A Picture-World in Itself
This essay is reproduced by Nostalghia.com with the kind permission of Birgitta Trotzig herself. It also appeared in the
Sacrifice booklet released by Artificial Eye in connection with the 9th January 1987 U.K. release of the film.
Birgitta Trotzig (b. 1929) is an award-winning Swedish author and critic.
In 1957 she shared the Svenska Dagbladet's Award for Literature with Erland Josephson.
In a Tarkovskij film, the picture is the message.
Or, as Tarkovskij himself puts it: "My pictures
mean nothing more than what they are... We
don't know ourselves very well. At times we give expression
to a force that can't be measured by ordinary standards."
His films have a more over-powering
effect on the public than those of any other contemporary film-maker.
First there is the dimension: the pinnacle of life and its nadir.
Like Messiaen it is art to the utmost, art for the end of time.
Back in the 1970s I remember leaving the first showing of
Andrei Rublov with an almost ecstatic feeling that
I had at last come home - that from an artistic present-day of dehydrated
quasi-experiments - had at last come home to fundamentals, profound lyricism, purposeful
radicalism of form and the art of life and death as in the time of Dostoevski.
In many ways Tarkovskij's films are a transformation into pictures of elements from
the great Russian poetic tradition, personified above all in Tarkovskij's father
Arsenij Tarkovskij, whose poems are often the inner voice of his films, the true
dialogue. A lyric tradition which embraces the world of folk-lore and religious
liturgy. These films are composed on the spiritual level of religion and poetry.
They are about the subconscious, the human soul's submerged netherworld that pulses
And for me Tarkovskij is the director who has most earnestly come to grips
with modern times: he has squeezed out a ray of light from the rubbish
dump. From the waste existence à la Beckett remain the fragments left behind from the
Everything happens as Stalker's wife puts it: "in our God-forsaken city."
And therein lies the origin of man's condition: muteness.
Words and speech are done away with. The land of the mute, of death, of fear.
Andrey Rublov is dumbstruck with horror by the cruelty of mankind. The boy in the
opening scene of The Mirror cries out from his muteness, and then
the pictures begin to flow and live. The little boy, the main character and
"frame" in The Sacrifice, is unable to speak throughout the film (he has recently
undergone a throat operation). His voice is heard only in the final scene. The
father - like Andrey Rublov - chooses muteness as his sacrificial offering. But the
tongue of the small boy is at last loosened: the child is the word, the hope, the
meaning of life, the future beyond the Disaster. The child. In all Tarkovskij's films,
from Ivan's Childhood onwards, the eye of the child - or a madman, or
an artist - is the mirror which turns the world into reality. "The child," the child
within us all, the primordial, the pure, the innermost, "the soul" in its classical
sense. The child is the living memory in man, the eye of homesickness and nostalgia
which creates the pictures and gives them meaning.
And this is what happens in The Sacrifice. When the gaze of the adult falls on the
toy house built by his son - an exact copy of the house in which the father has taken
refuge from the world - then the magic bridge is crossed. The light fades and the colourless
white night descends. We enter the obscure world of dreams where the source and drama of
life can be unveiled.
The child is asleep in his bed. The door to memory opens wide to reveal the powerful
archetypal characters, the dark man, the witch with the silky white legs, the black
girl Madonna. The colour dims into abstraction: here the main plot of the film is
played out, as much in the flashing glow of colour - dark-reddish blue, the silver of
a black icon - as in the action as such. (Colour in The Sacrifice moves
on three levels: the frame of the story in paradise hues, the twilight shades of
dreams; and as dramatic contrast the vague flickering of black and white film which in
a fast-flowing fragmented stream, barely noticeable, only a hinted screen, indicates
throughout where the note of reality lies).
The scene with the sleeping child recurs as a sign-post - who am I, who is the
dreamer? This is the mysterious borderland where prayer is made possible for the
leading character. The act of sacrifice is answered. When in the morning the seeker
wakes up to a daylight in which the normal colours have returned he has touched the outermost
limits, all proportions have changed and life can never be the same again.
Tarkovskij's films have a property I have never been able to analyse, but in common with
many others who admire his work I have found one intrinsic characteristic: the pictures
remain, you take them away with you. This has something to do with another curious fact:
Tarkovskij's films can be seen over and over again, they seem inexhaustible.
Like a Bach fugue that you never tire of, they are subject to a crystallisation process
which gives them an intangible life of their own.