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The things we usually reserve the term “pretentious” for are easily forgiven when it comes to the maker of The Sacrifice because in his case they are linked to his devastating frankness and noncompliance. Did Andrei Tarkovsky’s sacrifice save his cinematic art?

Any comparison of a contemporary filmmaker to Andrei Tarkovsky is usually intended as an insult – a major name is like a ladder which is used to raise the one compared to a sufficient height only to have it spectacularly shattered beneath them. This doubtful pleasure is something that Andrey Zviagintsev experienced from critics shortly after his directing debut, and also something that, recently, the American veteran Terrence Malick is becoming accustomed to. Tarkovsky annexed certain areas in filmmaking and when you access these it is difficult not to refer (even discretely) to his oeuvre. Such a brand dooms your works to comparisons with films whose ambitions go beyond the length, breadth and depth of contemporary cinema. And this does not have to be a compliment at all.
“He did not regard a film as a show, not to mention entertainment. To Tarkovsky a film was a spiritual experience which made a person better,” reminisces, rather with forbearance than admiration, Andrei Konchalovsky with whom Tarkovsky scripted two films. If we forgive the maker of The Sacrifice his cosmic ambitions, the demands he placed on viewers and the means of expression for which we usually reserve the term “pretentious” it is because they are accompanied not only by artistic perfection but also, and perhaps most of all, by painful frankness and devastating noncompliance. Subject and style were not a matter of choice for Tarkovsky. They were a necessity on the road to eliminating the boundary between life and art. Can you hear the pathetic ringing of the bell?

Tarkovsky’s successors do not have an easy life. But the Master himself does not necessarily have to take the audience’s hearts by storm. “The road he decided to follow seemed false to me. The main reason of this falseness was the excess of meaning which he attributed to himself as director,” complains Konchalovsky in his reminiscences which barely veil his scepticism towards his former colleague’s achievements. “Andrei firmly rejected everything I made after Uncle Vanya. He did not treat Romance for Lovers or Siberiade seriously. So I repaid him with the same. To me The Mirror, Stalker, Nostalghia and The Sacrifice were all extremely pretentious and were more like searching for oneself than like searching for truth in art.”

Setting the personal animosity of the two filmmakers aside (Konchalovsky has never experienced any problems with his projects in Russia) it is easy to understand the reserve towards Tarkovsky’s works. Even the modest extent of his filmography (only seven feature films) seems suspiciously perfect, as if it was planned and composed in advance – a work of art in its own right. Before he fully committed to his own times he dedicated two films to the past (the most recent past in Ivan’s Childhood and the more distant past in Andrei Rublev) and two films to the future (unsatisfied with Solaris, based on Stanisław Lem’s novel, he reduced the fantastical staffage in Stalker, inspired by Borys and Arkady Strugatsky’s short novel). In his last film, unaware of his fatal condition, he told the story of a personal end of the world. The film was made in Sweden and featured Ingmar Bergman’s actors and his long-term cinematographer, Sven Nykvist. It closes with exactly the same take which started his first feature, Ivan’s Childhood. At this point, anyone with an allergy to prophets would develop a rash.

But those who are expecting a complete epiphany to come to them from the screen will feel disappointed, because, to paraphrase a famous slogan, you should not ask what these films can do for you but what you can do for these films. “During his last ten years, after Solaris, Andrei believed (and regarded this belief as the philosophy behind his art) that to accept his films one needed to make a huge effort,” states Konachalovsky. He continues: “I always aimed to make a scene as suggestive as possible using conciseness and condensation. Andrei achieved this be extending the scene. His stance disguised a determination that almost led to suicide. He was not interested in how the scene may be perceived by a viewer – the measure for him was how the scene affected him.”

A mystery is taking place on screen and the fact whether the viewer becomes part of it or not is a matter of secondary importance. An expert in deciphering even the most complex issues, the late American critic Roger Ebert wrote about The Sacrifice: “[It] is not the sort of movie most people will choose to see, but those with the imagination to risk it may find it rewarding. Everything depends on the ability to empathize with the man in the movie, and Tarkovsky refuses to reach out with narrative tricks in order to involve us. Some movies work their magic in the minds of the audience; this one stays resolutely on the screen, going about its urgent business and leaving us free to participate only if we want to. That is the meaning of a sacrifice, isn't it - that it is offered willingly?”
It is, however, quite possible that the greatest obstacle in bonding with this filmography is the myth of great art which “must be admired”.  So, if you want to start liking Tarkovsky you must stop watching him on your knees and heed the critical words of Konchalovsky, a director who did not avoid Hollywood and found his place in genre films (Runaway Train and Tango & Cash). Konchalovsky is the artistic opposite of The Mirror director and this makes them define one another really well. This, perhaps, would be of no significance if they had not started from the same point working on the featurette The Steamroller and the Violin and on Ivan’s Childhood. I am not sure if I would have embraced Tarkovsky as a cinematic genius if it was not for the third film they made together, Andrei Rublev.

Of course, the conflicts began right from the start. They fell out when Tarkovsky added documentary footage of the corpses of Joseph Goebbels’ murdered children during the editing of Ivan’s Childhood. Prior to that Konchalovsky observed his colleague’s experiments in terror when he attempted to accompany the scene of unearthing a land mine in the propaganda short There Will Be No Leave Today with Stardust performed by Glenn Miller’s Orchestra. (In his analysis the musicologist Bohdan Pociej also points to unsuitable combinations when he writes about the symphonised orthodox choral singing in the final scene of Rublev that clashes with the subtlety of the protagonist’s works). Even when Konchalovsky did appreciate Tarkovsky’s precarious ideas he did not understand the determination which forced him to go to extremes and loose sight of the viewers’ needs. All solutions can be of value provided they remain a tool in a director’s repertoire, but Tarkovsky, from the very beginning, was on a road which leaves no room for moderation, compromises or the rule of the golden mean. He was searching for a language which could express what his “director’s repertoire” simply did not contain.
In comparison to his later projects Andrei Rublev is almost a genre film – the epic image of 14th century Russia is now referred to as “the greatest biography in the history of film”. It is, nonetheless, a biography and non-biography at the same time. The great icon painter Rublev is often difficult to identify on screen, hidden in a procession of characters and disappearing off the radar completely to re-emerge on the margin of another scene. This is reminiscent of trying to identify Christ or Icarus in Bruegel’s paintings. In fact, the film itself is sometimes reminiscent of the Flemish master’s art. The intricate mosaic of human characters pulses with life in all its richness and cruelty. Someone flies into the sky in a balloon prototype made of leather patches, the common people practice pagan rituals, the rulers are consumed with ambition and everything is consumed by plagues or plagued by Tatars. Tarkovsky’s grand themes appear: discussions with God and reflections on the sense of sacrifice, but, in general, the film is different from anything that followed it, as if it was a tale of a different reality.

One of the principles that organise Tarkovsky’s films is the coexistence of two worlds. In Nostalghia it is Russia reminisced by the protagonist and Italy where he is staying. In Stalker it is the area inside the mysterious Zone and the one beyond it. In Ivan’s Childhood it is the time of war and the time of peace. Probably, a double plane like this could also be identified in Andrei Rublev, but what is more important, the world of this film seems to actually be “the other world” to all the subsequent tales whose characters will nostalgically look back on something and sense a “deficit of the soul”. This is why the Professor and the Writer in Stalker will drag along with their guide to the dangerous Zone, the Russian poet in Nostalghia will insatiably listen to the words of the madman and the unbelieving Alexander in The Sacrifice (another fallen intellectual) will drop to his knees to make a pact with God. Obviously, none of these films pretend to depict the real world, but in comparison to the cheerless Rublev they seem exceptionally gloomy, as if they were happening during the end of the world or after it.

This is the most apparent in the plot of The Sacrifice where the eruption of a third (probably ultimate) world war brutally casts the protagonist from his earthly asylum. This is intimate apocalyptical cinema. The end of the world is a personal experience and we do not know whether it is not, simply, a projection of a troubled mind, an individual perspective extended to the entire world, similarly to Lars von Trier’s Melancholy where the disaster is both an actual event and a metaphor showing the absolute dimension of depression. In the face of obliteration people try to stick to their rituals; they become hysterical or numb; their relationships fall apart and the treasures they have amassed turn into a heap of worthless objects. The protagonist of Nostalghia glances dispassionately at Italian architecture and the beautiful interpreter who is obviously attracted to him. Instead of a cosmic collision or a deadly virus havoc is wreaked in Tarkovsky’s films by a spiritual plague which sucks the life out of people. The world needs faith, a miracle. An irrational sacrifice. An element which is not missing from the medieval world of Rublev.

Tarkovsky’s cinema is not “metaphysical” in the sense that it tries to catch God red-handed by offering editing and special effects as the equivalent of a miracle. Neither does it show, as in the case of Ingmar Bergman, the world of a silent God. “He managed to give material form to that which in its essence is invisible and extrasensory – he inscribed into the form of matter its absolute opposite,” says the filmmaker Krzysztof Zanussi. There is a lot to read about the symbolic layer of The Sacrifice, the autobiographical contexts of Nostalghia or, simply, Tarkovsky’s views on art which he so often expressed. But the effect of a successful ghost chase is still ghosts, even if they have been captured on film stock. Being the cinema of everything elusive Tarkovsky’s remains, to a certain degree, indescribable. Hence it is not surprising that another myth which separates the contemporary viewer from Tarkovsky, other than that of “great art”, is the one of “difficult art”. The Sacrifice, The Mirror or Stalker are definitely not light films, but is it possible to “not understand” them? In the case of Tarkovsky is this category not plainly out of place?

He is referred to as a poet of the screen and revered as a great symbolist, when, in fact, he considered the term “poetical cinema” irritating and rejected symbols as means of expression. Bergman once said that Tarkovsky had succeeded in what he had only come barely close to – he captured the mystery of dreams. If you trust your intuition you will conclude that the Russian filmmaker is an artist who is both the most difficult and the easiest to perceive because he refers to something more primary than reason. To provide a context the ethnographer Dariusz Czaja mentions the stance of the Polish painter Jerzy Nowosielski who believed that the maker of icons must reject accepted imagery and seek to stop it from being “comprehensible” to people and start making it “sensible” instead. “If you extended the normal length of a take then, initially, you would feel bored, but if you extended it more it would start to be interesting. Then, if you extended it even more a new quality would emerge, a special intensity of attention,” says Konchalovsky about his friend’s strategy.

The “comprehension-sensation” opposition evokes a whole range of clichés about the artist who blindly follows inspiration, improvises and “releases” his talent. In the aforementioned analysis Bohdan Pociej writes that the “musicality” of Tarkovsky’s films function on three levels and that, apart from the music added to a film and its widely understood auditory layer there is also “music in the very substance of the film. Music shapes its form. The language of Tarkovsky’s films is musical and so is their style.” Pociej mentions tempo, rhythm, structure, recurring motifs and, in particular, his characteristic “adagio time” reasoning that it would be possible to transcribe these films and their visual layer into some kind of “quasi score”.

If we do assume that the artist of the “sensing” school shared with us only that which resonated within him we must remember that to do so he first had to dedicate himself to composition and thoroughly tune the instruments. To achieve a “special intensity of attention” and a “sensibility” of art Tarkovsky rejected what viewers were well familiar with. Instead of giving them a protagonist they could identify with he ultimately transformed every character into Andrei Tarkovsky himself. The experiments with sound, the murderous expanding of takes and the extremely personal communication were all intended to find a means to surpass strictly intellectual or emotional perception. To find another way.

One more prophecy. In Michał Leszczyłowski documentary Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky you can see footage from the set of The Sacrifice. The action of the culminating scene is enclosed in a single take. Each actor has a determined path. Sven Nykvist is ready with the camera and the pyrotechnical crew with the switchboard. The director gives a sign and the planned disaster quickly gets out of control. Tarkovsky is flouncing behind the camera; he is shouting and wringing his hands. And he starts to remarkably resemble a character he created two decades earlier: the young craftsman who undertakes to cast a bell for the Grand Prince in Andrei Rublev.

To make a bell ring its maker must know a well-kept secret of his trade. The boy who swears that his father had shared the secret with him (he does so to get the job and shelter) is bustling among the workers and attending the complex clay structure. The precious ore is finally melted, the furnaces are bursting with heat and everyone is looking anxiously at the cast which cannot possibly withstand the massive load. The skinny keeper of the secret raises his hand and the silver starts to flow. And this is where his role ends – he can only wait and watch others work. Finally, in the presence of the Grand Prince, his foreign visitors and a crowd of spectators, he gives his people a sign to coax the bell to swing and the once cruel tyrant collapses to the ground as he waits for the slow clapper to reach its target and pronounce the sentence on him. The clear resonant sound will prove that the boy chose the right clay, that he correctly calculated the weight of the metal and that the secret his father had shared with him was not a plain lie. It will be a sign that people are still on good terms with God.

How does Tarkovsky’s cinema “sound” today? The only way to find out if this sound brings us closer to a spiritual mystery is to listen to it carefully.

Darek Arest