Not a Drop to Drink: Water as a Symbol in the Films of Andrei Tarkovsky

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The element recurs more often than any other in the director’s work.

Water is life. Civilizations are built around water, cultures raised around it, myths made of it, and much symbolism attached to it. Water represents purity, fertility, self-reflection, journeys that flow regardless of our control, vast obstacles, great mystery, freedom, emotional cleanliness, and limitless power.

Given all this, it’s easy to see why artists, writers, and filmmakers make much use of water in their work. Terrence Malick, for example, draws much of his films’ visual poeticism from the depiction of water, and likely this is something he learned from watching the films of another director known more for his circuitous search for meaning than his straightforward storytelling: Andrei Tarkovsky.

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Throughout Tarkovsky’s filmography much use has been made of water, from the rain that falls throughout Stalker, symbolizing isolation, to the roiling, conscious ocean of Solaris which takes the water-as-a-mysterious-abyss symbolism to an entirely new and extreme level. Tarkovsky understood the versatility and reach of water as a symbol and thus employed it in a variety of contexts for a variety of effects.

In the following montage from Luis Enrique Rayas, the wet images of Tarkovsky have been compiled from across his filmography to illustrate the variety and versatility mentioned above. Seen all together like this they reveal a filmmaker interested in exploring the more ephemeral things below the surface of a narrative, things like change, stasis, identity, desire, fear, and the soul reflecting upon itself. Water is a conduit to all these things, and perhaps no filmmaker has understood that better than Tarkovsky. Click play to learn why.

Novelist, Screenwriter, Video Essayist