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The Steamroller and the Violin
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The Steamroller and the Violin

Sasha is a sensitive young boy taking violin lessons who must contend with bullies, a domineering mother and a harsh violin teacher. He befriends Sergei, a steamroller driver who works nearby. Sergei becomes a father figure for Sasha and helps him stand up to the bullies. At the same time, Sasha teaches Sergei the value of art. However, two obstacles come in the way of their friendship: Sasha's mother and a pretty female coworker who has her sights set on Sergei.

Directing students at the VGIK (the All-Union State Institute of Cinematography) had to make a short diploma film to complete the degree and demonstrate their skills to prospective studios. Along with Andrei Konchalovsky's The Boy and the Pigeon (1961), Tarkovsky's diploma film The Steamroller and the Violin (1960) is one of the few still widely shown today. Thanks in part to the popularity of French director Albert Lamorisse's award-winning The Red Balloon (1956) in the Soviet Union, children's films of this sort - which use visual and aural means to present the world from a child's point of view - were relatively common at the time. Tarkovsky's film also presents the tried-and-true Socialist theme of friendship between workers and the intelligentsia, a favorite motif in Soviet films and literature. As Vida Johnson and Graham Petrie point out in their recent book on Tarkovsky, the film also depicts the "urban reconstruction" which took place in Soviet society after the devastation of World War II; not coincidentally, Sergei is a war veteran.

Originally, the ambitious young Tarkovsky wanted to hire as his director of photography Sergei Urusevsky, the leading Soviet cinematographer of his day. Urusevsky was best known for his visually stunning collaborations with director Mikhail Kalatozov, among them: The Cranes Are Flying (1957), The Letter That Was Never Sent (1959) and I am Cuba (1964). Instead, Tarkovsky ended up working with fellow student Vadim Yusov. Yusov proved to be a more than worthy colleague, as evidenced by the film's delicate color and impressionistic effects, most strikingly in the scene where the young boy gazes into a shop window and sees the world reflected through mirror fragments. Yusov would continue to work with Tarkovsky on his next three projects: Ivan's Childhood in 1962 (titled My Name is Ivan for the international market), Andrei Rublev (1969) and Solaris (1972). Likewise, the composer Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov continued to work with Tarkovsky on his early features.

Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovksy, who collaborated on the screenplay and later co-wrote Andrei Rublev, is a major figure in Soviet cinema. While his debut feature The First Teacher (1965), based on a story by the Kyrgyz writer Chingiz Aitmatov, was nominated for a Golden Lion at the 1966 Venice Film Festival, his second film Asya's Happiness (1966) was banned for twenty years due mainly to its depiction of grim living conditions on a collective farm. His subsequent films were "safer" projects, more conventional literary adaptations such as A Gentry Nest (1969) and the epic Siberiade (1979). In 1980, he emigrated to the U.S. and started a new career as a Hollywood director. His subsequent films have had mixed success, the best of them being Runaway Train (1985), based on an original story by Akira Kurosawa.

Later in his career, Tarkovsky had little regard for The Steamroller and The Violin. Yet, today the film is still interesting for the ways it prefigures Tarkovsky's later work (especially its abundant water imagery) and it is ultimately a delightful children's film in its own right. It was awarded First Prize at the 1961 New York Student Film Festival.

Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Production Supervisor: A. Karetin
Screenplay: Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky and Andrei Tarkovsky
Cinematography: Vadim Yusov
Editing: Lyubov Butuzova
Music: Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov
Principal cast: Igor Fomchenko (Sasha), Vladimir Zamansky (Sergei), Natalya Arkhangelskaya (Girl), Marina Adzhubei (Mother).
C-44 mins.

by James Steffen

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