Before he became the most internationally renowned Russian director since the silent era, Andrei Tarkovsky was just one more student at VGIK (Vserossijskij Gosudarstvennyj Institut Kinematografii, or the All-Union State Institute of Film), the film school of the Soviet Union that produced nearly all of the country’s significant filmmakers for generations. Here, he directed or co-directed three projects. We consider these today
The first scrap of extant film we have directed by Tarkovsky is historically significant for another reason as well: it’s the first approved VGIK project ever to be based on a work of foreign literature. The first Russian-language collection of Ernest Hemingway stories had just been published in the Soviet Union, and Tarkovsky took it upon himself to beseech the school administration to permit him and his classmates to adapt 1927’s “The Killers”, a little snip of a tale in which two strange men show up at a diner looking for the man they’ve been hired to kill. One of the diner employees, recurring Hemingway character Nick Adams, tells the potential victim, and is confused to find that he has no interest in running, or doing much else.
It’s a tiny little anecdote shot through with weary existential melancholy, a perfect fit for a 19-minute student film (or to serve as the opening to a Hollywood feature, as had happened in 1946). The Killers, in the hands of Beiku, Gordon, and Tarkovsky, is very obviously little more than an exercise, though it’s an exercise that would make any film school teacher very proud – as indeed it did, winning much praise from the director Mikhail Romm, whose class the film had been made for. Story-wise, all the young filmmakers did was to stay out of Hemingway’s way, using his dialogue verbatim (or as close to verbatim as I can tell from watching a subtitled Russian version of a story I’ve only read in English) and focusing instead on things like staging, composition, and pacing. The cast, made up of film students (Gordon and Tarkovsky both appear onscreen, the latter whistling an American jazz tune that apparently had vaguely anti-authoritarian connotations at that time), is sort of adorably ill-equipped to handle the material: Gordon himself, appearing as the diner’s owner George, is the only person who looks weathered enough to convince us that he’s an adult at all.
But that’s not the exercise. The exercise is in executing scenes, and this the filmmakers do with perfect success. Tarkovsky is known to be responsible for the majority of the footage, in the form of the very long opening scene in the diner, and it would be claiming too much to say that you can see the future genius hiding inside of this material. It’s perfectly good, but not anything more. The most interesting thing about it is how very slow he’s willing to let the scene play out, in wide shots with no movement nor cutting. Given how much of the director’s future career would involve glacially-slow movies perfectly designed to test the viewer’s patience, it amuses me a great deal that he’d already be playing around with that. In this case, though, it’s not slow cinema for its own sake, but to set us up for the flurry of panic that happens when the diner employees are tied up by the killers, and several expressionistic angles are thrown in to give us a sense of their helplessness and confusion. It’s smart filmmaking, but not in any particular way original or innovative. It proves that Tarkovsky knows how to set up a camera to capture people moving in depth, and to trust his images without throwing a lot of razzle-dazzle at the viewer (though there is some razzle-dazzle), and this is an important thing to have proved. But if one-third of the team hadn’t gone on to become a pantheon-level director, there’s no way we’d be looking back on this one half a century later.
Tarkovsky and Gordon came to be promising students on the back of The Killers, and the first big test of that promise was this television propaganda film for the 14th anniversary of the German surrender on 9 May 1945. The goal here was to prove that the two were capable of making something straightforward and direct, a popularly accessible film for mass consumption on a patriotic holiday.
Given that excessively uninspiring prompt, I suppose it’s no surprise that they succeeded, though film students throughout history have fucked up easier assignments. Certainly, keeping things in the air and moving at a steady clip for 45 minutes couldn’t have been entirely mindless, particularly given that the directive to make this broadly enjoyable meant that they couldn’t rely on the slow, long takes that had fueled The Killers. Doubly so, given that There Will Be No Leave Today is a thriller, one that’s looking to be pretty breathtaking and intense for it’s entire length
The story was based on a real incident, how closely I don’t know. In Gordon and Tarkovsky’s hands, it becomes a tightly-plotted procedural: land is being torn up to dig a trench, and the man operating the crane digging a hole in the earth happens to notice that, with one more sweep, he’ll be knocking into some shells that were buried on this exact spot, 15 years ago. The tension starts immediately, as he calls the bureaucrat (Pytor Lyubeshkin) who’s in charge of this project, but the bureaucrat is busy dealing with an irritating whiner, complaining that his own project has been disrupted by the trench-building, and he keeps ignoring the phone call. Will he pick it up in time to… approve a temporary shut-down of the project that’s already shut down, I guess? And herein is the problem: the directors are so eager to prove that they can ratchet up the tension and sustain it for an entire (short) film that they fail to judiciously consider whether the tension needs to be this intense, this quickly. It’s the most student film-ey gambit in this student film: once you find something that works, you just go and go and go and go for it, and to hell with any restraint. It’s like a chef who drowns everything in truffle oil, or a composer who won’t let up on the French horns.
Speaking of music: There Will Be No Leave Today is absolutely shameless in how much it allows the score, by Yuri Matskevich, to plow forward and build tension. It’s the most hammy and indiscriminate part of the film, enough so that it routinely overwhelms the more graceful tension of the close-ups and high angles that the filmmakers use to build tension visually.
Still, for all that, it works. It works like a cudgel, mechanically effective without artistry, but even with the music threatening to tip the whole thing all the way over into camp, I found myself suitably carried away by the energy, the way the bright lighting seems to intensify the characters’ stress, and the great use of offscreen space at the climax, when all that tension finally culminates in an explosion. That this is a student film is clear, bleeding through some of the talky dialogue and flat performances, and there’s at least one cinematography error that has been left in the movie (a tilt that anticipates a character standing up by too much). It’s an exercise in making something that’s easy to watch and exciting, and it feels like that every bit. But I still hope they got top marks – it’s a successful exercise, after all.
Tarkovsky’s thesis project, finished when he was 29 years old, is the work of a confident, mature filmmaker. It is not necessarily the work of the confident, mature filmmaker who would go on to make the seven feature films of Tarkovsky’s canon, mind you, though it’s not completely crazy that he’d go directly to Ivan’s Childhood from this (it’s not likely to be a coincidence that both films were co-written with Andrei Konchalovsky, whose collaboration with Tarkovsky ended after Andrei Rublev – which, to be fair, is a completely crazy place to go after this and Ivan). This, too, is a film about a childhood, or at least one day of a childhood. It’s a story about Sasha (Igor Fomchenko), a young boy taking violin lessons to appease his parents, and who finds the experience with his strict teacher suffocates his creativity rather than nurturing it. On this particular day, he’s made a new adult friend: Sergei (Vladimir Zamansky), the operator of a steamroller, who helps scare off a pack of bullies. Later on, the two take a walk around Moscow, while Sergei shares stories of his time in the war, while allowing Sasha to poke around with the steamroller.
It’s a quiet little thing, devoid of any particular conflict or narrative drive; this was by design. Tarkovsky wanted to show that he could make a pure mood pieces, looking to capture the feel of a day mucking around Moscow, and The Steamroller and the Violin is quite successful at this. Tarkovsky and cinematographer Vadim Yusov (who would go on to shoot the director’s first three features) use the grungy, grainy color film stock available to give the film a slightly warm quality that pulls it slightly but decisively out of the realm of realism, and in certain key moments – such as the sudden appearance of a great cathedral-like monument of Stalinist architecture behind a collapsing wall, gleaming with sun in a heroic shot that is probably the single most pro-Soviet image in Tarkovsky’s entire filmography – it feels very much like a children’s storybook. At other points, Tarkovsky and Yusov set Fomchenko and Zamansky in compositions that make the buildings and alleys of the city turn into a graphic pattern of lines and shadows, or use reflecting surfaces to split it into fragments of reality, folding in on itself, and in these moments, we see our best hint of the filmmaker to come, as he turns realistic spaces into a frame for the characters’ emotions. There’s a sense in which Sasha’s happy mood has already been pinned like butterfly by the compositions, pleasant to look at but already fleeting in the moment we’re looking at it, accentuating the bittersweet mood of the story.
But not too bittersweet. This is not tragic film; it is, even, quite sweet and kind, celebrating the enthusiasm of childhood without sentimentalising it. The filmmakers don’t do anything to exaggerate Fomchenko as some kind of adorable moppet; they just let him look happy in takes that go on long enough to let his performance guide the rhythm of the film, rather than shape his performance through editing and cagily-chosen camera angles. It”s not quite as obsessed with stillness as The Killers, let alone the glacial films in the director’s future, but it does understand the importance of letting scenes between characters breathe and find their shape as they go along, rather than pressing them into a predetermined shape. It’s a generous and pleasant way to make a film, and it looks forward to a very different career than the one the director ended up having, but the basic strategy of living in moments rather than pushing through them would recur throughout Tarkovsky’s career. The Steamroller and the Violin is a well-made film rather than a visionary one, but it’s also well-made in a way that makes something more visionary possible.