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Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice: Against All Doctrine

sacrifice-andrei-tarkovsky

By Christopher Sharrett.

I have been meaning for some time to put pen to paper about Andrei Tarkovsky, about whom I’ve been hesitant for decades. A few remarks on the occasion of Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray of the director’s final film might be a good starting place for a consideration. But I need to include an acknowledgement and preliminary remarks. Many of my thoughts, at this point, are influenced by or merely repeat Vida T. Johnson and Graham Petrie’s fine book The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: a Visual Fugue (Indiana UP, 1994). Of the many books on Tarkovsky (some merely picture books or treatises bent on proving an obvious or eccentric theory), this seems to me the most useful, so I simply announce my debt at the outset, and hope to expand on some points of previous authors.

I put Tarkovsky aside for many years – along with directors I once loved, including Bergman, Ford, Antonioni, and many others – on the grounds that they weren’t “relevant.” (Today, “relevance” seems a matter merely of a young person’s preferences and utility to career.) I was affected by the view many of us shared during the U.S. invasion of Southeast Asia and the Watergate period that works of art that did not address Movement politics needed to be dismissed almost out of hand. Artists, especially filmmakers, I think, had to be actively “engaged.” Some friends were very radical on the point, saying that Shakespeare needed to be tossed in the dustbin. This was the thinking common to French Maoism – which had little to do, as we found out, with actual-existing Maoism, and served only to stunt one’s education and knowledge of one’s self and the world. I wasn’t nearly as strident as some, but I needlessly refused artists worth retaining. Today, Bergman is perhaps more important to me (for his perceptions of the mind, the cruelties we inflict on each other, the value of art) than ever. Ford is not nearly the flag-waver I once thought, but rather an intelligent commentator (usually) on American history – and how history must be challenged. I say all this by way of stating the importance of revaluation, especially in a new era of dismissals of art for no reason whatsoever beyond individual impatience and a new bias against the humanities born of the pressures imposed by consumer capitalist ideology.

Andrei Tarkovsky is an estimable artist, one whose conception of reality is extraordinary. His images might be called “hypnotic,” but this suggests that he puts one into an altered, perhaps somnolent state of mind, which doesn’t strike me as at all accurate. Perhaps “hypnagogic” makes sense (although it was once a term too loved by film studies), that moment between waking consciousness and sleep, which too me is the province of nightmares, a word that applies to Tarkovsky’s films. I have the sense in his films of the nightmare graven into the sleeping mind, frightening but also seductive in its beauty. Tarkovsky creates a cinematic image in a manner without parallel; he was always interested in making cinema the clear equal of all the arts (accomplished by many others, to be sure), and he surely succeeded.

Before dealing with The Sacrifice, I want to touch on some aspects of Tarkovsky that seem crucial to understanding who he is, and how a clear understanding (or understandings) of him has been impeded by technical resistances.

It has been many years since I have seen a Tarkovsky film projected in a theater, so my thoughts are based on study of home video editions of his films. There is considerable debate among Tarkovsky admirers if any of his films have been properly captured on DVD. This complaint proceeds from the justified argument that his images and use of sound are extraordinary, perhaps the greatest of any filmmaker. This aside, it is difficult to approach any director whose works have been compromised. Andrei Rublev (1966), Tarkovsky’s great triumph among his early films, exists in at least two versions: the film was censored by the Soviets, forcing Tarkovsky to remove some of the very violent Tartar invasion, and a little of the nude pagans running to the river. Tarkovsky said that the abridged version is definitive, which I can’t accept. The complete version from Criterion is preferable, but it is gray rather than black and white and in need of restoration. And it is a film at times astounding. As Amos Vogel said in his indispensable Film as a Subversive Art (CT Editions, 1974), Andrei Rublev captures the “evil odor of the Middle Ages, an era of brutality, human degradation, abject poverty, rape, senseless mass slaughter, mud and pagan orgies, when people were at the mercy of both temporal and ‘spiritual’ powers.” Tarkovsky’s approach is striking in its subversion, since the Middle Ages are frequently idealized by the church (it was a time when church hegemony was total); that Tarkovsky’s position is humanist, spiritual in its favoring the creative spirit within, announces his obvious radicalism. This film reveals him as a discontented man, filled with doubts at all levels of existence even as he masters his art. On the matter of various renderings of his films, we can deal only with the best sources available.

Tarkovsky’s mysticism was the element of his work that turned me away for years. But the “mysticism” and metaphysical aspect of The Sacrifice (other films are relevant, but none speak so forcefully to the filmmaker’s skepticism) are in fact challenged by the director; despite his repeated remarks about God and religion (spirituality is another matter, representing that element of the human being that responds to art, that won’t be dominated by capitalism or tyrannies of other kinds), his films are material works, of course, that reveal contradictions, and the neuroses to which all people are subject. It makes sense that The Sacrifice is his final work before his untimely death, not in the sense that it is his “last testament,” but rather a summary of his often-conflicted outlook.

In what follows I hope not to distort the director, but since Tarkovsky said that his last works were “impressionist,” and obvious lack a linear “story,” I think I am fair to him by remarking mainly on psychological-political aspects of his art. The formal properties are difficult to describe without gushing, but I’ll make some comments as they serve my points.

Sacrifice 01Tarkovsky strikes me as one of those conservative artists whose works often stab at and even annihilate that which he seems to admire. Yet there are some areas where he seems to be disturbingly consistent: his misogyny is unrelieved. In his films and interviews Tarkovsky reveals a view of the female dating to the Middle Ages, perhaps more regressive than his beloved Russian Orthodox Church (but his love must be questioned). In his conversation with Irene Brezna (in the book Andrei Tarkovsky Interviews, ed. John Gianvito, U Mississippi P, 2006), Tarkovsky is outright despicable. He never fails to reveal his ignorance and condescension. In The Sacrifice, as in most of his films, Tarkovsky is obsessed with the archetypal Virgin/Whore female construct: she is the beautiful sexual fixation, or else keeper of the hearth and repository of the sacred. The image complements a very noticeable homosocial (homosexual?) worldview. In Nostalghia, which might be called a preamble to The Sacrifice (it is his other European film, made in Italy with Tonino Guerra, starring Erland Josephson, the Bergman actor central to his final film and Tarkovsky’s move to Bergman’s homeland), Tarkovsky features a beautiful woman, Eugenia (Domiziana Giordano), whose charms are refused by the man she is escorting, the writer Andrei Gorchakov (Oleg Yankovsky, who bears a striking resemblance to the late actor Rick Jason, star of the excellent Sixties TV series Combat! – the point might have some relevance when we examine Tarkovsky’s insistent contrast of the “weak” intellectual man with the man of action), even when she bears her left breast to him. This film, like so many by Tarkovsky, argues that profound thoughts – and feelings – can be shared only by men. In this Tarkovsky is in line with much Western art (I can’t help but think of D.H. Lawrence and the comments I made on him and Women in Love for a recent Cineaste), including the Hollywood action cinema. The view becomes problematical indeed when Gorchakov seems to mirror Domenico (Erland Josephson), the mad fool; Domenico obviously becomes Gorchakov’s teacher, and Gorchakov carries out a ritual insisted on by Domenico after the latter’s self-immolation following his public exhortations, on an equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, to reinvigorate Western culture. The two men literally mirror each other at one point, with visual devices used for the purpose of fusing two men in The Sacrifice.

The weak man/strong man dichotomy seems obsessive in The Sacrifice. In the earliest scene, shot at a green expanse with gravel path by the edge of the sea, we learn that Alexander (Erland Josephson) played (during his abandoned acting career) Prince Myshkin in The Idiot as well as the lead in Richard III. So literature’s most benign character (whose goodness has no efficacy) and its greatest, self-aware villain are embodied in Alexander. They sit along with a self-doubt that is associated with castration by the female, as well as a preference for male company and consolation (Alexander and Otto in this film).

The gay element of this film, a “subtext” in earlier Tarkovsky, seems almost startlingly apparent; it can scarcely be set aside in favor of arguments about spiritual bonding. Johnson/Petrie remark that Tarkovsky’s bisexuality “is only now being discussed” (their book was published in 1994). The authors mention that to at least one interviewer, Tarkovsky spoke of a “deep, dark secret” but would not elaborate. This “secret” is on display everywhere: in Stalker, the Stalker (Alexander Kaidonovsky) is angered to see that the Writer (Anatoli Solonitsyn) is accompanied in the bleak freight yards, the starting point for their journey into the Zone, by a beautiful young woman (Faime Jurno) and her sports car. Stalker walks quietly around the car and tells the woman “get lost.” The journey takes Stalker, Writer, and Professor (Nikolai Grinko), three incarnations of intellectual male, into the Zone, which seems to be nothing more than an industrial wasteland created by patriarchal capitalism, along with the venomous ideology displayed by Stalker, who recalls, as noted by some, the heroes of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking novels, which presents us with an issue. Stalker tries to embody both the heroic “action man” and the sensitive spiritual mediator. The male triad is basic to Tarkovsky, certainly in his foundational Andrei Rublev. It is challenged in Stalker, with Stalker too sensitive to enjoy Professor and Writer, leaving him alienated if “gifted” (his daughter’s special powers). His two partners become irrelevant to his satisfactions, merely reminding him of his “secret knowledge” that cannot in the long run be expressed. In The Sacrifice, the triad becomes a duo, a topic to which I’ll return below.

In mentioning Tarkovsky’s gay sexuality, I have no desire to do further research in pursuit of new “evidence” with which to “out” him. He is not on trial, and any questions about sexuality must be answered by reference to his art alone, unless a family member needs to speak to this. To me, this issue is relevant to a study of Tarkovsky’s repression, and his unwillingness to swallow whole patriarchal ideology. As much as he seems to be attached to Russian Orthodox beliefs, toward the end of his life he apparently showed interest, according to Johnson/Petrie, in “astrology, ESP, telekinesis, and any kind of supernatural phenomenon.” The same interests are expressed by the Writer at the beginning of Stalker; he complains that there are no flying saucers, no mind reading, and no Bermuda Triangle, as the world is dominated by science. He complains that “in the Middle Ages, every house had its goblin, and God was present.”

Sacrifice 02This monologue is important: it shows Tarkovsky’s utter consistency. What is in his films is in his interviews and essays, his discourse in everyday life. But more crucially it shows not so much his archaic, conservative thinking, but rather his yearning for the fantastique. To believe in ESP, telekinesis, et al., is to believe in nothing, but his yearnings point to the impossible demands he places on art, while thinking that art has limitations. He places much on art, using it very much as a substitute for the social world. Tarkovsky’s interests in so many aspects of the metaphysical, including of the crackpot variety, reveals doubt far deeper perhaps than Bergman’s, who finally dispensed with any such concern. For all of his yammering about the past and what women should and shouldn’t do, one cannot miss Tarkovsky’s anxieties, centered on traditional notions of the sacred anchored in church doctrine. Tarkovsky’s subject is, after all, art, including the many representations of Biblical moments in his films. Critics have noted that he is involved in a “dialogue with art” (Johnson/Petrie), paying homage to Bach, Beethoven, Verdi, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Fra Angelico, Leonardo, Shakespeare, Bruegel the Elder – the list is fairly endless, to a point that homage could be said to be the substance of his work. He is concerned instead with art as true repository of the sacred through its connection to human creativity. Creativity’s products face destruction both immediate and tangible (the water running down the walls where his Andrei Rublev posters hang in Mirror – see Robert Bird’s work on Tarkovsky and the elements) and universal and apocalyptic – all of his films have some relationship to this crisis, certainly The Sacrifice.

That Tarkovsky thinks art has a transcendent residence is no secret. It points to a catastrophe that today is immediate indeed: the destruction of art by Western capitalism (as much as the old Soviet system of state-managed capital) or relegated to museums to be enjoyed by the well-heeled. The most stunning moment of this conviction occurs in Stalker, when the camera glides over a filthy pond, its lens downward. We see coins, a machine gun, a pistol, various rusted debris – and Van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece. The savaging of art is central to the Tartar invasion in Andrei Rublev. This anxiety is the best evidence of the political Tarkovsky, the person who recognizes that art is part of the social world (in which his role is limited and confused) and human history, both of which face utter oblivion, especially as we look at our situation in the twenty-first century. At the present writing, Tarkovsky’s concerns seem most valuable, as commerce and the “market” overwhelm us.

By the time of The Sacrifice, the struggle is over. Alexander burns his house, with all its artifacts and memories, to the ground, ostensibly to honor his bargain with God – he will sacrifice everything if God turns back time, thus preventing the nuclear holocaust. But the question is raised whether or not Alexander is simply a madman, guided by the crazed postman Otto (Allan Edwall), or if the film is a nightmare of a man of tortured sexuality – there is a good argument for The Sacrifice as horror film. The film is about the conflicted mind of Alexander, who cannot be at peace with himself, no one taking him seriously, the wife demeaning him, his interests shared with no one (although Victor gives Alexander a sumptuous, Rizzoli-style book of Russian icons, which Alexander caresses as he examines it – the moment is notable, since Victor, although cuckolding Alexander, is another male given a grace note). And is there any real efficacy to this “sacrifice” beyond Alexander’s revenge against Adelaide (Susan Fleetwood) for her affair with Victor (Sven Wolter), the friend and family doctor who castrates Alexander, reminding him of his failures (he gave up acting to write essays) and essential impotence? Alexander is in the background as Adelaide begins her screaming fit, the most unnerving ever captured in cinema; she begs the men to “do something” as the nuclear attack begins. The hysterical fit may be the dramatic center of the film (there is a similar but milder moment in Stalker – the female as out-of-control recurs in Tarkovsky), certainly more so than the images of nuclear devastation. Susan Fleetwood’s immersion in her performance is staggering – it is hard to believe she was asked to do this several times. Her hysteria seems focused dramatically on the idea of its threat to men – it unleashes a kind of power representative of the female at her worst: the woman as irrational force. In its course, Adelaide “confesses” that the disaster is caused by her infidelity, an idea that the narrative never (as far as I can tell) never rejects. Victor “does something” by injecting Adelaide with a tranquilizer. He also injects Adelaide’s daughter Marta, who doesn’t seem at all “hysterical.” Victor says, incredibly, that her taking the injection will make things easier for everyone, the idea being that female hysteria threatens what little is left of male centrality. Alexander and Otto comfort themselves with shots of whiskey (Otto puts his aside at first, emphasizing his importance as daemon and seer).

The separation of the women from the world of men is consistent. The central woman, Adelaide, is especially snide and self-absorbed – except for the moment, provoked by Victor’s “calming,” when she meditates on her failures, or rather, drowns in self-doubt for her transgression – concerned with the others only in so far as they meet her emotional needs. The other woman with a voice in the home (we put aside the outsider-helper Maria) is Julia, who fits well within the Virgin Mary construct.

Sac 04Alexander’s burning of the domicile contradicts key moments of the film, including the important opening credits, set over Leonardo’s unfinished Adoration of the Magi, while the “Erbarme Dich,” the magnificent aria for vocalist and solo violin from St. Matthew Passion, fills the soundtrack. It is hard to think of a more devotional opening – to faith and art – than this moment, the real establishing sequence. Later in the film, Alexander and Otto observe a print of the Adoration in Alexander’s upstairs quarters. Otto finds the painting “sinister,” and Leonardo “terrifying” (both words perfectly valid – one of the most noteworthy features are the eyes of the Magi, deep-set in their craning skulls). The “sinister” painting fairly dominates the film as fear takes over, with a second vision of the apocalypse, more or less coinciding with Alexander’s counsel from Otto and Alexander’s encounter with Maria (Guorun Gisladottir). The two men become partners, Alexander heeding Otto’s advice to have sex with the “witch” Maria, the sometime maid and foreigner who must be excluded from family events. Otto in turn is allowed to enter the domestic space, although he “faints” as he discourses on the fantastic – or because of his closeness to Alexander and this put-upon man’s desire to disrupt the female’s control. One can argue that Otto plays a key role in the destruction of the domestic space. At the same time, Otto’s counsel can be seen as wholly ludicrous; the performances suggest as such, Alexander scoffing at Otto’s “Nietschean pranks” (in the opening, Otto goes on about the eternal return), Allan Edwall’s performance almost a send-up of his character in some moments.

The Nativity is a key Christian image, lauding the family unit itself, often connected in narratives using Christmas in some way to the divine Holy Family. Christmas is the idealized family celebration – one whose importance doesn’t erode despite all the evidence of it being merely a consumer orgy. The family is one of Tarkovsky’s preoccupations, particularly in Mirror, an attempt to revisit his parents’ earlier days as it simultaneously takes apart the painful dreams/memories of childhood. Tarkovsky may (or may not) see that the pain of Mirror is inextricably linked to love of home and family; he burns the dacha in awareness of the point, especially as the mother isn’t quite that faithful a protector of defender of domesticity (the intrusion of the stranger at the opening, his showing-up is a threat born of the imagination of the artist, even as the stranger crashes on the rickety fence).

The family is questioned at the key argument of the narrative. The elliptical story of The Sacrifice begins with a father/son bonding moment, as Alexander and his little son, referred to only as Little Man, plant a dead tree, a highly ritualized and symbolic action. The family of this film is reduced to father and son and might be called Abrahamic, since the central action is Alexander’s plea to God that he will sacrifice everything, including his son, if God will save humanity. Little Man is clearly associated with the Christ child, who in much Medieval and Renaissance art is portrayed as having adult consciousness, sitting upright and gesturing to onlookers, including the spectator. Yet the Biblical allegory falls apart. Little Man isn’t present for much of the narrative and plays an insignificant role when he is around. His throat surgery makes him vulnerable and voiceless. More important, Alexander brutalizes him, if unconsciously. While Alexander sits in the little stand of trees, soliloquizing about the uselessness of words (consciously aligning himself with Hamlet), Little Man momentarily goes missing. He suddenly rushes into the frame, startling his father, who recoils in reflex to knock the boy down – he has a bloody nose. The first bloodletting of Biblical sacrifice has a ludicrous aspect. Alexander then faints and has his first dream-nightmare of nuclear holocaust. One can infer that the son is disabling the father, already castrated by his wife, clearly a refutation of the mother as Mary, the Holy Virgin.

Adelaide is a poor candidate indeed for the Holy Mother role; her interest in Little Man, her son, flows mainly from her hysteria and need for consolation. The boy is guarded in his rest by the faithful servant Julia (Valerie Mairesse) despite Adelaide’s hectoring. Adelaide is nothing like a nurturer; her gown (the type of female clothing that is a Tarkovsky fixation) speaks to her self-absorption, as does her berating her husband for giving up the stage. The domestic scene is so horrific, its gloom seems to birth the apocalyptic announcement on the television. Alexander, who has been tip-toeing around his own house as if in avoidance of the family (the tip-toeing recalls a child trying to avoid a cruel parent, especially the “hysterical” mother assigned domestic policing duties by the father), seems to have visions of his naked step-daughter Marta – is this a dream of incest? (Marta seems to address Victor, who doesn’t share the shot – still, the idea of a general orgy and unfettered sexuality seem to hang over the film, the final debasement that tempts the filmmaker mightily.)

It has been noted that Alexander’s heartfelt, improvised prayer (a fine moment by Josephson) is meaningless. It is another man’s coaching – to reciprocate the infidelity with Maria – that wins the day, at least in terms of ending domestic life for good, Alexander branded a lunatic, if not stopping nuclear war. The question has arisen as to which action saves humanity, Alexander’s prayer or the sex with Maria. But does either action mean anything more than panicked expression by the hysterical male, especially if we move The Sacrifice completely out of the realm of narrative cinema, which its form dictates we must? The salvific sex with Maria, with its strong supernatural aspect (the levitation), has a strong maternal cast, and as the mother image is sutured again to the wife. One of Tarkovsky’s more self-critical moments occurs as Alexander approaches the rendezvous like a child, hardly making it forward or back on his creaking bicycle, falling in potholes, pleading to Maria for assistance – she helps him wash his hands. With Maria’s merger with Adelaide (as wife and semi-girlfriend merge in Nostalghia), the “redemptive” act points us merely to the fragile self of Alexander/Tarkovsky, with his confused sexual identity.

Sac 05The father’s destruction of the home is total: the little model of the house, made by Little Man (the home offered by the boy as utopia) is viewed by Alexander as it sits in the marshland, which is the greensward surrounding the actual house. The film is deft in combining nature’s promise with muck and the decay of winter, and the immediate prospect of decay. The Sacrifice runs close to “The Fall of the House of Usher” as a narrative of physical collapse and the end of the family line. The house burns and falls just in time for the wife, her daughter, their maid and friends to watch, Adelaide collapsing on the ground, Alexander still tip-toeing in his Taoist silk gown (again, the devotional confusion seems extraordinary, not because east meets west, but due to the highly contradictory function of superstition and doctrine, along with what we know of the filmmaker’s fixation on ESP and the like.) The home-burning happens, we note, in the sunshine of the new dawn, “promised” by God in the contract set up in Alexander’s imagination. The family is homeless, the father taken away in the loony wagon – but the son left unhurt. The bargain isn’t kept? The final scene has Little Man lying by the dead tree planted at the opening. The boy repeats the line, “In the beginning was the word.” Little Man asks his absent father what all that means. Notable in its absence is the other line of Christian prayer that follows what the boy quotes: “The Word was made flesh, and dwelt amongst us.” Apparently, for Tarkovsky, the savior was never and will never be incarnated. While Tarkovsky insists on his vision of a fallen world, this is a surprisingly bleak conclusion, apostasy in fact, yet the film’s dismissive vision, with all its reaction, upholds it. Although he said he leaves open the ending, the viewer’s imagination respected, where can one go with the evidence of the film, permeated as it is with failure, destruction, and madness?

We have to keep up revaluation of Tarkovsky. His work is irksome but not unrepresentative of key twentieth-century dilemmas. Its Russian aspects can be a challenge – can we pretend to apprehend the total of Tarkovsky while being mostly ignorant of the Orthodox Church and Russian tradition? We can accomplish this knowledge, more or less, with a little education, yet this seems to take us only so far in understanding Tarkovsky’s art. To be sure, while he has more than a few fans (artists as disparate as Bergman, Von Trier, and Chris Marker), perhaps many indeed in a reactionary time not that prone to see his drawbacks, Tarkovsky has his resistance among those who simply cannot tolerate (there is no reason that they should do otherwise, I think) his misogyny and retrograde vision – the vision of the world seems to me, as I have tried to suggest, complex in its (unconsciously?) self-critical analysis. If The Sacrifice is a kind of acknowledgment of the Passion for the secular age of the 1980s and beyond, it is adversarial in conception, doing some violence to the central premises of Christianity.

Future revaluation might use the Kino Lorber disc mentioned above. The image is as good as we are likely to get, and it is the first Tarkovsky film to have a feature-length commentary – by the director’s translator Lyla Alexander-Garrett, who offers important insights, especially so given her presence at the film’s making. There is also an important interview with the film’s co-editor, Michal Leszczylowski, who helped the dying Tarkovsky complete the film.

The Criterion Collection will release two versions of Andrei Rublev this September.

Christopher Sharrett is Professor of Film Studies at Seton Hall University. He is a Contributing Editor for Film International, and a Contributing Writer for Cineaste.

Read also:

The Splendid “Zone”: Tarkovsky’s Stalker Restoration by Mosfilm

Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror viewed through Gilles Deleuze’s ‘time-image’

2 Comments for “Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice: Against All Doctrine”

  1. Robert K Lightning

    Although Tarkovsky’s misogyny might prove too substantial an impediment to my full appreciation, you’ve awakened my interest in an artist I’ve long neglected. Well done.

  2. christopher sharrett

    Rob,
    Thanks much.

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