Our look at the films of Andrei Tarkovsky start with his three student projects. The first is an adaptation of The Killers (Убийцы) in 1956, based on the short story by Ernest Hemingway, about two hit-men who are looking for their mark. He followed up that short in 1959 with the bigger budgeted There Will Be No Leave Today (Сегодня увольнения не будет), which follows a group of soldiers as they attempt to remove missiles buried underground that threaten a packed neighborhood. Finally, in 1960, he concluded his student career with The Steamroller and the Violin (Каток и скрипка), showing a little boy's day as he plays his music and he connects to the adult world through his construction worker friend.
The Killers (1956)
I'm coming into this short with a unique perspective since I've read the Hemingway original story and watched two different adaptations. Robert Siodmak's 1946 version is a decent noir and Don Siegel's take in 1964 is, at best, awkward due to some bad special effects. The appeal of the story is pretty easy to see, especially for budding filmmakers (even today you can see plenty of people cutting their teeth with the story on Youtube). But before it got the reputation it has today I also see why the story would hold such strong appeal for a young Russian filmmaker like Tarkovsky. Stalin's reign had just ended and the sight of people being plucked off the street without warning, never to return, had begun during that time and would still continue on.
Tarkovsky directed only two scenes of The Killers but those two scenes make up roughly 90% of the run time. Even this early on it's clear to see that Tarkovsky is very patient with his camera. I like that cuts between shots are pretty much nonexistent until the shopkeeper realizes what is going on and the hitmen's questions become more direct and aggressive. He also has a superb eye for layering his shots, as I especially loved the way that the second hitman's shadow lingers just to the side of the service window as the shopkeeper does his best to hurry customers out of his shop. One key point that I respect Tarkovsky for changing is that the death of the boxer is kept implied. Both the 1946 and 1964 versions show the killers earning their name, but it's more ominous to have the killers whispered away and the boxer left silently contemplating the people coming for him. For people who were victims of crimes unseen and, sometimes, undone it's a chilling reminder that people in power have a vested interest in common folk whether they realize it or not.
Tarkovsky's student films show a promising control of all the basics—pacing, story progression, the structure of a scene—but are more interesting for the sharp contrast in theme and tone between the first two (The Killers and There Will Be No Leave Today) and the final graduate project (The Steamroller and the Violin). The earlier efforts share a common concern with a sense of underlying dread. The Killers (also the strongest of the three), allows an indistinct sense of menace to emanate from the two titular characters as they enter a small diner and begin talking with the staff. By the time they make their intentions clear (to kill a man who eats there every night), the exact reason for their visit is almost a formality—the importance is the creeping sense that something bad and utterly unavoidable is about to happen.
There Will Be No Leave Today (1959)
Tarkovsky's second student film was a project larger in scope and budget. He worked on it with another director, Aleksandr Gordon, as an exercise proposed by their film school to go through the basics of filmmaking. In essence, they were asked to make a popcorn film that an average audience would find easy to follow and digest. On that mark the film is a rousing success since it was shown on Soviet Victory Day for years afterward. It's also a bit less interesting than The Killers for this reason, because some of the broader emotional nuances are hammered home a bit too hard.
So soon after the silence that permeated The Killers, the way that the soundtrack is utilized in There Will Be No Leave Today is distractingly over the top. I realize the threat of the unexploded missiles is great, but when the music cuts into dialogue afterward and making it difficult to hear then the intended arousing of my emotions gets squashed by trying to make sense of what's going on. There are also a couple of moments that were pretty clearly attempts at making a perfunctory stab at certain kinds of scenes, like when one soldier gets seen off by his supposed sweetheart and all the moment accomplishes is just that - exposition as exercise. But there were a few moments that got me tingling, like the silence followed by near-deafening scrapes of the small instruments against the missiles, or when one soldier defies orders by cutting a wire and things go deadly silent after "Are you deaf?" Sound, especially, is played with more during this film and gives a lot of interesting moments like those even when the scenes are dictated more as an exercise.
In There Will Be No Leave Today, the threat is more pronounced: a handful of missiles lurking literally underneath the surface of a town, some of which are still live. But even here we get a more existential dread creeping in, as the authorities arrange to dig up the live missiles with the rest of the townspeople moved safely away from the city. The second half is dominated by suspense over whether any of the missiles will detonate while they're being removed, and while this is the clunkiest of Tarkovsky's three student films (a more overbearing soundtrack and some rough editing), it's thematically in line with the first. In both films, a group of people are facing a threat stemming from the past actions of others.
This was the film that Tarkovsky made that granted him his degree. It's also the first one he made that wasn't based on a preexisting property or real incident. Also, it's probably not a coincidence that this is the first film of his that comes close to using the camera as a device that puts us in the mind of one of the characters. In this case, our perspective is most often that of a child who plays the violin, but in one important moments shifts to a construction worker.
I was floored with how many times Tarkovsky took his time to set up the tiniest of reveals that illuminated something different about life in the boy's neighborhood. The first act, especially, showed the world as this giant place and everyone seems like a threat. I loved when the boy is rushing out to his lesson and stops at the staircase because a tall kid is staring at him, only to run by and see that the kid is hobbling along on a cane. The moment that the boy is taking in the outside world, which may have inspired the ending scene of Mean Creek, overwhelmed with stimuli his world literally fractures into pieces and we look at the surroundings through his kaleidoscopic vision. What I love best about these moments is that our hand is not guided through to an exact emotional concluding point. The kaleidoscope scene is a bit scary at first until we come back to the boy's viewpoint and he's beaming with happiness at all the stimuli. Of the three it is the least concerned with grand gestures, either on the philosophical front like The Killers or the entertainment like There Will Be No Leave Today, but the simplicity works to its advantage. It reminds me of Harvey Pekar's old maxim that regular life can be pretty complex stuff, and this short doesn't shy away from that.
The Steamroller and the Violin is more subtle, implying that life is full of threats but none so severe or overwhelming as in the other films. The biggest danger faced by the young protagonist is some bullying from other kids in his neighborhood, and the focus isn't so much on the threat they pose as it is on his resilience through a child's innocence and naiveté. There are plenty of semi-transcendent moments, such as when he views the city around him refracted through multi-angled mirrors, or when he stops to observe a wrecking ball taking down an old building. The boy seems able to easily escape any momentary dangers of his young life by getting lost in his own sense of marvel at the world around him.
So...what kind of preconceptions do we bring to early films of prolific directors?
For the question of the week, this is what I came up with while watching these three short films. Tarkovsky is going to be an interesting case because I have so little experience of his work that I wasn't able to bring much to these films. Yet, I couldn't help but stop my brain when it started thinking things like, "Look at this slow move and patient sound editing, this is so totally Tarkovsky," when I have only watched one film of his. Yes, I know that he is known for his languid pacing, but I can't help but feel like my brain made up the part about his use of sound by doing a quick word association with other directors I'd describe as languid (David Lynch, in his own way, immediately came to my mind.
It seemed more fair to bring an expectation to our Kurosawa project where I had seen more than half of his films going in. Movies like Sanshiro Sugata proved at that point more of a road map that hit points I was expecting instead of illuminating a new facet of a director that I already loved. I think this approach did hurt my readings of some of Oliver Stone's earlier films, but I suppose it also doesn't help that I decided to go through his filmography almost out of spite because of how much I hated Savages.
I'm interested to get your comments here because I want to know if you had any success divorcing what your conception of Tarkovsky is while watching these early films. If I recall you had only seen one other film of his, but are two films of any director enough to really get a solid idea of what their "about"? Or is that too much for us to assume of any director? I think so, especially after seeing artistic growth from Uwe Boll, of all people, but also can think of examples of directors like Terrence Malick where any two films do stand in for the whole of his career. Regardless, I am going to do my best to excise any idea of what Tarkovsky "is" going this point forward because this is all going to be a new experience for me.
This is a great question based on how I watched these three short films. I had a feeling going in that they wouldn't resemble Solaris or Stalker, because someone would need tremendous ambition to try for those heights in a student film. But just like your thought that “this is so totally Tarkovsky,” I was instantly trying to find the “iconic” elements that we'd be able to track throughout. This may be partly due to the nature of these director projects, but in our auteur-obsessed culture I guess the push is to assume that there must always be some defining, overarching characteristic or concern.
It also may be a common preconception when looking for the first/almost-first time at famous directors to assume that every one of their movies must fit neatly into the set of traits they eventually become known for. In any case, I feel like The Steamroller and the Violin indicates what's to come more than the others, but I'd be happy to see more of The Killers.