Theorists and filmgoers alike need to move on from Tarkovsky and the Dream Cinema and accept Zvyagintsev as a true master of Social Realism. While the former was a Soviet master of creating the uncreatable in what many see as the golden age of Russian cinema, Zvyagintsev’s creates dialogue and discussion of what we need to have in society to move our field forward. Vague camera shots and colours should not be enough to compare two starkly different directors.
If you mention Russian cinema to anyone who has even a brief passing knowledge of it, one name will always be brought up – Andrei Tarkovsky. His films are moving portraits of life and an escape into a dream-like reality through Russia’s history and dystopian futures, family settings and into the Cosmos. There is no denying that he is one of the most influential filmmakers (if not THE most) from Russia in both the past and the present. However, on the fringes of his legacy, another Andrei has been encroaching – Zvyagintsev. From his seminal debut The Return where an estranged father who suddenly reappears in two young children’s lives, to his harrowing and more recent work Loveless about divorcing parents and a lost child, Zvyagintsev has cemented his legacy as Russia’s most important contemporary filmmaker. Yet he seems unable to stride his own path, always compared to Tarkovsky for the vaguest similarities, such as the unbroken camera shots and the way in which his colours are somewhat similarly muted. For us to truly begin to appreciate his films, we must begin to separate the two Andreis and allow both to occupy their own genres fully and completely.
Perhaps my favourite shot in any Tarkovsky film is what we can term the “wind dream” sequence from the 1979 classic Stalker. The shot begins with the stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky) lying down in a pool of water while a girl whispers lines of poetry. We see the camera pass over a syringe, a mirror, an icon painting and finally back to rest on the Stalker’s hand. It is a beautiful, steady shot that has little to no direct meaning; it is fully open to our interpretations. The sepia tinged colour indicates it is neither in the real world, the black and white bar which we first meet our protagonists, or the dimmed colour land of The Zone. It is, in short, an enigma. Shots and images like these are common in Tarkovsky’s work (think of the unbroken shot in Mirror where the young boy walks into a bedroom surrounded by flowing white dresses) and are a hallmark of his style. This bears almost no similarity with Zvyagintsev’s work.
Zvyagintsev in his latest film Loveless explores a gritty, dirty relationship with two warring parents and their almost callous disregard for their young son. The film’s main thematic concerns are that of affairs, bureaucracy, social media and morality, a truly haunting experience that never lets up. It has been described as a portrait of Russian society, as anti-Putin, and even got the director semi-exiled from Russia. The film starkly portrays modern Moscow’s muted streets with unrelenting clarity – there is no room for dream-sequences here. Zvyaganistev makes his points clearly; Russia, and indeed the world, is becoming an uncaring, distracted and humanity-isolated place to live.
The thematic differences alone in Zvyagintsev’s style should be enough for anyone to separate the two filmmakers from one another. However, because both use long continuous camera shots and vaguely explore our humanity, we continually push them together. We should begin to separate Russia’s past glory – Tarkovsky’s dreamscapes – and the future of Zvyagintsev’s political theatre. More akin to that of the British realists Mike Leigh or Ken Loach, Zvyagintsev portrays the bleakness, fears and concerns of our society in a personable and relatable way. Think of Leigh’s crowning glory Naked and relate it to any of Zvyagintsev’s works, and we could draw many comparisons. But these comparisons never come because of the unrelenting shadow of Tarkovsky’s fame. Zvyaganistev’s camera offers us an unbroken, blunt view on our own society which we can be appalled and disgusted at, and hopefully even begin to change. Tarkovsky makes us question our morals, our deepest thoughts, and even our souls. The directors are both incredible, but they are not the same, and it is time we began to discuss Zvyagintsev with the individual respect he has both earned and deserves.
Camera shots should not be enough to compare two starkly different directors. I propose that us as cinemagoers and theorists alike should wrench these two directors apart and appreciate them for what they are: the past and the future. Tarkovsky was a Soviet master of creating the uncreatable, of sculpting in time, in what many see as the golden age of Russian cinema; Zvyagintsev is the spark for the dialogue and discussion we need to have in society to move our field forward. Let us begin to appreciate the two Andreis not as complimentary but as competition, and appreciate the stark, individual genius of both.
Felix Adamson is a filmmaker, photographer and sound designer based in Glasgow, Scotland. After graduating Edinburgh Napier, he decided to specialise in Soviet Film and Theory, as well as contemporary Russian and Eastern European Film. He currently studies CEEES at the University of Glasgow.