Little Man, Big Picture

Tarkovsky strikes again. I finally got through his final movie, the Swedish language film The Sacrifice, the last work of his released in 1986 right before the filmmaker’s premature death.

Tarkovsky is someone who I consider to be one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century and perhaps, of all time. His films resemble slow, majestic, mature poems. His characters represent themes. His settings represent character and emotion. The Sacrifice is the prime example of what a Tarkovsky film is like. It is a film about a man celebrating his birthday with his family when he discovers that World War III has erupted on that exact day. The man, played by Erland Josephson, used to be a poet, an actor and is now a journalist who  in order to avert the apocalypse decides to give to God everything he values in life. Therefore he will make a sacrifice. His life, his family, his home. Everything will turn upside down.

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Great fear.
The film is very slow paced. Hell, there are only around 100 shots in the whole movie compared to some action sequences nowadays that consist of 100 shots in a span of 4 minutes. Tarkovsky’s long slow tracking shots set the tone right from the start. One of my favorite opening scenes: the man stands by a Japanese tree, trying to support the plant and prevent it from being cut down by the merciless wind. A child joins him, his son. They tie the tree safely and begin to walk home. The man talks about history, poetry and soon is joined by an old friend. They continue to debate and quote great poets, mostly Shakespeare. The man recalls his acting days. Time has passed. The man knows it. Every truth, every secret about this man’s life we learn through carefully composed and staged shots. Sometimes they’re poetic, and sometimes they’re plain haunting. But that’s Tarkovsky for those who haven’t yet seen his work: the director creates visual peace and harmony in order to get through the incoming chaos and pain. His movies feel like tormented souls wrapped in beauty and serenity.

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What do you make out of this?
The Sacrfice is no exception. The movie feels like a tribute not only to Tarkovsky’s son (mentioned in the credits) but also to the great Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, someone whose movies always relied heavily on dialogue and wordplay and scene blocking. it is a loving tribute from one filmmaker to another. And yes, Tarkovsky does put a lot of words into this film, mainly long monologues and sudden bursts of dialogue when the family is involved. However, words are just words, for Tarkovsky imagery is the only thing that counts. It’s not even about symbolism. It’s about the movement, the colors, the sounds, the slow passing of time. Tarkovsky plays with the lighting, with the sound effects of water dripping and fire burning, with the patient montage of every scene. Nothing feels forced. Everything seems to flow naturally and that is the point The Sacrifice makes. There is peace in disaster, in death and in destruction we just have to decide which side we are on. Do we lose our mind just like the protagonist? Or do we fight through it like the boy?

Tarkovsky never gives answers to his audience. He lets it flow. Like water.

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Losing your mind can be dangerous.
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It really can.


Light and its Enemy

Today’s topic: Tarkovsky and his representation of life. We often watch movies and TV shows for the heck of it. We do it because we like to, we like action, we like plot, we like to have fun. It’s obvious. But rarely do we watch something just to really “watch it”. Analyzing films can be difficult, analyzing TV shows can be even more difficult, but sometimes it hits us. We find something in a certain image, a particular allegory that to some of us is unmissable. I mean to write about Andrei Tarkovsky’s influence on modern cinema, and when I’m finished I’d wish someone would watch an episode of True Detective, or any movie by Alejandro G. Iñárritu or Lars Von Trier and find out what I’m talking about because some discoveries can be quite illuminating.

Innocent curiosity.

Tarkovsky, for those who don’t quite know who he was, is regarded as per Ingmar Bergman “the most important director of all time”. He was a man with a revolutionary mind and an eagle’s eye for detail. For every movie he wanted to do, he battled with USSR’s authorities over the production and distribution costs, often coming out on the losing side. His movies would often be released three to four years after the filming was completed, sometimes that would never happen. He was a man who found light in darkness. His first feature debut, Ivan’s Childhood, from 1962, will be subject of today’s post. The story of a young Russian boy going behind enemy lines during the Nazi invasion of Russia, is still considered as one of the best if not the best directing debut anyone has ever put out. But what’s so special about it? The use of light. That’s it. In his later films Tarkovsky would use light as a symbol for religion (Andrei Rublev), courage ( The Sacrifice) and art (Nostalghia), but here, Tarkovsky uses light as a symbol for life and the danger that comes with it. The setting? Snowy Russia, a bunker, a deep marsh, wilderness. Ivan has lost his whole family and he’s come a long way to fight for his motherland. He makes his way to a small bunker where he finds a warm bed and a hot bath. The bunker is dark except for where Ivan’s sitting. He’s a boy and a boy means life. Youth is life and in times of war, youth is the only reminder of a better past and maybe, just maybe, a better future.

The light of a child.

Tarkovsky’s way of blocking his actors and staging a scene is a form of art itself – in the middle of the main room is a wooden table, on the table is a lit candle that gives light and warmth to anybody who comes close to it. In fact if we look close enough, the few soldiers who stand distant from the table, in the dark corners of the dark bunker are those who later on lose their life with a bullet to the heart. Ivan is hope. And so is the candle that burns. The scalding wax dripping down to the floor. Ivan’s blond hair shines, the only part of his body that is never dirty, a reminder of a child’s innocence. When Ivan turns around to find some comfort in a long needed sleep, the bunker goes dark. Silence. We open up on a forest made out of birch trees. It’s daytime. An officer roams around, putting together his thoughts and ideas. Suddenly a girl appears out of nowhere. She’s an officer as well. They circle around, trying to catch one another’s look. They find it. And in one of the greatest kiss scenes of all time, they, well– they kiss. But what does Tarkovsky do to make this scene stand out? He puts light up against its enemy. He pans the camera down to a trench hole, achieving a low angle, and showing us this way two different realities, that of blind love in a peaceful world, and that of blind love in a world shaken by war. It’s powerful imagery and the more one thinks about it, the more it becomes revolutionary in its approach to the subject matter.

Tarkovsky’s artistry.

When bombs are dropped, everything goes silent. Everything dies. No one walks away. The only thing that stays is a cross. A cross that is penetrated by a ray of sunlight, that blows life into this quiet scene. It lifts our morale, it feeds us with hope. Is everyone dead? That could be our first question. But Tarkovsky aims higher. Is it worth being alive? That’s his question. We are constantly reminded that life is beautiful but living it comes always with a price. Only a small boy like Ivan could smile at times of war and bloodshed, and yet he doesn’t. That’s Tarkovsky’s reality. That’s his poetry and message. Whenever in doubt, look for a source of light, but watch out, you don’t want to burn yourself.


Look closer.