From the outside, Andrei Tarkovsky was an intimidating filmmaker to start to explore. That hesitation proved to be completely unfounded as his films are pretty staightforward explorations of faith, art, and confronting death. You just need a little patience.
7. Stalker 
I must confess that despite having a killer setup and premise, Stalker connected me with less than any other Tarkovsky film. I appreciated its contemplation and exploration of human nature and free will and fait. But I did not find it especially stirring or moving in the way that I feel after most Tarkovsky pictures.
I think the most interesting aspect of the film is the use of empty space. Tarkovsky had an unparalleled ability to make characters feel like they are all alone in the world. The world as we know it does not exist outside of their immediate surroundings. There is a vasty emptiness to the world and a limit to the possibilities of something better.
It is worth comparing that feeling with what was to come with Tarkovsky. His final two films after this one were all about exploring impending doom. That impending doom seems less certain here. There seems to be more apprehension about the world as it is around them. In the context of Tarkovsky’s full work, that stakes of the world around them thematically seem that much higher as a result though.
6. Mirror 
“Then I grow sad. I can’t wait to once again have this dream in which I will be a child again and in which I’ll be happy…knowing that everything still lies ahead…that everything is possible.”
Like so much of Tarkovsky’s work, here he captures the feeling created by knowing the end is near. Mirror focuses back on how one looks back on one’s life. While many films do flashbacks neatly and chronologically, Tarkovsky instead crafts a story of impressions and feelings and moods with a mixture of clips, dream sequences, and archival footage which far more accurately capture what it actually feels like to reflect on one’s life. There is a confusion to being alive that age and wisdom only can do so much to provide clarity. Instead, with each passing year you are left but with a mere additional layer of an impression of what your past meant to you now. And it’s never neat and easy and it never flows through your mind in a logical order.
5. Nostalghia 
In a fitting film to come before The Sacrifice, Tarkovsky again is grappling with impending destruction. While the source of said doom was more concrete in his final work, here the dread is less clear but no less haunting. In fact, the lack of clarity of what is coming (or if anything is coming) in some ways makes for a more horrifying picture as it is easier to go mad when there is no clear thing to be afraid of getting you. It is hard to look at his final two films as anything but a man confronting both of his own mortality and the world’s self-destruction.
4. Ivan’s Childhood 
Despite the non-linear plot and liberal use of flashbacks and unclear dream sequences, Tarkovsky’s first film feels shockingly straightforward in comparison to what was to come with his work. The film is called Ivan’s Childhood and the movie is pretty directly about how the war fucked up Ivan and who knows how many other people. We see fantastical images of Ivan’s pre-war childhood that are obviously romanticized. We see the hardness in Ivan during the war as he is dead set on participating in some form of fighting back against the Germans and how nothing else, even his own life, seems to matter to him anymore. And we see the end result of his participation: death. If Tarkovsky’s later films would be about some sort of impending doom, his debut film dealt with the very real doom inside their homes.
3. Andrei Rublev 
“For it is a sin to deny the devine spark.”
Andrei Rublev is a remarkable exploration of what it means to be an artist in an unfair society. While obviously the film is specifically about one man in a particularly oppressive period in one country’s history, the conflicts, journey, and emotional turmoil Rublev goes through captures much broader truths as well. The world is a sick place, and that can make the creative and artistic ventures seem meaninglessly or counterproductive or even genuinely negative. There is great meaning in the pursuit of truth through art and the lowest moments of humanity remind us of the need for it more so then than ever.
2. Solaris 
Kris Kelvin is sent to the Solaris space station to see if he can figure out why the project is potentially driving the men stationed there insane and if the the project can be salvaged. Upon arriving, Kris is slowly driven mad as well. While at this station, his dead ex-wife continuously reappears as some sort of breathing spectral being. His past and internal pain are quite literally coming back to haunt him. He has been hiding from this pain, and this experience has forced him to confront it. What becomes truly sad is that towards the end, he begins to recognize that he will no longer belong on Earth. For Earth is not a place where confronting our pain and reflecting on it happen. He would be all alone there in a brand new way. Solaris speaks to the importance of change and moving forward, but also questions what that looks like. Blinding moving forward could destroy us. We instead need to reflect and see what is actually needed to improve things.
1. The Sacrifice 
The pure existential, apocalyptic dread that is just radiating with every moment in this film is simultaneously beautiful and horrifying. While there should no reason to find beauty in such a tale, there is a comfort in the shared dread. The knowledge that those who came before you (and after) experienced the world the way you have had to as well. The absolute maddening paradox that when faced with the end of the world that it seems like there is nothing you can do but that you must do something. A forever state of mind for humanity.