The Steamroller and the Violin (1960/2002)

I was 18 years old when I stumbled into a double bill of La Jetée and The Mirror. Up until that point, my knowledge of surrealism and metaphor in the cinema was largely culled from Terry Gilliam and Fantastic Planet. I had no idea what poetry could be created with a camera.

Needless to say, I was blown away by my introduction to the directors Chris Marker (La Jetée) and, most importantly, the famed Russian surrealist Andrei Tarkovsky (The Mirror). Both directors deployed such mysterious floating narratives — every time I thought I knew exactly what was going on, the metaphors twisted and pulled their narrative into new oceans of meaning.

These magnificent creations were film at its most intangible. I learned that evening that the most concrete, life- reflecting form of art is not far from the most abstract, ineffable means of storytelling. From the most realistic comes the most surrealistic. The abstract image may be confusing, but even if we know nothing else, we know it is not reality, and thus we have a grounding point. Our perspective remains uncluttered and clear. The more realistic image, on the other hand, that possesses some element of the unknown is much more disorienting. A painting by Magritte — where normal components make up a bizarre whole (a train, for example, hurtling not out of a tunnel but out of a domestic fireplace) — upsets our perspective because the distinction between the real and the surreal are blurred.

This confusion of the real and the surreal was what I felt at the end of The Mirror. I felt as if I might drown in this utterly different method of storytelling, but I didn’t want to come up for air. I still don’t.

Tarkovsky’s thesis film, The Steamroller and the Violin, made in 1960, is now being distributed on VHS and DVD by Facets Multimedia. Made when Tarkovsky was only 28 years old, the film is an accomplished work by a burgeoning genius. The narrative could be construed by those hungry for detailed plotlines as weak and simplistic, but Tarkovsky’s signature use of water and mirrors as metaphor for self-reflection and the beauty in the everyday, and his reliance on moments of quiet rather than dialogue to tell his story, are in full, glorious effect.

The Steamroller and the Violin is, really, a children’s film, a popular genre under the Soviet regime. Detailing the unusual relationship between Sasha (Igor Fomchenko), a seven year old boy harassed by his peers for playing the violin, and Sergey (Vladimir Zamansky), an adult steamroller operator, The Steamroller and the Violin is a moving but peculiarly distancing film. Although the bond central to the narrative is as sweet as a Peter Rabbit book, Tarkovsky’s hints of alienation, determinism, and irony transform the film into a meaningful, unsentimental account of childhood and the memories that color it. More than merely a children’s film, The Steamroller and the Violin feels like the memory of a story heard years before, now influenced by adult stimuli like romance films and war. It’s a fable for adults, told with the quiet modesty of a children’s story.

The storyline is not what is so amazing about the film, although it includes some delightful, subtly ironic play. Sergey and Sasha meet, share experiences and talents, and, eventually, lose each other. It is an obvious pattern, but one that is usually used in romance films. Tarkovsky gently calls attention to the parallels between the friendship and an adult romance (after Sasha has seen Sergey for the last time, he dreams of running up to the steamroller and driving into the distance with him; they may as well be on a white horse, riding into the sunset), and thus makes what could be a tearfully melodramatic and overly sugary story into a dreamily, slightly humorous commentary on childhood relationships and memories. And just as objects may take on intensely sentimental value in a relationship between lovers, objects take on great importance for Sasha, representing a new way of understanding one’s physical world, one that Sergey and Sasha discover together.

Tarkovsky’s focus on objects, however, shows that, in this film, the process of digesting visual information is just as important as storyline. Sasha, at one point, looks in a store window and sees the street reflected in broken mirrors and puddles on the ground. This sequence is the most mystical, poetic, and beautiful in the film; it brings to mind filmmakers like Dziga Vertov (Man With a Movie Camera) as well as the later accomplishments of Tarkovsky himself. As Sasha looks, the pendulum-like camera movement, paired with the mirrors’ kaleidoscopic effects, turns daily images like a flock of pigeons, apples spilled on the ground, and balloons in mid-flight into a whirling panoply of visual music. The audience is held as captive as Sasha as Tarkovsky allows us to pause and just look at the surreal — and the beautiful — in the everyday. The effect is, in a way, disorienting, but most importantly, wondrous; Tarkovsky, in effect, makes his audience into enraptured children.

Later, Sasha plays a private concert for Sergey as they stand in a condemned building dappled with late afternoon light. Watery reflections play on the walls, creating a visual accompaniment to the soothing, mournful music Sasha plays. The image is nothing short of hallucinatory and transcendent, and feels as ethereal as a half-familiar childhood memory. It is as though the audience were Sasha, years later, remembering this moment as a hazy, fading silhouette of the past. That is the brilliance of this quiet little film; before you know it, you’re caught up in the glow of memory. Tarkovsky leads us like children through the hallways of his poetics, and we cannot help but follow his wanderings, taking time to gaze along the way.

Perhaps the most wonderful aspect of The Steamroller and the Violin is the exciting feeling of a genius on the brink of realizing his full potential. Water imagery abounds, as it does in later Tarkovsky films, here serving as metaphors for personal reflection and memory. The almost reverential silences, also signature Tarkovsky devices, crop up constantly in The Steamroller and the Violin; often, meaning is conveyed through glances rather than words. Truly, a genius on his way to being discovered lies within this sweet film. Finding him present in every corner of every frame is a joy, a triumph, and a celebration of the tremendous talent he would eventually become.