Why does Dostoevsky appear twice in Tarkovsky’s The Mirror?
I have a close friend who is a former admirer of Tarkovsky’s film The Mirror. Yesterday, however, he watched the film again and was unable to enjoy it—quite the travesty. After some discussion, he requested that I write something about the film. This post is my attempt to do so. Every attempt I’ve ever made to write about why I find the film so powerful has failed, so I’ll begin this post simply with the hope of understanding one puzzling feature about the film, and if it develops into something that, in addition, explains some small portion of the film’s appeal, even better.
Many details of the film, even details considered at a fairly broad level (e.g. the existence of certain scenes) are difficult to understand. The movement of the film is slow and meandering, moving back and forth in time, and I confess that some scenes remain opaque to me. The film as a whole, however, is fairly simple. Tarkovsky relates the following anecdote in an interview:
One day, during a public debate organized after a screening the discussion dragged on and on. After midnight, a cleaning woman arrived to clean the screening room, wanting to throw us out. She had seen the film earlier and she didn’t understand why we were arguing for such a long time about The Mirror. She told us, “Everything is quite simple, someone fell ill and was afraid of dying. He remembered, all of a sudden, all the pain he’d inflicted on others, and he wanted to atone for it, to ask to be pardoned.” This simple woman had understood it all, she had grasped the repentance in the film.
So there it is, very simple. But the details are still puzzling and one must come to grips with them. The aspect of the film I wish to focus on is the double appearance of Dostoevsky, once in person and once by name.
To get a foothold on this double appearance, one first needs to note the most prominent doubling in the film: the same actress plays both the narrator’s mother and his wife. This is given an explanation in the middle of the film, when the narrator tells his wife that he cannot think of his mother without giving to her (his mother) her (his wife’s) face. Nevertheless, the differences between them are apparent: it is a credit to the actress, Margarita Terekhova, that when she first appears as the wife, you can tell she is playing a new role simply because she is making a face that the mother would never make.
Dostoevsky appears once in connection with the mother, and once in connection with the wife. A brief description of the scenes, first. I shall focus primarily on Dostoevsky’s role, and assume familiarity with the film.
The mother. The scene takes place at the printing house where his mother worked. The scene cannot be a straightforward recollection, since the narrator was not present and was just a child, but presumably he learned about it somewhere and is now “remembering” it as if he had been there. His mother feared she had made a mistake in proofing an important edition of a book, and so checks the proofs and finds that everything is alright. As she goes to check the proofs, a man wordlessly offers to do it for her, but she insists on doing it herself. The man walks away with the remark, “Everyone’s rushing. Nobody’s got any time.”
After returning to her desk, she is berated by her boss, who compares her to Maria Timofeyevna, Captain Lebyadkin’s sister. Timofeyevna is always making demands, and her brother beats her for them. These, it turns out, are characters in a story written by the man who made the remark above (and who is present in this scene, silently watching), referred to by the boss as “Fyodor Mikhailovitch”. The man is thus identified as Dostoevsky, though the last name is never mentioned. (Maria and Lebyadkin are characters in his novel Demons, which, alas, I have not read.) The boss then draws the true moral of the comparison: her (the mother’s) ex-husband was right to leave her (he has gone off to the war and not returned, but is not dead), and, “as for your children, you will definitely make them miserable.”
The wife. The narrator and his wife are arguing about their son, Ignat. The narrator is both ridiculing his son (the flunk) and requesting that he (the son) be allowed to live with him (the narrator). One reason is that (as he has expressed earlier), he thinks a single woman is not up to the task of raising a son: she will make Ignat miserable. The options, as he sees them, are thus: (a) Ignat lives with him, or (b) his wife remarries. In this scene, his wife asks whether she should marry this man she has been seeing, a writer named “Dostoyevsky”—here only the last name is given. The narrator brushes him off as talentless, but nonetheless later tells his ex-wife that she should (even must) marry him.
A number of connections emerge between the two scenes. The narrator suggests that Ignat has told his mother that he would like to live with his father, which the wife disputes. The narrator asks her if she thinks he has simply invented this claim for his own pleasure—an accusation strikingly akin to the accusation leveled against his mother by her boss. Moreover, the second scene includes a reference to Lisa’s death—Lisa was a coworker of his mother. The wife suggests that he call his mother, who was (it is hinted) depressed after the death of her friend. This phone call we have already seen earlier in the film, in the scene immediately preceding the printing house scene. Connecting these recollections to the external events of which they are recollections, then, we can see the encounter with his wife as the cause of his phone call with his mother, which in turn drives the very existence of the “recollection” of the printing house scene.
This provides interesting insight into the printing house scene, which, for reasons mentioned, is as much construction as memory. Much of what occurs must have been supplied by the narrator, for he simply could not have learned about the scene in the requisite amount of detail (at least, it is very unlikely). We can see the construction as shaped by recurrent concerns, worries that developed, perhaps unconsciously, in childhood, and which are coming into view more fully later in life. Why should a scene in which his mother is told she will surely make her children miserable be present at all in a film in which the narrator is remembering instances where he has caused someone pain? In fact, not every scene is such a recollection, but it’s a worthy question to ask nonetheless. Not because he blames his mother for making him miserable (perhaps he does, or once did, and perhaps this belief in part led to his estrangement from his mother, and so to pain he caused her), but because he is worried that her life was ruined because of him. In the later scene, his wife says as much: she asks what kind of relationship he wants with his mother, and suggests that one reason that relationship isn’t realized is precisely because he is so worried. But there is also another worry: the narrator in effect takes on the role of his mother’s boss by suggesting his wife, so long as she remains unmarried, is unfit to raise Ignat. In constructing a scene in which his mother’s boss leveled just that insult at his mother, he is inserting his own worry about his own children. Moreover, because he sees it in the third person, because the boss is not him, but someone else, perhaps he is better able to empathize with his mother, and thus by analogy his wife.
In this way, the issues of these two scenes are intertwined, and the scenes can to a significant extent be seen as mirror images—distorted and different in detail, perhaps, but at root the same. This is abstractly represented by the fact that Dostoevsky, who is inserted into both scenes (Dostoevsky the historical author was in fact dead before either took place), is called by his first name and patronymic in the first scene, and by his last name in the second. What is begun and left open in the first scene is completed in the second.
Which leads to the question, why Dostoevsky? Dostoevsky certainly explored the connection between repentance and illness, and the doctor in the penultimate scene intimates that the narrator’s illness is one of those peculiarly Russian illnesses of the spirit that become illnesses of the body, wasting it away. And it is also worth noting that Tarkovsky, throughout the 1970s, tried and failed to make a film version of The Idiot—and the image of the Holy Fool that that book exemplifies appears repeatedly in Tarkovsky’s films—although not in The Mirror.
Unlike Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov, the crimes for which the narrator must repent are not anything like murder—they are not extraordinary at all. Though perhaps more shamefully callous than most people at times (but perhaps not), nothing that the narrator has done to his family is particularly striking. Tarkovsky reveals how these same feelings and regrets can consume a man even if his crimes are entirely ordinary.
Symbols, in Tarkovsky, do not have fixed meanings. They do not refer to anything outside themselves: an idea, an event, whatever. Instead, they function more like both centers of attraction and jumping off points. Themes coalesce around them, and they serve as launching pads for the various particularities of his films. So too the figure of Dostoevsky: it situates the film in a particular tradition, links together two crucial scenes, and encourages us to read the film in light of Dostoevskian concerns. Ultimately, however, what matters is to feel the presence of Dostoevsky in the life of the narrator: haunting his childhood and his ambiguous relationship with his mother, haunting his adulthood and his selfish disregard of his former wife and his child. What matters is to feel the foolishness of his dismissal of Dostoevsky as a writer with no talent who is not read, foolishness made apparent by the bare backbone plot of the film, as captured by the cleaning woman. Dostoevsky is a presence in the narrator’s life, functioning to link together events, memories, and worries as he lies dying. He is a specter hovering over the film.