Tarkovsky speaks about...
Symbols vs. Metaphors
Some frequently asked questions in connection with Tarkovsky's movies are,
"Does he use symbols?" and "what does it mean, or symbolize?"
We will let him answer these questions himself. As you'll find out, he wasn't
particularly fond of the concept of symbols. The quotes below are from the
excellent work The Tolstoy Complex, edited by Dr. Seweryn Kuśmierczyk
at the Polish Literature Department of Warsaw University. This book, currently
only available in Polish, is a thematically arranged compilation of
interviews taken from magazines from all over the world. The excerpts are
reproduced here with the kind permission of the editor. The original
translators' names are shown in square brackets following the references.
English retranslation by Jan Bielawski, Nostalghia.com. Reference:
Kompleks Tolstoja, Seweryn Kuśmierczyk (ed.), Wydawnictwo Pelikan,
Warszawa 1989, ISBN 83-85 045-40-6.
We can express our feelings regarding the world around us either by
poetic or by descriptive means. I prefer to express myself metaphorically.
Let me stress: metaphorically, not symbolically. A symbol contains within
itself a definite meaning, certain intellectual formula, while metaphor is
an image. An image possessing the same distinguishing features as the world
it represents. An image — as opposed to a symbol — is indefinite
One cannot speak of the infinite world by applying tools that are definite
and finite. We can analyse the formula that constitutes a symbol, while
metaphor is a being-within-itself, it's a monomial. It falls apart at
any attempt of touching it.
Interview Le noir coloris de la nostalgie with Hervé Guibert in "Le Monde", 12 May 1983
[Pol. trans. Malgorzata Sporek-Czyzewska].
An image cannot be a symbol in my opinion. Whenever an image is turned
into a symbol, the thought becomes walled in so to speak, it can be fully
deciphered. That's not what image is. A symbol is not yet an image.
Although image cannot be explained, it expresses truth to the end...
Its meaning remains unknown. I was asked once what the bird on boy's head
in The Mirror meant. But any time I attempt to explain, I notice everything
loses its meaning, it acquires a completely different sense than intended,
moves away from its rightful place. I could only say a bird would not come
to an evil man but that's not good enough. A true image is an abstraction,
it cannot be explained, it only transmits truth and one can only comprehend it
in one's own heart. Because of that it's impossible to analyse a work of art
by utilising its intellectual significance.
Interview Taiteen on jaloselettava
katsojia with Risto Mäenpää and Jaakko Pyhälä in
"Filmihullu" 1976 (8), pp. 7–11 [Pol. trans. Andrzej Stefaniak].
I am an enemy of symbols. Symbol is too narrow a concept for me in the
sense that symbols exist in order to be deciphered. An artistic image on the
other hand is not to be deciphered, it is an equivalent of the world around
us. Rain in Solaris is not a symbol, it is only rain which at certain
moment has particular significance to the hero. But it does not symbolise
anything. It only expresses. This rain is an artistic image. Symbol for me
is something too complicated.
Interview Ein Feind der Symbolik
with Irena Brezna in
"tip" 1984 (3), pp. 197–205 [Pol. trans. Adam Sewen].
I am constantly being asked what this or that means in my films. It's
unbearable! An artist does not have to be accountable for his intentions.
I did not do any deep thinking about my work. I don't know what my symbols
mean. I only desire to induce feelings, any feelings, in viewers. People
always try to find "hidden" meanings in my films. But wouldn't it be strange
to make a film while striving to hide one's thoughts? My images do not
signify anything beyond what they are... We do not know ourselves that well:
sometimes we express forces which cannot be grasped by any ordinary measure.
Gideon Bachman: Att resa i sitt inre.
Samtal med Tarkovskij, "Chaplin" 1984 (4), pp. 158–163
[Pol. trans. Katarzyna Górecka].
Mysterious elements in my films? I think people somehow got the idea that
everything on screen should be immediately understandable. In my opinion
events of our everyday lives are much more mysterious than those we can
witness on screen. If we attempted to recall all events, step by step, that
took place during just one day of our life and then showed them on screen,
the result would be hundred times more mysterious than my film [Stalker].
Audiences got used to simplistic drama. Whenever a moment of realism
appears on screen, a moment of truth, it is immediately followed by voices
declaring it "confusing." Many think of Stalker as a science fiction film.
But this film is not based on fantasy, it is realism on film. Try to accept
its content as a record of one day in lives of three people, try to see it
on this level and you'll find nothing complex, mysterious, or symbolic in it.
I never create allegories. I create my own world. That world
does not signify anything unusual. It just exists, it has no
other meaning. I think symbol and allegory rob the artist.
Creator brings up images which express, reveal life the way
it is. They are not Aesop's fables. This manner of working
would be too primitive not only for the contemporary art but
for art of any era. Artistic image possesses an infinity of
meanings just like life carries an infinity of meanings.
An image changed into a symbol cannot be analysed. When I
create my images I use no symbolism of any kind. I want to
create an image, not a symbol. That's why I don't believe in
interpretations of supposed meanings of my pictures. I'm not
interested in narrow political or social issues. I want to
create images that would touch the viewer's soul to some degree.
That's why in my films I tell precisely those stories and not
It makes no difference to me how the public receives and
interprets my films. I make films in such a way as to create
certain spiritual state in the viewer. As a result he cannot
remain unchanged after watching the film. But what the viewer
thinks about my film's style is unimportant to me. Viewers
search for meanings as if this was some sort of a charade.
I know of no work of art whose meaning would be clear to the
degree demanded by some. When they listen to music, read
a novel or watch a play they frequently encounter fragments
they don't understand. It's a normal state of the relationship
toward a work of art. But when they go to the cinema — they
demand complete clarity, total understanding. I am against
discrimination in art. Clarity is not most important. The world
created by an artist is as complex as the world that surrounds him.
Andrei Tarkovsky Talking,
"Cencrastus" 1981 (2) [Pol. trans. Jadwiga Kobylinska].