"The fire and the rose are one." Motifs of Tarkovsky

Creator's Statement

Ruben Vandersteen and Peter Kravanja


Revered by many as a god of cinema, Tarkovsky left behind a body of work that is deemed untouchable. Consequently, rearranging his films, or fragments of them, on the editing table might be considered as nothing short of blasphemy. Cutting into that idiosyncratic fabric of sounds and images feels a lot like slicing out characters from a Rubens painting and pasting them into a sticker book. Surely, the expression of any artist should be respected and left intact.

Yet the highly associative nature of Tarkovsky's work feels like an open invitation for analysis and manipulation. Rewinding, magnifying, and freeze framing are but the first tools in every scholar's attempt to better understand an artwork that is so dense with meaning and so full of references. As with any great work of art, knowing it intimately should not diminish its mystery.

By analyzing, cataloging, and rearranging different motifs in Tarkovsky's oeuvre, we have aimed at stripping the text out of the context and by doing so gaining a deeper insight into the internal architecture of his films. Led by recurring themes and aesthetic motifs, we have identified five categories that gradually have shaped our analysis: portals, faces, hands, embraces, and the elements of nature, each one showing a distinct aspect of the artist's aesthetics. These categories are by no means meant to be exhaustive, they are a framework, a vantage point from which we could start analyzing, aligning, and juxtaposing different images with one another.

Fragmenting Tarkovsky's eight theatrical films into five formal categories already highlighted many of the key elements composing the author's signature style -- frame in frame compositions, restrained acting, and a love for dorsal figures to name a few. Surprisingly enough, as we started to re-assemble these images into a montage, our search for meaningful connections opened up a deeper awareness of the inner workings of these motifs. Linking bodily rhythms and camera movements, tones and textures, colour schemes and use of light, facial expressions and natural forces, proved to be a forceful method to investigate the complex synergy between form and substance and the recurring of motifs existing within the cinematic world created by Tarkovsky. By juxtaposing these motifs and punctuating them from one another by a few frames of black, they acquire a stronger force and new semiotic meanings come into being.

Attentive viewers will observe that most of the shots of our film are quite short. Indeed, to increase awareness of various motifs, it has to isolate their significant occurences as much as possible. Elongated temporalities, although they are characteristic of Tarkovsky’s films, would not serve our purpose. Our filmic study is not about time, it is about motifs, i.e., visual aspects. A time aspect is part of our film via our editing choices, but the precise moments at which our film cuts from one shot to the next have been dictated by the strength of their aesthetic impact, not by the aim to let the shots develop freely in order to imitate Tarkovsky’s practice of long shots.

Let us conclude by explaining why we have chosen “the fire and the rose are one”, the final verse from Little Gidding, the last of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, as part of the title of our film. Little Gidding ends as follows:


We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.


And all shall be well and

All manner of thing shall be well

When the tongues of flames are in-folded

Into the crowned knot of fire

And the fire and the rose are one.


Similarly, we hope that our own modest exploration of Tarkovsky’s films will offer the viewer not only a better understanding but perhaps even an intensified aesthetic appreciation of these films through our examination of recurring motifs. Also, critical analyses of Little Gidding interpret the “fire” as destructive as well as purifying whereas the “rose” is associated with beauty and love as well as danger because of its thorns. We feel that these themes resonate throughout most of the shots that we have included in our video essay. In particular, the climactic resolution of painful purgation and divine love at the end of Little Gidding evokes for us the final images of The Sacrifice (Offret) that conclude our own work. For all these reasons we have chosen “the fire and the rose are one” as part of the title of our contribution.


The Authors
Peter Kravanja is a cognitive film scholar and a Research Fellow at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (Belgium), Faculty of Arts. In collaboration with Maarten Coëgnarts he investigates the interplay between conceptual metaphors, image schemas and cinema. The results have been published in numerous academic journals and books. Detailed information is available via his website www.kravanja.eu.
Ruben Vandersteen is Master in the Audiovisual Arts, graduating from the Luca School of Arts in Brussels. As filmcritic, he has written numerous articles, essays and reviews for a number of Belgian magazines. As filmmaker his work strongly focuses on themes like isolation and the workings of the memory.

The video essay is a compilation of evocative shots from Tarkovsky’s oeuvre. It opens crisply on a hopeful note with creatures who are young, fresh, beautiful or winged – though very soon teary-eyed. Couples and other kinds of dyads then either caress or comfort one another with the same sense of urgency and loneliness, turning by degrees older, paler, bruised, muddy, sick, or deathly. Not least at this point, Tarkovsky’s particular kindship with Bergman powerfully springs into visual significance, with pietàs, sick beds, lines of sight through old interiors, and more. The montage is effective and beautiful.

The clips proceed to examine how eye contact, or the lack of it, is thematised in Tarkovsky’s films. Either characters look at each other, or lone characters avoid, meet, or negotiate the audience’s gaze. Twinkles of carefully lit eyes speak to the visual importance of the averted or probing eye in Tarkovsky. The ability to show exactly this trait so clearly across a number of films is one of the strongest point of the video essay.

In compilations, formal interest in what is going on within the frame naturally tends to obscure meanings and signification; but in this case, no viewer can miss the central importance in Tarkovsky’s films of human beings, their relationships, and their ordeals. Only faint echoes remain of the themes of individual films, but the techniques behind these themes become all the more visible and arguably still exist through them and not detached from them. The video essay makes clear, for instance, how strong visuals of rain, fire, wind and water can help thematise the sodden, derelict or ruined.

When making visible how the different films are related, the compilation’s unifying action is at the same time a potential stumbling block, since Tarkovsky’s conviction was that the temporality and rhythm of the individual shot is truly central to the film. In Sculpting in Time, he calls this the ”sense of time passing through the shot.” Such guidelines about how to perceive of his formal work need to go meaningfully unheeded, and the rhythms altered, for the compilation to work. Probably the longest sequence used is the last one, with the burning house from The Sacrifice; but this is still of course just a snippet of that tracking shot (roughly as long as the entire video essay).

The process of taking such immediately dominant traits away from the film and instead offering cross-assembled bits and pieces allows other systems and syntaxes into view. My best proof-reading tip is to read backwards, sentence by sentence, so as not to slide back again into instead engaging with the meanings of the sequences; something similar although far less prosaic is going on here. The music (including Ovchinnikov and Artemyev) has been taken from soundtracks to Tarkovsky films and re-set to the succession of clips. It was amusing to see that since several of the films are in both colour and black and white to begin with, the mix of colour and black and white footage in the compilation film is paradoxically another feature that makes the viewer feel at once at home in this new, broken up and reassembled Tarkovskyan world.

In the essay accompanying this video, Vandersteen and Kravanja express some trepidation at cutting into the works of a director that has been so revered as Tarkovsky. In the writing of many critics and theorists, the director’s works and personage are frequently imbued with an almost sacred aura and significance, in keeping with Tarkovsky’s own pronouncements, in Sculpting in Time, on the role of the artist in society and the inviolable status of the artwork. At the same time, as the video itself proves, Tarkovsky’s films are perfect for the type of work that the authors conduct here: lifting out the visual patterns and motifs, the compositions and textures, that resonate throughout and across his eight feature films. In this illumination of the ‘internal architecture’ of the films, the authors have chosen to highlight portals, faces, hands, embraces, and nature. Placing the images of these elements side-by-side, Vandersteen and Kravanja create a kind of mosaic from films that themselves are frequently thought of as tessellations of striking audio-visual moments.

Divorced from their context, we can see more clearly the ways in which these images resonate beyond their immediate ties to the particular film from which they emerge. These resonances take several forms. For example, the visual motifs have a thematic significance: portals might suggest transformation or thresholds between states of being, while hands grasping and touching suggest the desire for human connection that drives many of Tarkovsky’s characters. Excising these images from the flow of the film emphasises, however, the ways in which such moments come to have an uncertain status, rather than operating as fixed symbols.

The repeated patterns that human figures and compositions form seem to direct us towards meaning, but it is not always clear what those meanings are. In Tarkovsky’s films meaning, like time, is fluid. While the video-essay demonstrates the presence of ambiguous thematic resonances, it also shows us how the images pulsate with a powerful materiality, whether this be the material textures of the natural world, or the hapticity of human embraces. Finally, in removing the visual motifs from their contexts, what comes to the fore is their potential to function as moments of indeterminate affect or emotion, where the viewer may be as tossed between states of feeling as Mirror’s Maria seems to be, when her expression modulates between laughter and tears. In his writing on the editing process, Tarkovsky emphasised the importance of allowing images to find their own temporal rhythms. In rearranging Tarkovksy’s images, Vandersteen and Kravanja’s video has engendered new rhythms of time, and offered new patterns of experience to viewers.