International Salon-Journal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 8 No. 38, November 2004







Thorsten Botz-Bornstein


Realism, Dream, and 'Strangeness' in Andrei Tarkovsky



At the centre of theories of film form is the idea that the montage of different scenes produces cinematic time. Montage creates a conflict between different shots, and time (as a purely functional relationship between shots) arises out of montage as an abstract element. The central figure in formalist film theory is Sergei Eisenstein, whose aim was to overcome 'intuitive creativity' through 'rational constructive composition of effective elements'. [1] In a Futurist manner, Eisenstein defines artistic activity as the process of organizing raw material. A large part of this cinematic theory is based on the principle representing the main theoretical notion for the philosophy of Russian formalism, the notion of *ostranenie* (alienation, estrangement; *Verfremdung* in German). Within every shot there is a conflict between an object and its spatial nature or between an event and its temporal nature. The fact to combat, as Eisenstein says, 'intuitive creativity' by basing one's aesthetic strategy on the combination of raw cinematic material (for example, shots), is also in agreement with another main Futurist-formalist project: to overcome an aesthetic theory of empathy (*Einfuehlung*).


Eisenstein references the German philosopher and psychologist Theodor Lipps, the foremost theoretician of the philosophy of empathy. Lipps's theory, Eisenstein believes, relies only on the 'emotional understanding of the alter ego through the imitation of the other', which leads to the 'tendency to experience one's own emotion of the same kind'. [2] This means that the rhythm that we 'feel' in cinematic time is an illusion, in so far as it is the rhythm that we transfer from our own being into the films that we see. Eisenstein moved away from Meyerhold's idea that film 'is all a matter of the rhythm of movements and actions. This Rhythm with a capital R is precisely what imposes responsibilities on the cameraman, on the director, on the artist, and on the actors'. [3] However, for Eisenstein time is a matter of montage that does *not even create a rhythm*, because the images that are linked through montage provide no subject for empathy. For formalists, montage, like poetry, is not equivalent to 'thinking in images'. This formalist idea of montage is inspired by Shklovsky who, in his manifesto 'Art as a Device', criticizes Potebnja's conception of poetry as a 'thinking in images'. Potebnja's conception, so Shklovsky finds, leads to the creation of symbols as the main aesthetic occupation. For formalism, however, artistic activity does not consist of the creation of symbols but of the reorganisation of their constellations:


'The works of poets are classified or grouped according to the new techniques that poets discover and share, and according to their arrangement and development of the resources of language, poets are much more concerned with arranging images than with creating them. Images are given to poets; the ability to remember them is far more important than the ability to create them'. [4]


An art consisting only of symbols will be artistically expressionless, like algebra; the task of formalist artists is to 'de-automatize' the fixed schemes of automatization. In the first place this means to retransform symbols into 'things', into 'material', and to subsequently capture, by means of the artistic camera shot, original constellations of this material. The different shots will then be assembled through montage out of which time flows as a dynamic cinematic notion. This means that cinematic time is not 'staged' like in theatre, but seized through unusual combinations of diverse material.


Cinema's strong point is that it does not need to rely on 'the mechanical copying of nature', nor on the 'purely technical reproduction on the screen of some real object', [5] as does, in a formalist view, photography. Cinema has the capacity of transforming nature by relying on the estranging effect of montage. Here, for the first time in formalist film theory, the motto 'ostranenie against (impressionist or naturalist) empathy' is approached by considering the subject of time. Eisenstein's and the formalists' visions of an 'intellectual film' developed into a kind of cinematic semiotics, within which some critics notice a lack of original expressiveness. Having successfully overcome symbolism, the different shots are not symbols but *signs*. A shot cannot exist alone as can a symbol, but exists only as a sign within the whole organism that is created by the director and his film montage. Consequently, an object in a film is not represented but denoted. Within formalism, and in particular Eisenstein's cinematic structuralism, 'meaning' is produced through the fact that every sign functions within a certain timely structure. Shots now become only functions.


It is well known that Andrei Tarkovsky combated several of Eisenstein's main ideas, though it has rarely been examined how he proceeded with this project in particular. Vjacheslav V. Ivanov states correctly that one of Tarkovsky's aims was to emphasize the significance of the shot as a means of representation of objects, and not of their denotation, and that he thereby overcame Eisenstein in a remarkably effective way. [6] However, Ivanov also points to the immense difficulties that we meet when trying to describe Tarkovsky as being directly opposed to Eisenstein, since Tarkovsky, like Eisenstein, argues against symbolism in cinema. [7] The truth must be looked for in a new concept of cinematic time that is proper to Tarkovsky.


The concept of time in formalism is that of a 'non-staged' time produced exclusively through montage. For formalism, cinematic reality is not staged, nor does the director try to transfer reality onto the screen by means of any kind of direct intuition (as was intended, for example, by impressionism). At the same time, formalism does not adhere to naturalist concepts of representation. Tarkovsky also rejects impressionism as an art which, as he writes in _Sculpting in Time_, 'sets out to imprint the moment for its own sake', [8] and as an ideology he finds it artistically insufficient. He equally rejects 'staged' or painterl, arrangement of shots, as is common, for example, in the films of Fellini. Mikhail Romadin wrote about Tarkovsky's relation to Fellini's aesthetics:


'Fellini's method, where each scene is put together in the same way as a painting is on canvas, was . . . unacceptable for Tarkovsky. What will you have if, instead of a figure drawn on canvas by the artist we see a live actor? This is a surrogate painting, a live picture'. [9]


The 'live picture' remains a transfer of an idea to reality which lacks reality and, as we will see, which lacks time. To analyze Tarkovsky's artistic strategy of expressing reality and time (or a timely reality) through film we can look at one of his statements of an apparently simple kind:


'I once taped a casual dialogue. People were talking without knowing they were being recorded. Then I listened to the tape and thought how brilliant it was written' and 'acted'. The logic of character's movements, the feeling the energy -- how tangible it all was. How euphoric the voices were, how beautiful the voices'. [10]


There is 'feeling' as well as 'rhythm' in this conversation, but this rhythm is not staged by the director. As a consequence, it cannot be duplicated through 'imitation'. Tarkovsky derives everything that he appreciates in this dialogue *from* this dialogue by means of observation. This means that the circularity of an aesthetics of empathy that Eisenstein mocked with regard to Lipps's aesthetic theory does not apply to Tarkovsky's taped conversation, because the reality Tarkovsky captures is not 'staged reality'. It has neither been produced by an 'artistic feeling' nor will it be perceived through the imitation of an empathetical rhythm. In fact, Tarkovsky's procedure when taping this dialogue is neither realist nor impressionist. Would it therefore be right to say that what Tarkovsky did is similar to what Eisenstein and the formalists propagated as the 'capturing of raw material'? The temptation to say so is great because, obviously, Tarkovsky records the dialogue of the persons 'as it is', without altering it aesthetically in the slightest way. Everything is due to, as he says, pure 'observation'. Almost no violence destroys the intimacy of the scene and the tape recorder has not even the amount of presence that a voyeur would have. The game that Tarkovsky observes remains both innocent and a game.


We need to remember that formalist time exists only as and through the relationships between different shots: the shots themselves have no 'inner' time. Consequently, a formalist would condemn the dialogue taped by Tarkovsky because it represents for him a realistic, 'naked reproduction' of reality which comes very close to the kind of aesthetics that Kazansky attributed to photography. Photography, Kazansky claims, is 'stupid, dry, and boring, like statistics, because it has no choice and is incapable of generalization. It is obliged, like a mirror, to reflect everything that lies in the field of its lens'. [11] Tarkovsky's tape recorder also undertakes no selection and no artistic 'dynamization' of the matter reality provides. However, Tarkovsky still perceives in this single scene a fascinating rhythm and a brilliantly 'acted' scenario. Contrary to the formalist conception, for Tarkovsky a single shot also has time; it contains a kind of 'dynamic of the mood'.


Tarkovsky 'makes things strange' not by transferring a scene from 'real time' to 'abstract time', but he refers to a domain which he understands as an intermediary between abstractness and concreteness: the dream. In principle this means that the impressions Tarkovsky wants to create do not follow the kind of abstract logic by means of which montage tried to produce cinematic time. Instead, they are founded on what he calls the 'logic of the dream'. If the dialogue was 'brilliantly acted' (though obviously nobody really acted), does this not remind us of a dream? Also, while we are dreaming, we do not act. Our action is no action: it is not guided by motives, nor do any results materialize by consuming 'real' energy. The action proceeds automatically, and through this aspect dream is reminiscent of a game.


For Tarkovsky the (philosophical) problem of realism that we encounter in 'staged' dialogues is solved not by simply refusing the process of staging and by working instead only with 'material', but by letting the actions be non-actions that no longer follow the logic of everyday life. The kind of action that cannot be seen as an action -- from an exterior point-of-view because any neutral position outside the dream is inexistent -- confronts us with new problems in regard to the phenomenon of ostranenie. For formalist theory, even of the later phase, the definition of an exterior point-of-view from which the author can observe and redescribe reality is immediately linked to the device of ostranenie. Boris Uspensky's definition of the interior and exterior points becomes important here when he writes: 'The external point-of-view, as a compositional device, draws its significance from its affiliation with the problem of ostranenie or estrangement. The essence of the phenomenon resides primarily in the use of a new or estranged viewpoint on a familiar thing . . .'. [12] The thing is 'made strange' by looking at it from the outside. The object of everyday life becomes an object of aesthetic interest because an author looks at it. The distinction between inside and outside is a necessary precondition for 'making a thing strange' through the device of ostranenie. For Tarkovsky, however, a dream is not simply everyday life that is made strange. The 'logic of dream' is no anti-logic that an author would have brought forward by 'making strange' what he still recognizes clearly as 'logical thinking', as a thinking that is proper to him and that is imbedded into an intellectual framework of an authorial discourse. Tarkovsky believes that the strangeness of the dream should not be measured by means of a logic that is different from the logic of the dream itself.


Tarkovsky designs a new concept of time that overcomes the 'direct' forms of representation (for example those of realism and impressionism), and he also overcomes the 'logic of traditional drama'. [13] What is remarkable is that his solution is not the 'modern' abstract time of formalists, but that his ostranenie is the ostranenie of the 'absolutely strange'. It is a new aesthetic quality that does not simply overturn the logic of 'real' everyday life by converting it into an 'unreal', estranged world. Tarkovsky's expressions do not represent the 'real', nor do they symbolize the 'unreal'. Rather, they remain in the domain of the 'improbable' between symbolization, representation, and estranged expressions; and this is what gives them their 'strange' character. Through this 'device' Tarkovsky overcomes cinematic metaphorism and symbolism. The problem of 'symbolism' and 'metaphorism' needs to be seen in the context of this strategy. The 'zone' in Tarkovsky's _Stalker_ does not 'symbolize anything, any more than anything else does in my films; the zone is a zone, it's life, and as he makes his way across it man may break down or may come through'. [14] However, the 'zone' remains strange just because it claims, in such a tautological way, to be confined to the absolutely self-sufficient state of 'being nothing more than what it is'. The metonymical tendency of showing detail only for detail's sake, that has so often been praised as an effective device of overcoming cinematic symbolism, is also used by Tarkovsky. However, with him it has permeated deeper levels of cinematic philosophy.


The 'logic of dreams' is, like ostranenie in formalist film theory, a matter of time. In Tarkovsky's films the 'unexpected combinations' of real elements have their dreamlike effect not because they follow a certain characteristic, formal rhetoric, but because they take place in the time of dream. What is the form or the structure of this time? As a matter of fact, this concept of time possesses a basically non-structural quality. The time of the dream is produced through experiences coming to us through memory: in the first place this means that they come to us as experiences which have no temporal structure. We might remember a certain day in our life but, Tarkovsky asks, 'how did this day imprint itself on our memory'? He concludes that this memory comes to us 'as something amorphous, vague, with no skeleton or schema. Like a cloud'. [15] The vagueness of these memories is a vagueness of time, meaning these memories lack a 'skeleton' in the form of an abstract temporal structure. Tarkovsky wants to seize *these* 'memories' by using the expression of dream.


In film, 'dreams' are a matter of time, but for Tarkovsky this does not imply making a given piece of reality strange by embedding it in another level of time. This concept of the dream existed in formalism and it was understood as an ostranenie, stylizing 'normal' time into the 'non-normal' time of dreams. 'Stylization' has a very limited character here. The formalist theoretician Piotrovsky wrote about this kind of stylization: 'It is possible to produce a shift of normal time relations, motivated by a 'dream' or by 'intoxication', but these stylized features . . . are always necessarily perceived as artificial and not organically cinematic, they soon become irritating'. [16] Piotrovsky makes an interesting point concerning the importance of 'the organic' in formalist film theory (an idea that can also be traced in modernist art). Formalism freely juxtaposed 'raw material' up to a point where, being confronted with the result of ostranenie and montage, we are finally unable to perceive a 'feelable' rhythm (Eisenstein).


Still, formalists are anxious to perceive an aspect of organic time even in the most estranged kinds of films. This is the reason why Piotrovsky finds that the 'time of dreams', at the moment it is produced by a dreamlike stylization of the time level of a film, will quickly become 'irritating'. This irritation would not be possible if it were not related to 'feeling' or empathy. The spectator tries to 'feel' the different time levels in film. This shows that formalist film theory (in spite of its theoretical elaborations of the principle of contrast and juxtaposition) still clings to an organic concept of time that is based on the clear definition of ('normal') temporal levels and their respective deviations. Tarkovsky's innovation consists of a deconstruction of even this concept.


In the dialogue that Tarkovsky has recorded, the 'logic of the character's movements', and 'the feeling' do not exist in regard to an organic whole; the rhythm that Tarkovsky perceives so clearly in these dialogues does not exist in regard to any 'normal' or 'non-normal' time. It exists independently, creating its own rhythm and 'feeling'. In this sense Tarkovsky claims that 'rhythm' as a temporal quality has not been produced through montage but that it is a kind of rhythm of non-rhythm, producing a very original quality of cinematic time: 'Rhythm, then, is not the metrical sequence of pieces; what makes it is the time-thrust within frames. And I am convinced that it is rhythm, and not editing, as people tend to think, that is the main formative element of cinema'. [17]


It is well known that in 20th century theory the definition of 'poetic language' as opposed to 'non-poetic language' created enormous difficulties. It goes without saying that the definition of a 'poetics of dreams' as a deviation from non-dreamlike expressions is even more problematical. Dreams create their own laws that fully belong neither to the domain of man's consciousness nor to that of his unconsciousness. They belong neither to reality nor to what man might call the sphere of estranged, irrational non-logic. Strictly speaking, dreams are not even 'strange'. Compared to our chaotic everyday life, dreams are not strange but rather clear and candid.


Completely opposed to what the metaphysical tradition once thought, 'time' is the element which imagination needs in order to leave the domain of the abstract! Imagination finds this element in the sphere of dreams. 'The logic of the dream' means for Tarkovsky that every scene produces its own temporal laws, its own time, or, as he also calls it, its own 'time truth'. [18] A rhythm of time is not produced through a scene's logical relationship with other scenes. The temporal laws of the scene are absolutely 'true' in the sense that they are absolutely 'necessary' in regard to the material itself. Tarkovsky says that the artistic expression 'has to come from inner necessity, from an organic process going on in the material as a whole'. [19] The organic whole of the material from which this necessity arises, and which Tarkovsky puts forward in his reflection, is not the abstract, structural, organism of a film that has been produced by montage. It is an organic whole formed by artistic necessity, an 'inner necessity', [20] arising out of the 'inner dynamic of the mood of the situation'. [21] For Tarkovsky there is no 'free' combination of raw material like in formalism, whose ostranenie is, as we have seen, free and unfree at the same time -- in spite of its freedom in regard to any contents, it still follows the structural rules of an abstract organism. Because it is based on such a structural, abstract organic quality, but at he same time lacking the inner organic quality of time, cinematic action becomes unnatural. In this sense Tarkovsky finds that Eisenstein's combination of scenes in _Alexander Nevsky_ produces a formally perfect, abstract, quality of cinematic time. However, he thinks that 'what is happening on the screen is sluggish and unnatural. This is because no time-truth exists in the separate frames'. [22]


'The dream', as a phenomenon of cinematic time, arises out of this 'inner', 'temporal' necessity, since any 'time pressure must not be gained casually'. [23] Distortions of time as they appear in the cinematic dream must be moulded according to this necessity; they should not be introduced as 'technical' time shifts destined to underline, for example, the plot of a story. In this sense dreams are a matter of 'sculpting in time'. The belief that a director can make, 'like a sculptor', from a 'lump of time . . . an enormous, solid cluster of living facts' [24] lets Tarkovsky join the group of creators who strive to transform the liquid and permanently flowing element of time into the paste-like material of dreams. We are reminded of Gaston Bachelard who has meditated much upon a special kind of human creativity which is nourished by the conviction that 'dreams' must be a kind of 'paste'. The organic state of the paste is not represented by a stable and abstract structure. The paste is thoroughly concrete, in the same way that the 'paste of dreams' has no abstract temporal frame: it is time through and through and also thoroughly real.


What is true for Tarkovsky's conception of time applies to his entire cinematic language. Tarkovsky's strongly metonymical tendency, his use of close-ups of details and pars pro toto create neither signs nor symbols but only 'reality'. The (semantic-artistic) relevance of his shots does not flow out of their relationships with a larger semiotic web, as do the shots of Eisenstein. Nor do they symbolize or represent reality. They simply are objects and are reality. Tarkovsky's deconstruction of the process of presentation functions only because his anti-symbolist and anti-realist concept of the shot are accompanied by a theory of time that functions accordingly. If his detailed shots, that insist so much on their non-symbolic quality, were not supplemented by a parallel theory of time, Tarkovsky would have remained where the formalists arrived: at a cinema of signs that are held together through the abstracting work of montage.


Because he is convinced that 'sometimes the utterly unreal comes to express reality itself', [25] Tarkovsky designs an aesthetic of 'making things strange' that develops and at the same time overcomes the principle of ostranenie. One could say that it completes formalism in a way similar to that in which so called post-structuralism completes structuralism. The time of the dream communicates reality as something 'unreal' which nevertheless affects us at least as harshly as reality itself. The formalists, on the other hand, thought of the dreamlike reproduction of reality as a reality that is 'softened' and stylized into an image, vague and obscure. However, for Tarkovsky the reality that pervades the time of the dream speaks to us in a clear language. Its linguistic rules are so clear and logical that they produce pictures of 'cruelty'. It is in cruelty especially that time gains the absolutely self-sufficient state that it usually has in dreams. Tarkovsky refers to a scene that represents for him a model scene of cinematic expression:


'A group of soldiers is being shot for treason in front of the ranks. They are waiting among the puddles by a hospital wall. It's autumn. They are ordered to take off their coats and boots. One of them spends a long time walking about among the puddles, in his socks which are full of holes, looking for a dry place to put down the coat and boots which a minute later he will no longer need'. [26]


This scene is expressive because its action follows the impulses of a strong inner necessity. The necessity we feel here is not one created by a plot, nor has it anything to do with the montage of elements. Action seems here to create its own rules; no 'exterior' power that would dictate how the scene 'must' be, can be perceived. There is, in this scene, 'fatality' or 'irony of destiny' and this is why it appears cruel to us. The scene is expressive and we could 'sympathize' with the victims; however, this makes the scene even crueller. Cruelty reposes here in the fact that we watch the scene as cold-blooded observers -- as a scene, and not as a tragic event. In other words, the event becomes cruel because it has been turned into a scene. It is produced through the scene and not transferred from reality to the scene.


Since 'in reality' the scene is tragico-dramatic, a dramatic staging would attempt to reproduce, within the scene, a certain amount of this tragic expression. It is also clear that here too much cruelty would be irritating. Tarkovsky's scene functions through a paradox: the scene only evokes cruelty because it is freed from tragic expression through the director's cool observance. Cruelty is not produced through montage, nor does some other artistic device push us towards an empathetic re-experiencing of what the director imagines to be cruel. Tarkovsky's scene is a 'concrete happening' in the sense that it is a 'unique happening:' and its expressive cruelty arises out of this hermetic state.


Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales,

Paris, France





1. Sergei Eisenstein, _Selected Works, Volume 1: Writings, 1922-34_, ed. Richard Taylor (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1988), p. 175.


2. Ibid., p. 49.


3. Eisenstein, 'Portret Doriana Greiia, Iz istorii kino: Dokumenty i materialy' (1965), p. 22; quoted from V. Ivanov, 'The Category of Time in Twentieth-Century Art and Culture', _Semiotica_, vol. 8 no. 2, 1973, p. 30.


4. Victor Shklovsky, 'Art as Device', in L. Lemon and M. Reis, eds, _Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays_ (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965), p. 7.


5. B. Kazanskij, 'The Nature of Cinema', in H. Eagle, _Russian Formalist Film Theory_ (Ann Arbor: Michigan Slavic Publications, 1981), p. 110.


6. Vjacheslav V. Ivanov, _Einfuehrung in die allgemeine Semiotik_ (Tuebingen: Narr, 1985), p. 300.


7. Ibid., p. 291.


8. Andrei Tarkovsky, _Sculpting in Time_ (London: Bodley Head, 1986), p. 192.


9. Mikhail Romadin, 'Film and Painting', in M. Tarkovakaja, ed., _About Tarkovsky_ (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1990), p. 145.


10. Tarkovsky, _Sculpting in Time_, p. 65.


11. B. Kasansky, 'The Nature of Cinema', in H. Eagle, ed., _Russian Formalist Film Theory_ (Ann Arbor: Michigan Slavic Publications, 1981), p. 109.


12. Boris Uspensky, _A Poetics of Composition_ (Berkley: University of California Press, 1973), p. 131.


13. Tarkovsky, _Sculpting in Time_, p. 20.


14. Ibid., p. 200.


15. Ibid., p. 23.


16. A. Piotrovsky, 'Toward a Theory of Cine-Genres', in Eagle, ed., _Russian Formalist Film Theory_, p. 137.


17. Tarkovsky, _Sculpting in Time_, p. 119.


18. Ibid., p. 120.


19. Ibid.


20. Ibid., p. 121.


21. Ibid., p. 74.


22. Ibid., p. 120.


23. Ibid.


24. Ibid., p. 63.


25. Ibid., p. 152


26. Ibid., p. 26.



Copyright Film-Philosophy 2004



Thorsten Botz-Bornstein, 'Realism, Dream, and 'Strangeness' in Andrei Tarkovsky', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 8 no. 38, November 2004 <>.










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