Tarkovsky’s Documentary Romanticism  
Boris Groys in coversation with
Nadim Samman and Anya Stonelake
 

What are your impressions of the Polaroid photographs that Andrei Tarkovsky began to make in the seventies? What is their relation to his films?

All of the images were made in Italy, so it's kind of his visual diary surrounding his immigration. What struck me about these images, however, is how they look like Romantic painting of the nineteenth century, in their composition, and also in the play light.
It's a sublime mood - something that I have always been impressed by when watching his films, because one associates the moving image with the twentieth-century. Film is almost automatically something technological, which belongs to modernity. Yet, shining through all the technical devices is a kind of visual heritage of the 19th century.
It's like a combination of Chekhov and Caspar David Friedrich - a kind of cottage-life with a bit of the decadent Russian aristocracy. These images are nostalgic, but not for the Soviet culture of the Russia that he left. Rather, they're nostalgia for Russia before the Revolution. They reflect the neo-romantic mood of the time in which they were made. Their romanticism is more German than French, like Caspar David Friedrich or Otto Unger. It's classicist, but with a romantic aspect.

Would you characterize this nostalgic vision as restorationist in motivation?

It's not restorationist because it's obvious that one can't restore things like that. It's much more of an attempt to equate this kind of nineteenth century Romantic, and at the same time slightly decadent, aesthetic - some kind of provincial Russian Chekhov or Turgenev mood - with his own family. So, his family is a kind of utopian space.

Do you suspect that this is because he left his family for a time?

Not necessarily. Rather, it reflects the mood of the period of [Soviet] stagnation. Look at his film The Mirror, which is also very Chekhovian. I saw this movie in the Soviet Union. It's sort of a gentlemen's life in the country - a gentry life, not the proletarian Soviet reality. Everything takes place in Dachas, or private apartments of the wealthy or upper-class Moscow intelligentsia, people who made it somehow, or whose families did. It was almost a revival of the gentry sensibility of the nineteenth-century.


 

You left Russia in a similar time to Tarkovsky. Do you recall or relate to this nostalgic, perhaps even spiritual, mood?

Tarkovsky's daughter went to the same children's group as our son. We were neighbors in Moscow. I know this kind of mentality well enough. At the time, 'spirituality' was another name for privacy or intimacy. Not so much for private intellectual space but, simply, personal space. What happened in the Soviet Union was a kind of collectivization of consciousness, a collectivization of the mood of the population, some kind of totalization of unconsciousness. Accordingly, people just wanted to have their personal space back.
The religious mood at the end of the 1960s and in the early 1970s was the first wave of privatization. This was privatization of ideological space - a discourse of privatization that historically preceded economic privatization. Now we have arrived at the privatization of state property. It was a kind of ideal, utopian, space in the middle of the collective space. I was skeptical. I have no nostalgia for whatever the Soviet Union was, and none in relation to these kind of private spaces. I never believed in privatization and still don't.

How might one characterize the relationship between the fiction of his films and the documentary nature of his Polaroids?

If there is something interesting about Tarkovsky it is precisely that he escapes kitsch because he is very documentaristic and doesn't want to remember or relate to the past. Both in the polariods and the movies, if he relates to the past it is only in a negative way - as in Andrei Rublev. He wants to have this romantic, spiritual, intimacy here and now. Its very much about the feeling of recognition, a looking for what Roland Barthes describes as 'punctum'. Film and Polaroid are quite close, both are rather instantaneous and very much fix the moment, so it's not about nostalgia or memory, he's not historicizing and he's not reactionary. In the polaroids, he's looking for an equation or identification of this momentous experience in his life with a certain kind of gentrified cultural history of art.
He doesn't recognize something Russian. He recognizes something that he looked at in a museum or gallery of nineteenth century art.