The Steamroller and the Violin (1962)

Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky


The Steamroller and the Violin, Andrei Tarkovsky’s first film, is a quiet one about a young boy, who plays the violin, befriending a working man, the steamroller.  The story is simple but genuine.  It relies on the interaction between and believability of the two main characters, but the film is much more about Tarkovsky’s lively style and use of color.  Now, having not yet seen any other Tarkovsky film, I can’t really say what this film demonstrates or introduces us to in regards to his themes and style throughout his career.  But in a vacuum, watching this film I was struck by the color, sound, mise en scene and the assured camera movements of a director who, you would think, had been doing this all his life.

This is a film from 1962, but the cutting, the panning, the zooms, the rack focuses, they all felt much more modern, like a movie you’d see today.  And the colors, the soft pastels of blue and red that wash over this film are gorgeous.  The setting felt incredibly old and lived in and yet brand new as well.  I don’t know if I’ve ever felt color the way I felt it here.  And yeah, I don’t know what that means, but I felt the color.  It’s not just bright and ever-present, but it’s so calculated in a good way.  Everything lines up like a carefully-constructed pattern.  The boy’s red hair matches his red guitar and plays well against the blues of his sweater and most of the world around him.  The color at once pops and fades away.

The Steamroller and the Violin knows there’s something to say about the friendship between this boy and this man.  It’s not just that there’s a friendship, and the simplicity of the story encourages makes you think there must be more layers to the film, but the way the camera moves, zooming in on an apple, focusing on a boy’s reflection in the mirror or the scattered perspective offered by a broken mirror, seems to say ‘you must look deeper.’  This is a film that dunks your head in the water, forcing you to look at what’s beneath the surface while many films offer you a simple chance to look deeper.

In one scene, the boy waits before his violin practice.  A girl waits outside with him.  When he goes in for his lesson, he leaves the apple, and the camera floats in to take a good, long look at this apple.  He and the girl never exchange words, and after his lesson, the camera again floats in for a close up to show us that the apple is now just a core.

What does this mean?  I don’t really know.  I wasn’t paying as sharp attention as I should have been.  Maybe the two kids can never get any closer than they were while waiting outside the violin room.  Or maybe this is the flirtation between them, I don’t know.  But later the film delves into class systems when the boy meets the steamroller.  The boy, we can assume, is of a higher social class.  The violin seems a high-class instrument, and the man’s profession is that of a laborer.  He refers to himself as a worker and the boy as a musician.  The man is defined by what he does and thus what he is, while the boy is defined by what he could be.  That being said, the boy seems certain that he will be a musician, not because he wants to be, but because he’s expected to be.

Their brief friendship is centered around the boy getting picked on by other kids, eventually damaging his instrument.  The man steps in, twice, and eventually he repairs the violin.  The boy repays him by playing a solemn song.  Their friendship is the only time they seem able to take a breath and to relax.  But then again, so many movies present relationships this way, whether platonic or romantic.  There are countless short films about two people in cold, unfulfilling lives who find each other and learn to be happy.  It’s like the short film template: you take two characters who live in some kind of vaguely recognizable utopia doing mindless jobs and who seem to feel absolutely nothing.  They’re just numb, but then they meet each other, and they recognize something new in themselves.  The story is about love, and suddenly everything is okay even if they still work the same mind-numbing vaguely recognizable, repetitive job.

A pessimist would say that such a story is bullshit, because falling in love doesn’t fix everything.  Their lives, as we saw them, were unfulfilling and a romance won’t fix all of that.  An optimist might say that such a presentation of love is just a metaphor for how love feels.  You don’t realize how much you needed the person until you meet them.

So the friendship works in a similar way here.  At the end of the story they agree to meet for a movie, but the boy is held back by his mother who, reasonably, doesn’t want her son meeting a stranger for a movie.  The man waits for the boy, but in doing so he meets a woman with whom he will see the movie.  It’s not expected, but it’s certainly a happy ending for him.  The boy, even though locked up, tries to leave a note for the man, informing him that he was held up.

The film then end with a wide shot of the steamroller moving across the land.  The little boy runs up behind him, and when the man notices him, he scoops him up, and they ride offscreen together.

The Steamroller and the Violin is a coming of age story, in some ways, particularly for the boy.  There is some commentary on class relations (maybe it’s because the man is a worker that the boy is told to stay away from him), but the story, in spite of the failure for the two of them to meet up for the movie, offers us a happy ending.  It’s not clear if they see each other again, maybe the last shot is real or imagined, but the ending is nonetheless happy, suggesting that this is how life works.  It’s not a disaster that they couldn’t go to the movie together.  They met each other, learned something, and that’s enough.

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