The Sacrifice – Andrei Tarkovsky (1986)

“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.

Melancholia – Lav Diaz (2008)

I have seen Lav Diaz’s Melancholia three times so far. As it’s time for a new chapter now, it’s also time for a brief post on the film. I saw Melancholia in Newcastle in March 2012 for the first time. It was running at the Slow Cinema weekend, which itself was part of the bi-annual AV Festival. It was my first Lav Diaz film, and I still remember that it knocked me out. To be fair and honest, I booked tickets for his eight-hour film only because it sounded mad. I never expected to survive the screening. Nor did I expect that it would be a good film. It was more like “What?? Eight hours!?” Well, prejudgement is never a good idea.

Melancholia is, contrary to his other films, more or less neatly divided into three parts. The first part follows three characters who engage in a rather strange coping exercise after the loss of their loved ones. This is all the viewer knows at the time. Only slowly do we learn that the three characters know each other, and that they struggle to come to terms with the disappearance – and supposed death – of their partners, who were involved in a clash with the military. Their bodies have never been found. While the first part of the film focuses on this “trauma therapy”, the second part follows two of those characters – Alberta and Julian – in their day to day life. She’s working at a school, he is a book editor. There is also Hannah, a teenage girl, who Alberta adopted after her parents (good friends of Alberta’s) disappeared. And then there is the third part, which follows armed men in a jungle, losing their sanity, fearing their death – they’re the disappeared, the people who have died in the standoff with the military.

I remember the last section to be the single most tense section of a film I have ever seen. And why? Paradoxically, because this section is entirely based on absence, on imagined off-screen space, on paranoia. There’s nothing much to see in those endless minutes of armed men walking through the jungle. A local acts as a spy for them and from him they know that the island has been surrounded by the military and that there’s little hope of survival. We don’t see the military, though. What we do see is one man losing his sanity. The waiting game drives him mad. At some point he shouts “Here I am!”, kind of “Please shoot me and end this.” What happens is only revealed in the letters Renato, Alberta’s husband, writes, letters which will never find their addressee. It’s psychological warfare, transmitted perfectly onto the screen.

Encantos was about extrajudicial killings and artists’ activism. Florentina Hubaldo CTE was an exploration of the effects of colonialism. Melancholia is quite explicit about the disappeared. The torture of not knowing drives Julian, Alberta and Rina into a coping exercise, in which they immerse into different personae. Aim is the resurrection of feelings. Rina described them as the living dead, as wrecked. She’s the most skeptical about this exercise and loses her faith in it, saying that “There is no cure for this!” Even though Hannah is not exactly a lead role in the film, her character is a great study of the effects of (forced?) disappearances in the Philippines. She’s struggling to cling onto a “normal” life. She steals and prostitutes herself. She’s in and out of psychological treatment. The psychological warfare that drove the men in the jungle mad draws much larger circles and effects those left behind.

I studied the use of sound in Florentina, and the framing of the landscape in Encantos. Melancholia is a reminder of just how individual films and filmmakers are in their approaches. There are specific “rules” in film studies; x means y. This doesn’t work in Melancholia. The x you find has no y attached to it. You have to do more than flicking through the film studies bible. I remember the film for its rawness, and now, re-watching it, I’m reminded of just how raw the film is. And it is this rawness that makes interpretations of the film with the help of cinematic techniques difficult. While high pitched sound in Florentina was unmistakably linked to her mental state, the acoustic stress in Melancholia evokes nothing of that sort. It is simply not recorded properly. There’s no indication that the severe noise of cars, wind and rain has a meaning. It’s just a matter of sound equipment. The same is true for the framing. I have very little success in seeing, say, tilted frames as an indication for the disruption of the equilibrium. This film is entirely open and cannot be approached in the usual way.

I don’t complain. I love it. It actually makes you think. This is what I like about Diaz’s films. They’re unconventional in many respects. If you merely play your film studies cards, you will lose the game.