Contained In Captivity: On Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Mirror” (Zerkalo)

A still shot from Andrei Tarkovsky's "Mirror" (Zerkalo) (1975)

I open this essay unsure how to approach it—I’ve seen Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1975 film Mirror about a dozen times, and each viewing is different. Each is a separate experience and yields something new. I find myself mentally revisiting certain scenes over others, but then in rewatching, my mind will rearrange into whatever I am feeling at the time. Perhaps, then, this is the best way to interpret this memorable film about memory, where it captures just how the mind drifts between past and present and often interchanges people’s faces with that of one’s dream. Reality and dream—is there a difference? To Tarkovsky, they are one and the same, as the director admitted that he often utilized his own dreams as an inspirational source for his films. And his films really are the closest one could get into being inside another’s dream. Decades pass in moments and then the past returns and then some occurrence in present day alters the viewers—we come to remember another’s memory and so on.

The film begins with a television screen—this gateway into fantasy—where the viewer, presumably the speaker (named Alexei), is witnessing on film a young man with a stutter—he is undergoing treatment at the hand of a nurse, and the film, which involves so much of the mind, begins with the body. ‘Your hands are tense,’ she says. ‘Lean back,’ she instructs, continually coaching his physical form. Then, in some hypnotic attempt, the young man is cured of his stutter, wherein we are then transported to another form of ‘hypnosis’— that is, of Andrei Tarkovsky’s dream. All this occurs before the title credits roll.

Margarita Terekhova is the actress who plays both Alexei’s mother as well as his ex-wife, Natalia. ‘I always thought you resembled my mother,’ he tells her. ‘When I imagine my mother, she always has your face.’ This is an insightful move on Tarkovsky’s part, as how often have we thought of someone only to imbue another’s face from memory onto them? That the scenes move back and forth between Alexei as a boy in 1935 pre-war to that of present day, only adds to this element of passage. Life and time are interchangeable. Our minds are just the onlookers, the photographers left to interpret what we’ve witnessed.

Scenes within Mirror are both haunting and stark—the wetness of his mother’s hair, who resembles a ghost while washing herself—to levitating above the bed in one of the most iconic scenes, to bits of wet, white ceiling crumbling from above. The film does not move in any linear pattern and nor is it expected to. Rather, we are given a series of images and vignettes that play upon one another. In one scene a character is mentioned, only to then have the film switch and we witness just what Alexei was thinking. He speaks of having had feelings for a young red-haired girl with chapped lips, and then seconds later we see this red-haired girl with bloody lips standing amid the cold. Climate plays a significant role in this film, in that it is either snow-packed cold or a barn is burning amid the rainy, gray sky. (What a beautiful scene this is.)

Watching Mirror is akin to moving through water, and the poems utilized by Andrei Tarkovsky’s father are akin to a looking glass. They work well with the imagery presented before us. As the film opens, we see the mother sitting on a wooden fence, whilst a strange man approaches. She feels his presence is invading, both in his physicality and in his questions. ‘Do you live here? On the fence?’ he asks. When he goes to sit with her, the fence breaks and he erupts into laughter. ‘Why are you so sad?’ he asks. ‘Why are you so happy?’ she replies. The man laments about the stability of plants—in so many words—they are ever still and we continue to move, he says. Then, in either a moment of great cinematography or luck, the green field moves in one wave along with the wind. Also, when his mother bathes, her long hair very much resembles the reeds one sees in streams or the branches from trees. Tarkovsky is not accidental with his imagery. He planned this meticulously.

The barn burning in the rain—the nostalgia, the melancholy, all the while beside the effervescent green glow—all are well within the mind, as I continually find myself returning. ‘Do you remember when the barn burned?’ Alexei is asked of his mother over the phone, when older. He is undergoing a case of strep throat. ‘That was in 1935, before the war,’ she says. He later tells his mother that he had a dream about the barn. ‘I was still a child, then,’ he says, with regards to the dream. And Alexei as the speaker—we don’t see. Only his voice enters, but this too adds to the element of dream. (Do we ever see ourselves when we dream? Or is it more like we are a voice pointing outward?) That Andrei Tarkovsky chose this tactic is not coincidence.

Mirror comes across not just as an allegory of dream, but a somewhat love-letter to Tarkovsky’s mother (or Alexei’s mother for that matter). As example, he holds a Romantic view of her even as she slaughters a chicken. She seems to represent his feelings of nostalgia, so much so that his ex-wife resembles her. (She is played by the same actress.)

Small birds continually reappear throughout the film—they get caught by someone’s palm, only to then get released moments later. I imagine these birds symbolizing our very memories. They appear, momentarily, wherein we grasp for them only to then escape. To hold on for too long would be not only cruel but also detrimental. Have I even explained much of the film? Are you, reader, left wondering just what is this film about? I’ve not bothered to detail a plot and nor should I, as memory does not work in that way. It is implied that the speaker is perhaps dying—or at least he is ill and now is revisiting these moments from his past. Although plausible, I find this explanation rather simple, as he could just be reflecting at his own wish. There does not necessarily need to be a reason.

Memory and dream—they are different but can so often be interchangeable. What does one call the memory of one’s dream? Or if one dreams of a memory? There are moments where poets stand together. Contained in captivity, as we move towards nightmare. Mirror is an experience. It is a dream. It is a memory. It will imprint itself upon you. ‘Learn to love solitude,’ Tarkovsky said, while seated in a tree amongst the surrounding green.

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Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror (1975). Mosfilm/USSR.

If you enjoyed this piece, check out the automachination YouTube channel and the ArtiFact Podcast. Recent episodes include a dissection of Steven Pinker’s pollyanna philosophy, an in-depth look at Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Cat’s Cradle’, and a broad discussion of aesthetics between painter Ethan Pinch and writer Alex Sheremet.

More work from Jessica Schneider: Choosing Wisely: A Case for Gwendolyn Brooks, The Grit and Dirt of Carl Sandburg