The Omens

The Omens

Tarkovsky, Sacrifice, Cancer

Robert Bird


Early in the day on December 29, 1986, Andrei Tarkovsky passed away from complications of cancer in the Clinique Hartmann in Neuilly-sur-Seine outside Paris. Tarkovsky’s diary, which he self-importantly (or self-ironically?) entitled Martyrology, bears searing witness to his final months: the onset of illness and shock of diagnosis in December 1985, while he was in Sweden completing his final film Sacrifice; the discomfort and indignity of the treatments; the struggle to complete the final edit of Sacrifice from his hospital bed; his dispiriting inability to attend the film’s premiere at Cannes; false hopes for recovery that would allow him to undertake one of many potential film projects; the gradual demise and fall into silence.

Following the director’s published texts and interviews, it is common for viewers to try to extract uplifting meaning from Tarkovsky’s films, much as Tarkovsky himself frequently did in his diary, press interviews and his book Sculpting in Time, the completion of which was his other major project in 1986. But Tarkovsky’s illness and death defy easy transcendence. Over this final year, when he produced no new work and made few public statements, when his diary notations dwindle to silence, even Tarkovsky seems to have abandoned his penchant for inspirational platitudes. Tarkovsky’s enigmatic final words in his diary, dated December 15, 1986, provide a brutal verdict on his cruelly curtailed life: “A camera negative, cut up for some reason in many random places…” (Tarkovskii 2008: 596).1

The question that Tarkovsky’s illness poses—that cancer poses each of us, its victims—is whether it bears any meaningful relation to his life’s work and can therefore be retrieved as a tragic turn, or whether it is merely a random and meaningless act of violence, perpetrated by a pernicious and impersonal force. In fact, this is a version of the question faced by the protagonists of Tarkovsky’s films: by Andrei Rublev, who struggles to discern transcendent beauty in a brutal and ugly world; by Kris in Solaris, who seeks redemption by loving a phantom; by the three seekers in Stalker, who journey to the center of the Zone to realise their innermost desires; by Andrei in Nostalghia, who finds purpose in accomplishing the command of a lunatic visionary; and by Alexander in Sacrifice, as his entire life collapses within the walls of his cherished home. These characters resort to increasingly absurd means to elevate their otherwise inscrutable anguish; Alexander ultimately burns down the house he built for his family. Only Tarkovsky’s characters’ faith, or rather their contrarian desire to believe, turns mortal dread into redemptive sacrifice. But are these desperate sacrifices real, or simply panicked attempts to create meaning where there is none, where there is merely anguish? Refuting the tragic insinuations of his films, Tarkovsky’s cancer threatens to place a stamp of irredeemable contingency on everything that preceded it.

Andrei Tarkovsky composing his acceptance speech for the Cannes Film Festival. 19 May 1986, Rue Puvis de Chavannes 10, Paris. Photograph © Irina Brown 1986.

The Cancer Itself

Tarkovsky’s fatal illness is usually described as lung or throat cancer, but in his diary notations he refrains from recording a full diagnosis, focusing on specific tumour sites, including metastases to the spine and head. The initial diagnosis was made in mid-December 1985 at the Karolinska University Hospital in Stockholm, during a battery of tests that were complicated by the holiday period; Tarkovsky credited the clout of exiled musician Mstislav Rostroprovich in ensuring they were performed at all (Tarkovskii 2008: 561). After a few days in Italy over the New Year, Tarkovsky transferred his care to Dr. Léon Schwartzenberg at the Institut de Cancérologie Paris Nord in Sarcelles. Schwartzenberg was the life partner of actress Marina Vlady, whom Tarkovsky had known through her film work in the USSR and her previous marriage to singer and actor Vladimir Vysotsky, who had died suddenly in 1980. On January 19, 1986, Tarkovsky and his wife Larisa were buoyed by the arrival of his fifteen-year-old son Andrei and mother-in-law Anna Semёnovna Egorkina, who had been kept in the USSR to ensure Tarkovsky’s return. A friend in these final months, Chris Marker filmed the reunion, providing us with the only known moving pictures of the ailing Tarkovsky and his Parisian entourage.

First as celebrity defector and then as cancer victim, throughout his travails Tarkovsky was supported morally and materially by a network of sympathisers who used their connections with officials in the governments that sheltered him. The Swedish producer of Sacrifice Anna-Lena Wibom appealed to the French Foreign Minister to issue the Tarkovskys French citizenship. Twice Tarkovsky met personally with Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme to secure his help in gaining his son’s release from the USSR; through intermediaries he also sought help in this matter from the Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Andreotti and even US President Ronald Reagan. Rostropovich promised to intercede not only with Reagan on Andrei Jr’s behalf, but also with the mayor of Paris Jacques Chirac (for financial and legal aid) and the mayor of Florence (for help with the apartment granted by the city) (Tarkovskii 2008: 559-560, 572).2 In the end, it seems, Marina Vlady and Léon Schwartzenberg were the ones who secured Andrei Jr’s exit visa, as well as helping Tarkovsky out with some cash and lodging. The Tarkovskys also spent time at the apartment of Polish director Krzysztof Zanussi. In early April the Tarkovskys moved to an apartment vacated by producer Anatole Dauman. A volunteer committee raised money to cover the costs of his treatment, partly through a benefit concert held in Tarkovsky’s honor on March 12, 1986 (Tarkovskii 2008: 571).

Tarkovsky’s initial treatment (starting in the first week of January 1986) consisted of simultaneous blasts of both chemotherapy and radiation directed at the tumour on his head, repeated every two or three weeks; Tarkovsky reports that the dual treatment was Schwartzenberg’s innovation, although nowadays it is not unusual (Tarkovskii 2008: 575). After the first cycle Tarkovsky registered nausea and a loss of hair at the radiated site. After the second cycle he shaved his head. On February 1, 1986, he had a port surgically inserted for easier injections, which caused sustained discomfort. A third cycle in late February left Tarkovsky weakened and demoralised, despite encouraging test results: “This nausea, despair, not pain but fear, animal fear, and the lack of hope are all indescribable, like bad dreams. But this was no dream,” Tarkovsky noted (Tarkovskii 2008: 576). The final cycle in this initial course of treatment occurred in early April, after which Schwartzenberg seemed encouraged by Tarkovsky’s response to treatment.

By mid-May, however, Tarkovsky’s condition had deteriorated to the point that he had to be given a blood transfusion. Soon thereafter Tarkovsky registered new tumours on his eighth vertebra and on his head, leading to a new cycle of radiation and chemotherapy. By June 10 the doctors had exhausted the limit of radiation Tarkovsky could tolerate, and Dr Schwartzenberg released Tarkovsky from his care, evidently putting a falsely optimistic spin on Tarkovsky’s condition.

During this five-month period of intensive treatment, Tarkovsky worked on the final cut of Sacrifice, mostly with Polish-Swedish film editor Michal Leszczylowski. On January 24, 1986, Chris Marker recorded Tarkovsky’s viewing of the initial cut from a VHS tape brought to Paris by Leszczylowski, Sven Nykvist, Anna-Lena Wibom and Leila Alexander-Garrett, who served as translator and production assistant. From afar Tarkovsky continued to guide the editing process, leading up to the film’s premiere in Stockholm on May 9 and on May 12 at the Cannes Film Festival, where it received the Grand-Prix de jury. Tarkovsky declined to travel there, “in order not to shock the journalists,” he wrote, and in order to protect his chances of getting funding for future projects from producers who might lose trust in his longevity (Tarkovskii 2008: 586). Andrei Jr, the film’s dedicatee, received the prize in his ailing father’s stead (Brown 2020).

Concurrently Tarkovsky also worked on his book Imprinted Time, known in English as Sculpting in Time. On June 30 he noted in his diary: “Edited the Russian text of my book. Only the final chapter remains” (Tarkovskii 2008: 588).

The heavy atmosphere in the Tarkovsky household was exacerbated by the fallout of Tarkovsky’s love affair with a Norwegian woman named Berit during his sojourn in Sweden. She was with him as he received his initial test results (Alexander-Garrett 2009: 473-492), which resulted in the birth of a son, who was named Alexander (Alexander-Garrett 2009: illustrations between pp. 256 and 257). The published versions of Tarkovsky’s diary evidently omit most of his notations about the affair and its effect on his family life. Only on the day of the Cannes closing ceremony, May 19, 1986, Tarkovsky records: “Yesterday Larisa had an attack of hysteria. Again” (Tarkovskii 2008: 187). Apparently Tarkovsky never saw Berit again after leaving Stockholm in December 1985, though he did manage to see a photograph of his son (Alexander-Garrett 2009: 509).

Without hope of a cure, but evidently in a sufficiently stable condition, on July 10, 1986 Tarkovsky traveled alone to a palliative care clinic run by the Anthroposophic Society at Niefern-Öschelbronn (Baden-Württemberg), Germany. For some years Tarkovsky had been reading Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Anthroposophy, and he had even mused in his diary about a film project entitled “Golgotha” or “The Gospel according to Steiner” (Tarkovskii 2008: 555, 570, 593). It is unknown whether he sought out a berth at the clinic or was invited, or who bore the costs. Tarkovsky was treated with non-traditional methods, like injections of mistletoe and other natural substances. For a time Tarkovsky suffered from pneumonia, which mercifully excused him from the clinic’s usual art therapy (Werner 2002: 520). Tarkovsky was receptive to non-traditional forms of medicine, but mostly it seems that he valued the solitude and bucolic landscape, although his final judgment was harsh: “There’s nothing of interest in the hospital” (Tarkovskii 2008: 589). According to his doctor Hans Werner, by this time Tarkovsky was in a grave state of depression, but he also entertained false hope, based on Schwartzenberg’s artificially rosy prognosis (Werner 2002: 520). Werner saw his job as that of bringing Tarkovsky back down to earth as gently as possible. Tarkovsky was buoyed by the visit of Michal Leszczylowski, the editor of Sacrifice, with whom he shared strolls around the hospital grounds and conversation. It seemed to help; Leszczylowski has written that, when seeing Tarkovsky in Germany, “I thought he had recovered” (Leszczylowski 2002: 228).

Between August 18 and October 28, 1986, Tarkovsky was back in Italy, where he hoped to continue his recovery in Orbetello, a small settlement on the Tuscan coast, evidently at the invitation of singer Domenico Modugno and television executive Pio de Berti Gambini. Here he was visited by Krzysztof Zanussi, in whose apartment he had briefly lodged in Paris, and who found Tarkovsky’s condition somewhat improved (Zanussi 2002: 160). Eventually, however, he was forced to face up to his cancer’s grim persistence and he returned to Paris for treatment, which soon involved weekly infusions of chemotherapy. On November 25 he registered that “it’s been more than a month since I got out of bed” (Tarkovskii 2008: 594-595). At some point during that month he held a three-minute phone call with his friend Franco Terilli (who had assisted on Nostalghia) during which neither man could bring himself to utter a single word (Guerra 2002: 505). The silence soon became permanent.

Andrei Tarkovsky with Tishka, an injured bird adopted by his family. 8 June 1986. Photograph © Irina Brown 1986.

Something to Do with Conscience

Faced with Tarkovsky’s premature and sudden fall into silence, we search for causes.

Tarkovsky had never boasted of rude health. He smoked, but sources differ on how heavily and for how long. His diary entry for November 12, 1970 records his resolution to quit smoking on medical advice, which he describes as “long overdue” (Tarkovskii 2008: 50).3 But even before 1970, Tarkovsky’s films present an unusually early and consistent case against tobacco. In Ivan’s Childhood (1962) Ivan upbraids Captain Kholin:

Ivan: Are you still smoking? Go ahead, smoke. Smoking turns your lungs green.

Kholin: Let them turn green. Who can see it?

Ivan: Well, I don’t want you to smoke.

In Nostalghia the madman Domenico comments enigmatically as Andrei lights up: “I also ask for a cigarette when I don’t know what to say. But I’ve never learned to smoke. It’s too difficult. Instead of smoking one should learn to do some important thing.” However striking, this lifelong skepticism about smoking makes Tarkovsky’s cancer no more than a matter of irony, dwelling on which would only make Tarkovsky’s life and work into an extended public health announcement.

The signs were there to be read. On 18 December 1973 Tarkovsky notes in his diary that he has seen a doctor who declared that his health had been “terribly neglected” and advised “serious treatment” (Tarkovskii 2008: 105). “I feel really bad. Either as a result of treatment or, on the contrary, from a lack thereof,” he added. In April 1978 Tarkovsky survived a serious heart attack, just as he turned forty-six, but he looked outside for its causes. “Accursed Stalker,” Tarkovsky commented at that time, referring to the mishap-plagued production of his fifth feature film (Tarkovskii 2008: 179).

Tarkovsky’s ambivalence about medical science is encapsulated in the old glass hypodermic syringes in rusty metal cases that litter his films. In Solaris such a metal syringe case is one of the objects that Kris Kelvin brings with him from his earthly home to the spaceship—or else as an object that mystically migrates onto the spaceship, blurring the distinction between his earthly and his Solarian homes. It suggests that contagion might prove indistinguishable from the cure. The syringe case hosts a young plant, but also Soviet currency: life and corruption. Medicine teeters unsurely on the border between the body and its grave, soma and sema.

Cancer is an illness without cause; we can only point to the entire environment in which we exist, which sustains us, until it poisons us.

Renata Salecl has observed how, by the early 1970s, cancer had not only replaced the atom bomb as the major cause of social anxiety but had, in a sense, internalised the nuclear threat, just as later it internalised anxiety about environmental degradation. The Cold War certainly shadowed Tarkovsky throughout his life. He arrived in the US for the first time in the days immediately following the Cuban Missile Crisis, in order to screen Ivan’s Childhood at the San Francisco Film Festival. He returned to the US in September 1983, right after the Soviet air force shot down a civilian jet from South Korea that had strayed into Soviet airspace. After Chernobyl Tarkovsky diagnosed the anxiety he had lived with all his adult life: “the problem is that the New War, the Atom War began already at the moment when Oppenheimer exploded his experimental bomb on the test site. The war has continued for decades, although we don’t notice it, being unaccustomed to identifying a bomb that hasn’t fallen on our heads as a weapon” (Tarkovskii 2008: 594). Perhaps, then, Tarkovsky’s cancer resulted, in some sense, from the physical and psychic stresses of the atomic age?

But if atomic culture provides a cause for cancer, so also does it provide a cure. As cancer absorbed the tensions of the atomic age, radiation went from terrifying weapon to sustaining treatment, while the chemical industries that poisoned our world became the source of healing toxins. Cancer became the subjective register of a sick world, whose crises—both physical and spiritual—manifest themselves paradoxically as an illness that requires the body to be poisoned, radiated, violated (Salecl 2004: 6-7).

Under these conditions, Tarkovsky freely ascribes moral cause to physical illness. In the posthumous video confession that the cosmonaut Gibarian addresses to his old friend Kris Kelvin, he blames “something to do with conscience” for the anomalies experienced by the crew of the spaceship orbiting Solaris. In a late episode of Mirror the doctor likewise attributes the malaise of the protagonist (played by Tarkovsky himself, although his face is not shown in the final cut) to “conscience, or memory.” His close associate Ol’ga Surkova records Tarkovsky (pre-cancer) quoting Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s explanation of how he recovered from his cancer: “In order not to die from cancer you need a clean conscience” ((Surkova 2005: 351). When Tarkovsky suffered his heart attack, during his work on “accursed Stalker,” his first comment was: “I need to change my life. Destroy it” (Tarkovskii 2008: 179).

The appropriate response to illness, in this spiritualizing view, is less medicine than penitence, not necessarily for personal misdeeds, but for the misbegotten cosmos we inhabit.

Andrei Tarkovsky with Tishka, an injured bird adopted by his family. 8 June 1986. Photograph © Irina Brown 1986.

Cancer as Prophecy

Suspicions of a causal link between Stalker and Tarkovsky’s fatal illness have found support in the coincidence that Tarkovsky’s death followed closely on that of one of the film’s stars, Anatolii Solonitsyn, also of lung cancer, in June 1982. As a talismanic actor who featured prominently in four of Tarkovsky’s films and his one theatrical staging (Hamlet in 1976-1977), in his roles for Tarkovsky Solonitsyn careened wildly from temperamental monastic icon-painter Andrei Rublev to brutally cynical scientist Sartorius; from the sinister doctor in Mirror to the tragically principled Hamlet; and, finally, the dissolute Writer in Stalker. He was set for the lead role in Tarkovsky’s following films, Nostalghia and Sacrifice, before illness and death intervened.

Tarkovsky perceived Solonitsyn’s death as portentous. The day he found out about it, he recorded two dreams, the first imprinting ambivalence about his Soviet citizenship, which here is focused on the figure of Stalin:

Young-faced, raven-haired. I spoke to him about the importance of being true to traditions. I experienced exhilaration (the exhilaration of a loyal subject) and fear. I awoke, washed my face, and lay down again for five minutes.

I fell asleep and dreamed about my village (Miasnoe) and a heavy, gloomy and ominous dark-purple sky. Strangely illumined and frightening. Suddenly I realised that this was an atomic mushroom against the background of the sky, and not the dawn. I felt hotter and hotter, and looked around: a crowd of people was looking around at the sky in a panic and ran away to one side. I was going to follow them but stopped. “Where can I run, and why?” It’s too late. And that crowd… The panic… Better to stay in place and die without a fuss. God, how frightening it was! (Tarkovskii 2008: 434)

Reflecting Tarkovsky’s Cold War anxieties, the second dream reads like an early draft of the nightmare scenes in Sacrifice, where war planes rip the sky and panicked masses chaotically flee the city.

In his later years, immersed in heterodox doctrines like Anthroposophy, Tarkovsky was increasingly partial to fanciful talk of prophecy. After his initial diagnosis he returned in his diary to a spiritist séance from around 1970 featuring a visitation from poet Boris Pasternak, a family friend, who prophesied that Tarkovsky would complete four more films. By that point he had already made five more, not counting the experimental Tempo di viaggio (1980), but at different times Tarkovsky interpreted Pasternak’s prophesy variously to suit the running total. Now he decided that “Boris Leonidovich was counting wrong. He knew I would make seven films, but was including [the student film] Steamroller and Violin, which one shouldn’t include. So he wasn’t really mistaken” (Tarkovskii 2008: 562; cf. 82, 88-89, 233). Instead of simply taking the vision as a more general omen of a curtailed career, Tarkovsky labored to transform it into a precise prophecy that would somehow make his fatal illness seem preordained, inevitable, and therefore significant.

It is as if cancer would seem less arbitrary in a world transfixed by such mysteries, however fanciful. But cancer stubbornly defies this displacement of anxiety from the body onto its world instead, the cancerous body becomes an all-encompassing, toxic environment of its own.

Andrei Tarkovsky with Tishka, an injured bird adopted by his family. 8 June 1986. Photograph © Irina Brown 1986.

Cancer as Sacrifice

Unable to find a cause, Tarkovsky sought a purpose to his cancer, even a baldly opportunistic one. “This war I’m conducting,” Tarkovsky noted at the start of his treatment, “I have to win. […] And there is no doubt that I will win it. God will help! And my illness is a shock that has helped to extract Tiapa [i.e., Andrei Jr] and Anna Semёnovna” (Tarkovskii 2008: 566).4 Retreating from the idea of cancer as a matter of preordination and prophecy, Tarkovsky redeems it as a tool enabling him to reunite his family, if only in the shadow of his impending death. By so doing Tarkovsky embeds his cancer into the sacrificial (il)logic of his final film.

In the final version of Sacrifice Alexander makes a dual offering in order (as he believes) to avert imminent nuclear conflict: not only does he sleep with the alleged witch Maria on the instruction of Otto, the mystical postman, but he also pledges to God that he will burn down his house. When nuclear war is averted (if indeed it ever was threatened), it remains unclear which of Alexander’s sacrifices is more likely to have proven effective. The result is a thoroughly muddled causality, obscuring the cause, purpose and result of Alexander’s sacrifices. In his essay about Sacrifice, written (or at least completed) sometime in 1986, while he was ill, Tarkovsky spurns the very notion that Alexander’s mystical “turn to God” is an instrument for avoiding nuclear disaster. Instead, he proposes that the real sacrifice is that of Alexander’s son, who at the end of the film is shown fulfilling his father’s admonition that he water a dead tree every day, following the example of an Orthodox monk of yore, who “lived to see the Miracle: one morning the tree burst into life, its branches covered with young leaves” (Tarkovsky 1986: 229). Compared to the screenplay and Tarkovsky’s earlier statements concerning the film, this seems like a self-serving reinterpretation of Sacrifice, as if, having realised that his cancer serves no purpose, Tarkovsky wants to interpret his grueling treatment regime as the true sacrifice that promises regeneration.

If Tarkovsky ever expected such a miracle, he gradually stopped doing so. During the night of 29-30 September 1986, Tarkovsky recorded another ominous dream:

I dreamt of a quiet monastic cloister with its enormous ancient oak tree. Suddenly I become aware of a flame rising up at a point among the roots, and I realise that it is the flame of many candles burning in the secret underground recesses of the monastery. Two frightened young nuns arrive. Then the flame leaps high, and I see that by now it is too late to put out the fire—almost all the roots have become burning embers. I am deeply saddened by this, and I try to imagine what the cloister will be like without the oak tree: it will be useless, meaningless, miserable. (Tarkovsky 2008: 590)

This dream reverses the entire logic of Sacrifice as described by Tarkovsky: instead of becoming the living root of a transformed world, the consumed tree turns the entire world to misery. The temple of Tarkovsky’s body is being consumed from within by flames fed by the prayers and the labors intended to protect it. It is an image of cancer as the destroyer of faith in miracles.

“On the one hand, a collapsed system is good,” Tarkovsky wrote in his diary just before his diagnosis. “But it is good when many systems collapse for the sake of one that remains; God keep us from losing everything,” If, for Tarkovsky, God is the name of the ultimate system, which allows us to make sense of an otherwise senseless world, then cancer is a frightful omen both of God’s death and the total collapse of meaning.

Andrei Tarkovsky with Tishka, an injured bird adopted by his family. 8 June 1986. Photograph © Irina Brown 1986.

The Very Air Itself

Cancer is a disease without moral cause, but not without moral consequences.

In his essay on Sacrifice Tarkovsky relates that, Sacrifice was originally conceived, even before his exile in 1982, as the story of “the hero’s amazing cure from cancer” when he obeys a soothsayer (the postman Otto in the final version) and sleeps with a witch (Tarkovsky 1986: 220). Uncharacteristically for him, Tarkovsky refrained from considering the original narrative of Sacrifice as a prophecy of his own cancer, perhaps because cancer ended up playing no part in the film. Instead Tarkovsky merely registers the irony that both the intended lead actor Solonitsyn and he himself became afflicted with the illness of which Alexander was cured, commenting: “I don’t know what this means. I only know that it is very frightening” (Tarkovsky 1986: 220). Having ceased to signify anything at all, for Tarkovsky cancer joins its victims not in some relation of meaning, but in an environment of fear.

Infused with radiation and pollution, with anxiety and fear, and cast adrift of external signification, the cancerous body becomes coextensive with its physical, emotional and spiritual environment. The image for this comes in Stalker’s ominous final scene, where the protagonist’s daughter telekinetically moves glasses along a table, tipping one over the edge. The girl’s malady is a symptom of the world’s sickness. But it is also the source of her power. She is a new kind of being, coalescing out of the canceral environment.

The girl’s state of hyperawareness—her “sullen, faint flame of desire,” to quote the poem by Fedor Tiutchev that she recites on the soundtrack to this scene—is the ultimate prize in Stalker, whose protagonists clamber to a secret room where nothing really happens, apart from their faith being tested and found wanting. Such hyperawareness is also the most tangible achievement of the characters in Sacrifice, where the nuclear threat is similarly conveyed by aircraft rattling the glassware and by the TV’s gloomy illumination of the disintegrating household, while Alexander bustles about, listening to Japanese flute music on his HiFi system and preparing his absurd immolation. That radiation in the air, that canceral atmosphere—it’s really human energy, spilled liberally across space, knitting it into meaningfully fragile experience.

For its victims cancer cannot be fit within the systems of morality, history, religion, or even tragedy. For them the only possible meaning of cancer is the painfully heightened sensation of the world in every moment of its passage. This, then, is the tragic link between cancer and Tarkovsky’s poetics of cinema.

Andrei Tarkovsky with Tishka, an injured bird adopted by his family. 8 June 1986. Photograph © Irina Brown 1986.

Oncological Witness

Almost exactly thirty-four years after Tarkovsky’s diagnosis and disease, a very similar scenario has been playing out a world away, in Chicago, within my very body. Although of roughly the same age as Tarkovsky when he received his diagnosis, I have lived an immeasurably healthier and less stressful life, enjoying the benefits of frequent physical exercise, modern western medicine and, in recent years, organic food. Although I smoked in my youth, my overall exposure to harmful chemicals has been minimal. I have never been to a power plant. And yet, after months of mysterious pain in my left shoulder and arm, in December of last year I finally heard the explanation that I least expected: cancer. As with Tarkovsky, the holiday period delayed a more precise diagnosis, which in my case was metastatic colon cancer. Instead of the eighth vertebra, my main spinal metastasis was on my sixth. Most serious were the metastases in my liver. In January 2020 I commenced a biweekly schedule of chemotherapy infusions, reinforced with two weeks of radiation treatments to my back.

There is no necessary sympathy among cancer patients, even if they share diagnoses or symptoms or treatment protocols. The struggle is a solitary one, each against his or her own body, armed with the destructive arsenal of modern oncology.

I seek a pattern where there is no reason for one to exist. I have been writing about Tarkovsky for twenty years. My proudest achievement is the 2008 book Andrei Tarkovsky: Elements of Cinema, which after years of trying I recently placed with a Moscow publisher. Energised by this interest, and enabled by a planned research leave, I began last autumn to translate the book into Russian myself, as I had long planned to do, revising as I went. I had more or less finished when my diagnosis came. I spent my first chemo infusion in the hospital, manically completing the draft translation, spurred on by the powerful drugs being pumped through my body.

Coincidence? Prophecy? Sacrifice? Undoubtedly Tarkovsky and I have long become linked in the abstract realm of culture, what the Russians like to call the semiosphere, which in our day is largely coextensive with the Internet. If one googles the famous late photograph of the ill Tarkovsky conversing with a bird (the first in the series by Irina Brown that illustrates this essay), one is likely to come upon mentions and images of me (i.e., Robert Bird) and my work on him. Was it me he regarded so tenderly, so sympathetically, as if foreseeing my current plight? Was it me he tossed skyward when playing the dying patient in Mirror? It is not I who makes this ridiculous connection; it is presented to me by the exquisitely tense, anxious and absurd world we share.

I’ve had it immeasurably easier than Tarkovsky, so far at least. For one thing I’ve been at home, with my family, in a Covid-quietened city suddenly bursting with birdsong. But reading Tarkovsky’s diary over his final year, I recognise much of what he experienced. Not just the deleterious physical effects, but the emotional and spiritual ones, the loss of systems within which my life has been constructed, the ubiquity of fear. Suddenly the membrane separating Tarkovsky’s world from mine has become finer, as if I can touch more directly something he experienced so privately, so mutely. Or rather: as if my world has become fully inscribed into his, like the scale model house that Alexander’s son gives him for his birthday in Sacrifice, just before Alexander sets the real thing on fire. As if my work on Tarkovsky has been one long omen of my malady.

Delusion? What Tarkovsky and I share is not some private experience, but an accursedly common invader: cancer. Its commonality—its commonness, its banality—makes the stark differences between us ever more apparent. Tarkovsky’s cancer was a tragedy felt worldwide, coming just as Perestroika was gearing up, and the USSR was becoming newly hospitable to, and needful of, him and his films. His funeral, orchestrated by Mstislav Rostropovich, recorded by Chris Marker, was an omen of the end of an entire epoch in the history of the cinema, of Soviet culture, of culture. In my case it’s just mundane, private cancer. An anonymizing force. An omen of nothing.

The contingency of these omens is something I hold onto. It drives home the fragile wonder of the world we share, as taut and fluid as the ocean. It is so different for each of us, yet it becomes a medium through which we share stories, images and words. Like the cinema. Like cancer. Like Tarkovsky.


1 I quote Tarkovsky’s diaries as published in this, the fullest edition to date, despite doubts about its completeness and accuracy. The author wishes to thank Christina Kiaer and David Schutter for their generous comments on earlier drafts of this essay. The author owes a special debt of gratitude to Irina Brown for sharing her photographs and memories from Tarkovsky's final year.

2 On February 12, 1986, Tarkovsky records the assassination of the city official who had granted him the apartment (Tarkovskii 2008: 575).

3 A somewhat different timeline is suggested by Leila Alexander-Garret, Tarkovsky’s assistant on Sacrifice, who claims that he had quit smoking for good about ten years before, i.e., around 1975 (Aleksander-Garrett 2009: 483).

4 This account of “The Witch” does not align with the account in: Tarkovsky 1999: 507-508.


Robert Bird (1969-2020) was a professor in the Departments of Slavic Languages and Literatures and Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Chicago. A prolific scholar in both film and literature, Bird was well known as a specialist on Andrei Tarkovsky, especially for his monograph Andrei Tarkovsky: Elements of Cinema (2008).


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Suggested Citation

Bird, Robert. 2020. “The Omens: Tarkovsky, Sacrifice, Cancer” Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 10. DOI:


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Apparatus. ISSN 2365-7758