Sunday, October 30, 2011

Andrei Tarkovsky | Ivan's Childhood / Andrei Rublev / Stalker / The Sacrifice

four films by andrei tarkovsky
by Douglas Messerli

the star at the bottom of the well

 Vladimir Bogomolov, Andrei Konchalovsky, Mikhail Papava, and Andrei Tarkovsky (writers) [based on a story by Vladimir Bogomolov], Andrei Tarkovsky (director) Ivanovo detstvo (Ivan's Childhood) / 1962 /I saw this movie at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on January 23, 2010

 In one of the most astounding film directorial debuts since Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, Andrei Tarkovsky startled the cinematic world with his first feature film, Ivan's Childhood, which won the 1962 Golden Lion in the Venice Film Festival.

     As critics have pointed out, in this film we can already see many of the elements of Tarkovsky's later works: a detailed attention to nature, long focuses on isolate elements of a scene which generate a feeling of abstraction, and scenarios suffused with visual images that generate emotional and psychological reactions drawing the viewer into the frame or—as Bazin might argue—pushing the film from the screen into the real world.

     From the very first frame of this film we already recognize its young hero as a ghost, a figure of another time, who has lost his way (along with his soul and sanity) in a cruel world from which he can no longer escape. Only in his fleeting dreams, or brief pauses to catch his breath in his run from German territory, does Ivan (soulfully played by Nikolai Burlyayev) get any respite from the realities of war and hate.

     One of the earliest flashbacks in a film that one might describe as one long flashback into a series of fragmented worlds, is a scene where Ivan and his mother stare down a well. The light emanating from the bottom, clearly the reflection of the sun, they concur, is a star at the bottom of the well. Despite the dark terror of the deep, for Ivan, whom we witness in the opening shot trekking through the swampy waters of the Dnepr, water represents a living force, almost his natural element. At several points in his memories, Ivan is seen drinking from a bucket borne by his mother. Regularly the child calmly endures pouring rainfall. When he is finally brought to Lt. Galtsev (Yevgeni Zharikov) by Russian soldiers, Ivan's face is almost a shrine to moisture, he himself having been transformed into something close to a star at the bottom of a well, a face shining through the water.

     Galtsev is about to dismiss the urchin, but with a determined insolence, Ivan insists that he call Headquarters, Number 51, and report that he has arrived. The man at the other end of the line, Lt-Colonel Gryaznov (Nikolai Grinko) demands that Galtsev give the boy a pencil and paper so that he can make his report. Galtsev orders hot water, tells the boy to strip, and helps to bathe him. The child, refusing food, finishes his report, chews a few bits of bread and falls asleep. Galtsev carefully tucks a cover around the child. Within just a few minutes he has clearly fallen in love with the waif.
     Like Billy Budd, Ivan is outwardly a sign of beauty and innocence, naturally drawing people to him; within, however, and unlike Billy, he has become a machine of hate.

      We soon discover how this monster was created: his mother and sister have been killed by the Germans, and Ivan, joining the partisans, saw his new friends trapped and murdered. He has also seen, so he declares, the Maly Trostenets extermination camp.

     In opposition to these realities, presented mostly in Ivan's dreams, are paradiscal memories, a ride on the back of a truck filled with apples, which, falling to the beach are joyfully gobbled up by horses. His sister and others innocently play hide-and-seek; Ivan thrillingly races across the beach.

     Gryaznov and others try to convince Ivan to attend a military school away from the line of action, but he refuses, threatening to return to the partisans, and Galtsev and his soldiers are forced to take on the care and strategic use of the child.

     Planning a surprise bombing of the German camp, Captain Kholin, Lt. Galtsev, and Ivan slowly retrace Ivan's former path of escape, the men at one point leaving Ivan to go forward on his own, while they return, bringing with them two hanged bodies of their men as they pass.

      Perhaps the worst thing about being at the front line is the intense silences. In the middle of the film, Kholin and the camp nurse, Masha, play out a game of sexual advancement and retreat within a frighteningly still beech woods, the very silence of that place hinting at the danger in their game. Now, the silence Kholin and Galtsev encounter as they quietly return to their bunkers represents the failure of Ivan's grenades to have exploded. Despite their denials, they know, and we suspect, Ivan has been caught.

     The last scene of Tarkovsky's painful love letter to a lost past, takes place in Berlin at War's end. Together Galtsev and another of Ivan's former military friends peruse the scattered files of those caught and executed by the Germans. On the floor they miraculously discover Ivan's file, noting he has been hung. Like so many of Tarkovsky's heroes, Ivan is a victim of borders, being a child without a childhood, a man without manhood, an innocent filled with hate, a lovely being killed before he could come into full existence.

Los Angeles, February 2, 2010
Reprinted from Green Integer Blog  (February 2010).


creating the impossible

 Andrei Tarkovsky and Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky (screenplay), Andrei Tarkovsky (director) Andrei Rublev / 1966 / I saw the film at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on January 30, 2010

 Like the iconic images of the artist upon which this movie focuses, Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev is less a story or even a series of stories than it is a panorama of stopped moments in time. Like the great films of director Sergei Parajanov, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors two years earlier Sayat Nova of 1968, Andrei Rublev is less a film about time than it is a series of emblematic images, scenes that in their slow resolution of beauty and horror reveal a passionate and transformative experience that has little do with story or plot. And in that sense, nearly all of Tarkovsky's works from this film forward tell themselves in formal cinematic patterns instead of narrative space.

     Tarkovsky divides his film into 9 parts:  A "Prologue" seven moments in time, followed by an Epilogue.

                     The Jester, Summer 1400
                     Theophanes the Greek, Summer-Winter-Spring-Summer 1405-1406
                     The Holiday, 1408
                     The Last Judgement, Summer 1408
                     The Raid, Autumn 1408
                     The Silence, Winter 1412
                     The Bell, Spring-Summer-Winter-Spring 1423-1424

    Already in the prologue Tarkovsky sets up a kind of abbreviated pattern for the rest of the film. Here Yefim, a creator on the run, is chased by a mob as he daringly jumps into his balloon, a hide-bound, medieval version of a hot air balloon. Amazingly, with Yefim hanging by the ropes, the balloon takes him up and away, revealing an entirely new perspective of the universe, as the frustrated mob below menacingly lift their fists into space. Yet, as in numerous occasions throughout this film, the miraculous creation is doomed from the start; Yefim and his balloon quickly come crashing to earth, sealing, it appears, his doom.

     In "The Jester," Andrei (Anatoly Solonitsyn) and his fellow monks, Danil (Nikolai Grinko) and Kirill (Ivan Lapikov) leave their Andronikov Monastery on a search of work. Forced by heavy rains to seek shelter in a barn, the three encounter a surly crowd being rudely entertained by a jester, who mocks not only the approaching monks but all others of social position and power, including the Boyars, members of a social class similar to England's knights. While Danil and Andrei watch the bawdy show, the self-righteous Kirill, we later discover, secretly sneaks away to report the Jester. Soon after a group of soldiers appear, beating the Jester and arresting him.

     Here we see another kind of creator being punished for his art. Through this enactment, moreover, we begin to perceive the harsh conditions of those who must suffer the powerful and rich. There is clearly little room for even a joyous mockery of values in this unjust society.

     "Theophanes the Greek" explores the life of the prominent master of icons. Visiting Theophanes, Kirill is surprised to find the artist at a complete standstill, all of his apprentices having abandoned him to watch a public torture and execution of a criminal. To his surprise and delight, Theophanes offers him a position to become his assistant in the decoration of the Cathedral of the Annunciation in Moscow. Kirill pretends to resist, but finally accepts the offer if Theophanes will come to the Andronkov Monastery and offer him the position in front of the other monks.

     When the time comes, Theophanes instead sends a messenger, asking Andrei Rublev to be his assistant. Danil is angry and refuses to join his friend in the journey, but later relents and wishes Rublev well. Kirill, furious about the transition of events, not only hurls accusations at Andrei but verbally attacks all his fellow monks, leaving the monastery forever. Andrei has no choice but to take along a slightly oafish boy, Foma, as his assistant. Andrei realizes now that even joy can bring forth anger, jealousy, and loneliness, for it is clear from his conversation with Kirill that in the past the two have been deeply in love, with Andrei admitting that he has seen the world through Kirill's eyes.

     "The Holiday" reveals another side of the highly Christian Russian world in which Andrei inhabits. On a night-time stroll Andrei encounters a community of pagan worshipers celebrating rituals of sensuality and lust. The celebrants run naked through the forest and fornicate openly on the beach.

     As a voyeur to the festivities, Andrei is caught by a group of men, tied to a cross, and threatened with downing. A young naked woman comes forward and frees him. As the sun rises a group of soldiers, clearly Christian, begin to attack the pagans with the intent, apparently, of killing them. The young woman escapes by swimming the river where Andrei and his fellow men are gathered in a boat. They force the young Foma to look away as the naked pagans are rounded up.

     Again a force of possible creation has been thwarted. Even a celebration of nature and the sexual body is dangerous in this highly divided and fragile world through which Andrei has silently passed.

     Indeed what Andrei has witnessed in the various events of the film so far comes to influence his early statement of values in "The Last Judgment." Here Andrei and Danil have found an excellent job, the decoration of a church in Vladimir, but their work is not progressing, as Andrei, somewhat in doubt, but gradually out of principle, refuses to paint the topic he has been assigned. The horror of the subject appalls him, as he recognizes the theme as being another way that those in power terrify the common folk.

     A young girl, a holy fool, enters the church, peeing at its entrance, desecrating the spot; yet her simplemindedness and innocence allows Andrei to suggest the painting of a feast instead of a punishment. We never see him put a brush to paint, nor paint to wall, for it is not the act that matters but the significance of thought. Once again, creativity has been squelched by those in authority. But at least we now have a hero who may overcome the obstacles he may meet.

    "The Raid," a series of absolutely horrifying images of rape, torture, and murder, seem almost to wipe out any possibility of creativity and hope. While the Grand Prince is away in Lithuania, his jealous brother, (paralleling Kirill's jealousy of Andrei) has joined forces with the Tartars. Their invasion of Vladimir, replete with cows set afire, falling horses, and dozens of humans speared, knifed, and quartered simply for the sport of it, presents visually the world that Andrei had refused to paint. It is, in short, a hell on earth. As Durochka is taken away by a Russian to be raped, Andrei takes an ax to the perpetrator. In the end of this slaughter only he had the now-mad girl have survived. Having been transformed from a spiritual being into a murderer, Andrei gives up any possibility of creation, abandoning both his art and his voice to the brutal world.

     "The Silence" is just that, a long emptiness that has now settled over the Andronikov Monastery for four years and will continue to define Andre's world for twelve more. It is a cold winter and the monks have little to eat. Old and physically destroyed, Kirill returns, asking to be taken in. He is finally accepted, but only if he will copy the scriptures fifteen times before his death.

     But even Andrei's silence cannot help. He has kept Durochka with him. But when Tartars stop at the monastery for a water break, their leader carries her away to be his eighth wife. The passive monks, including Andrei, can do nothing to help, and the idiot child is delighted by the act; now she shall eat and live—if they let her—an exciting life. For Andrei, however, it represents simply another failure; he cannot even protect the innocent.

    The final set of scenes is perhaps the most profound. Men are seeking a bellmaker for a new cathedral being built by their prince; the boy they find at the noted bellcaster's hut tells them his father has died along with the rest of his family. The only other bellmaker is near death. They turn to go, afraid of the consequences of having been unable to find a craftsman. The young boy, Boriska, however quickly tells them that he can cast a bell, that his father has told him the secret upon his death bed.

     The men are doubtful but have little choice, and take him away with them. Now Boriska is caught up something vast; he must find a location, the right clay to use, must dig a pit, put up molds, negotiate with the Prince and other wealthy figures for the correct mix of silver, melt the metals, and pour them into the molds. Nearly night and day, the young worker supervises and works without stop. Will the clay hold, will the bell, if it survives, actually ring or remain mute? Boriska knows that if he fails it will surely mean his death. As he quietly observed the actions of the pagans, Andrei silently watches.

     After months of this exhausting work, the furnaces are fueled and released into the mold. When it cools, the clay is chipped away. Now they must haul it, through an intricate series of ropes, across the stream and up into the half-constructed tower. Hundreds of men work against time, as the nobles gather to celebrate the bell's completion, many of them certain that such a clumsy child cannot possibly have accomplished the task. So frightened is Boriska that he can hardly participate, as he is ordered to come forward as everyone waits in anticipation.

     The clapper is pulled, pulled in the other direction, returned, and pulled again. Finally, the bell rings out a somewhat deep, sonorous, clang. All are overjoyed. The villagers applaud, the nobles smile and turn away to continue their celebrations in the castle.

     Boriska is seen in this long-shot panorama walking alone into the distance. Suddenly he falls into a puddle of muddy water as Andrei passes. We observe the child weeping uncontrollably. Andrei goes to him, holding Boriska's head to his chest. The tears continue. "I lied," admits the child. His father told him nothing, left him ignorance:"the skinflint," cries the young man. The bell has come into existence, clearly, only out of the boy's innate talent and faith. He has created the impossible.

     Breaking his long silence, Andrei invites the boy to join him: "Come with me. You'll cast bells. I'll paint icons." Art may, after all, survive.

     In a final epilogue, Tarkovsky transforms the screen into color and gradually, in an almost abstract tracing of Rublev's images, shows us what resulted from that coupling, an incomparable visual splendor.

Los Angeles, February 9, 2010
Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (February 2010).


Arkadi Strugastky, Boris Strugatsky and Andrei Tarkovsky (screenplay) [based on a novel by the Strugastky's], Andrei Tarkovsy (director) Stalker / 1979 / the screening I saw as at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on January 23, 2010

Andrei Tarkovsky's fifth film, Stalker, is, ostensibly, a science fiction film, but viewers who seek out the Terminator series and other action science fiction fantasies need not bother. For this long, sometimes ponderous work is a deep rumination, often using the genre of the dialogue, to discuss weighty issues such as doubt and faith, fulfillment and desire, art and science, and the individual and the collective. All of this is made palatable and, indeed, becomes emotionally engaging through the filmmaker's near-obsessive focus on  images, the screen often transforming into an almost abstract collage of the detritus of manmade machines, constructions, and tools—aimed mostly at the rape of nature and human destruction—set against the rejuvenating forces of the natural world.

     In a small, crumbling village just outside of the protected and prohibited "Zone," lives the Stalker (Aleksandr Kaidanovsky), his wife (Alisa Frejndikh), and their mute and crippled daughter, nicknamed Monkey. The outpost, filmed in sepia, gives the whole (at least in the new print I saw at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art) a slightly sickly yellow tone. We know immediately that this town is deadly to its inhabitants. Three nuclear silos appear in the distance, the streets are littered with debris and filth, even the Stalker's house is perspiring with moisture. When the trains pass, the entire house rattles, moving a drinking-glass and other objects in its wake. This is a world on the verge of collapse.

     Beyond it lies an even more "dead and deadly" region, the "Zone," site of a large meteorite or nuclear disaster, or....well, no one knows. The authorities know only that its inhabitants died and when soldiers and others tried to enter, they never returned. Finally, it became apparent that the only way to keep people from doing harm to themselves was to fence it in, to prohibit entry. Policeman cruise the streets of the Stalker's small village, shooting anyone who may even appear to be trying to enter the "Zone."

     In the Soviet period in which Tarkovsky made this film the implications of the "Zone" represents were even broader. As Slavoj Žižek noted in The Pervert's Guide to Cinema:

             For a citizen of the defunct Soviet Union, the notion of a forbidden Zone gives rise to (at least) five associations: Zone is (1) Gulag, i.e. a separated prison territory; (2) a territory poisoned or otherwise rendered uninhabitable by some technological (biochemical, nuclear....) catastrophe, like Chernobyl; (3) the secluded domain in which the nomenklatura lives; (4) foreign territory to which access is prohibited
(like the enclosed West Berlin in the midst of the GDR); (5) a territory where a meteorite struck (like Tunguska in Siberia).

In short, Tarkovsy's "Zone" is any or all of these; it does not stand for one thing, and the essential fact is its prohibition, like so much else in Soviet life.

     Following in the footsteps of a figure nicknamed Porcupine, the Stalker has learned some of the secrets of this forbidden place, and now, for a sum of money, is willing to take people in an out of this prohibited space, facing possible death from the surrounding military (the Stalker has already spent long periods in jail) and, most of all, the shifting "death traps" of the "Zone" itself.

     Yet some people are willing to take their chances; a writer and professor, each named after their profession, having heard that within the "Zone" lies a room which, after one enters, fulfills a person's innermost desires, awake the Stalker's arrival. Unlike the hopeless, hapless heap of ruble outside of the prohibited space, the "Zone," despite its treacherous potential, offers people the ineffable concept of hope.

     In that sense, the "Zone" is the shadow of the "real" world which the Stalker, the Writer, and the Professor inhabit, a kind of dream landscape where, despite the evidence of disaster and the potential nightmares of any dream, imagination reigns, and human potential is a possibility. Yet, as the Stalker warns his partners in crime, not everyone will survive, those who are the most wretched, who have the least ego and are most flexible, have the greatest chance of surviving, but even they are sometimes destroyed by the dangers that lay in wait. It is almost as if the "Zone" were itself a being, tricking those who dare to enter it into their own death.

     After surviving the gunfire of the guards, the three escape via a railway handcar into a world that suddenly (as in The Wizard of Oz) shifts into color. Yet here no human beings exist, not even little ones. The plants have overrun the destroyed power lines and the battle tanks of the military, but their flowers have no scent. It is beautiful and, as the Stalker joyously proclaims, "absolutely silent," but it is a place without mankind, a world, in short, of death.

     Almost immediately we realize that the two individuals who the Stalker is guiding seemingly have little of what it takes to survive. The writer is a worn-out genius, an alcoholic believing only in logic and longing for the "magic" of the Middle Ages. His mantra is that everything is a triangle: A1=B1=C1. Despite the Stalker's stated restrictions, he brings with him a bottle of liquor and, as we later discover, a hand gun. The Professor is equally smug, insistently cynical of the human race and of any possible salvation in the hands of his own scientific kind.

      Slowly they make their way toward the "room," seemingly just a few yards from where they stand; but both are frustrated with the Stalker's insistence that they cannot attempt a direct assault, but must make their way around things in order to survive, turning this way and that, moving every few feet toward a cloth tied up with metal nuts, retrieving it, and throwing it out, in another direction, before setting forth again.

    Indeed the rules imposed upon this absurd journey often seem to be right out of Samuel Beckett's writings, and the two "tourists," arguing as they go, often appear to be playing out a variant version of Waiting for Godot or Mercier and Camier. So inconsistent seem the Stalker's rules that the Writer finally determines that he will disobey and move straight ahead, but when he attempts the maneuver, the house itself warns him to stay away, and he retreats, insisting that he was called back by his colleagues, they insisting that he spoke to himself in a transformed voice.
     At one point, when the Professor disappears (against the rules he has returned for his forgotten rucksack), the remaining two proceed through a rainy drainpipe, only to find him safely on the other side. It is as if space itself circles back. So exhausted are the three, they fall into a grumbling sleep, the two outsiders fighting like a long married couple until they are collapse in a coma-like sleep, heaped each upon each, a stray dog hunkering down beside them.

     Besides the simple beauty (and marked ugliness) of the landscape,* what helps the viewer to accept these somewhat academic dialogic encounters is the humor of it all, the Kafka-like ridiculousness of their positions, particularly given their improbable situation. What we gradually come to comprehend, moreover, is that despite their oppositional stances toward life, they now have to obey the rules of a different world, and can make no progress without them.

     Their final long voyage through a dark and filthy tunnel, although dramatically eerie, hardly matters. We know that despite their bluff, these are both wretched men, unhappy even in their great successes. They will survive the trip, but will they survive the "gift" of the room, the realization of their "deepest, innermost" wishes?

     As they reach the entry to the room, the Stalker once explains what is about to happen before encouraging them to enter, reiterating that, having learned from the example of Porcupine (a stalker who entered in order save his brother, but instead became fabulously wealthy, and, soon after, committed suicide), that stalkers are not permitted to set foot in this sacred space.

     The Writer gets cold feet, realizing that the trap of the promised magic is that the innermost wish of any individual may not be what he consciously desires. It may be a destructive force, a petty wish that counteracts any human good within that being. No, he proclaims, he will not enter.

     The Professor has already understood that such a force might be used by the truly evil men in the society to take over governments, to kill thousands, etc., and he has brought a bomb with him to destroy the spot.

     Terrified that this one last abode of "hope," the remaining "treasure" of Pandora's box, will be forever destroyed, the Stalker lunges for the bomb, but both the Writer and Professor fight him off. Again and again he tries desperately to save his world, but these are not men of belief, representing as they do the elite, the select, yet totally disaffected Soviet upper class,  whereas, in his blind faith, he is a muttering fool, a mere stalker, always on the search for something or someone.

     Yet his fervor, his plea for the salvation of this sacred place gradually wins them over. The Writer apologizes as the Professor disassembles the bomb, the camera focusing with intensity for several moments on the three men gathered at the future's gate, the floor of room inexplicably flooding.

     Returning home, exhausted, the Stalker and his "passengers" gather once more at the local bar before his wife comes to fetch him. At home, he reports that he realizes he can never take another person into his beloved "Zone," that he must give up the one thing he was able to offer others because there is no longer anyone who believes strongly enough. When his wife proposes that he take her to the room so that may achieve her secret desires, the Stalker admits he cannot dare that. Even he, it appears, does not have enough faith.

     Has the "Zone" been his own fantasy, as the Writer and Professor have hinted, being the one thing in his string of life failures that he has had to give, been able to create? We can never know.

      His wife's monologue about both their sufferings and love which have allowed happiness and hope to coexist, however, seems to point to their survival, perhaps even to their prevailing over the difficulties they face. The rugged dreamer will ultimately accept the ordinariness of his life.

     In the distance we hear the rumble of the train. Their deaf and crippled daughter sits alone at the table. First a glass, then a bottle, and finally a second glass slides across the table, the last falling to the floor. The train comes nearer, and with it, embedded deep within the rumble of the railway, a muted musical accompaniment from Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," which disappears as quickly as the engine passes. We now must ask ourselves, was it the train that moved the glass in the very first scene and now, these three objects, or was it an extraordinary telekinetic gift with which the child is possessed? There is no answer when it comes to such a question, only hope.

*Most of these scenes were filmed near Tallinn, Estonia, in an area around a small river with a half-functioning hydroelectric station. As sound-editor Victor Sharun has written:

          Up the river was a chemical plant and it poured out poisonous liquids downstream. 
          There was even this shot in Stalker: snow falling in the summer and white foam 
          floating down the river. In fact it was some horrible poison. Many women in our crew 
          got allergic reactions on their faces. Tarkovsky died from cancer of the right bronchial 
          tube. And Tolya Solonitsyn too. That it was all connected to the location shooting for 
          Stalker became clear to me when Larisa Tarkovskaya died from the same illness in Paris.

Los Angeles, January 24, 2010
Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (January 2010).

waiting for something else

Andrei Tarkovsky (screenplay and director) Offret (The Sacrifice) / 1986 / The screening I saw was at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on February 5, 2010

Compared with the epic works such as Andrei Rublev and even Stalker, Tarkovsky's last film seems narratively simpler. His roving and constantly shifting images become, in the hands of cinematographer Sven Nykvist (also Ingmar Bergman's cinematographer), a series of longer and more focused scenes; in a film of 149 minutes there are, reportedly, only 115 shots.

     Also because of its Bergmanian and, particularly, Chekovian influences, the narrative shifts from Tarkovsky's emblematic method of story-telling in his previous films to a more traditionally Western story-line—although Tarkovsky often purposely thwarts the more normative dramatic results.

     Isolated on Bergman's island of Gotland, the family at the center of this film live, as does the family in Chekov's The Seagull, in what might be described as a summer house, this located by the sea instead of a lake.

     Their home, a place that seemed to call out to both Alexander (played by Bergman actor Erland Josephson) and his wife Adelaide (Susan Fleetwood) upon their first encountering it, is something they both still love and yet is a container for all their hurts and pains. Dressed almost as turn-of-the-century women right out of Chekov, both Alexander's wife and his daughter (Valérie Mairesse) quietly spar with each other. Indeed something seems to be sickening all the inhabitants of this house. The young son, nicknamed "Little Man," has just undergone some sort of throat operation, and is mute throughout most of the film. Alexander, a former actor, and now, a successful aesthetician, journalist, and professor, is undergoing a kind of existentialist crisis, and is unable to find meaning or belief in his life. Alexander's behavior alternates between long philosophical monologues and self-consumed silence. As his friend Otto chides him, like a Beckett figure, he is one of those desperately "waiting for something else." 

      Otto, a part-time postman, collects strange incidents and falls into temporary faints. The Icelandic maid, Maria, to put it simply, is most strange. Yet, as their doctor friend and visitor, Victor, later reveals, it is Adelaide and her incessant attacks on her husband, and her outspoken dismissal of those around her that most makes this house an unbearable place in which to exist. By film's end, Victor is determined to leave it (and, apparently, the daughter) for Australia.

     The day in which the film begins is Alexander's 50th birthday, and all have gathered here to endure a celebratory dinner. At this point, however, Tarkovsky turns the tables, so to speak. What has been a Chekov-like family comedy-drama is suddenly transformed into an international event as the radio and television, in blips of static, report that the world is on the throes of another great War, with the certainty of a nuclear holocaust.

     Adelaide lapses into a fit of terror, screaming out for the men "to do something," as Alexander retreats to his room upstairs, pondering the unbearable wait of the next few hours. This, he is suddenly certain, was what he was waiting for, a call to action. Although he has previously described himself as a nonbeliever, he now intensely prays to God, insisting that he will give up everything he loves, his son, his house, his life, if only the holocaust can be averted.

     While we hear the roars of jet planes flying overhead, the family, some now sedated by Victor, quietly wait out what is suddenly a real tragedy, reiterating their personal pains and failures. Otto, who has previously left, climbs secretly through a second-story window to ludicrously reveal to Alexander that he must go to the house of the Icelandic maid—who is a witch, but of the right kind— and lay with her through the night in order to save the world.

    Suddenly we begin to suspect that Tarkovsky is pulling out the rug from his story once more. Just as we might have imagined that the original comic-tragedy has reverted into an allegory of horror, by now combining pagan acts with Christian prayers, we begin to see another kind of comic potential in this work.

     In his essay "Zarathustra's Gift in Tarkovsky's Sacrifice," Gino Moliterno convincingly argues that Tarkovsky is reiterating in his film Nietzsche's Zoroastrian notion of the Eternal Return that Tarkovsky intimates at the beginning of the movie with a reference to Zarathustra's dwarf. Alexander, he argues, who has come to the crossroads of his life (like Tarkovsky, who himself was dying of cancer at the time of the filming), is by film's end willing to say, "Is that life? Well then, once again!"

     I argue that Tarkovsky purposely combines both the pagan and the Christian worlds, symbolized by the gentle drama of the turn-of-the-century combined with images of the horrors of 20th century wars. What some critics have complained as a murky mix of paganism and Christianity or seen as a narrative incongruity, is, in fact, a kind of delicious pot au feu in which Tarkovsky's character pluckily mixes religions of the present and the past represented by various dramatic genres in order to transform the present into another kind of reality, pointing up both the past and the potential, different future. The witchcraft of Maria weaves its spell, just as the Christian moral choices of abstinence motivates Alexander's acts.

     Waking the next morning, the electricity has returned, and all seems like it was earlier the day before. The other figures quietly share a breakfast table, seeming to have forgotten what they have undergone during the night. Was it all just a dream, a horrible nightmare spawned by Alexander's troubled mind?  In some ways, it does not matter. The house is still sick, the patients  still in need of a cure, even if the world at large has been salvaged.

     Tricking them to take a morning walk, Alexander dances and trots around the house, almost comically snacking on tabletop leftovers as he prepares a fire which, once he has set, quickly creates an inferno.

     As family and friends come running back to the burning pyre, an ambulance miraculously arrives to cart Alexander, a man apparently gone mad, off. Such a truth-teller must be put away immediately. Whether or not he has redeemed their lives, has managed to resurrect the lives of his family and friends, he has redeemed his own life; for once he has acted instead of passively waiting for the end.

     Tarkovsky's brilliant film closes with a scene in which "Little Man," a future Alexander, lays under a tree which the two of them have planted in the very first scene. The child, in his first and only lines of the film, speaks: "In the beginning was the word...why is that, papa?" If Alexander is determined to spend the rest of his life in silence, to give up all that life has meant, the boy will continue to speak in a dialogue with and for him in the next generation with its new possibilities. The magic, Christian or pagan, has been accomplished.

Los Angeles, April 15, 2010
Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (March 2010).       

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