Spine #1084 of The Criterion Collection is writer/director Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror, the fifth of his films to be added to the collection. A Russian filmmaker, Tarkovsky helmed 12 projects over his lifetime, including one short and one made-for-TV movie. Upon its release, Mirror was considered inaccessible due to its nonlinear approach, eschewing a traditional narrative for something more poetic, illusive, and ethereal. Instead of approaching the tale of a dying 40-year-old looking back on his life using the tried-and-true conventional structure, Tarkovsky switches the color palette constantly between three tones, he uses newsreel footage and voiceovers, and, to really lean into the dreamlike quality, he cast the same actor as both the mother and ex-wife of the protagonist, all while jumping back and forth through time with only the smallest bits of anchor enabling the audience to make sense of it all. One can easily describe the film by proclaiming it as an exploration of life from the perspective of a dying man, yet, Mirror is so much more than that. As usual, The Criterion Collection put together a home release package that enables cinephiles desiring a deeper dive to get exactly that with in-depth supplemental materials for both the film and the filmmaker.
This is going to seem out of left field, but there’s a Jewish concept called “bashert,” meaning that something’s meant to be and is destined to occur. One interpretation is that bashert refers to a soulmate, someone another is ordained to meet and marry. Another interpretation is that of events which align with each other in a specific way. Ahead of my first-time watch of Mirror, I stumbled across a video of Milwaukee Bucks player Giannis Antetokounmpo talking to the press in which he says (and this is paraphrased) that, “focusing on the past is ego; on the future is pride; and on the present is humility.” As a non-sports person, I didn’t think much of the phrase, but, upon watching Mirror, it kept rattling around in my mind. The entirety of Mirror is about self-reflection. Disjointed though it may be, inconsistent in coloring or narrative flow, Mirror is centered on our unseen adult protagonist Alexei’s (voiced by Innokenti Smoktunovsky) perception of his life. Mirror is ego examined through the lens of pride with recognition of humility of his present dying state. It’s flashbacks to anchoring, life-shaping moments for Alexei, while also branching outward to his son, Ignat (Ignat Daniltsev, who also plays Alexei at age 12), looking at where his life touches the next generation. Though the narrative is set up as through Alexei’s mind, there are a number of sequences that he wouldn’t be privy to, so it’s best just to think of the entire film as the creation of his mind, that there’s a certain truth to it based on the character’s feelings, but not in an exacting way where each scene occurs exactly in time as presented. This can be a struggle when trying to grasp hold of the more tenuous elements of Mirror, so it’s best to allow the film to wash over you as a whole piece and examine it later, using the feelings the film inspire within you as the jumping off point for personal exploration.
Criterion’s newly available Mirror restoration is not the first time the film’s been made available publically. Earlier in 2021, Janus Films’s 2K scan of the original negative was made available in Lincoln Center’s virtual cinema, offering an opportunity for anyone to observe the film in its newly restored presentation. Based on the information in the liner novelette accompanying the release, the version on the Criterion Blu-ray is most likely the same restored edition that the Lincoln Center made available. As explained in the notes, the new digital transfer was restored by Mosfilm using the original 35 mm camera negative. Similarly, the uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray was remastered from the 35-mm magnetic track. The end result is an on-disc presentation that’s beautiful in look and sound. The black-and-white and sepia scenes don’t garner the most notice, whereas the full-color sequences are breathtaking. There’s vibrancy in the imagery, whether it’s the opening scene of Margarita Terekhova’s Mother smoking a cigarette while her children sleep, the burning of the neighbor’s barn that adorns the front and back of the liner novelette, or Alexei’s memory of his time at military school in winter. Each sequence in the film, no matter the color palette, is indicative of an emotional tie Alexei has toward a moment. The restoration helps capture the emotion in the moment, such as the isolation Alexei’s feeling as we see him endure the terrible cold juxtaposed with the story of his first love. The snow-covered ground, a pristine white in the restoration which enhances his memory of the red-haired girl with the chapped lips he longed for. The sound doesn’t pull you in as strongly as the imagery, but that’s more due to the lack of 5.1 accessibility. This is not to say that the sound doesn’t enhance the picture — you’ll feel the cold of a Russian Winter just fine — it’s more that the audio elements don’t surround you.
If a deeper exploration of the film is what you’re looking for, you’ll find all you need to understand the film within Criterion’s usual hearty supplemental materials on the two-disc set. For the Blu-ray edition, along with the film on disc one, you’ll find Andrei A. Tarkovsky’s feature-length 2019 documentary Andrei Tarkovsky: A Cinema Prayer, which explores his father Andrei’s life and work using saved photos, documents, and the director’s own words. On disc two is a new documentary from Louise Milne and Seán Martin tilted The Dream in the Mirror, a series of interviews the two specifically conducted with former coworkers, family members, and scholars for this release; a brand new interview with score composer Eduard Artemyev, created entirely for this home release; a previously 2007 documentary focused on cinematographer Georgy Rerberg; a 2004 interview with Mirror co-screenwriter Alexander Misharin; and two brief archival interviews with Tarkovsky. Within the novelette, a Berlin film critic offers in-depth analysis of Tarkovsky’s work collectively. He, specifically, offers some interesting thoughts on why there are so many unnatural elements in Mirror, including the inclusion of newsreel footage as it relates to the larger themes of the film. The rest of the novelette is a mixture of still images from the film, restored beautifully, and translated texts from prior materials that offer insight about the director, the film, and his work at large.
If you’re wondering why I refer so frequently to the liner notes as a novelette, it’s because it’s an 88-page mini-book rather than a more traditional simple insert. Criterion releases have played loose with tradition before, like the foldout liner notes within Merrily We Go to Hell (Spine # 1076) or Irma Vep (Spine # 1074). Like with Seven Samurai, the resulting design of the novelette makes the packaging of Mirror more akin to Spine #2 Seven Samurai, requiring a bit more bulk. This translate to a more cardboard digipak construction for the release, rather than a sturdier hard plastic case from other releases. It may be safe to presume that Criterion owners are already careful with the films they purchase given the financial investment required of ownership, but it’s good to know in advance if a particular release may require more care once brought home. For greater clarity, here’s a video to highlight the difference in construction between Mirror and other Criterion releases.
Watching Mirror as an entry point into Andrei Tarkovsky appears to be a daring move. It pushes the audience to uncomfortable places, asking them to consider their own mortality as it relates to their memory and perception of time and the moments in-between moments. It certainly challenges the audience to consider the larger picture of their lives as it relates to the world when Tarkovsky uses the various newsreel footage of soldiers at war as an anchor for Alexei’s lifespan. He was too young to fight, sure, but that doesn’t mean the war didn’t inflict a toll via his parents or social interactions. Tarkovsky, via Alexei, opens himself wide, inviting the audience in, seeking to express a profoundly personal struggle of identity amid past pain. Though one scene flows seemingly disconnected to another and another, shifting and changing like a conversation without direction, bending the rules of reality as needed, there remains something grounded and human throughout Mirror. What it is, though, appears to be personal as what you see depends on what is reflected back upon you.
Mirror Special Features
- New 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
- Andrei Tarkovsky: A Cinema Prayer, a 2019 documentary about the director by his son Andrei A. Tarkovsky
- The Dream in the Mirror, a new documentary by Louise Milne and Seán Martin
- New interview with composer Eduard Artemyev
- Islands: Georgy Rerberg, a 2007 documentary about the cinematographer
- Archival interviews with Tarkovsky and screenwriter Alexander Misharin
- New English subtitle translation
- PLUS: An essay by critic Carmen Gray and, for the Blu-ray, the 1968 film proposal and literary script by Tarkovsky and Misharin that they ultimately developed into Mirror
- New cover design by Nessim Higson
Available on Blu-ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection July 6th, 2021.