In 1972 Andrei Tarkovsky told Leonid Kozlov about his favorite films. Tom Lasica recently talked with the critic.
I remember that wet, grey day in April 1972 very well. We were sitting by an open window and talking about various things when the conversation turned to Otar Ioseliani’s film Once Upon a Time There Lived a Singing Blackbird. “It’s a good film,” said Tarkovsky and immediately added, drawing out his words, “though it’s, well, a little bit too… too…” He fell silent with the sentence half finished, his eyes screwed up. After a moment of intense reflection, he bit his fingernails and continued decisively, “No! No, it’s a very good film!” It was at this point that I asked Tarkovsky if he would compile a list of his favorite ten or so films. He took my proposition very seriously and for a few minutes sat deep in thought with his head bent over a piece of paper. Then he began to write down a list of directors’ names - Buñuel, Mizoguchi, Bergman, Bresson, Kurosawa, Antonioni, Vigo. One more, Dreyer, followed after a pause. Next he made a list of films and put them carefully in a numbered order. The list, it seemed, was ready, but suddenly and unexpectedly Tarkovsky added another title - City Lights.
This is the final version of the list he made:
- Le Journal d’un curé de campagne
- Winter Light
- Wild Strawberries
- City Lights
- Ugetsu Monogatari
- Seven Samurai
- Woman of the Dunes (Teshigahara)
After the list had been typed and signed “16.4.72 A. Tarkovsky,” we returned to our conversation, during which he quite naturally changed the subject and started with his gentle sense of humor to talk about something of no importance. Looking back at the list today, 20 years on, it strikes me how clearly his choices characterize Tarkovsky the artist. Like the numerous top ten lists submitted by directors to various magazines over the years, Tarkovsky’s list is highly revealing. Its main feature is the severity of its choice - with the exception of City Lights, it does not contain a single silent film or any from the 30s or 40s. The reason for this is simply that Tarkovsky saw the cinema’s first 50 years as a prelude to what he considered to be real film-making. And though he rated highly both Dovzhenko and Barnet, the complete absence of Soviet films from his list is perhaps indicative of the fact that he saw real film-making as something that went on elsewhere. When considering this point, one also needs to bear in mind the polemical attitude that Tarkovsky became imbued with through his experience as a film-maker in the Soviet Union.
For Tarkovsky, the question lay not in how beautiful a film-maker’s art can be, but in the heights that Art can reach. The director of Andrei Rublov strove for the most profound spiritual tension and extreme existential self-exposure in all his work and was ready to reject anything and everything that was incompatible with this end. His list, which includes three films by Bergman, undoubtedly reflects his taste both as a director and as a viewer - but the latter is subordinate to the former. As the way he began to compile his top ten shows, this is not only a list of Tarkovsky’s favorite films, but equally one of his favorite directors. Tarkovsky’s and Bergman’s “elective affinity” was noted long time ago, well before Sacrifice. But Bresson’s film does not come top of the list by chance: Tarkovsky considered him to be a supreme creative individual. “Robert Bresson is for me an example of a real and genuine film-maker… He obeys only certain higher, objective laws of Art…. Bresson is the only person who remained himself and survived all the pressures brought by fame.”
It would seem to me that the unexpected appearance of City Lights in the list can be explained similarly. What mattered most to Tarkovsky was not so much the film’s cinematographic achievements or any philosophical points it made, but rather the comprehensive nature of Chaplin’s self-realization as a director. “Chaplin is the only person to have gone down into cinematic history without any shadow of a doubt. The films he left behind can never grow old.”