In Soviet Russia, a dying man lies in his hospital bed. He reflects on his life: Rights, wrongs, grief and joy. He conjures images of his mother but imagines her with his ex-wife’s face. He pictures himself as a youth in the shape of his adolescent son. Plagued by the pain he has inflicted on others and knowing he can’t make amends, he resigns himself to the past and the life he knew and prepares to die.
Mirror, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, has been dissected since 1975, and with each interpretation and re-examination, we find new meaning. While the film is incohesive and complicated at times, there is an underlying theme about generational trauma and the effect of outside events changing our lives.
The film’s main outside event is World War II and the Sino-Soviet conflict, which forces the family to evacuate Moscow and live in the countryside to avoid the war. We follow Alexei as he tries to comprehend the events happening around him. Alexei’s mother, Maria, must also deal with the changing world while caring for her children and waiting for her husband, who is away at war. Through a series of events starting in 1935, we observe the confusion and resentment building in characters burdened by the war.
We find ourselves in 2021 in a similar position. We are facing the end of an extended wartime period, with many of us not remembering a time when our country wasn’t occupying another. In 2001, the United States faced the worst attacks ever experienced on U.S. soil. The 9/11 attacks would forever alter the lives of American citizens, specifically the young people who would inherit the U.S. of its aftermath. In the same way that Maria tried to shield Alexei from the horrors of the world, American parents wanted to protect their children.
In Mirror, Maria is a copy editor at a printing press in Moscow. Maria is a career woman who is quite brutal with her dedication to perfection, throwing herself into a panicked frenzy, worried that she missed an edit. Maria’s rigid nature inspires her co-worker to lecture her about behavior, reducing Maria to tears. We catch a glimpse of Russia before the war while she works. The industry surrounding Maria and the city’s modernization give insight into the growing new working world. We see Maria as solid and capable, but as the battle rages on, she contorts into herself and becomes a shell of who she was, eventually straining her relationship with Alexei.
In 2001, the world we knew changed overnight. Parents became paranoid, stories about racially charged violence followed at the heels of the “War on Terror.” Grown-ups became shadows of the people they were before, hiding their children behind them while facing brutality from the events on screen and its manifestations in the behavior of other adults.
Though Mirror’s nonlinear narrative creates a frantic, dreamlike hellscape where the war disintegrates family ties, we manage to find some obstructed sense of familiarity in the extreme dysfunction. During a flashback, we observe an adolescent Alexei rifle training with a dour instructor. Shy and slightly incapable, Alexei struggles to grasp the movement and ultimately begins his failure as a soldier. This intimate look at how Alexei grapples with the masculinity of rifle training and the harsh instructor’s teaching calls to mind the earliest days of the war in November 2001, where the United States sent 1,300 American troops to Afghanistan. Footage of the young men was shown on the evening news. Reports soon accompanied dinners on soldiers moving in and presidential reassurances.
We watched parents talk, through clenched jaws, to their children at the dinner table about the rising death tolls and what being safe in America meant for them. The children who came from Iraq, Afghanistan—any Middle Eastern country—or just happened to be racially ambiguous were instructed on how to behave so as not to be harmed by other students. Even after two decades, the racist attacks remain part of their lives.
Mirror’s use of wartime footage, spliced with Alexei’s memories and dreams, is directly reminiscent of how 9/11 footage was shown for hours on end on significant news stations. Delivered to children and young people, it was socially imperative that we watched because it’s history on live television.
Children were left confused, frightened and scarred from the footage, and in recent years it’s almost become a talking point to reminisce about seeing it for the first time. Discussing how old we were, who showed it to us, do we remember feeling afraid. Trivializing our collective PTSD and trauma, and years later still trying to make sense of what we saw.
Alexei watches his son, Ignat. He imagines his son has his face, as if watching himself. The uncertainty of youth and Alexei’s shy nature mimic the earliest days of Ignat’s adolescence. Alexei strives to give Ignat more independence as a growing boy, but Ignat seems content at his mother’s side, much like Alexei was. Alexei’s self-imposing nature with his son expertly remarks on the generational trauma. Parents living through their children is not a new concept, but we see it literally through Tarkovsky’s film, as a father imagines he is his son. Many parents saw themselves as children again during the invasion, filled with fear and anxiety, looking to the nation’s leaders for answers. For older people, memories of the war in Vietnam were a direct trigger that led to hushed whispers after dark: “Do you think they’ll reinstate the draft?”
A mirror’s purpose is reflection, enabling us to look at ourselves, and Tarkovsky’s film acts as an allegorical tale about the importance of meditation. The past can’t be changed, and we observe Alexei’s grief over losing his own life, which is, perhaps, the most profound tragedy of the film.
For the Millennials and older Gen-Z who grew up during the 2000s, tragedy is all they’ve known, and Millennials are still grieving. From 9/11 to the economic crises, housing crises, a pandemic, famine, climate change and insurrection, young people’s lives have been defined by consistently horrific world events that further decimate their desire to participate in the promised world of their youth. Tarkovsky takes on a journey of understanding, as well. Alexei knows at this point in his life, nothing for him will get better, but he can hope for a better world for his son. Even though Alexei attempts to be a good father, Ignat’s trauma builds from his loneliness and his witnessing of his parent’s divorce. Ignat’s personality is developing, but we can already see that he is emotionally suffering.
America has never fully recovered from the attacks and, in this way, its people have never emotionally healed from the trauma. America expertly side-steps every incident and reappropriates grief with capitalism. Human Rights Watch explained that the pandemic further exposed the financial inequality of the United States and its hypocritical treatment of “essential workers” by giving them a title and temporary raise while enforcing working schedules and conditions that put the workers in immediate danger.
The emotional suffering hasn’t ended, the cyclical nature of grief in the age of the 24-hour news cycle is constant and sharp, and it can be easy to imagine oneself as Alexi, lying in a bed reflecting on days gone by. Remembering the good, bad and the way our lives are often shaped by the exhaustion of living through major world events.
There is a legacy of American misery that depends on your social status. Generational trauma is passed down like family jewels. It seems almost impossible to refuse the sorrows of our elders and, before we realize it, we are covered with weighted chains of silver and gold that grow heavier as we carry our burdens. Still, Tarkovsky’s illustration and understanding of how trauma is collected and distributed in Mirror is legendary in itself. Mirror is passed through a lineage of film scholars and Criterion film enthusiasts, finding itself discussed and admired in Tarkovsky film groups on Facebook. Mirror is loved so much that earlier this year it was restored by Mosfilm with a new release from Janus Films, ensuring Tarkovsky can be viewed in its full glory for years to come. The film’s biographical nature continues to be relatable to new viewers and veteran watchers—Tarkovsky offers his chains for us to wear temporarily and return them, making Mirror a stark reminder that catastrophe devastates the inside and the outside world.
Aging Goth and Detroit native Buhalis covers music, film, and culture, the more obscure, the better! A recent contributor to Paste, Buhalis, can be found writing in a dark Victorian mansion and has been known to only come out at night! You can follow Buhalis’ adventures on social media and Patreon.