Before Time: Andrei Tarkovsky's The Steamroller and the Violin
Andrei Tarkovsky's The Steamroller and the Violin
an in depth look
There probably isn't a more paradoxical film in Tarkovsky’s filmography that utilizes colour like The Steamroller and the Violin. Tarkovsky’s diploma film, albeit only 40 minutes in runtime, captivates with the precision of every image.
The most surprising trait lies in the use of the colour red. Later in Tarkovsky’s amounted experience in film, he would be strict with the use of colour but remained firm in his determined analysis of the phenomena.
“You have to try to neutralize colour, to modify its impact on the audience. If colour becomes the dominant dramatic element of the shot, it means that the director and camera-man are using a painter's methods to affect the audience.” - Andrei Tarkovsky (Sculpting in Time)
Tarkovsky’s words articulated on the detriment that colour can inflict upon the motion picture medium, a seemingly stubborn hypothesis that produced plenty of sense. He would comment in Time within Time: The Diaries 1970-1986 using Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Red Desert as his prime example; Tarkovsky critiqued that if The Red Desert was shot in black and white, Antonioni wouldn’t have bothered to capture Monica Vitti’s red hair against the mist nor the breathtaking landscapes that do not serve the narrative.
Tarkovsky went on to proclaim that The Red Desert would have been an exceptional picture if it wasn’t in colour. “He (Antonioni) would have been concentrating on the action instead of making pretty pictures. In my view the colour (In Red Desert) has killed the feeling of truth.”
Tarkovsky explained his rigid ideas in Time within Time by postulating that colour interferes with storytelling. He is adamant that humans regard colour in everyday life as a norm, resulting in an unawareness for colour. Therefore, black and white or the neutralization of colour remains crucial to Tarkovsky’s cinema.
Despite, Tarkovsky’s substantial theories later in his career, his primal experimentation of colour in The Steamroller and the Violin feels meticulous, and can be identified as his investigation on the characteristics of colour.
The use of red in The Steamroller and the Violin undoubtedly samples the colours of the Soviet Flag. The significance of its red lies in its ideologies in communism; a philosophy that places its importance in production and labour that guide towards a superior utopia. The notion of passionate patriotism towards the Soviet Union is amplified through luxurious red in various scenes.
To scratch the surface at understanding Tarkovsky’s use of red, the connotations of the Soviet Utopia should be taken into account. In The Steamroller and the Violin, this Utopia can be interpreted as featuring through light that seems to be strategically but sporadically planted throughout the film. This light would express itself primarily through reflections.
The film starts with Sasha, a young boy who is bullied and mocked by a bunch of children from the block for being a “musician.” Sasha is stripped of his violin case and his sheets folder. Sergei, a steamroller worker rescues him from the scornful children. Right off the mark, Sasha the musician is dressed in a sweater and scarf while the worker, Sergei, wears a “Soviet” red shirt on the inside, emphasizing the discordance between art and labour.
Sasha escape the bullies with Sergei’s help and he heads over to what feels like a musical grading session with a stern instructor. On his way, Sasha appreciates the beauties of improvised reflections happening around the street. Of the reflections, one could spot the Dormition Cathedral that is part of the Moscow Kremlin, with construction happening in its vicinities (progress), inklings of red that appears on tomatoes (food and consumption of red / Soviet ideology) and, on the hat (head to…) and shoes (toe) of a child that is playing with a red flagged toy ship (symbol of labour / production). Despite The Steamroller and the Violin being Tarkovsky’s first film, these motifs can hardly be fortuitous given his ingenious sensibilities.
The end of this reflective vision is greeted by sounds of wing flutters and the dreamy image of doves departing. (A motif that would recur in the final image of the film)
In the subsequent scene at the music school, Sasha awaits his turn to perform and a peer arrives. Sasha tries to impress her with a cheeky grin and gives up a red apple from his pocket. The red apple can be identified allegorically as the fruit of knowledge, which in this case can be taken as the knowledge of the Soviet ideology. Much like the red tomatoes from the reflection scene, the red apple can be interpreted as an emblematic message. Sasha’s actions of sharing can therefore be taken as preaching or rather, a refusal to consume the apple (knowledge). The girl eyes the apple with inclination, much like Eve tempted by the sacred fruit.
Later, in the performance scene, the red folder containing music sheets, signifies a form of discipline in execution (A la discipline in Soviet communism), a characteristic that is disharmonious with Sasha. Sasha plays his tune at various tempos, never meeting the expectation of a disciplined violinist.
This scene might’ve represented Tarkovsky’s commentary on the rigid expectations of an artist in Soviet Union at that point in time. “What should I do with you? Too much Imagination.” Sasha’s teacher laments. Sasha’s artistic freedom isn’t embraced but he gives an orderly thanks to his teacher despite disappointment. Tarkovsky utilized a simple interaction between an authoritative teacher and a well behaved student to elaborate an otherwise straightforward narrative situation.
Sasha exits the classroom with his peer smitten (successfully preached), having consumed the apple. Sasha, dejected by his performance, doesn't budge. He returns to his building and his sorrow quickly vanishes when he meets the bright red steamroller. The steamroller, an instrument of a worker’s tool is politically symbolized through its Soviet red paint job. Sergei’s steamroller meets a blip, he calls for Sasha’s help. The young boy obliges, earning him the right as a worker and the opportunity to operate the steamroller.
The kids around the block hissed with envy (for labour), “See that?” Another replies, “So what?” An older bully from the block grabs his bicycle with intention to disrupt Sasha. The bully screams “Musician, get down! All you are good at is fiddling.” There are hints of an insecure concept in the portrayal of a worker needing to be a strong and devoid of artistic senses.
One of the bystanders holds onto a circular pocket mirror, casting a reflection of light towards the steamroller. This shot, seemingly random, is in every essence a calculated one. (The reflection represents a foreshadowing precursor to a dreamlike utopia which will unify all reflections into a utopian splendour later towards the end of the film.)
To continue with the action of the scene, Tarkovsky’s metaphorical use of the bullies likely depicted the impressions of artists under soviet rule, subtly crafting a scene which allegorically suggests opposition who feel that labour and art cannot coincide.
The bully (opposition) on the bike crashes and duly exits the scene in defeat. Sergei invites Sasha to lunch, which Sasha heartily agrees to. With careful thought and some reluctance, Sasha leaves his violin behind on the steamroller which can be interpreted as leaving art for labour. The kids from the block gather around the machines to play and the defeated bully picks up Sasha’s violin case from the steamroller.
In accordance with the norms of character and plot expectations, it would be fair to foretell that the bully would destroy Sasha’s Violin or at least meddle with it. Instead, he stares at the instrument, completely mesemerized by its beauty. It is highly plausible that at this juncture, the artistic message of “art can be beautiful even in the eyes of its oppressor,” is implemented in that scene that utilizes the Kuleshov effect immaculately. The bully carefully closes the violin case and gives it an endearing pat, signifying the acceptance of the fragile artform which he was previously against.
On the way to lunch, Sergei and Sasha spots a lanky tyrant hurting an innocent weeping child with a boulder like toy. “That isn’t fair,” Sergei says. “Lets save him,” Sasha replies. Sergei refuses to participate in what would be an unfair fight but he urges Sasha on. Interestingly, this scene starts to open up the hidden notion of a fight for morals and principles. “Pick someone your own size.” Sasha muttered at the tyrant who towers over him.
The tyrant refuses to fight Sasha fairly on the open street. Instead he taunts Sasha to fight him in an abandoned store. Despite having physical advantages, the tyrant ambushes Sasha with backhand tactics as Sasha enters. These direct set of actions on screen lead towards suspicious hints of unfair public oppression against an artist. Sasha might be a victim, however, he still triumphs as a winner when he hands the toy boulder back to the poor child who is no longer crying. The kid musters a smile and seems to have found a kind of resurgence in Sasha’s sacrifice.
The toy boulder is no longer a tool of violence. Rather, Sasha has transferred a symbolisation of strength to the oppressed boy. Tarkovsky craftily foreshadows the ideals of that metaphor into his next scene.
Sasha and Sergei ends up at a construction site and heavy rain starts to shower onto onlookers. Chaos ensues with music aimed at conducting panic. In the midst of all, Sasha is separated from a worried Sergei.
The flare (again, a form of reflection) coming from the construction reflects like thunder onto the faces of onlookers. If the postulated reflection truly represents Utopia in The Steamroller and the Violin, then the flares that emulate thunder can be analyzed as nodes of fear in the construction (reform). Aptly, Some of the crowd flee the scene of destruction and disaster but some will stay and watch a boulder smash through old walls, revealing a grand reflection (another careful metaphor) of light upon the Ministry of Foreign Affairs main building (one of seven Stalinist skyscrapers), signifying progress and glorifying the utopia of tomorrow.
At the end of it all, a dreamy wide shot reunites Sergei and Sasha with affection. It seems almost too coincidental for this sequence to involve themes of destruction (construction) and disaster (rain) with flashes of a storm (caused by a worker’s equipment) without encouraging subtle notions of setbacks before glory. However, at the end of it all, Tarkovsky’s dream sees a beautiful friendship between a worker and an artist.
Towards the ending of the film, Sergei fixes a broken buckle on Sasha’s violin case. In return, Sasha explains the "resonance" of his instrument and plays Sergei a song. This scene ultimately unifies all scenes of reflections into a utopian splendour; reflections of light casts onto puddles of water on the ground and exaggerated onto the faces of Sasha and Sergei. There is an allurement in the bright flashes that conducts itself in an unpredictable dance, signifying the heavenliness of a dream state. The song that Sasha plays for Sergei would be the exact one which he played earlier for his instructor. However, this time Sasha did not play the correct tune yet it is free and emotional. Sergei watches on, enthralled by Sasha’s elegance with the instrument. At the end of Sasha’s performance, Sergei calls Sasha his “brother.” Tarkovsky’s use of Sergei and Sasha’s friendship ultimately calls for art to not be oppressed or constrained (by ideology) but be free and beautiful for all.
As the day draws to a close, Sergei announces that it is his last day of work in the area. Sasha proceeds to suggest a trip to the cinema after work. The film that Sasha mentions is Chapayev, a 1934 Soviet war propaganda picture directed by Georgi and Sergei Vasilyev, telling the story of Soviet civil war hero, Vasily Ivanovich Chapayev. The artistic medium option should have been an extremely deliberate choice by Tarkovsky since cinema is his art form and is always seen as art for the everyday man.
Sergei and Sasha agree to meet by the cinema but Sasha’s mum (another authoritative figure) stops Sasha from going. Sasha is all dressed up in red, the colour of the Soviet state but he isn’t allowed to explain his situation to Sergei after being locked indoors. Sasha writes a note, with a red pencil nonetheless, and sends it flying out his window but Sergei doesn’t notice.
Sergei turns back for the final time, before moving on. Sasha meddles with an apple (knowledge) without eating it (full conversion into Soviet ideals) but looks into the mirror (reflection), dreaming of a utopia where the puddle on the ground has dried up (into a large expanded shadow of a bird), casting no more reflections. The recurring image of the autonomous doves earlier in the scenes of disjointed reflections completes Sasha's final dream of reunification with Sergei on a red steamroller.
In Tarkovsky’s body of work, The Steamroller and the Violin stands out as a perplexing accompaniment, given his views on colour later in his career. Unmistakably, the craft and beauty of Tarkovsky’s first film gives audiences an intimation of a romanticism that he would never repeat in his later films. The Steamroller and the Violin is however, a superior film in its own right as it displays Tarkovsky's absolute understanding of colour, which arguably strengthens his theories on the subject.