The following interview with Andrei Tarkovsky was conducted by Aleksandr Lipkov on February 1, 1967. It originally appeared in Literaturnoe obozrenie 1988: 74–80 (see the first page in Russian here). It is published here for the first time in English. Translation copyright by Robert Bird (University of Chicago, Slavic Languages and Literatures).
When I am asked: "How did you approach the historical theme in your film; what were your ideas of a historical film; what conception of history did you profess?" I become uncomfortable. I don't want to divide cinema up into genres for it has so merged with viewer experience that, like this experience, it cannot be fragmented. The meaning of cinema and its colossal popularity is based on the fact that the viewer approaches it in search of his own un-accumulated experience, so to speak. I am not speaking of inexperience in life, but of the fact that our age offers one such a large amount of information and people are so busy that they do not have time sometimes even to find out what is surrounding them on a day-to-day basis. Cinema's task is to substitute for this lacking experience. It stands before the very serious and profound task of speaking truthfully and sincerely, never deceiving the viewer. And if this viewer goes to see even wholly commercial films, this doesn't mean that he likes them. Perhaps he doesn't even know himself what draws him to the cinema. I think that he is drawn by the need for knowledge, the desire to hear questions that arise for his contemporaries, and the aspiration to participate in the solving of problems which he has no time for in life.
As far as our film is concerned, as contemporary artist we naturally made the film about issues that relate to us as well.
I don't know a single artist, regardless of whether he paints canvasses or makes films, writes poetry or casts sculpture, who would aspire only to restore the past and remain within the limits of historiography. Take Shakespeare, Pushkin, or Tolstoy. All of them were concerned with wholly contemporary issues when they wrote about Julius Caesar, Boris Godunov, or the war of 1812. The same goes for us. Of course we collected material, read sources and historical and historiographical works, based ourselves on chronicles, on the studies of art historians dedicated to Rublev and his contemporaries, and on everything that we could read about the epoch. And yet we were concerned with other issues.
The first is the role of the artist in society. We wanted the viewer to leave the film with the idea that the artist is society's conscience as its most sensitive organ who is most perceptive to what occurs around it. A great artist is able to make masterpieces because he is capable of seeing others clearer and to perceive the world with joy or exaggerated pain. For us Rublev was such an artist.
One might think that the scope of his art and its influence on those around him were quite limited. One might think that, living in the time he was fated to live in, he could see nothing but tragedy. This was a tough and blood-drenched epoch for Rus, which had not yet coalesced as a nation and was gripped by internecine conflict and suffered annual raids by the Tatars. One might think that Rublev had nothing to lean on in his environment in order to create any radiant images. And yet he did not carry the terrifying images of his time over onto his boards. As if in protest, in opposition to what surrounded him and to the reigning political atmosphere in Rus, in literally all of his works this artist bore forth the idea of brotherhood, cooperation, and mutual love. He incarnates the ethical ideal of his time.
I know no great work of art in all of world culture that would not be linked to an ethical ideal, that is based on some other motives such as on the dark aspects of life. There some talented works of such a nature, but no masterpieces.
Q: What about Picasso's Guernica?
A: I will address that. An artist's oeuvre is always composed of various works, especially for such a tireless seeker as Picasso, who has painted hundreds or even thousands of sheets and pages. He never stops at what he has achieved, although he has always spoken of the same things. Compare him to Tolstoy, let's say, with his most profound work War and Peace: here you will see on one hand a furious protest against everything dark in life, and on the other hand an affirmation of joy, love for man, faith in him and in the power of his soul, in the ability of his reason to work out the most complex problems, and a readiness to stand firm in the face of severe examination. This is only natural. Life is varied, it is composed of contrasting planes, and by focusing on only one of them an artist will illuminate it one-sidedly, failing to give his word, the screen or the painted canvas a complete image of the world and to comprehend the true profundity of phenomena.
Take for example Raphael's Sistine Madonna. She is beautiful and humane precisely because of the tragic plot that lies at her base. A plot that is commonly known and is taken from the Gospels: Mary must sacrifice her son to people. But the artist humanized the Mother of God; although from the religious point of view she was not even a person, in a certain sense, he depicts her precisely as a person. The power of the work's effect is due to the fact that Mary is afraid and suffers in the face of events which await her son. She knows that everything is foreordained, that the infant was born for torments, and that she is obliged to give him up, but on her face one reads not only fear but also a question for people and hope that what is foreordained will not occur. This precise balance between preordination and hope is what creates that deeply human image, which is turned towards us and raises the work to the height of a masterpiece.
One may cite a multitude of other examples. All of Chaplin is based on the tragic content of plots in which a small and cowed man, abused by the capitalist city, tries in some way to preserve himself and to oppose to the oppressive circumstances: his individuality, some kind of craftiness, or complexity of character. In a word, the essence of Chaplin's character, borne by the artist through numerous pictures, is the combination of a profoundly tragic content and comic form, which is disarmingly humane, full of love for people, goodness, and sympathy. ...