Apocalypse & Sacrifice
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 Nostalghia.com 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
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
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,
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
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
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
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.