of, and need for, his vision and its healing capacities."

Encouraged by such an audience and driven by his mother's need for her son to become the artist she could never be, Tarkovsky saw himself as a prophet and genius, a sculptor in time and light of transcendent visions in the closing years - though he could not know this - of the most murderous political system ever created by man. Then he came to the west.

"Many found him arrogant and were baffled or bemused by his talk of spirituality and absolute truth, by his view of his work as a calling and an act of sacrifice rather than as a career, and by his pronouncements on the function of art."

The prophet became a primitive, an unsophisticated innocent. His vast artistic ambitions embarrassed our postmodern salons. Tarkovsky died in exile in Paris in December 1986. He never saw the undignified demise of the beast in whose belly his art had been nurtured; neither did he experience the dawning realisation in the west that he was indeed what both he and his Russian fans thought he was - a genius of the first order, one of the greatest of all film-makers and arguably the finest religious artist of the 20th century.

I have not seen all of Tarkovsky's films. I'm not sure I could. All those I have seen reduced me to tears and babbling. When the icon painter Andrei Rublev rediscovered his faith at the sight of the untutored boy casting a perfect bell, when the camera panned through the birch wood in Mirror or when the branches of the dead cherry tree blossomed with the sunlight on the sea in The Sacrifice, I knew I was in the presence of an imaginative seriousness that I and my contemporaries had all but lost. This was art where it was meant to be - at the outermost edge of the knowable.

Tarkovsky got there in a typically Russian way. Like Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, he was concerned only with the most fundamental questions and, like Nabokov, he was obsessed with the deep, magical substructures of his art. He was a cinematic purist - "The image . . . was, for him, the supreme embodiment of the absolute and the boundless." He fought against the idea of cinema as filmed literature, and the "literary script", required by the bureaucrats, was required to die if a real film was to emerge.

It is this, above all, that makes his films so hard to understand on the printed page. So, for example, the opening shot of Stalker is written as "A dirty flat, full of junk. Night." What is this when set against the lurid lighting and the slow pan across the sleeping family that, in fact, opens the film? And the last shot of Solaris - a great film that, sadly, Tarkovsky seems to have regarded as his failure - is written as "Among the waves of the ocean of [the planet] Solaris, there is a small island with Chris's house, and the lake nearby. Theme music ends. Fade out." I seem to remember making a complete fool of myself in the cinema when I first saw that one.

And yet the great consolation of these scripts is that, throughout, one catches fleeting shadows of that distinctive Tarkovskian texture that sprang so naturally from the Russian soil and her ruined landscape. "Waterweeds sway in the current and a yellow leaf drifts past." "From the ceiling fell cascades of something like light blue smoke." "They stand in front of the rectangular mouth of the corridor; it is blackened with smoke, and underfoot are black, charred ashes."

Nabokov would have known why that leaf had to be yellow or that smoke blue. He always said that works of art must be apprehended in their smallest details before any generalisations could be made. The generalisations, left to themselves, may seem banal, but realised through the detail, they become the stuff of art.

But what, risking banality, are Tarkovsky's generalisations? That to be human is to be confronted, at every turn, by the impossibility and necessity of knowledge. That magic is as real as flesh and blood - the daughter at the end of Stalker is revealed as psychokinetic. That we are simultaneously ensnared and liberated by our lives - see the cosmonaut Chris on his island in Solaris. If this is simplicity, then it is also greatness; it is, as Eliot said of Blake, the kind of simplicity against which the world rebels.

Fired by the urgency of his understanding, Tarkovsky tends towards myth and abstraction. The characters in Stalker are known only as Stalker, Writer and Professor, the epic of Andrei Rublev resolves into a fable and the zoom-out at the end of Solaris turns Chris into Everyman. It is this that embarrassed the west. In our decadent, technocratic literal-mindedness, we have come to believe that the world is what we are told it is rather than what it has always appeared to be - a fabric of myth and abstraction. No wonder we were, at first, puzzled. This was a paradoxically premodern vision of modernity.

Tarkovsky saw the world as continuously and urgently of human significance. He was not corrupted by the supposed "insight" of science that we are nothing to the world and it is nothing to us. Somehow, when he filmed waterweeds or smoke, he made his camera communicate this urgency. He could not film something without making it his own and, therefore, everybody's.

Perhaps such intensity can be born only of oppression and, with the passage of time and the increase of affluence, these works will come to seem incomprehensible. But I don't think so. We will always weep and babble when faced with the truth; we will always need Tarkovsky.

"Andrei Tarkovsky: collected screenplays", translated by William Powell and Natasha Synessios, is published by Faber & Faber at £17.99. The screenplay of "Andrei Rublev" is published in a separate volume

Bryan Appleyard is a writer on the "Sunday Times"

This article first appeared in the 23 August 1999 issue of the New Statesman, No Jews on their golf courses