Criterion Review: MIRROR (1975)

Andrei Tarkovsky’s enigmatic, experimental autobiography comes to Criterion in a stellar new restoration

While each of Andrei Tarkovsky’s films are singular experiences in their own right, Mirror is by far the most experimental movie and, almost paradoxically, the most personal in the legendary Russian auteur’s body of work. Essentially a loose autobiography of its creator, Mirror flows effortlessly between the scattered memories of its protagonist Alexei, spanning his childhood in the countryside, his war-torn adolescence, and his troubled relationships between Alexei’s spouse, child, and mother in the present. Each memory is connected by surreal hallucinatory interludes, dreams by Alexei that then feed into his mother’s own dreams and memories, in addition to newsreel footage that span the length of modern Russian and World history as a whole. While the film is rooted in the memories of Alexei, writer-director Tarkovsky ties his main character’s emotional experience into his own, as well as a more collective national and global identity that is just as fractured and in need of recollection. To cap this off, the modern-day Alexei goes unseen throughout Mirror’s runtime, reframing Mirror as a first-person experience, one that Tarkovsky encourages us to take in as our own. Mirror boldly erases the formal and metaphysical boundaries between director, subject, and audience, creating a film about memory that feels as much lived by its viewers as it was by its creators.

I first watched Mirror for my Catching Up with the Classics series three years ago and found myself blindsided by how much of an emotional response Tarkovsky could bring out of each cut between shots in this film. Mirror is an intricate mosaic of memories, whose laborious edit nearly drove Tarkovsky and crew mad as they worked through a reported 33 permutations of the film’s edit. That precision is evident throughout in how each cut brings out a new, visceral reaction in its audience, and the subsequent urge is to reflect on how each bookending shot works against each other, as well as the film at large. Some cuts are normal reactions within conversations; others are more elusive, such as a divorce in the present juxtaposed against an encounter with a possible ghost, or newsreel footage of the Russian Military trudging through mud to defend a border dispute with China. There comes a point where one can do nothing but give in to Tarkovsky’s stream-of-consciousness journey through Alexei’s life and reflect on how our search for meaning between memories may reflect Alexei’s own.

One cannot help but be enthralled by how Tarkovsky captures these visions, from the stark black-and-white imagery of Alexei’s mother rising from a washbasin in reverse, her hair slung over like a future J-Horror specter, to the disappearance of a woman who may not have been there to begin with, the only evidence being a close-up on slowly-vanishing seat print on wood, to a log cabin falling victim to a raging fire in the middle of a rainy forest day. There’s always something fantastical to be found in the coexistence of humans within the natural world often giving rise to the existence of greater forces beyond what we can see. Sure, these may be the notions of a dying man refusing to remember the world as it really was, but who’s to say our perspective outside of the film isn’t just as flawed? Or, more likely, is the world actually as fantastic as the film suggests?

Each piece of cinematic trickery is never repeated, from the subtle reverse shots to a still unfathomable bit of levitation; and the same can be said as to what kind of film Mirror actually is from moment to moment. It’s constantly moving between genres, from pastoral coming-of-age to horror film to wartime epic in the same breath. It’s an overwhelming experience to get used to, but Tarkovsky manages to wrest a primally satisfying emotional through-line from these disparate sequences. There’s overarching themes of grief, guilt, self-admonishment, all against a national backdrop of war, sacrifice, and regret. Like the film’s form or genre, nothing ever feels fully tangible or anything other than fleeting, like the best parts of a dream fading from your memory after you wake up and greet the real world.

While films like Solaris and Stalker may have provided me a much more accessible approach to Tarkovsky’s films, they serve as an excellent primer for Mirror. The same poetic approach to philosophy is here; Arseny Tarkovsky, the filmmaker’s father, also has his poems featured throughout, but unlike those films there is a further poetic rhythm to the construction of the film itself. While the logic of the film is further unmoored than his other works, it’s a welcome invitation to surrender to that sense of formal freedom, and to explore what ambitious dreams such a medium can be capable of fulfilling.


Criterion presents Mirror in a 1080p HD transfer in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio, sourced from a 2K restoration of the original 35mm negative conducted by Mosfilm. Accompanying the film is a 1.0 Russian mono track restored from the film’s original 35mm magnetic track. English subtitles are provided for non-English-language sections of the film and supplementary features.

Like much of the other Tarkovsky films in the Collection, Criterion has outdone themselves in presenting Mirror in top-notch technical quality. There are stark contrasts in the film’s black and white sequences, with a potent level of darkness and shadow that never blurs into obscurity. The film’s color sequences are richly defined by varying textures, regardless of setting. Forests and fields lit by sunset are just as well-rendered as the grimness of a cold and graying urban apartment with undulating fields of grass just as clear as rivulets of cracking plaster and wood.

While other transfers have included artificially-mixed 5.1 audio transfers, the film’s original monaural track is just as complexly rendered here. At times a dizzying cacophony of foley work that gives way to breathtaking silence or elegiac, booming Bach compositions, there’s a wide sonic spectrum at play here, well-realized by Tarkovsky and composer Eduard Artemyev.


Disc One

  • Andrei Tarkovsky — A Cinema Prayer: A real treasure of a supplement for this release, this award-winning documentary by Tarkovsky’s son Andrei A. Tarkovsky uses a kaleidoscope of his father’s films, behind-the-scenes material, and a wealth of personal archival set to Director Tarkovsky’s audio recordings and interviews to paint an insightful portrait of the director as a deeply humanistic and curious artist and poet.

Disc Two

  • The Dream in the Mirror: A new 51-minute documentary created by Louise Milne and Seán Martin for The Criterion Collection, this film assembles Tarkovsky’s living professional collaborators and family members to recollect the inspirations behind and lengthy production process of Mirror. From this doc, it’s clear that Mirror is a film that drew upon all of them for its creation and has had a lasting impact upon all of them in return.
  • Eduard Artemyev: A new interview with the composer of Mirror, Stalker, and Solaris, charting the evolution of his collaboration with Tarkovsky from one that had its origins in the sound design of natural elements vs. classical compositions and further into original compositions that still allowed for experimentation with new synthesizer inventions.
  • Islands — Georgy Rerberg: A 2007 documentary for Russian TV focusing on the lifelong career of Mirror’s cinematographer, hailed as “the Genius” during his period at Mosfilm in the 1970s.
  • Andrei Tarkovsky: Two interviews given by Tarkovsky for the French TV upon Mirror’s long-delayed release in 1978, by which the writer/director was into production on Stalker.
  • Alexander Misharin: A 2004 interview with Mirror’s co-screenwriter discussing his personal relationship with Tarkovsky as neighbors and colleagues into their storied informal and formal collaborations on Andrei Rublev, Mirror, and on.
  • Book: Includes an essay by critic Carmen Gray. On the Blu-ray, also included are the translated original film proposal and literary script for Mirror as written by Tarkovsky and Misharin.

Mirror is now available on Blu-ray and DVD courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

Previous post HOWLING VILLAGE is a Satisfying Slice of Japanese Horror
Next post Fantasia 2021: KING KNIGHT Is a New Kind of Black Comedy