Andrei Tarkovsky’s Final Work of Apocalypse, Desperation, Madness, and Atonement
DIRECTED BY ANDREI TARKOVSKY/SWEDISH/1986
STREET DATE: MAY 15, 2018/KINO CLASSICS
It will all come to an end one day. Everything must. Thus God has damned it. But He’s also blessed it, blessed it many times, the blessing of revelation among them.
To paraphrase the great German critic, Siegfried Kracauer, What did Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky know that we don’t? Or can’t? The great filmmaker, deified among cineastes, was one of great faith and also brutal truths. He only made seven features, not a dud nor conventional crowdpleaser among them. Tarkovsky made masterpieces; immaculate, deliberate, oneiric, lucid. To cop Sam Fuller by way of Godard: In a word, Cinema. Caffeine-necessitated cinema for many, yes, but the pure heights to which Tarkovsky ascended and shined back was, and is, never boring.
The world over, so very many, many movies are built upon a denouement of redemption. Redemption, is indeed the grand hope and primary spiritual desire for humankind. Yet, for all his deep religiosity, Tarkovsky doesn’t depict that in the film in question here. Rather, he’s made a film all about that other, essential yet oft-neglected precursor of redemption: atonement. Hence, The Sacrifice.
Filmed in Sweden, and staring frequent Ingmar Bergman leading man Erland Josephson, The Sacrifice (Offret) tells the oblique story of his character, one-time stage actor Alexander, and his total decent into pre-apocalyptic paranoia.
Whether or not Sweden truly is the land of oppressive neutrality that it’s sometimes known to be, cinematography legend Sven Nykvist (again, like so many involved with this film, a Bergman regular collaborator) certainly depicts it that way. The country landscape is a barren, sprawling nothingness of grey tones, lonely roads, and oppressive solitude. Still though, for Alexander, there are family and friends. A good half dozen, at least.
In an isolated farmhouse on the edge of the water, Alexander lives a quaint life with his wife, Adelaide (Susan Fleetwood) and his mute young son whom they only call “Little Man” (Tommy Kjellqvist). Friend of the family and local doctor, Victor (Sven Wollter) drops by frequently on his bicycle. One time, he brings a gift, a very large framed map of Europe, circa 1392. The rendering is clearly in earnest and bearing no shortage of detail. But, per contemporary global knowledge, it’s completely wrong; nothing more than a brilliantly communicated, unintentional fraud of yore. Happy birthday, Alexander. The whole of The Sacrifice, or at least most of it, indeed unspools on that occasion. “Happy”, though, it is not.
Unseen jets soar overhead. Their residual rumble causes the whole house to shake. The shaking causes a large glass jar of milk to dramatically drop to the floor and shatter. It’s war. The Third World War, the sum of any and all helpless Cold War-era fears, has finally come about. Soon enough, the gloomy envelopment of nuclear desolation would claim the lives of everyone.
Alexander’s mellow patriarchy gives way to desperation. For the first time, he turns to God. In pleading prayer, spoken in the lonely shadows of his beloved home, he offers it all up to Him, if only the Lord protects his child. His child, and his family. Take the house. Take him. But spare them. And while you’re at it, undo the war, O God.
Victor arrives as Adelaide is beginning to panic. The doctor administers calming injections to her and Marta (Filippa Franzén). Then Victor emphatically instructs Alexander what he must do to save the world. He must sleep with their mysterious servant, Maria (Guðrún Gísladóttir). Maria, Victor reveals, is a witch; the sex magick (my term not his) conjured in their adulterous union is the only hope for humankind. And so, leaving nothing to chance, he goes through with it.
Tarkovsky deliberately leaves the whole scenario vague. Vaguely resolved, vaguely explained. Anything more would be unacceptable in this time of great personal grappling for the filmmaker. Whether he knew it or not at the time, Tarkovsky was dying. In the final days of the same year that The Sacrifice would see release, lung cancer would have its way with him. Andrei Tarkovsky, dead at fifty-four.
Before then, Ingmar Bergman himself would do his own dance of death around and near Tarkovsky, knowing great cinematic talent and skill when he sees it, more acutely than most. And here Tarkovsky was, basically in his own national backyard. It’s only logical, then, that Tarkovsky would utilize not only so many outstanding talents formerly of Bergman (who quite publicly gave up his own filmmaking career a few years prior with Fanny and Alexander, a retirement that didn’t quite stick, although it remained in effect at this point), in front of and behind the camera, but also reflect one of the Swedish master’s most sensitive and underrated films, Shame. The notion of a household caught in the grip of a war they have little stock in and no allegiance to is indeed a deliberate echo of Bergman’s bold 1968 drama. In that underrated heavy gem, Max von Sydow and Liv Ullman must literally get out of the way of a war that’s made its way to their remote home. It’s a stinging marital drama- Bergman’s forte at the time of its production – but resonantly so much more.
Although their worldviews and spiritual believes would seem to run 180 degrees of one another (None versus everything? God versus no God?), Bergman and Tarkovsky organically cultivated a mutual appreciation society for one another. They each revered the work of the other, throwing around words like “greatest” and “miracle” in service of each other’s cinema. Perhaps the through-line abides in the notion of space and spacial relations made personal. Intellectually impenetrable? Almost, perhaps. Yet deeply resonant, more of an audiences life-experience than “just a movie”? Absolutely. These are the very examples of such work. And, for what it’s worth, (and it is worth much) not un-entertaining.
That Tarkovsky lived and thrived and persevered as long as he did, though, is an accomplishment unto itself. No amount of deification could change the fact that his life was not an easy one. Per accounts, he was in touch with his shortcomings, and was never hesitant to ask for forgiveness when he appropriate. The problems that plagued the production of several of his films are the kinds of incidents that would derail the entire endeavor, much less result in an unbroken string of venerated masterpieces. A particularly traumatic incident that nearly decimated the fiery culmination of The Sacrifice is covered from start to finish in the feature-length documentary, Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky (1988). Directed by Tarkovsky’s ambitious Sacrifice editor Michał Leszczyłowski, Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky stands as one of the great making-of chronicles. In between the trials and turmoils the film wrought (some standard issue, some ex-pat related, some amusingly culturally based, others legitimately upsetting), we hear from Tarkovsky’s wife and others who knew and understood the man. The documentary, included on a separate DVD disc with Kino’s Blu-ray of The Sacrifice, is a supreme bit of added value. The Sacrifice is a must-own; Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky satisfyingly enriches it.
Estranged for years from his son, ending up then in a country that was far different from his own, Tarkovsky kept a diary of his latter days. Excerpts of this diary, published in full along with other early diaries in English in 1991, are provided in the nice booklet that is included with Kino Classics two-disc Blu-ray edition. There’s also an appreciative essay by film scholar Robert Bird. The film proper is accompanied by an optional audio commentary by Layla Alexander-Garrett, Tarkovksy’s translator on the set of The Sacrifice. She shares her understanding of the filmmaker, stories she’s been trotting out regularly on the occasion of various recent retrospective showcases following the fantastic restoration of Tarkovsky’s entire seven film filmography.
According to translator Alexander-Garrett, Tarkovsky’s spiritual curiosity knew no Earthly bounds. More broadly, one could observe that at least from Andrei Rublev onward, he basked in sooo much regular elevated acclaim, that such non-committal attitudes about such vital matters were a freedom simply afforded him. In The Sacrifice, Alexander’s two paths taken to saving the world may both be valid. But just as readily, maybe only one is. Or, maybe it’s neither, they’re all dead, and the whole second half is a dream. Goodness knows there’s an influx of dreamlike imagery and moments to be savored in this final work. Resolution, however, abounds. I have my theories, you will have yours. And even amid the long, unbroken takes (two outstanding ones bookend the film) all intuitive viewers are compelled by the alluring, stark immersion into this complex, maddening and unexplainable world on screen. And we realize, on some level, that those are defining qualities of the real world.
The Sacrifice is a Hail Mary mashup of two shorter screenplays that Tarkovsky was intent on doing. Dare I say, that shows. But dare I also say that that showing doesn’t matter. That Tarkovsky managed to divine something as cryptic, as beguiling as this to the degree that thirty-two years later, Paul Schrader would create a major homage in his own masterpiece, First Reformed, is rightly telling. First Reformed, astonishingly so, quotes The Sacrifice both overtly and subtly. Such powerful works of religious grappling (grappling of both the characters and the filmmakers) are ultimately honest; rightly gamy in the consumption and digestion.
The Sacrifice and First Reformed are visions of what can happen when mankind dares to appropriate Christlike atonement into its own circumstantial terms. As the concept of process itself (always important, but never the be-all-end-all) is prioritized to the extent of supplanting love, the very initial love that prompted it all in the first place is annihilated. Burning everything to the ground and/or mutilating self-flagellation is a warped application of game-changing logic fundamentals that can only be the forte of the Almighty. All other attempts to define new (and also, quite often, very old) spiritual rules and specifics- even when dictated by men of the cloth, men of letters, or men of science and medicine- lead to madness. Tarkovsky literally signals as much by adorning Alexander’s final-scene garb with an upside down yin-yang- an eastern symbol of madness.
Maybe the costliest flaw of the central characters in these rare stories is their failure to realize that the sacrifices they have determined to be the answer are merely indicative of them playing God. Their greatest missteps might just be their outright failures to embrace the Truth, detailing that the sacrifice they need to move on towards redemption was already made, long ago.
Tarkovsky’s final cinematic work, therefore, cannot be reconciled only as a farewell statement, but also as an offering promoting a truer atonement. Tarkovsky’s own spiritual journey was in process, right up until he died; that is the reality of all our lives. The Sacrifice is a film that is both in receipt of and forever uneasily pointing towards redemption. It doesn’t deliver it, because Tarkovsky knows it can’t. Even in and before our individual onslaughts of death, madness, desolation, and desperation, the Word was, and is. We cannot know why that is, but Tarkovsky chooses to go out, beautifully childlike, looking up and curious about that reassurance.
And that is The Sacrifice.