Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror (Zerkalo [Зеркало]) and the Five Senses

by Shaun Terry

Andrei Tarkovsky’s Zerkalo [Зеркало] seems to envelop its viewer. It is easy to feel confused while watching it, but the mood is unmistakable, if hard to put into words. There is irony in this fact, as the necessary alienation of language seems at least obliquely relevant to themes in the film.

The idea that things in reality do not always fit together very neatly seems important. Inter-generationality seems central to what Tarkovsky is saying here, but also that time, itself, plays a large role in our construction of reality (as in the construction of this [and perhaps any] film). The story follows a non-linear path that constantly juxtaposes different generations of a family against one another and the story is punctuated by footage of important Soviet events.

What I find most brilliant in Tarkovsky’s film are two tensions that I see. First, Tarkovsky makes films that often feel surreal. I see Tarkovsky’s particular brand of surrealism as particularly potent in its palpable realism and the wonderment achieved in many of the visual effects that he creates. In part, Tarkovsky seems to owe this to his engagement of the senses: one feels the water dripping from the ceiling as the woman’s wet hair moves somewhat unnaturally in the dank room (and seeming to predict Hideo Nakata’s 1998 film Ringu); the slowly coagulating tears on the nearly-frozen face of the boy create an effect both visual and haptic; when the light burns out and the boy finds himself alone in the stranger’s dark house, one feels the loneliness, the loss, the abandonment, and the disconcerting disorientation; and so on. In the formulation of this surrealism, then, the obverse might be Tarkovsky’s filmic tricks, along with his reflexive gestures. At times, he uses the elements to create eerie effects: the wind picking up as a strange man finally leaves; the rain pouring down at especially heightened moments; water dripping from the dilapidated ceiling; a strange, stoic woman unflinchingly placing her hand in a flame; and so on. The film never allows much time to pass without foregrounding its subjectivity: through the seemingly deliberate shadow of the microphone boon; an actor staring into the camera; the use of Soviet film documentary footage; the beautiful, but displacing camera movements; the poetic voice-overs; etc. This reflexivity also finds itself in the use of the boy as both the protagonist and the protagonist’s son, as well as the use of the same woman as both the mother and the wife, but that more greatly seems to say something about Tarkovsky’s psychology in a way that is worthy of deeper inspection at another time.

Another tension that I found interesting was that between the drama in the events occurring and the kind of brutal restraint mostly exemplified in the characters, to which the appropriate counterpoint might be that of the Hollywood film: the predictable-to-the-point-of-banality storyline made romantic or otherwise saturated with dramaticism. As the rain falls around the characters, the camera slowly pans around to find the characters mostly standing around, watching the building burn down. As the couple fight, the apparent alienation and frustration in their disjointed, misunderstood arguments are met with dull, defeated tones. The beginning of the film’s miraculous rehabilitation of the stuttering teenage boy ends with him smiling and announcing that he can speak, but not with the sense of surprise that one might expect.