“Humanity is on the wrong road.”
Andrei Tarkovsky’s ultimate film, The Sacrifice, released in the year of the director’s death, is perhaps one of his bleakest films. Once more, I see a steady development towards an end; the end of a filmmaking career, a sophisticated development of ideas about the world and Man, a progress towards putting finishing touches on one’s oeuvre. I have seen this before with the final films of Béla Tarr (The Turin Horse, 2011) and Tsai Ming-liang (Stray Dogs, 2013). Sacrifice fits very much into this line as a sort of film that makes a final statement, a film that is, in parts, a recollection, a reminder, but also an outlook to the extent that there will be other filmmakers who will pick up on this and continue the story.
It was the second time I have attempted to watch Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice. I didn’t finish it the first time. It’s funny to say this now, but the film felt incredibly slow. More difficult to watch than longer slow films. I tried it again yesterday, years later, now with a good number of slow films of all sorts under my belt, and it still remains one of the slowest films I have seen! And indeed, my husband agrees that The Sacrifice is Tarkovsky’s slowest film. The running time of just over two hours is nothing special, nothing out of the ordinary, and, above all, nothing that I haven’t sat through before. Yet, this feeling of slowness was heavier than in other films I have seen. There is a real weight to The Sacrifice, which slows down the film, a weight that goes beyond the running time, beyond the usual aesthetics for slow films. It is a weight, which (slowly) creeps up on the viewer through the various, countless, daring monologues and dialogues.
This is one aspect, which made The Sacrifice a challenging film; the often highly sophisticated monologues that ask you to ponder, to reflect, perhaps even to respond, cannot be taken lightly. You cannot not react to them. You cannot not think about them. Tarkosvky forces you to be engaged in discussing humanity’s failure, Man’s shortcomings, our desire for destruction. “Savages are more spiritual than us. As soon as we have a scientific breakthrough, we put it into the service of evil”, says Alexander, the main protagonist, who has, according to himself, a non-existing relationship to God, but who pleads with God to save his family from the coming nuclear war. In return, he offers to destroy his house, to give up on his family, on Little Man (his son), and he promises to never say a word again: “if only God takes away this animal fear.”
Silence – another important factor in The Sacrifice. Despite the number of thought-provoking monologues throughout the film, Tarkovsky has created a very quiet film. We can hear suspected war planes flying above the beautiful house, built right at the coast. At some point we can hear a television set. And yet, The Sacrifice is, very much like The Mirror and Nostalghia, a quiet film, almost silent, which, I know, sounds contradictory, but I believe this is precisely what the director was going for: to create a discrepancy, a contradiction that confuses the viewer, confused like the characters are once the imminent nuclear war is announced on television. The end is near… Otto, the postman, a good friend of Alexander, says early on in the film: “One shouldn’t be waiting for something.” Waiting – this is perhaps the essence of The Sacrifice.
Waiting for something that you know is going to come without knowing when it’s going to hit you. This is very much the point Lav Diaz makes in several of his films, perhaps most evidently in Melancholia (2008). Three rebel fighters are stuck in the jungle. They’re the remaining fighters of a larger group, the rest of which has been killed already. The island they’re on has been surrounded. They know what’s coming for them, but they don’t know when. It’s psychological warfare, a very effective type that, as Diaz shows, can drive people to insanity. What is the origin of this insanity? Fear. But fear of what? Alexander says, “There is no death. There is fear of death, and it’s a terrible feeling. If only we could stop fearing death.” The Sacrifice is a film about fear. It is a film about the unseen, about the feared; about a nothing that is full of something, namely danger; about the question of what it means to fear death, to mourn your life in advance.
Waiting, silence, heaviness – these are the three main elements that contribute to the exceptional experienced slowness. But there is something else that struck me when I saw the film, already when I saw it for the first time. The Sacrifice could also well be filmed theatre. Fittingly, it is pointed out pretty early on that Alexander used to be a theatre actor. He received a birthday card from former colleagues. All interior scenes, set in Alexander’s family home, feel like a filmed stage, a theatre stage. The set-up as well as the movement and the behaviour of the actors and actresses contributes to the feeling of seeing a stage play in front of you. Often, the speaking person walks towards the camera as do theatre actors/actresses often do, too. There is a theatricality to the film that, to me, supports the idea of a major psychological breakdown going on in the film.
Yet, after all, after the passing of the imminent danger, after the breakdown of Alexander’s wife out of sheer fear, after the ominous remark of postman Otto that only Maria (the servant) could help prevent the apocalypse, after all of this, there is one thing that remains: the circularity of life. Nothing ever stops. Everything continues, in one way or another. Alexander pleads with God and promises never to speak again. His son, Little Man, as he lovingly calls him, is mute throughout the film. It isn’t revealed why. There is vague talk of an operation, but Tarkovsky never fully clarifies this. What matters is that when Alexander falls silent, Little Man begins to speak. “At the beginning was the word. Why is that, papa?”
Continuity, circularity – everything continues, everything circulates, nothing ever stops, despite sacrifices by one man. Life goes on. If you leave something, someone else will pick it up and continue the work. It is as though Tarkovsky, dying of cancer at the time, sent us a message with this film: when he is gone, someone else will continue the work he has been doing. Perhaps not in exactly the same way. Nevertheless, his work will continue, and so it did with the likes of Béla Tarr, in particular. But also Lav Diaz continues the work Tarkovsky had started in the 1960s. And it will be continued by many more filmmakers from around the world.