Previously glimpsed in a 4 min. extract on Rusico's 2-disc edition of Stalker, Andrei Tarkovsky's third and final student film (after The Killers, and There Will Be No Leave Today) finally gets its own DVD release from Facets, with a lengthy text essay archived in the menus system (more on that later).
Even if you've only seen Solaris, probably Tarkovsky's biggest international hit, one can see the director's fascination with moving textures in The Steamroller and the Violin. Tarkovsky uses lighting effects for potent atmosphere (such as the dusty shafts of light in the stairwell of Sascha's apartment); as poetic interludes between personal character exchanges (intercutting shots of expanding waves from a rain-soaked road, as the boy strikes up a friendship between Sergei, the steamroller driver); or as mercurial refractions dancing across a character's face (perhaps evoking fleeting, subconscious thoughts before a decisive reaction, or dialogue).
The story, based on a narrative by S. Bakhmetyeva, is pretty straightforward, and screenwriters writers Tarkovsky and Andrei Konchalovsky end the film on a fanciful coda conjured by Sascha, as he's required to honor family obligations and miss a film date with Sergei. The boy is treated as a young but wise man by the filmmakers, learning the value of discipline, and through Sergei, he quickly comprehends the cultural importance of his musical gift to the average Joe.
There's also a lighthearted sequence between Sascha and a young girl, told entirely through visuals and music, and involves a shiny apple. It's a cute dramatization of childhood flirting, and Tarkovsky's use of timed reactions forces us to see the two kids as young adults discovering so many little lessons and joys in their daily lives. Even the schoolyard brats who torment Sascha ultimately learn to respect Art. Tarkovsky sets up a false tangent in which we expect the kids to destroy the violin under the huge steamroll wheel - something that would have certainly happened in an American film of the period - but the kids relent when the physical beauty of Sascha's 'half-size' violin forces them to acknowledge that some beauty shouldn't be quashed, let alone ridiculed.
END OF SPOILERS
Even though the film was made in a post-Stalinist Soviet Russia, the imagery reflects a nation in progress. Ugly, dirt-brown buildings are razed to the ground, and Stalin's Seven Sisters complex (part of the Moscow University) is briefly seen in the distance as an unmistakable bright white monument, before a great visual payoff: an amazing shot where old building walls, knocked down by a wrecking ball, crumble behind Sascha and Sergei, with the central tower of the Seven Sisters gleaming under a bright sunbeam.
Tarkovsky and cinematographer Vadim Yusov (who later shot the director's pivotal early films, Ivan's Childhood, and Solaris) also showcase some international influences in their graduation thesis.
One early shot of the university tower is masterful for its combination of perspective angles, and borderline phallicism: as Sergei and Sascha stand by a flowing water spout, they're flanked by ascending rows of brown apartments, while the tower pushes skyward in the background. Call it a fusion of Eisenstein's order of lines, and a bit of Rouben Mamoulian's phallic treatment of the skyscraper, as in The Fountainhead.
Another memorable sequence recalls the stylized Technicolor lighting of Jack Cardiff. Early into the film we see the apartment brats playing in the lobby, while Sascha sneaks to the front door to avoid their taunting, and the possible destruction of his instrument. Yusov saturates the colours, and exploits the iridescent turquoise blue that was typical of the Agfa-derived Sovcolor process. A later scene also has Sascha entering a paneled conservatory for his lessons. As he passes floor-to-ceiling windows, giant shafts of light cast soothing amber tones on the wooden mosaic floor, and Sascha's walking body.
Tarkovsky's fixation with beautiful images sometimes mandated long static shots, and fans will love some of the expressionistic examples, including an alley where the two friends stroll towards a distant street. The conservatory where Sergei meets the girl also contains some stellar camera movements involving tracking shots, refocusing, and long takes. None of these are new to any student film, but the quality of images (and the fact they're so integral to the film's story and characters) make this film very special. One could accuse the director (and perhaps cinematographer) for indulging in some overtly poetic, sustained shots and montages (and nevermind the shimmering water motif), but The Steamroller and the Violin is clearly the by-product of dedicated artists learning their craft in a heavy six-year film program; the colour film and equipment no doubt provided some indulgeant flourishes, but for the viewer, it's the boy's engaging personality that lingers, alongside the film's memorable images.
Facet's transfer is made from a decent print that's in fairly good shape. The colour balance and registration of the Sovcolor process are actually much more stable than some of the mildly corrected 3-strip Technicolor transfers put out by the major studios. (In those cases of using poor source materials, red-orange hazing affects elements in medium and wide shots.)
Also making his debut in Steamroller is film composer Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov (War and Peace), who gets a few choice montages to showcase his skills, including the use of some hallucinatory organ passages, and a brief but lovely melody for violin.
Facet's DVD also comes with a long and extremely detailed essay that's accessible via text pages. The print's too fine and makes it tough to read off a monitor, but the material covers Tarkovsky's childhood, early stressors, his work at the film school, and key periods in his remarkable career. Perhaps a bit too long for a booklet, the excellent essay could also have been archived as a .PDF file, so viewers could easily plop the DVD in their computer, and read with greater ease. Like All Day's DVD for Christ in Concrete, it's something labels should really exploit, since an archive of historical documents, extracts, images, essays, or additional resource links would boost the already educational value of these releases.
A charming and impressive film debutby legendary filmmakers.
© 2006 Mark R. Hasan