Peter Green

Apocalypse & Sacrifice

Source: Sight and Sound, 1987, pp 111-118. All rights are reserved by Sight and Sound and The British Film Institute (BFI). The article is reproduced on with the kind permission of the Sight and Sound Publishing Manager. We are also indebted to Andrew Utterson and Nick Wrigley for tracking down the article for us.

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear

— A Midsummer Night's Dream

Within a few weeks of each other in the spring of 1986, Günter Grass' Die Rättin was published in Germany and Andrei Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice was given its first showing at Cannes. In his novel Grass describes the time after an atomic holocaust, after the end of human time, the earth ravaged by fire storms and ashes, its landscapes pitted and filled with water and debris, encrusted with mud, cleft and torn asunder. The catastrophe at the center of Tarkovsky's film is the outbreak of a Third World War, a final cataclysm in which "there will be neither victors nor vanquished, neither cities nor villages, neither grass nor trees, neither water in the springs nor birds in the sky." In the spring of 1986 the disaster of Chernobyl burst upon us casting its warning shadow over the world. In the final days of that year Tarkovsky died.

The convulsion that sets the machinery of sacrifice in motion in Tarkovsky's film is in fact a symbolic crisis. As we shall see, it took a different form in the original project. In a general sense it can be seen as a product of a man's spiritual plight, of the triumph of materialism. "I wanted to show that man can restore his links with life by renewing his covenant with the source of his soul," Tarkovsky said in an interview last March. The cause of the catastrophe that lies at the heart of the film is to be found in the state of disharmony in which man lives with himself and with nature. The disaster that threatens the world is more a symptom of its malaise than the root of the problem. "Sin," Alexander philosphises, "is that which is superfluous; and that being the case, our whole civilisation consists from beginning to end of sin."

Alexander's sacrifice is the liberating act of a man seeking a way out of this situation, a man who sees an opportunity of becoming an instrument of human redemption. Although he himself has retired from the stage to contemplate, to write and teach, he has grown weary of words. Like Hamlet, he sees the world ruled by procrastination and idle talk. The time has come for deeds.

Alexander has gone to live with his wife and daughter in a house they had found by the sea. About him he has a small but intimate circle of friends and servants. It is there that his son, "Little Man," was born, a latecomer and the apple of his father's eye. Although his wife's life is evidently marred by regrets and frustrated love, to Alexander the idyll still seems intact, above all through the presence of his little son, his hope for the future.

The entire world is suddenly threatened with obliteration by a nuclear convulsion, the outbreak of a Third World War, from which there can be no escape. In a bid to avert inevitable destruction, Alexander makes a gesture of faith on behalf of mankind. Alone in the darkness, he makes a fearful vow, "Lord, deliver us in this terrible hour. Do not let my children die, my friends, my wife... I will give you all I possess. I will leave the family I love. I shall destroy my home, give up my son. I shall be silent, will never speak with anyone again. I shall give up everything that binds me to life, if You will only let everything be as it was before, as it was this morning, as it was yesterday; so that I may be spared this deadly, suffocating bestial state of fear."

In the same night, Otto, the postman, comes secretly to Alexander in his room and suggests a possible way out. Alexander must go to the serving girl Maria, who is a witch with benign powers, and lie with her. Alexander complies with these instructions, and when he awakes the following morning, the threat of war has vanished.

He thereupon prepares to carry out his act of sacrifice. Sending everyone away on a fool's errand, he proceeds to burn the house down, and is finally taken away in an ambulance to silence and confinement by two white-jacketed men.

The Sacrifice reveals Tarkovsky's continued exploration of certain basic themes and at the same time represents the summation of his life's work. Loss or sacrifice by fire is a motif to be found in particular in The Mirror (the burning house and the burning bush) and in Nostalghia. Domenico's self-immolation on the scaffolding around the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius in Rome, Andrei's sacrifice to St. Catherine in the emptied sulphur pool of an Italian spa, can be seen more clearly in the light of The Sacrifice. In Nostalghia, Domenico had called for a change in universal values, a return to the point in history where a man had taken the wrong path. He had poured a can of petrol over himself, perched high above the onlookers, and had taken his life by fire in the cause of a better world. At the same time, at Domenico's request, Andrei had lit a candle and borne the flame across the drained pool, ultimately expiring himself, the victim of his exertions and his own weak heart.

Played by the same actor (Erland Josephson), Domenico is very much a forerunner of Alexander. In The Sacrifice it is almost as if Domenico had been resurrected from the dead, returned to life to continue his work and to repeat his sacrifice. Domenico had locked his family away for several years, held them captive in a deserted Italian hill town, until the police had freed them. (On being liberated, his son had exclaimed "Is this is the end of the world?") The sepia scenes of this liberation in Nostalghia with people fleeing along the steps of a church in the abandoned town, anticipate the two black and white inserts of a devastated street in The Sacrifice. In the latter case the street is littered with paper, rags and the refuse of our modern consumer society. Alexander's family is also held in a congenial confinement, in the remoteness of the northern exile he has chosen as his home; where his wife in the moment of crisis levels the accusation that she has sacrificed her own career on the stage to come and live with him here.

Through his son, Alexander hopes for a new beginning, that he too may return to that point in history where man had taken the wrong turning. But whereas Domenico had given an urgent warning to turn back while there was still time, in The Sacrifice it is already too late. The end is not merely nigh; the final countdown has begun.

There is a new sense of urgency, something fundamental, Old Testament-like about the single-mindedness with which Alexander executes his plan. It is an act of release in itself. In his traumatic state after the outbreak of hostilities, he whispers under his breath that he has been waiting for this moment all his life -- as if deriving a perverse pleasure from the occasion that now presents itself.

The destruction of his home by fire is not the only sacrifice Alexander brings, however. His renunciation of speech is a further token of this and a recurring motif in Tarkovsky's works. Roublev's vow of silence and his abandonment of painting in protest against the senseless cruelty of the world provides a close parallel; and one recalls the speech impediment of the youth at the beginning of The Mirror, his liberation from which generates a sense of spiritual release that is the springing point of the film. One can interpret this as a process of growing articulacy, whereas Alexander's renunciation is in part a protest against the inflation of words, from which only his son, recovering from a throat operation and unable to speak himself at the outset, will ultimately deliver him. [Footnote: Note the reference during the conversation between Victor and Alexander to the silence Ghandi observed one day a week for much of his life.]

The Tree of Life

The film opens with a coloured still of a detail from Leonardo's magical, unfinished painting "The Adoration of the Magi" (1481-2), now in the Uffizi, Florence. It forms the background to the opening credits and in a sense to the whole film. One sees the head of one of the kings, who is proffering a cup, and the hand of the Infant Jesus reaching out to touch it. After the credits the camera slowly moves up the painting, revealing Christ and the Virgin and the foot of a tree held by the hands of angels. It continues to rise vertically up the trunk of this tree (as it does up the withered stem at the end of the film), past the wild, rearing forms of horses in the distance.

The picture provides a key to the film. At its simplest level, it is a depiction of a present-giving in celebration of a birthday; and it is for this reason, of course that Alexander's guests are gathered about him on this day, Otto remarking that a gift must represent something of a sacrifice. In the figure of Christ surrounded by the Magi the picture conveys an image of naked innocence in the midst of worldly wealth. Furthermore, it is through the sacrifice of Christ that the world is redeemed, which is precisely Alexander's ambition in the film.

It would be taking the parallel too far and underestimating Tarkovsky's own breadth of vision and genius as a film-maker to see a direct translation of the contents of the "Adoration" painting into another medium. Tarkovsky paid homage to Renaissance painting in general and to Leonardo in particular (as indeed he did to icon painting) in other films. But The Sacrifice is of a kindred spirit to the painting, and Leonardo's work contains not merely a similar central statement to that of the film, but also motifs that could be seen as specifically Tarkovskian. The sketched form of the white horse to the left of the tree is one of the director's most common fingerprints; and the portrayal of ruined architecture (which in Renaissance religious painting was often used to convey the idea of the decay of the old order, the old temple; Christ, in contrast, representing the rise of the new Jerusalem) finds its counterpart in the waste landscapes and crumbling buildings of many of Tarkovsky's films. In The Sacrifice the motif of decay can be seen as a token both of the decline of civilisation and the destruction the war is about to bring.

Otto finds this picture terrifying. He has a great fear of Leonardo, he says. The picture indeed has its fearful aspects, in the awe-filled countenances of the shepherds in the foreground, and in the animated scenes in the background and the wild, primeval character of the horses.

The picture reappears on a number of occasions in the film. A print of it hangs in the house, the protecting glass reflecting Alexander in an overlaid double image, as if he were entering the picture or emerging from it, according to the play of light and the position of the camera.

The tree in the painting also finds its counterpart in the film. In the opening scene after the credits we see Alexander planting a tall, dried up tree stem. He tells his son the legend of the old Orthodox monk Pamve, who had planted a dead tree on a mountain and had instructed a novice, Ioann Kolow, to water it every day till it wakened to life. Every morning Ioann would fill a bucket, ascend the mountain and water the tree, returning in the evening after dark. Three years he did this, until one day he climbed the mountain and found the tree covered with blossom.

In this parable one can recognise allusions to the same act of faith performed by father and son in The Sacrifice, to the tree of life, beneath which the Virgin and Child are seated in the Leonardo painting; and to the Cross of Christ and its ultimate burgeoning with new life as an expression of resurrection. At the close of the film we see Little Man heaving two buckets along the track to water the withered stem his father has planted. Having completed his task, he lies down beneath the tree to wait. At this moment he recovers his voice and speaks for the first time in the film, repeating the words he had heard from his father at the outset: "In the beginning was the Word." And he adds, "Why, papa?" Again the camera rises to the crown of the tree, where there is still neither blossom nor leaf. But as if in answer to this question, the dedication to Tarkovsky's own son is faded in.

The Autobiographical Element

In The Sacrifice, as in other films by Tarkovsky, there are thus certain autobiographical references to be found. It is an aspect of his work for which he freqently incurred criticism, and most severely in his native country. The autobiographical element in his films ranges from the direct personal quotations of The Mirror to relatively allusive parallels in other films. Nostalghia is dedicated to Tarkovsky's mother and contains echoes from his childhood and youth. The Sacrifice, as we have seen, is dedicated to his son, and the thematic material -- the faith Alexander places in Little Man -- is a reflection of the hopes Tarkovsky himself placed in the future.

In other realms of art the inclusion of personal motifs or experience is regarded as a valid process, through which a further plane of meaning and dialogue may be established. Tarkovsky's use of autobiographical reference could be compared in painting (to which one can trace numerous parallels in his works) with the incorporation by artists of their own portraits, often discreetly hidden among the secondary figures or in background scenes. In the "Adoration of the Magi," for example, critics have long conjectured that the armoured figure in the bottom right-hand corner is a self-portrayal of Leonardo himself as a young man.

Tarkovsky's descriptions of the development of the screenplay for The Sacrifice throw an intersting light on the autobiographical elements in his films, and how they are either allowed to impinge directly on the content or are transmuted and assimilated to form a virually indistinguishable part of the overall fabric.

The initial screenplay concept, written before the shooting of Nostalghia and bearing the title The Witch, revolved about the cure of a man suffering from cancer. In his desperation, confronted with the knowledge of an incurable disease, he encounters a strange figure (the forerunner of Otto, the postman) who tells Alexander that his only hope of recovery is to go to a woman, allegedly a witch possessed of magical powers, and to sleep with her. This he does and experiences a remarkable cure, much to the amazement of his doctor. But the witch turns up one day and stands outside his house in the rain to claim him. Alexander's sacrifice at this stage in the development of the screenplay consisted of relinquishing family and possessions and going off with this woman in the attire of a poor man.

During the shooting of Nostalghia, Tarkovsky was struck by a number of parallels between his preoccupations in film at that time and his own life. Andrei Gorchakov, the film's leading character, had come to Italy with the intention of remaining only a short time and had been consumed with yearning for his home; but he had been unable to return, and ultimately died in Italy. Tarkovsky himself had originally intended to return to Russia after completing the film, but had also been overtaken by illness in Italy and forced to stay. He was deeply affected further by the death of Anatoli Solonizyn, the leading actor in most of his earlier films, who was to have played the role of Gorchakov in Nostalghia, and who was long foreseen for the part of Alexander in The Witch. Solonizyn dies of the same disease that had brought the turning point in Alexander's life in the first version of the story, and "today, years later, I too am suffering from it."

Tarkovsky subsequently revised his treatment of this story, removing it from a realm that had become alarmingly personal, to give it a more universal validity. The autobiographical strand remains, however, inextricably woven into the texture, and the lines spoken by Alexander to his little son beneath the trees have a poignant significance: "There is no such thing as death, only the fear of death."

Technique and Meaning

One has come to recognise certain recurring stylistic features of Tarkovsky's direction, personal fingerprints and structural devices. Over the years he came to refine and extend these to a point where they have acquired a semiotic content of their own.

The relationship between the iconography of his films and that of classical painting, the use of identifying attributes, the citation of the four elements has been observed elsewhere [Footnote: See my article "The Nostalgia of the Stalker," Sight and Sound, Winter 1984/85]. The generation of sounds, the quality of the camerawork, lighting and choreography, and the dramaturgical use of certain characters all serve to illuminate areas that are not otherwise expressed in the pictures or dialogue.

Tarkovsky developed the use of a differentiating colour code to a fine degree from its first appearance in Andrei Roublev. There the entire film was shot in black and white. Only the closing sequences, after Roublev has revoked his vow of silence and returned to painting, are in colour, celebrating his icons and murals. This key was used in subsequent films with increasing subtlety to distinguish between various realms, states of mind, or times. The use of such a code in this film will be considered in greater detail later in conjunction with the analysis of the ultimate significance of Alexander's sacrifice. At this point it is sufficient to remark that Tarkovsky here employs three levels of colour to distinguish between present reality, other time, dream and vision. This complexity is heightened by the fact that the range of colour used is limited in extent. The film is shot in the pale light of Sweden, where even the daylight scenes are of low contrast; furthermore, the indoor waking scenes are relatively subdued in color, with the result that the transitions between the different realms are often slight, almost imperceptible, creating deliberate ambiguities that reflect the multi-layered quality of this film and its possible interpretations.

Manifestations of the four elements recur in Tarkovsky's works. In The Sacrifice water and fire predominate. He himself referred to water as a mysterious element that is extremely cinegenic, that conveys a sense of movement, depth and change; but that accounts for only one aspect of its presence in his films. In The Sacrifice he uses it not merely as an atmospheric background or context (the sea or the waterlogged earth), but as a specific iconographic element within the film, conveying images of life and growth and purification. Fire is of a similar visual quality, but it is also associated with ideas of light and purgation, and in this case comes to represent the central vehicle for Alexander's sacrifice.

Other personal Tarkovskian motifs are also to be found. The occurrence of mirrors, and of doors that swing open on their own; the trembling glasses, the images of spilt milk, the condensation of breath on the window pane, the pictures of the little boy asleep, the bloody nose, the phenomenon of levitation are all familiar from previous works, and in particular from The Mirror. Personal allusion and intrinsic content become one.

The extraordinary visual quality of this film is in large part due to the camerawork of Sven Nykvist. If Nostalghia was distinguished by slow zooms in and out, the striking feature of The Sacrifice is the use of parallel tracking and the pan. Here too camera movements are almost imperceptibly slow, and many of the uncut scenes remarkably long. (In this context, it will suffice to mention the opening two sequences and the fire scene at the end.) The lateral movement of the camera, together with the choreography of the figures, creates an exceptional sense of space. An example of this is the garden scene after the nightmare has passed. Victor and Adelaide are seated at a table in front of the house. The camera moves slowly to the right, the focus imperceptibly shifting from the foreground to explore successive planes of depth and activity. finally allowing a view through the doorway, through the entire house to the garden beyond; and as if by chance, one observes Alexander slipping unseen out of the house at the back. The viewer is in two worlds at the same time: listening to the conversation at the table and also party to Alexander's secret design.

The sense of space is enhanced both by the spare furnishing of the interiors and the careful control of lighting. Changes of light within a single scene (as in Little Man's bedroom), or classical chiaroscuro effects, in which one sees merely the expressionistically half-lit face of Maria, for example, are among the most striking aspects of the use of lighting. The tone is nevertheless subdued throughout, the night scenes often barely lit. The camera scarcely seems to move; and this still austerity creates a tension, a sense of space and movement that is one of the most remarkable achievements of the film and one of Tarkovsky's outstanding contributions to the grammar of cinema.

The collage of visual references is echoed on the plane of aural composition; and despite the spare use of music, this expression is not out of place. As in Nostalghia, Tarkovsky orchestrates the visual element with a host of suggestive sounds. Only at the beginning (to the Leonardo picture and the credits) and at the very end does he use music as a background, extraneous to the film. In both cases one hears a passage from Bach's St. Matthew Passion. The other brief incidences of music in the film are integral to the action; i.e., both the Japanese flute music, which Alexander plays on his stereo set, and the organ prelude that he plays in Maria's house are "live," in the sense that they are motivated by and occur within the action of the film. They are not effects added on from outside.

The soundtrack accompanying the dialogue and images is of quite another nature. Here Tarkovsky refined the technique of Nostalghia even further. The composition of sounds near and far, present, past or even future, in reality of dream, counterpoints the visual stream, forming a further layer of meaning that claims almost as much attention as the pictures. The sounds of the sea and gulls and the foghorn in the night establish the basic context against which the action is set; they are to be heard for much of the film. The rumble of thunder and the sounds of trembling glasses herald the approaching cataclysm and the blast of the planes roaring past overhead, shaking the whole earth. One hears the window shutters outside Little man;s bedroom swinging in the wind, opening and closing, and modulating the light in the room as they do so; and in the night, when Alexander cycles to Maria, one hears the familiar bark of a dog. Throughout the scene in Maria's house the passage of time is documented by the loud ticking of a clock; and at the close of the film the great fire is accompanied not merely by the crackle of the flames, but by the splintering and crashing of beams, the shattering of falling glass, explosions within the house, the telephone grotesquely ringing amid the conflagration, and the strings of the piano finally snapping with awful resonance.

Perhaps the most significant sound in the score is, however, the voice of the shepherd, as one might describe it. The strange voice the writer hears from the house in Stalker, warning him not to proceed, or the voice of God that Andrei hears in Nostalghia here reappears in the form of a shepherd-like call, half cry, half song, recurring at turning points in the drama. It first occurs near the beginning, when Alexander and his son are sitting beneath the trees, Alexander philosophising about the world. Little Man slips off out of sight and Alexander notices the boy's disappearance in alarm. The call recurs, and when his son steals up on him, Alexander's reaction is one of shock or fright. He lunges out, accidentally striking the boy in the face, causing his nose to bleed. The scene is followed by Alexander's black-out, in which the vision of the devastated street appears for the first time. The cry recurs later in the house, after Otto has told his strange tale and is enexplicably struck down. We hear the voice of the "shepherd" once more, after Alexander's terrible vow alone in the darkness of his room; and again when Otto visits him in the night to advise him to go to Maria. On this occasion they are aware of the cry, but do not know what it is. It is a cry of warning or exhortation, perhaps the voice of God or the silent call of Little Man, so faint and fleeting that one can never be entirely sure it is any more than a shepherd calling to his flock in the night, and yet, when Alexander turns back on his way to Maria, having fallen from his bicycle and hurt his knee, it sounds again, as if in admonition. Whether or not Alexander hears it consciously on this occasion, he turns once more and continues along the path to Maria's house.

Finally, mention should be made of the way Tarkovsky uses certain figures as pivots for the drama. Two characters in particular have a catalytic function in this film: Otto, the postman, a foil to Alexander; and Maria, who has a relatively small role but who appears at vital turns in the action.

Otto can be seen as providing the comic element in the film. He is a Puck-like, mercurial, ambivalent figure, constantly springing surprises with his unexpected aphorisms and naïve wisdom, much like the clown in a play by Shakespeare. It is he who philosophises with Alexander in the opening scene on fundamental existential questions, referring, much to Alexander's surprise, to the dwarf who had overcome Zarathustra -- only to become the victim of Little Man's practical joke in the same scene and to be laid low a few scenes later by his own "evil angel."

It is Otto who brings the grandest of the birthday presents, an enormous framed map of Europe. Alexander assumes that it is a reproduction of an old print. An original would be far too valuable for the postman to give him. But as if it were the most natural thing in the world, Otto confirms that it is indeed a 17th century original and adds that any present has to be something of a sacrifice, otherwise what sort of present would it be? It is he who perceives the frightening aspects of Leonardo's picture. Asked by Victor about his background, Otto replies that he has given up his work as history teacher to come here and concentrate on other things, and that he only works as a postman "in his spare time." It is Otto who collects strange phenomena and describes the remarkable parapsychological case of a mother and son who had been photographed together; shortly afterwards the boy was killed in the war, but inexplicably reappeared in a photograph the mother had taken of herself many years later. Otto is the key to the supernatural world of this film. It is he who comes to Alexander in his night of despair and tells him that Maria, the house-help, is a witch from Iceland, possessing benign powers; that Alexander's only hope of rescue is to go to her and lie with her.

It is through Maria that Alexander finds deliverance. She is a figure of many parts -- mother, eternal womanhood and Virguin Mary all rolled into one. The parallels to the Madonna in the Leonardo painting are reinforced by the attributes with which Tarkovsky endows her. On Alexander's arrival at her house, one hears the bleating of sheep and sees a flock of lambs running backwards and forwards along the front of the building in the darkness. Inside the house one sees a group of objects forming a still life picture in black and white: a cross, a mirror, old photographs. Finally, Alexander, who has fallen into a puddle on his way there, washes his hands. Maria pours water from a jug into a bowl and over his hands, giving him a white towel with which to dry them. The ewer, the water and the towel denote purity and, like the lamb and the Cross, are common Marian attributes used in Renaissance painting. Similarly, the mirror, the ticking clock and the photographs are familiar vanitas symbols of transience. The memento mori is here juxtaposed with with tokens of eternal life.

Alexander proceeds to tell the story of his mother's overgrown garden, which he had attempted to put in order, but the spirit of which he had in fact destroyed. This whole scene is filled with maternal references. When finally he asks, "Could you love me, Maria? Save me! Save us all!" she tells him to leave. But Alexander places the pistol he has removed from Victor's bag to his temple, threatening to take his own life. The glasses rattle again, and the jets thunder past overhead. The shepherd-like call is heard. In their union, in the moment of deliverance, one sees Maria and Alexander swathed in sheets, turning, hovering above the bed in an act of levitation, bride and groom of the winds, mother and child, recalling perhaps the levitation scene and the pregnant mother in The Mirror, and the Child in the arms of the Madonna.

The visionary black and white scene of the devastated street returns, now filled with people fleeing in fear. The camera retires over their heads, to the glass balustrade, in which one sees the reflections of tall buildings above. On this occasion, however, the camera retreats even further, revealing the sleeping child. The shepherd's song-like call recurs and a series of brief images follows: Adelaide seated on the grass with the sleeping figure of Alexander; the "Adoration of the Magi" picture; finally, a short sequence in which Alexander's daughter is seen naked, chasing chickens from the corridor of the house; the last flickerings of the dream.

The dream is over and Maria disappears from the scene until the very end, when Alexander suddenly becomes aware of her presence, standing there watching the burning house. He falls to his knees at her feet, kissing her hands, before being taken away. But as the ambulance describes a broad curve past the house and turns on to the track, Maria grabs the bicycle lying in the grass and cycles off, taking a shortcut towards the withered tree stem. There one sees her for the last time, united momentarily in a single picture with Little Man and Alexander, before their ways finally part.

The Relevance of the Sacrifice

The dream is over. One sees Alexander sleeping on the couch, the electric light burning next to him. He wakes: almost imperceptibly the picture fills with soft colour and light. The nightmare is banished, as he slowly comes to ascertain. The electricity and telephone are working again, and a call to his publisher confirms his hopes. It is as though nothing had happened. What then is the sense of Alexander's sacrifice? In the aftermath of the dream certain parallels with the events of the night manifest themselves. As if it were a reminder, Alexander stumbles into the piano, hurting his knee, just as he had when falling from the bicycle on his way to Maria.

In our modern world Alexander's readiness to sacrifice seems something of an anachronism. The age of sacrifice came to an end long time ago; and yet, faced with destruction, he is prepared to abandon everything to accomplish the mission of his heart and save his little son and mankind.

In the first edition of his book Sapetchatlionnoye Vremya, which was compiled when the film was still in the project stage, Tarkovsky described his leading figure as a weak person, not a hero in the conventional sense of that word, but an upright, thinking man who brings a personal sacrifice for his high ideals. His actions are not merely performed with determination, but reveal a destructive despair, despite the fact that he risks incurring the misunderstanding of those nearest and dearest to him and although he is aware that he may be regarded as a madman. Alexander is not the master but the servant of his fate.

This distinction is significant, yet it is sometimes difficult to differentiate between the two in reality. Alexander's fate is at the same time his mission; his opportunity to take the stage again in the service of mankind. History has shown, however, that this kind of fatalism and a determination to fulfill it can prove disastrous in its own way. Alexander's calling does indeed verge on what society regards as madness; and although he may claim to have saved the world, his sacrifice is not confined to himself alone. Although he takes steps to exclude Victor from material loss and to keep everyone out of harm's way, he inevitably drags those closest to him into his personal tragedy. Alexander's deed is not merely self-sacrifice. It has something of a sacrificial offering about it.

A small price to pay, one might say, for saving the world; but at first sight Alexander's sacrifice seems superfluous and too programmatic. He has woken from a nightmare and the world is in order again. Only a lunatic would burn his house down now, surely. In fact, this turn of events provides and illustration of Tarkovsky's genius. In previous films one has seen how he goes to the borders separating the natural from the supernatural, always finding an explanation for strange circumstances that allows them to remain within the bounds of physical law. Having entered the Zone in Stalker, one of the men takes a direct route towards a house, despite the stalker's urging that they should follow a more circuitous course. Suddenly the man, the writer, hears a voice forbidding him to come closer. He turns in his tracks and rejoins his companions. The stalker finds a natural explanation for what at first seems to be a supernatural manifestation; he suggests that the man had been afraid in his own heart to go any further and had created the audible warning himself to save his face. This and similar devices, to be found in particular in Stalker and Nostalghia, became a personal fingerprint of Tarkovsky's work. Ultimately they are formulations of the idea of belief, which is a major element of all his films. Just as the journey into the Zone may be seen as a quest for belief, so the casting of the bell in Andrei Roublev by the young boy who has never done the work before and the miraculous delivery from certain destruction in The Sacrifice are fundamental statements of belief.

Confronted with a global war, Alexander is forced to his knees in an act of humility and repentance. He grasps for God, promising to sacrifice everything and to take a vow of silence, if God will avert the catastrophe. But how can a process of universal destruction, once set in motion, be reversed by the prayers of a recluse? How can Alexander's strength of belief be demonstrated in a plausible manner that still observes the natural laws of the world in which the film takes place? Alexander's plea is granted. The inevitable holocaust is averted by the seemingly simple device of turning the catastrophe into a dream, from which Alexander now awakes. This is not a banal, sentimental trick, but a stroke of genius; and when Alexander, at first scarcely trusting his fortune, slowly reassures himself of the fact, he does not back out of his vow, but acknowledges this wonderful dissolution of his horror into a dream from which he may awake as an act of God, as God's active but unseen answer to his prayers. It is no mere happy coincidence and release. More than ever he must honour his vow, even if this means incurring the misunderstanding and despair of others. To keep faith and to preserve his own peace of mind, he is prepared to risk appearing insane in the eyes of the world.

In view of the "last chance" Otto presents him with, one might of course ask whether Alexander's sacrifice was really necessary. Having sworn to forsake all worldly possessions and relationships, he is suddenly confronted with the promise of redemption through Maria. Is this an immediate answer to his prayers, the response to his vow, or is it an alternative to sacrifice? One might equally ask, in view of Alexander's readiness to honor his pledge, whether God might not have intervend at the last moment to prevent him carrying out his terrible deed, just as He had stopped Abraham taking the life of Isaac. Both questions are, however, irrelevant. There can be no room for doubt in Alexander's mind; a failure to act would be a return to the prevarication he abhors; and a direct intervention by God would invalidate the very rule the film has established.

The supposition that this whole central episode is but a dream is supported by a number of circumstances: by the many references to sleep; by the irrational dreamlike actions that occur; and, more conclusively, by Tarkovsky's use of a differentiating colour code. The entire central nocturnal section of the film, from the time Alexander goes out into the garden to seek Little Man and finds Maria and the model of the house, to the time he wakes on the couch in the morning, is cast in the form of a dream and is photographed in darkly lit sequences virtually devoid of colour. The everyday waking reality of beginning and end is painted in the pale, natural colours of the northern summer, framing the interior world of the dream. There is also a third level of photography: the black and white or sepia sequences of the visions, or of scenes from other times, past or future, inset into the coloured reality or into the dark-hued central section.

Maria therefore stands at the beginning and end of this dark dream, the entrance to which is via the model of the house set on the blasted earth and built as a birthday present by Little Man himself and Otto. In embarking upon this apocalyptic midsummer night's dream, Alexander enters a labyrinthine realm, akin perhaps to the Zone in Stalker. The fact that he may awake and find the world as it was before, does nothing to lessen the horror of the vision. If anything, it demonstrates the truly nightmarish perspective of Shakespeare's own play.

Alexander's sacrifice is a parable, perhaps a vision in itself, a sacrifice we may all be called upon to make one day, the relinquishing of a materialist, expansionist world order, upheld by exploitation and nuclear power, a world of international rivalries that verge on armed conflict; a sacrifice in favour of love and a belief in a different future. Is it possible, however, for man to turn back short of the holocaust Grass describes in his book and Tarkovsky in his film? The mere threat of one would seem to be insufficient.

That this glimpse into the abyss "no more yielded but a dream" seems certain. But one must ask whose dream it was -- Alexander's or Little Man's? As in Ivan's Childhood and The Mirror, much of the film is as if seen through the eyes of a child. Furthermore, the sleeping child motif recurs throughout the film. Little Man sleeps through the entire night-war section; indeed, he dare not be woken. The dream has to be dreamt. In the second of the devastated street scenes in black and white one catches a glimpse of the little boy asleep again; and finally, at the end of the film, he lies down beneath the tree, his work done, perhaps to sleep and dream, and bring the story full circle, back to its starting point. Is the film Alexander's dream of his son, or Little Man's dream of his father; vision of the past or of the future? Past and future are fused together or are ambivalent; it is a feature one may observe in other films by Tarkovsky. The sacrifice is that which one generation brings to another, Alexander for Little Man, Christ for God.

In true Tarkovskian manner indentities merge. Like the fair-haired boys in earlier films, Little Man, whose recovery of speech represents the end of Alexander's vow of silence, is his father's continuation or his alter ego. Otto's collection of strange phenomena echoes in the mind. The unity of time and place comes full circle. But this is only one of the cycles in which the film abounds, and to which Otto refers in his debate with Alexander by the sea at the beginning.

Perhaps Alexander's apocalypic vision is but the unhappy dream of a child. Tarkovsky allows us to view the world from both ends of the telescope; and in both cases what remains is the future. Perhaps the "tree of life, which is in the midst of ... Paradise" will bloom and Alexander's sacrifice, whether it took place in reality or in the imaginings of his little son, will not have been in vain. end block

back navigation
[ Top ] [ Links ] [ Bibliography ] [ Documentaries ] [ Graphics ] [ Photos ] [ Diaries/Memoirs ] [ Topics ] [ News ] [ Home ]