The Sacrifice Andrei Tarkovsky (1986; Swe.)Erland Josephson, Susan Fleetwood
viewed Tyneside Cinema 16 Oct 2016; ticket £8.25
time slips by
If Nostalgia seemed to be Tarkovsky’s attempt to recreate himself in the West as Tarkovsky, the Sacrifice communicates as an attempt to recreate himself as Bergman type visionary. Both in Nostalgia and in the Sacrifice the defining truth content is spiritual angst. Whereas Nostalgia is centred about a vacuity of gesture, the Sacrifice centres about an intensity of gesture.Both gestures are prime subjectivities and point to theemptinesses filling out contemporary life.In themselves neither film is successful in expressing vision. Both films in their manner come across as re-active rather than proactive in response to the tyrannical shibboleths of Western middle class priviledged society.
Bergman as filmmaker is motivated by an internalised self flailing that compels him to utter truth about life and relationships.Occasionally funny, but mostly hard honesty is the warp of his films which are often characterised by sparse barren psychically charged backgrounds against which Bergman, from a series of actors, conjured performances of ingrained honesty.The films could only work to the extent that his performers put their personal integrity in front of the camera.Performances were matched by scenarios that generally avoided shooting tricks and scripts that leaned towards the spare.
Employing Bergman’s regular cameraman Nykvist and one of Bergman’s repertory players, Josephson in lead role, with the Swedish shore setting, and its note of spiritual angst, the Sacrifice has the look of a Bergman film.But Tarkovsky fails to use these elements in such a way as to own them himself.Despite the hall mark dazzling imagery and the complex choreographed shots the film is pulled back into sub-prime Bergman territory by a leaden script and lacklustre and uncommitted performances.The Sacrifice registers as nothing more than a simulation.
Of course watching the Sacrifice with subtitles can make performance evaluation difficult – not so with Bergman’s films – but I felt the performances, in particular the female roles ( the male roles were not much better), were wooden and lacking sincerity.This feeling of detachment in the cast was compounded by the interior setting of the house and the costumes. The female attire, dresses, and in particular those of Adelaide, her daughter (but also the maids) conveyed a nineteenth century atmosphere to the extent the film sometimes felt as if it were in a Chekhov setting and situation.Perhaps it was Tarkovsky’s idea to meld social realist Chekhov with Bergman style psychic acuity?
If so it doesn’t work.The Chekhovian elements, the isolation the domestic setting the stories told by the characters, lack Chekhov’s relational genius for tieing together family and social tension.The characters in the Sacrifice, are isolated entities with isolating stories.Alexander’s claim about his love for his son, little man, is something said rather than seen.Filmically if he loved ‘little man’ then perhaps little man should have died in the final holocaust. Perverse spiritual logic perhaps, but still a logic whose possibilities might have attracted a director/writer such as von Trier.
And the Bergman elements fail at the first level of authenticity in performance.Perhaps it is language, directing his players in a foreign language (English probably); perhaps directing emotion in micro settingsis not something that Tarkovsky was good at, perhaps happier in directing in epic works.The acting is stale and stays emotionally tethered in theatricality rather than cinema. Also the scripting and its realisation is critically lame. In particular there is the ‘witch’ sequence, where a conveniently incoherent Otto persuades Alexander to visit and screw Maria, the maid, whom claims Otto, is a white witch.The whole scripting is a dog’s dinner of implausibility, and that would be fine if the consequent action carried conviction.Again the feeling is that Bergman or von Trier as scenaricists would have contrived strong central scene between Alexander and Maria.Tarkovsky’s solution climaxes in a magico-realist shot of the two making love.Whether this shot is understood as dream or actual, the shot of the couple rising into mid-air and revolving round in space, seems meaningless, a desperately wrong solution.And for a film that is trying to combine Chekhov and Bergman there is no room for getting central imagery wrong…
I think it is not enough to be a film maker.To make films outside the grounding of a society or culture is difficult. Images are not enough.Very few film makers are able to work outside their native milieus.Lang and other German émigrés were successful in Hollywood as was Hitchcock, but they were successful because they understood and accepted that to be American directors they had to learn how to be one part of the movie making studio machines rather than be auteurs.Recently the late Abbas Kairostami made at least one successful film as an émigré, Like Some one in Love, but his concerns were often in micro observation of individuals in situations, a focus easier perhaps to carry into exile.
In his exile my feeling is that Andrei Tarkovsky never found voice, and remained just a fabricator of extraordinary film images that lacked clear unifying thematic purpose.