Issue 29 (2010)

Igor’ Maiboroda: Rerberg and Tarkovsky: The Reverse Side of Stalker (Rerberg i Tarkovskii: Obratnaia storona Stalkera, 2009)

reviewed by Robert Bird © 2010

Georgii Rerberg (1937-1999) was Andrei Tarkovsky’s director of cinematography on Mirror (Zerkalo 1975) and on the first, abortive shoot of Stalker (1979). Familiarly known as Gosha, Rerberg was the scion of an entire line of artists and preserved, in the words of one of the younger interviewees in this new documentary, an “Ost-See” of sternness in his artistic practice. Though he spent the desperate 1990s shooting advertisements for TV, Rerberg’s achievement in cinema has drawn comparisons to Italian Renaissance painting.

Director Igor’ Maiboroda seeks the key to Rerberg’s paradoxes in his falling-out with Tarkovsky during the making of Stalker, which appears to have undermined his career and left him a broken man. After an extended search for locations Tarkovsky finally began shooting Stalker with Rerberg in 1976. The shoot was completed without anyone viewing the rushes and when the film was developed Tarkovsky declared that the film, its processing, or both had been defective. Part of the blame was put on Rerberg, whom Tarkovsky in his diary represents as a drunkard who had neglected to verify the film before the shoot. After extensive wrangling, Tarkovsky won additional funding for a new shoot, which closely followed the first, although the screenplay and characters continued to evolve. Many of Tarkovsky’s colleagues refused even to admit that the image had been defective at all; in fact, individual shots by Rerberg made their way into the finished film, which was released in 1979. They are distinguished by their shimmering, almost breathing surface and rich coloration.

Maiboroda’s film features extensive interviews about Rerberg and Tarkovsky with a large number of their contemporaries, from Marianna Chugunova to Evgenii Tsymbal, from Mstislav Rostropovich (a relative of Rerberg) to set-designer Aleksandr Boim, who was fired along with Rerberg. Maiboroda relies on a large number of archival photographs, documents and audio recordings. We see photographs from the original location of Stalker in Isfara, Tadjikistan, of the first shoot in Tallinn, and sketches of the studio sets. In addition to reproducing much of the available documentary footage of Tarkovsky from the period, Maiboroda has included rare outtakes from Mirror and some surviving frames from the first shoot of Stalker, the footage from which perished in the fire that took the life of Tarkovsky’s long-time editor, Liudmila Feiginova, in 1993.

Maiboroda is clearly a dogged investigator with a talent for uncovering unknown documents and leading his interviewees astray from their usual (and, in some cases, very familiar) narratives. The film reveals numerous new details and nuances in Tarkovsky’s and Rerberg’s work, in the Soviet cinema system, and in Soviet society of the time. Those who seek a clear explanation of the rift between Tarkovsky and Rerberg will be disappointed; Rashomon-like, the film only confirms the difficulty of really working out what happened. Tarkovsky does not come over in the best light, but the hottest roasting is reserved for his second wife, Larisa Pavlovna, a veritable Lady Macbeth of Mosfilm Street, who according to some interviewees forced Tarkovsky to fire Rerberg from Stalker in mis-directed revenge for being left off the film’s cast.

Rerberg and Tarkovsky is a boon for anyone interested in Stalker, Rerberg, Tarkovsky or Soviet cinema of the Brezhnev era. Maiboroda has left no stone unturned in his quest for reliable and interesting information and material. It is only a pity that he has not made use of the Russian text of Tarkovsky’s diaries published in 2008 (he relies instead on translations from the French edition). One would miss any of the documentary material, but the film is made unnecessarily long by its somewhat heavy-handed symbolism (e.g., the repeated motif of a cracked mirror in Rerberg’s apartment) and forced comparisons.

Director Maiboroda draws the most extended comparison between Rerberg and legendary conductor Evgenii Mravinskii, about whom Rerberg shot two documentaries. The fact that Mravinskii presented Rerberg with one of his batons is taken as proof of their profound kinship as master-artists of the first order. (One cannot help noting a more striking similarity between Mravinskii and Tarkovsky, which inevitably undermines Maiboroda’s point.) Whether or not Rerberg was correct in attributing Tarkovsky’s behavior to the Russian penchant for dictatorial rule, it is worth considering why Soviet cinema saw so many conflicts between directors and their cinematographers, such as Mikhail Kalatozov and Sergei Urusevskii, Tarkovsky and Vadim Iusov, and, most recently, Aleksandr Sokurov and Tilman Büttner, who shot Russian Ark (Russkii kovcheg). It is notable that some of the most interesting comments in Maiboroda’s film are contributed by Iurii Il’enko, who had a famous falling-out with Sergei Paradjanov after Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors (1964).

Despite its longueurs Maiboroda’s documentary is an invaluable source on Soviet cinema and culture of the late Brezhnev era and deserves a much wider screening than it is likely to get as a pendant to Stalker

Robert Bird
University of Chicago

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Rerberg and Tarkovsky: The Reverse Side of Stalker, Russia 2009
140min. color
Director, Scriptwriter, Producer: Igor’ Maiboroda

Igor’ Maiboroda: Rerberg and Tarkovsky: The Reverse Side of Stalker (Rerberg i Tarkovskii: Obratnaia storona Stalkera, 2009)

reviewed by Robert Bird © 2010

Updated: 16 Jul 10