It is very difficult to write about Tarkovsky. His films exist in a kind of wordless abyss; any attempt to lend them articulation invariably finds itself languishing in Plato’s unforgiving cave.
To some extent, that should not hinder the modern film review, since (unfortunately) few actively strive to give voice on paper to what can only be seen onscreen. Instead, reviews are now more like cross benefit analyses, whereby the driving question has become ‘is it worth you [the unknown reader] spending your money on Film X given the amount of pleasure you are likely to receive?’
Yet submitting Tarkovsky to such obviously financial thinking is just as sacrilegious as trying to nail his films on paper. The great cinematic martyr, he put life before film to the extent that it is believed he died from cancer having shot an entire film in an area contaminated by radiation (the film had needed a post-fallout look, you see). Tarkovsky didn’t give a damn about himself or money; it wasn’t important to him whether his film was a commercial success, only that he made what he intended. So to ask whether you should go see the film, whether you’d like it, well, that’s just not in the spirit of things is it?
There are two fantastic moments (of cinema) that bookend The Sacrifice — Tarkovsky’s final film — and help explain what I think he was all about. I can’t offer words to describe Tarkovsky, and nor can I suggest whether you’d like him or not, but I can at least say what he means to me.
Following a protracted credits sequence, The Sacrifice opens with a withdrawn shot of a father and son planting a barren tree in open farmland. The father is thinking aloud, rambling without direction; the boy is sullen, diligent and mute. They secure the dwindled tree into the ground, and the father talks about the need to water it every day, before the scene moves on (to Nietszche, God, and haphazard cyclists).
The scene lasts forever (somewhere around nine minutes) … and yet somehow its opening moment lasts for even longer. The image of a man brazenly planting a withered tree in the middle of nowhere — it’s Tarkovsky at his enigmatic best. There’s so little to see, and yet there’s everything to see. The camera lingers and you notice the tree, the man, fields, a path, the sea, a hut; suddenly a multitude of material — be it massive or minute –unveils itself to your wandering eye. And you’re given the time to explore it. The camera doesn’t cut or move. It just shows, resolutely, knowingly.
The effect is, I think, massively empowering. In the face of quick-fire, blink before you think Hollywood, the opening to The Sacrifice offers itself for exploration on the viewers’ own terms. There’s space for the viewer’s imagination here, a suggestion almost anathema to the majority of films that reach our cinemas and televisions today.
That one barren tree, then, becomes a whorled porthole into so much more. For the resolutely Catholic Tarkovsky, it symbolised both the beauty of God and the decay of aberrant man. Religious sentiment aside, the film’s simple call to look again revitalises the image of the tree, and allows it to come alive in the joyously active mind of its viewer.
The Sacrifice ends in an inferno of flames. About two hours and ten minutes after planting that tree, and having gone through various palpitations of drink, dreams, and Godly conversation (all set in an imagined world of impending nuclear apocalypse), the father of the film’s opening scene tilts definably into madness. Having agreed to give up everything he owns in return for his family’s salvation, he makes a pile of wooden furniture in the front room of his Scandinavian house, and sets fire to the lot.
It’s a masterful, outlandish final shot. The large house goes up in billowing flames as the father’s family rush to confront him, and watch their worldly possessions burn. Finally an ambulance arrives, and the father is whisked away, presumably to a life of incarceration and incantation in a padded cell.
And yet, it almost all didn’t happen. Having spent weeks (and much of the budget) building the house, Tarkovsky readied his actors, lit the flames and called action, only for the film stock to jam almost instantly in the one rolling camera. His reaction, caught on camera by a documentary crew, is one of the most inspiring pieces of footage any young filmmaker could possibly see. Momentarily distraught, and with the flames rising in the background, he turns with almost instantaneous resolution to the films’ crew and starts persuading them to build the house again. And this all in the sub-zero temperatures of a small Swedish island!
The Sacrifice is Tarkovsky’s sacrifice, and so are the rest of his films. Beautiful, obstinate and difficult, they are the fruits of a gargantuan and single-minded effort. Tarkovsky’s films are all about the image — not the word or the narrative — and they frequently reveal the great amount of exertion behind their makeup. Each image is carefully cultivated to become an element unto itself — infinitely more variegated than a word, and more sacred than a sermon. At the end of The Sacrifice, the young boy sits beneath his now departed father’s tree and breaks his silence with damning effect; “In the beginning there was the word” he says. “Why is that, Papa?”.
In the face of such an argument, perhaps it is easy to see why it can be difficult to write about Tarkovsky.
Artificial Eye are releasing a new and enhanced print of Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice to coincide with Curzon Cinema’s Tarkovsky Season. Starting on the 7th December 2007, the weeklong event will commemorate Tarkovsky’s 75th anniversary by screening all of his major works, alongside multiple Q&A sessions and the odd documentary about his life.