Andrei Tarkovsky

Sculpting in Time


The idea of The Sacrifice came to me long before I thought of Nostalgia. The first notes and sketches, the first frenzied lines, date back to the time when I still lived in the Soviet Union. The focal point was to be the story of how the hero, Alexander, was to be cured of a fatal disease as a result of a night spent in bed with a witch. Ever since those early days and all through the time I was working on the screenplay, I was constantly preoccupied with the idea of equilibrium, of sacrifice, of the sacrificial act, the yin and yang of love and personality. It became part of my very being, and all I have experienced since living in the West has only served to make that preoccupation the more intense. I have to say that my basic convictions have not changed since I arrived here: they have developed, deepened, become firmer; there have been changes of interval, or proportion. So, too, as the plan of my film gradually evolved, it kept changing shape, but I hope that its central idea remains intact.

What moved me was the theme of the harmony which is born only of sacrifice, the twofold dependence of love. It’s not a question of mutual love: what nobody seems to understand is that love can only be one-sided, that no other love exists, that in any other form it is not love. If it involves less than total giving, it is not love. It is impotent; for the moment, it is nothing.

I am interested above all in the character who is capable of sacrificing himself and his way of life—regardless of whether that sacrifice is made in the name of spiritual values, or for the sake of someone else, or of his own salvation, or of all these things together. Such behaviour precludes, by its very nature, all of those selfish interests that make up a ‘normal’ rationale for action; it refutes the laws of a materialistic world view. It is often absurd and unpractical. And yet—or indeed for that very reason—the man who acts in that way brings about fundamental changes to people’s lives and to the course of history. The space he lives in becomes a rare, distinctive point of contrast to the empirical concepts of our experience, an area where reality is all the more strongly present.

Little by little that awareness led me to carry out my wish to make a feature film about a man whose dependence upon others brings him to independence, and for whom love is at once ultimate thrall and ultimate freedom. And the more clearly I discerned the stamp of materialism on the face of our planet (irrespective of whether I was observing the West or the East), the more I came up against unhappy people, saw the victims of psychoses symptomatic of an inability or unwillingness to see why life had lost all delight and all value, why it had become oppressive, the more committed I felt to this film as the most important thing in my life. It seems to me that the individual stands today at a crossroads, faced with the choice of whether to pursue the existence of a blind consumer, subject to the implacable march of new technology and the endless multiplication of material goods, or whether to seek out a way that will lead to spiritual responsibility, which ultimately might mean not only his personal salvation but also the saving of society at large: in other words, to turn to God. He has to solve this dilemma for himself, for only he can discover his own sane spiritual life. Solving it may take him closer to the state in which he can be responsible for society. That is the step which becomes a sacrifice, in the Christian sense of self-sacrifice.

Again we are reminded of the dictum that our life here on earth was made for happiness, and that nothing else is more important for man. And though this could only be true if one were to alter the meaning of the word happiness—which is impossible—neither in the West nor the East (I am not referring to the Far East) will a dissenting voice be taken seriously by the materialistic majority.

If we feel inexplicable symptoms of anxiety, depression or despair, we promptly turn to the services of the psychiatrist or, better still, the sexologist, who has taken over from the confessor, and who, we imagine, eases our minds and restores them to normality. Reassured, we pay him the going rate. Or if we feel the need for love, we go off to a brothel and again pay cash—not that it necessarily has to be a brothel. And all this despite the fact that we know perfectly well that neither love nor peace of mind can be bought with any currency.

The Sacrifice is a parable. The significant events it contains can be interpreted in more than one way. The first version was to be entitled The Witch, and was to tell the story of the hero’s amazing cure from cancer; his family doctor has told him the fearful truth that his end is inevitable, his days numbered. On one of those last days, the doorbell rings. Alexander opens the door and is confronted by the soothsayer, a forerunner of Otto in the final version, who gives Alexander a strange, not to say absurd, instruction: he is to make his way to a woman reputed to be a witch and possessed of magical powers, and to spend the night with her. The sick man obeys since it is his only way out, and through God’s mercy he is cured. This is confirmed by the astonished doctor. And then, one wretched, stormy night, the witch was to appear at Alexander’s house, and at her bidding he was to leave his splendid mansion and respected life happily and go off with her, with nothing but the old coat on his back.

The overall effect of these events was to be not only a parable about sacrifice, but also the story of how one individual is saved. And what I hope is that Alexander—like the hero of the film finally made in Sweden in 1985—is healed in a more significant sense; it is not only a question of being cured of a physical (and, moreover, fatal) disease; it is also a spiritual regeneration expressed in the image of a woman.

Curiously, while the images of the film were being conceived, and indeed all the time the first version of the scenario was being written, regardless of the current circumstances of my life, the characters began to stand out more and more clearly, the action grew steadily more specific and structured. It was almost an independent process that entered my life of itself. Furthermore, while I was still making Nostalgia I could not escape the feeling that the film was influencing my life. In the Nostalgia scenario, Gorchakov had only come to Italy for a short time, but he fell ill and died. In other words, he failed to return to Russia not of his own volition, but by a dictate of fate. Nor did I imagine that after finishing Nostalgia I would remain in Italy; like Gorchakov, I am subject to a Higher Will. Another sad fact came to underline these thoughts: the death of Anatoliy Solonitsyn, who had played the lead in all my previous films and who, I assumed, would have the parts of Gorchakov in Nostalgia and of Alexander in The Sacrifice. He died of the illness of which Alexander was cured, and which a year later was to afflict me.

I don’t know what this means. I only know that it is very frightening, and I have no doubt that the poetry of the film is going to become a specific reality, that the truth it touches will materialise, will make itself known and, whether I like it or not, will affect my life. There can be no question of a person’s remaining passive once he has grasped truths of that order; for they come to him without his willing it, and overturn all his earlier ideas about how the world is. In a very real sense he is divided, aware of being answerable for others; he is an instrument, a medium, obliged to live and to act for the sake of other people.

Thus Alexander Pushkin considered that every poet (and I have always seen myself as a poet rather than as a cinematographer), every true artist—regardless of whether he wants to be or not—is a prophet. Pushkin saw the capacity to look into time and predict the future as a terrible gift, and his allotted role caused him untold torment. He had a superstitious regard for signs and portents: we only have to recall how, when he was dashing from Pskov to Petersburg at the moment of the Decembrist rising, he turned back because a hare had run across his path; he accepted the popular belief that this was an omen. In one of his poems he wrote about the torture he endured through being conscious of his gift of prescience, and of the burden of being called to be poet and prophet. I had forgotten his words, but the poem came back to me with new significance, almost like a revelation. I feel that the pen which wrote those lines in 1826 was not held by Alexander Pushkin alone:

Weary from hunger of spirit
Through grim wasteland I dragged my way,
And a six-winged seraph came to me
At a place where two paths crossed.
With finger-tips as light as sleep
He touched the pupils of my eyes,
And my mantic pupils opened
Like eyes of an eagle scared.
As his fingers touched my ears
They were filled with roar and clang:
And I heard the shuddering of the sky,
And angels’ mountain flight,
And sea beasts moving in the deep,
And growth of valley vine.
And he pressed against my mouth,
And out he plucked my sinful tongue,
And all its guile and empty words,
And taking a wise serpent’s tongue
He thrust it in my frozen mouth
With his incarnadine right hand.
And with his sword he cleft my breast,
And out he plucked my trembling heart,
And in my gaping breast he placed
A coal alive with flames.
Like a corpse I lay in the wasteland,
And I heard God’s voice cry out:
‘Arise, prophet, and see and hear,
Be charged with my will—
And go out over seas and lands
To fire men’s hearts with the word.’

The Sacrifice is in the same vein, fundamentally, as my earlier films, but with the difference that I have deliberately laid poetic emphasis on the dramatic development. In a sense, my recent films have been impressionistic in structure: the episodes, with rare exceptions, have been taken from everyday life, and therefore come across to the audience in their totality. Working on my latest film, I aimed not merely at developing the episodes in the light of my own experience and of the rules of dramatic structure, but at building the picture into a poetic whole in which all the episodes are harmoniously linked: something which, in preceding films, concerned me much less. As a result, the overall structure of The Sacrifice became more complex, and took on the form of a poetic parable. In Nostalgia dramatic development is almost entirely lacking, apart from the quarrel with Evgenia, the self-immolation of Domenico and Gorchakov’s three attempts to carry the candle across the pool. In The Sacrifice, by contrast, conflict between the characters builds up to a flash-point. Both Domenico and Alexander are ready to act, and the source of their willingness to do so lies in their foreboding of imminent change. Both carry the mark of sacrifice, and each makes an offering of himself. The difference is that Domenico’s act produces no tangible results.

Alexander, an actor who has given up the stage, is perpetually crushed by depression. Everything fills him with weariness: the pressures of change, the discord in his family, and his instinctive sense of the threat posed by the relentless march of technology. He has grown to hate the emptiness of human speech, from which he flees into a silence where he hopes to find some measure of truth. Alexander offers the audience the possibility of participating in his act of sacrifice, and of being touched by its results. (Not, I hope, in the sense of that ‘audience participation’ which is all too current among directors in both the USSR and the USA—and therefore also in Europe—and has become one of the two main trends of current cinema: the other being the so-called ‘poetic cinema’ where everything is deliberately made incomprehensible and the director has to think up explanations for what he has done.)

The metaphor of the film is consistent with the action, and needs no elucidation. I knew that the film would be open to a number of interpretations, but I deliberately avoided pointing to specific conclusions because I considered that those were for the audience to reach independently. Indeed, it was my intention to invite different responses. I naturally have my own views on the film but I think that the person who sees it will be able to interpret the events it portrays and make up his own mind both about the various threads that run through it, and about its contradictions.

Alexander turns to God in prayer. Afterwards he resolves to break with his life as it has been until now; he burns all the bridges behind him, leaving not a single path by which to return, destroying his home, parting from the son whom he loves beyond all measure, and he falls silent as a final comment on the devaluation of words in the modern world. It may be that some religious people will see in his actions following the prayer God’s answer to the question put by man: ‘What must be done to avert nuclear disaster?’—namely, turn to God. It may be that some who have a heightened sense of the supernatural will see the meeting with the witch, Maria, as the central scene which explains all that happens subsequently. There will doubtless be others for whom all the events of the film are merely the fruits of a sick imagination—since no nuclear war is actually happening.

None of these reactions has anything to do with the reality shown in the film. The first and last scenes—the watering of the barren tree, which for me is a symbol of faith—are the high points between which events unfold with growing intensity. By the end of the film not only does Alexander prove his case and demonstrate that he is able to rise to extraordinary heights, but the doctor, who first appears as a simplistic character, bursting with health and utterly devoted to Alexander’s family, changes to such an extent that he is able to sense and understand the venomous atmosphere prevailing in the household and its deadly effect. He turns out to be capable not merely of expressing an opinion of his own but of deciding to break with what has grown hateful to him, and emigrate to Australia.

As a result of what happens, a new closeness grows up between Adelaide, Alexander’s eccentric wife, and the maid Julia; such a human relationship is something completely new for Adelaide. For almost the entire film her function is unrelievedly tragic: she stifles anything confronting her that has the slightest aspiration to individuality, to the affirmation of personality; she crushes everything and everyone, including her husband—without for a moment wanting to do so. She is barely capable of reflection. She suffers from her own lack of spirituality, but at the same time it is that suffering that gives her her destructive power—as uncontrollable in its effect as a nuclear explosion. She is one of the causes of Alexander’s tragedy. Her interest in other people is in inverse proportion to her aggressive instincts, to her passion for self-assertion. Her capacity for apprehending the truth is too limited to allow her to understand another world, the world of other people. Moreover, even if she were to see that world, she would be unable and unwilling to enter it.

Maria is the antithesis of Adelaide: modest, timid, perpetually uncertain of herself. At the beginning of the film anything like friendship between her and the master of the house would be unthinkable—the differences that separate them are too great. But one night they come together, and that night is the turning-point in Alexander’s life. In the face of imminent catastrophe he perceives the love of this simple woman as a gift from God, as a justification for his entire life. The miracle that overtakes Alexander transfigures him.

It was far from easy to find protagonists for the eight parts, but I think that each member of the final cast completely identified with his or her character and actions.

We had no technical or other problems during shooting, until one moment almost at the end, when all our efforts seemed on the point of coming to nothing. Suddenly, in the scene where Alexander sets fire to his house—a single take lasting six and a half minutes—the camera broke down. We only discovered it when the entire building—our set—was already blazing, burning to the ground as we looked on. We couldn’t put the fire out, nor could we take a single shot: four expensive months of intense hard work for nothing.

And then, in a matter of days, a new house was built, identical to the first. It seemed like a miracle, and proved what people can do when they are driven by conviction—and not just people, but the producers themselves.

As we shot that scene for the second time, we were filled with apprehension until both cameras had been turned off—one by the assistant camera-man, the other by the intensely anxious Sven Nykvist, that brilliant master of light. Then we all let go: we were nearly all weeping like children, and as we fell into each other’s arms I realised how close and indissoluble was the bond that united our team.

Perhaps other scenes—the dream sequences or the barren tree—are more significant from a certain psychological point of view than the one where Alexander burns down his house in grim fulfilment of his vow. But from the start I was determined to concentrate the feelings of the audience on the behaviour, at first sight utterly senseless, of someone who considers worthless—and therefore actually sinful—everything that is not a necessity of life.

I wanted those who saw it to be directly affected by Alexander’s state, to experience his new life passing through the distorted time of his perception. That may be why the fire scene lasts a full six minutes, the longest scene in the history of cinema; but, as I say, it could not have been done any other way.

‘In the beginning was the Word, but you’re as silent as a dumb salmon,’ says Alexander to his son early in the film. The boy is recovering from a throat operation and is not allowed to talk. He listens in silence as his father tells him the story of the barren tree. Later, horrified at the news of impending disaster, Alexander himself takes a vow of silence: ‘… I shall be mute, I shall never utter another word to anyone, I shall give up everything that ties me to my life. Lord, help me to fulfil this vow.’

God hears Alexander’s prayer, and the consequences are at once terrible and joyful. On the one hand, the practical result is that Alexander breaks irrevocably with the world and with its laws, which until now he has taken to be his own. In doing so, he not only loses his family, but also—and for those around him this is the most frightening thing of all—he puts himself outside all accepted norms. And yet, that is precisely why I see Alexander as a man chosen by God. He can sense the danger, the destructive force driving the machinery of modern society as it heads towards the abyss. And the mask must be snatched away if humanity is to be saved.

To some degree, some of the other participants can also be seen as chosen and called by God. Otto, with his gift of prognostication, is a collector, as he says, of inexplicable and mysterious happenings. No one knows about his past, nor how or when he came to the village where so many strange things take place

For Alexander’s little son, as for the witch, Maria, the world is filled with unfathomable wonders, for they both move in a world of the imagination, not that of ‘reality’. Unlike empiricists and pragmatists, they do not believe merely in what they can touch; but with the mind’s eye they perceive the truth. Nothing that they do complies with the ‘normal’ criteria of behaviour. They are possessed of the gift that was recognised in old Russia as the mark of the ‘holy fool’: those pilgrims or ragged beggars whose very presence affected people living normal lives, and whose soothsaying and self-negation were always at variance with the ideas and established rules of the world at large.

Today, civilised society, the great mass of which has no faith, is entirely positivist in outlook, but even the positivists fail to notice the absurdity of the Marxist thesis that the universe exists for ever while the earth is merely fortuitous. Contemporary man is unable to hope for the unexpected, for anomalous events that don’t correspond with ‘normal’ logic: still less is he prepared to allow even the thought of unprogrammed phenomena, let alone believe in their supranatural significance. The spiritual emptiness that results should be enough to give him pause for thought. First, however, he has to understand that his life’s path is not measured by a human yardstick, but lies in the hands of the Creator, on whose will he must rely.

One of the great tragedies of the modern world is the fact that moral problems and ethical interrelationships are not in fashion; they have receded into the background and command little attention. A great many producers eschew auteur films because they see cinema not as art but as a means of making money: the celluloid strip becomes a commodity.

In that sense The Sacrifice is, amongst other things, a repudiation of commercial cinema. My film is not intended to support or refute particular ideas, or to make a case for this or that way of life. What I wanted was to pose questions and demonstrate problems that go to the very heart of our lives, and thus to bring the audience back to the dormant, parched sources of our existence. Pictures, visual images, are far better able to achieve that end than any words, particularly now, when the word has lost all mystery and magic and speech has become mere chatter, empty of meaning, as Alexander observes. We are being stifled by a surfeit of information, yet at the same time our feelings remain untouched by the supremely important messages that could change our lives.

There is a division in our world between good and evil, between spirituality and pragmatism. Our human world is constructed, modelled, according to material laws, for man has given his society the forms of dead matter, and taken its laws upon himself. Therefore he does not believe in spirit and repudiates God. He feeds on bread alone. How can he see spirit, miracle, God, if from his standpoint they have no place in the structure, if they are redundant. And yet, there occur sudden miraculous happenings even within the empirical order: in physics for example. And, as we know, the great majority of outstanding contemporary physicists do, for some reason, believe in God.

I once talked to the late Soviet physicist Landau on this subject. The setting was a shingle beach in the Crimea.

‘What do you think,’ I asked, ‘does God exist or not?’

There followed a pause of some three minutes. Then he looked at me helplessly.

‘I think so.’

At the time I was simply a sunburnt young boy, entirely unknown, son of the distinguished poet Arseniy Tarkovsky: a nobody, merely a son. It was the first and last time I saw Landau, a single, chance meeting; hence such candour on the part of the Soviet Nobel Prize winner.

Has man any hope of survival in the face of all the patent signs of impending apocalyptic silence? Perhaps an answer to that question is to be found in the legend of the endurance of the parched tree, deprived of the water of life, on which I based this film, and which has such a crucial place in my artistic biography. The monk, step by step and bucket by bucket, carried water up the hill to water the dry tree, believing implicitly that his act was necessary, and never for an instant wavering in his belief in the miraculous power of his own faith in God. He lived to see the Miracle: one morning the tree burst into life, its branches covered with young leaves. And that ‘miracle’ is surely no more than the truth.

Posted: June 2022
Category: Essays