to access Chapter 4 of Cavell's book, Pursuits of Happiness
"The Importance of Importance: The Philadelphia Story"
Satyajit Ray, The World of Apu (1959)
from the book Sculpting in Time by Andrey Tarkovsky, translated by Kitty Hunter-Blair
The idea for The Sacrifice came to me long before I thought of
The first notes and sketches, the first frenzied lines, date back to the
time when I still lived in the Soviet Union. The focal Point was
to be the story of how the hero, Alexander, was to be cured of a fatal
disease as a result of a night spent in bed with a witch. Ever since
those early days and all through the time I was working on the screenplay,
I was constantly preoccupied with the idea of equilibrium, of sacrifice,
of the sacrificial act, the yang and yin of personality; it became part
of my very being, and all I have experienced since living in the West has
served only to make that preoccupation more intense. I have to say
that my basic convictions have not changed since I arrived here; they have
developed, deepened, become firmer, there have been changes of interval,
of proportion. So, too, as the plan of my film gradually evolved,
it kept changing shape, but I hope that its central idea remained intact.
What moved me was the theme of the harmony which is born only of sacrifice, the twofold dependence of love. It's not a question of mutual love: what nobody seems to understand is that love can only be one-sided, that no other love exists, that in any other form it is not love. If it involves less than total giving, it is not love, It is impotent, for the moment, it is nothing.
I am interested above all in the character who is capable of sacrificing himself and his way of life-regardless of whether that sacrifice is made in the name of spiritual values, or for the sake of someone else, or of his own salvation, or of all these things together. Such behaviour precludes, by its very nature, all of those selfish interests that make up a 'normal' rationale for action; it refutes the laws of a materialistic worldview. It is often absurd and unpractical. And yet---or indeed for that very reason-the man who acts in this way brings about fundamental changes in people's lives and in the course of history. The space he lives in becomes a rare, distinctive point of contrast to the empirical concepts of our experience, an area where reality-I would say-is all the more strongly present.
Little by little that awareness led me to carry out my wish to make a feature film about a man whose dependence upon others brings him to independence and for whom love is at once ultimate thrall and ultimate freedom. And the more clearly I discerned the stamp of materialism on the face of our planet (irrespective of whether I was observing the West or the East), came up against unhappy people, saw the victims of psychoses symptomatic of an inability or unwillingness to see why life had lost all delight and all value, why it had become oppressive, the more committed I felt to this film as the most important thing in my life. It seems to me that the individual today stands at a crossroads, faced with the choice of whether to pursue the existence of a blind consumer, subject to the implacable march of new technology and the endless multiplication of material goods, or to seek out a way that will lead to spiritual responsibility, a way that ultimately might mean not only his personal salvation but also the saving of society at large; in other words, to turn to God. He has to resolve this dilemma for himself, for only he can discover his own sane spiritual life. Resolving it may take him closer to the state in which he can be responsible for society. That is the step which becomes a sacrifice, in the Christian sense of self-sacrifice.
Again we are reminded of the dictum that our life here on earth was made for happiness, and that nothing else is more important for man. And though this could be true only if one were to alter the meaning of the word happiness-which is impossible-neither in the West nor in the East (I am not referring to the Far East) will a dissenting voice be taken seriously by the materialistic majority.
I posit that modern man, for the most part, is not prepared to deny himself and his interests for the sake of other people or in the name of what is Greater, of what is Supreme; he will more readily exchange his own life for the existence of a robot. I recognise that the idea of sacrifice, the Christian ideal of love of neighbour, enjoys no popularity - and that nobody asks us for self-sacrifice. It's regarded as idealistic and unpractical. But the results of our way of life, of our behaviour, are plain enough: the erosion of individuality by overt egoism; the degeneration of human bonds into meaningless relationships between groups; and, still more alarming, the loss of all possibility of returning to that higher form of spiritual life which alone is worthy of mankind and which represents man's one hope for salvation. An example will illustrate what I mean about the prime importance accorded to material interests. Physical hunger can be alleviated fairly simply by means of money; today we tend to use the same simplistically Marxian 'money = goods' formula in our efforts to escape from mental deprivation. When we feel inexplicable symptoms of anxiety, depression or despair, we promptly turn to the services of the psychiatrist or, better still, sexologist, who has taken over for the confessor and who, we imagine, calms our minds and restores them to normality. Reassured, we pay him at the going rate. Or if we feel a need for love, we go off to a brothel and again pay in cash-not that it necessarily has to be a brothel - And all this despite the fact that we know perfectly well that neither love nor peace of mind can be bought with any currency.
The "little man" (Tommy
Kjellqvist) and Alexander
(Erland Josephson) watering
the Japanese tree.
The Sacrifice is a parable.
The significant events it contains can be interpreted in more than one
way. The first version was entitled The Witch, and it told
the story of the hero's amazing cure from cancer. His family doctor
having told him that his days were numbered, Alexander answered the door
one day and was confronted by a soothsayer-the forerunner of Otto in the
final version-Who gave Alexander a strange, almost absurd instruction:
he was to make his way to a woman reputed to be a witch and spend the night
with her. The sick man obeyed as his only way out and, through God's
mercy, was cured; this was confirmed by the astonished doctor. And
then one wretched, stormy night, the witch appeared at Alexander's house,
and at her bidding he happily left his splendid mansion and respected life
and went off with her with nothing but the old coat on his back.
In overall effect this was to be not only a parable about sacrifice but also the story of how one individual is saved. And what I hope is that Alexander-like the hero of the film finally made in Sweden in 1985-was healed in a more significant sense: it was not only a question of being cured of a physical (and, moreover, fatal) disease; it was also a question of spiritual regeneration, expressed in the image of a woman.
Curiously, while the images of the film were being conceived, and indeed all the time the first version of the scenario was being written, regardless of the current circumstances in my life the characters began to stand out more and more clearly and the action grew steadily more specific and structured. It was almost an independent process that entered my life of itself. Furthermore, while I was still making Nostalgia I could not escape the feeling that the film was influencing my life. In the Nostalgia scenario, Gorchakov had come to Italy for only a short time; but he fell ill and died there. In other words, he, failed to return to Russia not of his own volition but because of a dictate of fate. I also did not imagine that, after finishing Nostalgia, I would remain in Italy; but, like Gorchakov, I am subject to a Higher Will. Another sad fact came to underline these thoughts: the death of Anatolly Solonitsyn, who had played the lead in all my previous films and who, I assumed, would have the parts of Corchakov in Nostalgia and of Alexander in The Sacrifice. He died of the illness of which Alexander was cured and which a year later, was to afflict me.
I don't know what this means. I only know that it is very frightening, and I have no doubt that the poetry of the film is going to become a specific reality, that the truth it touches will materialise, will make itself known, and-whether I like it or not-will affect my life. There can be no question o a person's remaining passive once he has grasped truths of that order, for they come to him without his willing it, and they overturn all his earlier ideas about how the world is. In a very real sense he is divided, aware of being answerable for others; he is an instrument, a medium, obliged to live and to act for the sake of other people.
Thus Alexander Pushkin considered that every poet, every true artist (and I have always seen myself as a poet rather than a cinematographer) regardless of whether he wants to be or not-is a prophet. Pushkin saw the capacity to look into time and predict the future as a terrible gift, and his allotted role caused him untold torment. He had a superstitious regard for signs and portents. We only have to recall how, when he was dashing from Pskov to Petersburg at the moment of the Decembrist rising, the poet turned back because a hare had run across his path; he accepted the popular belief that this was an omen. In one of his poems he wrote about the torture he endured through being conscious of his gift of prescience, and of the burden of being called to be poet and prophet. I had forgotten his words, but the poem came back to me with new significance, almost like a revelation. I feel that the pen which wrote these lines in 1826 was not held by Alexander Pushkin alone:
Weary from hunger of spirit
Through grim waste land I dragged my way,
And a six-winged seraph came to me
At a place where two paths crossed.
With finger-tips as light as sleep
He touched the pupils of my eyes,
And my mantic pupils opened
Like eyes of an eagle scared.
As his fingers touched my ears
They were filled with roar and clang:
And I heard the shuddering of the sky,
And angers mountain flight,
And sea beasts moving in the deep,
And growth of valley vine.
And he pressed against my mouth,
And out he plucked my sinful tongue,
And all its guile and empty words,
And taking a wise serpent's tongue
He thrust it in my frozen mouth
With his incamadine right hand.
And with his sword he cleft my breast,
And out he plucked my trembling heart,
And in my gaping breast he placed
A coal alive with flames.
Like a corpse I lay in the waste land,
And I heard God's voice cry out:
"Arise, prophet, and see and hear,
Be charged with my will-
And go out over seas and lands
To fire men's hearts with the word.
The Sacrifice is in the same vein, fundamentally, as my earlier
films, but it is different in that I have deliberately laid poetic emphasis
on the dramatic development. In a sense, my recent films have been
impressionistic in structure: the episodes-with rare exceptions-have been
taken from everyday life and therefore come across to the audience in their
totality. Working on my latest film, I aimed not merely at developing
the episodes in the light of my own experience and of the rules of dramatic
structure but also at building the picture into a poetic whole in which
all the episodes are harmoniously linked-something that, in preceding films,
concerned me much less. As a result, the overall structure of The
Sacrifice became more complex and took on the form of a poetic parable.
In Nostalgia, dramatic development is almost entirely lacking, apart
from the quarrel with Eugenia, the self-immolation of Domenico and Gorchakov's
three attempts to carry the candle across the pool; in The Sacrifice,
by contrast, conflict between the characters builds up to a flash point.
Both Domenico and Alexander are ready to act, and the source of their willingness
to do so lies in their foreboding of imminent change. Both carry
the mark of sacrifice, and each makes an offering of himself. The
difference is that Domenico's act produces no tangible results.
Alexander, an actor who has given up the stage, is perpetually crushed by depression. Everything fills him with weariness: the pressures of change, the discord in his family, and his instinctive sense of the threat posed by the relentless march of technology. He has grown to hate the emptiness of human speech, from which he flees into a silence where he hopes to find peace. Alexander offers the audience the possibility of participating in his act of sacrifice and of being touched by its results. (Not, I hope, in the sense of that ‘audience participation' which is all too current among directors in both the USSR and the USA-and therefore also in Europe-which has become one of the two main trends of current cinema-the other being the so-called 'poetic cinema' where everything is deliberately made incomprehensible and the director has to think up explanations for what he has done.)
Adelaide (Susan Fleetwood),
Julia (Valerie Mairesse), Marta
(Filippa Franzen) and Viktor
(Sven Wollter) having supper.
The metaphor of the film is consistent with the action
and needs no elucidation. I knew that the film would be open to a
number of interpretations, but I deliberately avoided pointing to specific
conclusions because I considered that those were for the audience to reach
independently. Indeed, it was my intention to invite different responses.
I naturally have my own views on the film, and I think that the person
who sees it will be able to interpret the events it portrays and make up
his own mind both about the various threads that run through it and about
Alexander turns to God in prayer. Afterwards he resolves to break with his life as it has been up till now; he burns all the bridges behind him, leaving not a single path by which to return, destroying his home, parting from the son whom he loves beyond all measure. And he falls silent as a final comment on the devaluation of words in the 1-nodern world. It may be that some religious people will see in his actions following the prayer God's answer to man's question 'What must be done to avert nuclear disaster?’ - namely, turn to God. It may be that some who have a heightened sense of the supernatural will see the meeting with the witch, Maria, as the central scene which explains all that happens subsequently. There will doubtless be others for whom all the events of the film are merely the fruits of a sick imagination, since no nuclear war is actually happening.
None of these reactions has anything to do with the reality shown in the film. The first and last scenes-the watering of the barren tree, which for me is a symbol of faith-are the high points between which events, unfold with growing intensity. By the end of the film not only does Alexander prove his case and demonstrate that he is able to rise to extraordinary heights, but the doctor also, who first appears as a simplistic character, bursting with health and utterly devoted to Alexander's family, changes to such an extent that he is able to sense and understand the venomous atmosphere prevailing in the household and its deadly effect. He turns out to be capable not merely of expressing an opinion of his own but also of deciding to break with what has grown hateful to him and emigrate to Australia.
As a result of what happens, a new closeness grows up between Adelaide, Alexander's eccentric wife, and the charwoman, Julia; such a human relationship is something completely new for Adelaide. For almost the entire film her function is unrelievedly tragic: she stifles anything confronting her that has the slightest aspiration to individuality, to the affirmation of personality; she crushes everything and everyone, including her husband-without for a moment wanting to do so. She is barely capable of reflection. She suffers from her own lack of spirituality, but at the same time it is that suffering that gives her her destructive power, as uncontrollable in its effect as a nuclear explosion. She is one of the causes of Alexander's tragedy. Her interest in other people is in inverse proportion to her aggressive instincts, to her passion for self-assertion. Her capacity for apprehending the truth is too limited to allow her to understand another world, the world of other people. Moreover, even if she were to see that world, she would be unable and unwilling to enter it.
Maria is the antithesis of Adelaide: modest, timid, perpetually uncertain of herself At the beginning of the film anything like friendship between her and the master of the house would be unthinkable; the differences that separate them are too great. But one night they come together, and that night is the turning point in Alexander's life. In the face of imminent catastrophe he perceives the love of this simple woman as a gift from God,, as a justification of his entire life. The miracle that overtakes Alexander transfigures him.
It was far from easy to find protagonists for the eight parts, but I think that each member of the final cast is completely identified with his or her character and actions.
We had no technical or other problems during shooting, until one moment near the end, when all our efforts seemed on the point of coming to nothing. Suddenly, in the scene in which Alexander sets fire to his house-a single take lasting six and a half minutes-the camera broke down. We discovered it only after the entire building was ablaze, burning to the ground as we looked on. We couldn't put the fire out and we couldn't take a single 5hot; four expensive months of intense hard work for nothing.
And then, in a matter of days, a new house had been built, identical to the first one. It seemed like a miracle, and it proved what people can do when they are driven by conviction-and not just people, but the producers themselves, the superpeople.
Adelaide, Otto (Allan Edwall),
Marta, Julia, Viktor and
Alexander gathered for
Alexander's birthday party.
Maria (Gudrun Gisladottir)
watching the burning house.
I once talked to the late Soviet physicist Lev Landau
on this subject. The setting was a shingle beach in the Crimea.
'What do you think,' I asked, 'does God exist or not?'
There followed a pause of some three minutes.
Then he looked at me helplessly.
'I think so.'
At the time I was simply a sunburnt young boy, entirely unknown, son of the distinguished poet Arsenly Tarkovsky: a nobody, merely a son. It was the first and last time I saw Landau, a single, chance meeting; hence such candour on the part of the Soviet Nobel Prizewinner.
Has man any hope of survival in the face of all the patent signs of impending apocalyptic silence? Perhaps an answer to that question is to be found in the legend of the parched tree, deprived of the water of life, on which I based this film which has such a crucial place in my artistic biography: the Monk, step by step and bucket by bucket, carried water up the hill to water the dry tree, believing implicitly that his act was necessary and never for an instant wavering in his belief in the miraculous power of his own faith in God. He lived to see the Miracle: one morning the tree burst into life, its branches covered with young leaves. And that 'miracle' is surely no more than the truth.
to film studio at Humanities House.
Return to Cohen/Duket Teaching Grant.