This creative documentary tells the remarkable story behind the making of Stalker, including the series of conflicts which led to crew members, most notably celebrated director of photography Georgi Rerberg, being left off the credits, leaving careers in tatters. Far from your standard making of doc, Director Igor Mayboroda has woven an engrossing “documentary cinema novel” which not only stands as a tribute to Rerberg’s career but also as a delight for cinephiles interested in how the creative process can flourish even under the most difficult and ultimately devastating of circumstances.
At the Sheffield Doc/Fest in the UK this past fall, there was a small programme of challenging Russian documentaries called “Russian Focus: Stories from the Age of the New Soviet.” Most of these pretty much ignored the exigencies of the increasingly popular world of crossplatform, installation and online digital forms of storytelling, and instead offered lush, lingering explorations, in both short- and long-form, of disparate people figuring out what it means to be Russian twenty years after the fall of the USSR. These films were from Russia, of course (Tsirk, Two Highways, Until the Next Resurrection), but also from France (Cinetrain), the UK (How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin, Caught in the Mist), and Germany (Pink Taxi).
The tour-de-force piece of the programme was directed and co-produced by Russian filmmaker Igor Maiboroda and sat in a category of its own, a self-proclaimed “documentary cinema novel.” The 35 mm, 140-minute documentary (there is, according to the director, a six-hour version in the works) tells the remarkable story behind the making of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. It includes the series of conflicts that led to many key members of the crew, most notably celebrated director of photography, Georgy Ivanovich Rerberg, being left off the credits entirely. Maiboroda’s film not only stands as a tribute to Rerberg’s career and his famous family’s legacy, but also as an in-depth post-mortem soap opera, many years on, about the twisted and drama-filled creative process of making the cinematic masterpiece that is Stalker.
Igor Maiboroda was a close friend of Rerberg’s and supported him through hard times. Two weeks before his untimely death in July of 1999, Rerberg had plans to shoot three more films, one of which was to be about his own life. Maiboroda’s tribute is a collection of testimonies from eyewitnesses, none of whom have spoken publicly before about what happened on the Stalker set. In piecing together the structure of this homage, Maiboroda tells us in his narration that he found the structure for his film in philosopher, Alexey Losev’s (18931988) “Aesthetics of Renaissance,” one of Losev’s testimonies of a rich spiritual life that managed to survive the darkest times of Soviet Russia.
There has been much written (and celebrated) about Andrei Tarkovsky: Jean-Paul Sartre, Harvard professor, Robert Bird, Stephanie Sandler (film critic and curator), and James Quandt, are some examples. Evgeny Tsymbal, Tarkovsky’s AD on Stalker tells Maiboroda that the shooting of the film was “a mirror of a hellish trip”. They have all held forth on the genius of Tarkovsky’s singular cinematic vision.
In his review of a book of essays on Tarkovsky, Kevin Maher says about the director that “few filmmakers have worked so consistently with the same tropes and symbols, and the same level of woozy ambiguity, sometimes to mesmerizing effect, and sometimes not. While, more importantly, no other filmmaker has been so lauded and so adored for this very same dependency on stylistic rigour and moribund nuance.” This situation is not in any way altered by Maiboroda’s film, and in fact, what we do recognise, through Rerberg’s own reflections and that of others who knew and worked with him, is that the downfall of the relationship between him and the great director stemmed mostly from the mutual acknowledgment that there was just not enough space on the set for two self-proclaimed “geniuses” to work side-by-side.
In fact, Rerberg comments more than once that when shooting together, Tarkovsky tended to make his film while, simultaneously, Rerberg was making his own. In answering a question about making The Mirror (1975) with Tarkovsky, Rerberg tells a roomful of Danish film students: “Andrei made a film about himself, and I, about myself. Luckily, it was the same film.” He states that he and Tarkovsky had a common view of life, both loving Leonardo da Vinci and his idea of “beauty in the struggle between light and darkness.” Tarkovsky and Rerberg also both revered “atmosphere” above all else and worked under the premise that if the physical setting of the story was wrong somehow, then the whole artistic enterprise was compromised and would lead to disaster. Yet, despite an ideal (but deadly) atmosphere on the set of Stalker, artistic disaster ensued anyway, much of it fuelled by unending technical problems accompanied by the consumption of massive quantities of alcohol.
To my mind, what Maiboroda does best in this film (although very awkwardly, at times) is juxtapose two lives coming to a singular artistic vision from extremely disparate backgrounds. His film illustrates this in the context of a larger Soviet history where a distinguished family line, or lack thereof, has much to do with an individual’s selfreferential biography. This context is essential in telling any story of artists trying to work in a convulsive and unstable political time with absolutely no reconciliation of the past, no accountability for the present, and no assurances for the future. Rerberg was from an intelligentsia family and born in 1937, the year that was the peak of Stalin’s repressions – when poets and artists were arrested, silenced, victimised. It sets a perfect stage for the Stalker story. That, and the fact that Rerberg was imprinted by two artistic parents who taught him to come to a piece of work with independence and full authority – in other words, he was not really cut out to be second fiddle, or “first violin,” for that matter. As artist Alexander Boim (the uncredited art director on Stalker) tells Maiboroda: “Even if you’re first violin, the conductor is still the boss. A film director is the conductor.”
Maiboroda constantly contrasts and juxtaposes stories of Tarkovsky from the many people who were on the disastrous set of Stalker, with Rerberg’s documentation of the principal conductor of the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, Yevgeny Mravinsky, filmed while working with his orchestra and talking about his creative process – a profound personal affiliation. Both Tarkovsky and Mravinsky adhered to the poetic realism and strict form as it pertains to the cinema and to classical music, respectively. What Maiboroda means to illustrate, is strictly a thing of the past. One assumes that this is really the subtext of Maiboroda’s homage, and why his portrait of this fateful partnership between auteur and DP is laden with so much Russian history. When asked whether the tradition of this kind of great artistic expression, accompanied by the highest standard of craftsmanship, particularly in cinema, will ever revive itself, his answer is, “No, there is no hope.” He points, specifically, to the decline of architecture when talking about the decline of film, comparing the two art forms in their mutual lack of respect for form and tradition, citing the downfall of a fundamental, or classic, way of displaying strong artistry and craft. The insistence of that kind of exacting perfection is gone forever. Rerberg was one of those artists that took that with him when he died.
Yet, Maiboroda could not have made this film without the low insults of Tarkovsky, and company, towards Rerberg. It is intimated that there likely were various amanuenses of Tarkovsky’s published diaries (1970-86), including his wife, Larisa, who considered Rerberg a personal enemy. These diaries are read from liberally, particularly towards the end of the film when things really start to go south on the Stalker set. In gathering together many voices and points-of-view, Maiboroda also calls into question the perception of his own protagonist and what he represented to Tarkovsky.
Questions of severe revisionism start to take hold, for when Maiboroda’s film seems to mimic Tarkovsky’s way of “sculpting in time,” he is admitting that he is also using the unique characteristic of cinema as a medium in which one can take an experience of time and alter it. By using long takes and few cuts, as Tarkovsky did, there is a sense of time passing, time lost, and the relationship of one moment in time to another that sometimes works beautifully. However, there are also moments when it distinctly does not, leaving one breathless with confusion, despite Maiboroda’s Proustian narration, accompanied by slow, leisurely pans of Rerberg’s art-filled, luxurious apartment at certain key points in the film.
At the very beginning, Maiboroda compares the “reverse side of Stalker” to the Chernobyl disaster, with Tarkovsky embodying the nuclear reactor meltdown, losing mental and emotional control and “poisoning” everyone around him. According to Maiboroda, this metaphor also anticipates the collapse of the Soviet Union. These are complex themes that, ultimately, do not hold together since the film devolves into personal anecdote with second-hand portraiture taking centre stage as the narrative through-line. Ultimately, there is no trusted authorial voice and one feels whipsawed between too many disparate elements of Rerberg’s life and experience—between those things that charged and inspired him as an artist and the treachery and poison that doomed him the minute he encountered Tarkovsky’s artistic zone. In its own self-referential way, it is the quintessential ode to imperfect genius.