As we begin a new year, it’s only natural to look back — not only at the year just ended, but those that came before it, reaching even to our earliest memories. How did we arrive at the present moment? How have we become our current selves?
Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that we begin this new year with a film steeped in memory, Andrei Tarkovsky’s masterwork Zerkalo [in English, The Mirror]. Part memoir, part dream, part meditation on love and time and the complications they bring to us, Zerkalo wrestles also with the failure of words to communicate the nuances of the human interior. There is no linear narrative to speak of, only the flickering memories of a man on his deathbed. Time itself flows back and forth through channels of association, culminating in a final sequence which brings all times into one, no before, no after, no end or beginning.
That being said, let’s start where the film does.
Words, Words, Words
We open on the image of an adolescent boy — the narrator’s son, Ignat — fussing with a TV set, trying to get reception. This cuts immediately to a black and white scene of a teenage boy afflicted with a severe stutter. He has come to see a hypnotist. She walks him through several stages of hypnotic induction, before transferring his mental tension — the cause of the stutter — into his hands, which become rigid. She then releases the tension from his hands, freeing him from the stutter forever. She commands him to say, “I can speak!” and he does so.We abruptly cut to the titles, white text on a black background.
Whether these two scenes are part of the same sequence — that is, whether the hypnotist and stutterer appear on Ignat’s uncooperative television or not — is immaterial [although certainly possible]. Thematically, these two shots are the perfect prologue for the film, suggesting the inadequacy of normal modes of communication. The television doesn’t work; neither does the young man’s voice. Yet something else is at work here. By placing the [presumably cured] stutterer’s declaration — “I can speak!” — immediately before the film’s title, Tarkovsky suggests that something has changed. The blockage has been cleared; communication has become possible. What has stood in the way is verbal language, with its insistence on linear storytelling. What has set it free is cinema, the moving image unfolding in time.
What frees the filmmaker’s tale, however, does nothing to free its inhabitants. Our narrator, Alexei, has recently become ill with what he believes to be strep throat. “I haven’t spoken for three days,” he tells his estranged mother, Maria, over the phone. “Being silent for a while is good.Words can’t really express a person’s emotions. They’re too inert.” He tries unsuccessfully to tell her of a dream he’s just had, and attempts to rebuild the bridge between them — “Why are we forever quarreling? Forgive me if I’m to blame.” She hangs up instead of answering him. Later, Alexei’s ex-wife Natalia blames their failed marriage on his inability to communicate.
The utter failure of words is brought out most starkly [and cruelly] in the first scene from Alexei’s childhood. Before the war, Maria would take her children to the country every summer [her husband has abandoned them]. A traveling doctor stops at their cabin to ask Maria for directions. He’s attracted to her; she rebuffs his advances, but as he turns back to the road, they share a long glance — has she changed her mind? Should he continue on his way, or linger here? At last, he turns and leaves.
In the next scene, Maria huddles in the corner of the cabin, watching her children play with a cat. She weeps, overcome with loneliness, while on the soundtrack a voice [Tarkovsky’s father Arseny, reading his own poem “First Dates” ] describes a union both heavenly and decidedly sensual:
When night fell, I was favored.
The altar gates were opened
And in the dark there gleamed
Your nudity, and I slowly bowed.
Awakening, “Be blessed,” I said
And knew my blessing to be bold
For you still slept.
The lilac on the table stretched forth
To touch your lids with heavenly blue
And your blue-tinted lids
Were calm, and your hand was warm.
Locked in crystal, rivers pulsed,
Mountains smoked, seas glimmered,
You held a sphere of crystal
In your hand and slept on a throne.
And — righteous Lord! — you were mine.
Is Maria remembering a love like the one in the poem, or is it the words themselves which run through her mind? Watching her face, I suspect the latter; as the images pile up like disheveled bedclothes, her tears flow more and more freely. Here the words are not merely inadequate, but actively malicious. The memory invades the present, tormenting her with its sweetness, with the promise of intimacy.
This scene brings up another key point about The Mirror. We’ve already seen that young Alexei is preoccupied at the table. The odds that he’d notice his mother crying in the corner strike me as slim. Likewise, in the earlier scene with the doctor, we clearly see Alexei and his sister asleep in a nearby hammock. Which begs the question, whose memory is this, anyway?
Dream, Memory and Time
The Mirror has often been noted for its blend of the personal memory [Alexei’s flashbacks] with the collective memory [archival footage of World War II and its aftermath in the USSR]. Still others have commented, as I have above, that some of the memories presented in the film do not appear to be Alexei’s at all, but Maria’s. This might seem the case with the two scenes mentioned above, which are unlikely to be Alexei’s experiences. However, a closer examination of the “Maria memories” suggests something more complicated.
Consider a third [the longest] of these sequences. Maria races through the rain to the printing office where she works, convinced that she missed a typo in the proofs she was looking over that day. Realizing she imagined the error, she laughs over it with her friend Liza. Out of nowhere, Liza begins berating her. “I’m amazed at your ex-husband’s patience. He should have bolted ages ago!” she says. “I swear you’ll make your children miserable.”
One might argue that this is Maria’s memory, following as it does on the heels of her phone call with Alexei [during which she tells him of Liza’s death]. Yet there is a major flaw in this interpretation. As in most of The Mirror’s memory sequences, Maria is here portrayed by Margarita Terekhova, who also plays Alexei’s ex-wife, Natalia. In the first scene in which Natalia appears, Alexei tells her, “When I recall my childhood and Mother, somehow she always has your face.”* It seems unlikely that this would be true in Maria’s own memories, however.
Perhaps, then, this is another of Alexei’s memories. Yet here again we find that the solution doesn’t satisfy. First of all, Alexei was not there to witness the events at the printing office. True, Maria might have told him the story later, but why would she have included Liza’s attack against her? Also, remember that this sequence follows the phone call scene. Significantly, when Maria mentions Liza, Alexei does not know who she is talking about. Clearly if she told him the story, he’s forgotten it.
I’m inclined to think that the printing office sequence isn’t a memory at all. During their phone call, Alexei tells his mother that he is ill, probably strep throat. By the end, we learn that his sickness is much more serious; he is, in fact, dying. The preceding film has been a window into his mind during these final days — in and out of consciousness, possibly even delirious. What begins as a memory, or as a story his mother might have told him, melts into a dream. In the process, the memory-mother with the ex-wife’s face fuses even further with the remembered ex-wife. Then Liza’s accusations take on a new meaning, directed not only at Maria for her failings as a wife and mother, but also at Natalia. These two women have shaped Alexei more than anyone or anything else in his life, yet his relationships with them have become strained. So his unconscious, longing to restore those connections, conflates them into a single being, by turns revered and despised.**
A similar conflation seems to occur between time periods. Alexei is already sick when he speaks with Maria on the telephone; later, the doctor says that Alexei has “waste[d] away in a few days.” Yet toward the film’s end, Natalia tells him that Maria “was ill for three days after Liza’s death.” This places this conversation with Natalia during his illness, which makes no sense. Like the printing office sequence, this scene appears to be part memory, part dream.***
Linear time dissolves completely in the film’s final sequence. The young Alexei and his baby sister walk hand-in-hand with their now ancient mother [this time played by Tarkovsky’s own mother] while the memory mother/ex-wife, apparently pregnant with Alexei, watches from across the field. She weeps, caught in a maelstrom of emotions. A second figure stands at the far end of the field; a close inspection suggests that this is yet another incarnation of the memory-mother [or perhaps the unblended ex-wife]. Surrounded by his memories and dreams, fully submerged in the Moebius strip of his unconscious, Alexei gives a ululating cry of childish glee before disappearing into the high grass with his mother and sister.And with that, we pull back into the encircling dark wood, and fade out.
Zerkalo/The Mirror is not an easy film to explain. Choosing to follow the logical flow of dreams instead of a linear plot, Tarkovsky crafts a beautiful meditation on time and memory, on the struggle to know others and to make ourselves known. Small wonder it is often held up as one of his finest films. There’s so much more we could unpack here, so much to discover about the possibilities of cinema. But time still moves in linear fashion in my little corner of existence, and the hour groweth late. So, until next week,
Keep on truckin’…
On deck: A tale of revenge, told in reverse…
* This duality [and the use of the same actor to play the adolescent Alexei and his son, Ignat] speaks eloquently to the way memory works: we recall our past in light of all that we have experienced since, from the vantage point of our present selves. In this way, each memory evolves alongside the rememberer, its meaning and details changing with the mind in which it resides.
**This realization brought to mind Wallace Stegner’s Angle Of Repose, near the end of which the narrator admits that his characterization of his female protagonist has been shaped by his own bitterness toward the women in his life.
***Also, like the printing office sequence, this conversation is filmed in black and white, as are the more obvious dream sequences. This would seem to further support the above analysis.