"The fire and the rose are one." Motifs of Tarkovsky

Curator's Note

Ruben Vandersteen and Peter Kravanja


Revered by many as a god of cinema, Tarkovsky left behind a body of work that is deemed untouchable. Consequently, rearranging his films, or fragments of them, on the editing table might be considered as nothing short of blasphemy. Cutting into that idiosyncratic fabric of sounds and images feels a lot like slicing out characters from a Rubens painting and pasting them into a sticker book. Surely, the expression of any artist should be respected and left intact.

Yet the highly associative nature of Tarkovsky's work feels like an open invitation for analysis and manipulation. Rewinding, magnifying, and freeze framing are but the first tools in every scholar's attempt to better understand an artwork that is so dense with meaning and so full of references. As with any great work of art, knowing it intimately should not diminish its mystery.

By analyzing, cataloging, and rearranging different motifs in Tarkovsky's oeuvre, we have aimed at stripping the text out of the context and by doing so gaining a deeper insight into the internal architecture of his films. Led by recurring themes and aesthetic motifs, we have identified five categories that gradually have shaped our analysis: portals, faces, hands, embraces, and the elements of nature, each one showing a distinct aspect of the artist's aesthetics. These categories are by no means meant to be exhaustive, they are a framework, a vantage point from which we could start analyzing, aligning, and juxtaposing different images with one another.

Fragmenting Tarkovsky's eight theatrical films into five formal categories already highlighted many of the key elements composing the author's signature style — frame in frame compositions, restrained acting, and a love for dorsal figures to name a few. Surprisingly enough, as we started to re-assemble these images into a montage, our search for meaningful connections opened up a deeper awareness of the inner workings of these motifs. Linking bodily rhythms and camera movements, tones and textures, colour schemes and use of light, facial expressions and natural forces, proved to be a forceful method to investigate the complex synergy between form and substance and the recurring of motifs existing within the cinematic world created by Tarkovsky. By juxtaposing these motifs and punctuating them from one another by a few frames of black, they acquire a stronger force and new semiotic meanings come into being.

Attentive viewers will observe that most of the shots of our film are quite short. Indeed, to increase awareness of various motifs, it has to isolate their significant occurences as much as possible. Elongated temporalities, although they are characteristic of Tarkovsky’s films, would not serve our purpose. Our filmic study is not about time, it is about motifs, i.e., visual aspects. A time aspect is part of our film via our editing choices, but the precise moments at which our film cuts from one shot to the next have been dictated by the strength of their aesthetic impact, not by the aim to let the shots develop freely in order to imitate Tarkovsky’s practice of long shots.

Let us conclude by explaining why we have chosen “the fire and the rose are one”, the final verse from Little Gidding, the last of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, as part of the title of our film. Little Gidding ends as follows:


We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.


And all shall be well and

All manner of thing shall be well

When the tongues of flames are in-folded

Into the crowned knot of fire

And the fire and the rose are one.


Similarly, we hope that our own modest exploration of Tarkovsky’s films will offer the viewer not only a better understanding but perhaps even an intensified aesthetic appreciation of these films through our examination of recurring motifs. Also, critical analyses of Little Gidding interpret the “fire” as destructive as well as purifying whereas the “rose” is associated with beauty and love as well as danger because of its thorns. We feel that these themes resonate throughout most of the shots that we have included in our video essay. In particular, the climactic resolution of painful purgation and divine love at the end of Little Gidding evokes for us the final images of The Sacrifice (Offret) that conclude our own work. For all these reasons we have chosen “the fire and the rose are one” as part of the title of our contribution.


The Authors
Peter Kravanja is a cognitive film scholar and a Research Fellow at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (Belgium), Faculty of Arts. In collaboration with Maarten Coëgnarts he investigates the interplay between conceptual metaphors, image schemas and cinema. The results have been published in numerous academic journals and books. Detailed information is available via his website www.kravanja.eu.
Ruben Vandersteen is Master in the Audiovisual Arts, graduating from the Luca School of Arts in Brussels. As filmcritic, he has written numerous articles, essays and reviews for a number of Belgian magazines. As filmmaker his work strongly focuses on themes like isolation and the workings of the memory.