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The Sacrifice

Spiritual Corporeality


“What ultimately redeems Tarkovsky from his ideological obscurantism is his cinematic materialism, the direct physical impact of the texture of his films: this texture renders a stance of Gelassenheit, of pacified disengagement that suspends the very urgency of any kind of quest.”  So says Slavoj Zizek in The Fright of Real Tears. What Zizek’s getting at here is a materialist theology he sees in the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, the opposite, we might say, of a Judaic belief and closer to a Heideggarian notion of dwelling. For if Judaism was perceived as a belief in the mind and in the text through the absence of a promised land in actuality, in Martin Heidegger the notion to dwell is in the twin sense of the term: to dwell in thought and at the same time to dwell in place. When Heidegger suggests in ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’ that “the self-sufficiency of the power to let earth and sky, divinities and mortals enter in simple oneness into things”, he is talking about the way dwelling becomes a means of existence utilising the existent means. What we so often see in Tarkovsky, and that we’ll explore through most of his films but most especially his final work, The Sacrifice, is the existent means losing out to the means of existence. This might take the form of constant flight, as in Andrei Rublev, the space age psychology transcending reality in Solaris, the post-industrial decay of Stalker, or the notion of exile in Nostalgia. In each instance any metaphysical flight is secondary to a belief in the materiality of place, as if the metaphysical flight must earn its place out of material reality, otherwise it becomes just another abstraction, and that it’s in this abstraction, this often inexorable move towards the abstract, that Tarkovskian despair lies.

Thus we might suggest that Tarkovsky’s isn’t an innate pessimism but in fact its opposite; it’s an innate optimism, but that because innateness is losing out to abstraction Tarkovsky’s despair can seem more fundamental than it is. We’re not talking here about a notion of original sin; more about a sin that lacks origins, or rather, in Heidegger’s view, a perspective that makes origins irrelevant next to technological destiny: to the ‘enframing’ Heidegger coins when he talks about man reduced to a ‘standing reserve’ or stockpile to and for technological purposes. When the central character in Solaris rails against the scientist as they stand on the central character’s father’s estate, central to the character’s anger is this idea of science as a sin without origins; as if its evil lies not in its fundamentals but the arrogance of its techno-fatalism.

This is an important point, perhaps, because it allows us to view Tarkovsky not as an obscurantist and mystic, but as someone whose very craft finds a way of returning man and art to a position of unfolding less in the theological or technologial sense than in a more essential one. Tarkovsky finds a position between the theological as an act of faith, and the technological as a process of inevitablity. In each instance, in the theological and the technological, we can see an abstract belief system at work. In Tarkovsky, for all the talk of obscurantism, there’s something more fundamental going on.

In his diaries, Time within Time, Tarkovsky quotes Mikhail Kuzman saying, “whether your soul is unscathed or broken in two…I beg you to be logical…be economical with your means and parsimonious with words, precise and genuine; then you will discover the secret of something wonderful – that exquisite lucidity which I would call – clarism.” How do we square this with Time Out’s claim that Solaris “proceeds to squander both [poetry and dialectics] on kindergarten psychology and inane melodrama.” Zizek helps us here, when he says “this inert insistence of time as Real, rendered paradigmatically in Tarkovsky’s famous slow five-minute tracking or crane shots, is what makes Tarkovsky so interesting for a materialist reading: without this inert texture, he would be just another Russian religious obscurantist.” So when Time Out’s Tony Rayns sees kindergarten psychology and inane melodrama, we should perhaps see the way psychology and melodrama function within filmic time and the actuality of nature. When the central character rails against the scientist, the scene’s apparent heaviness ought to be weighed against the locale of the actual sequence. Play the same scene on a stage, and you have cliche, use the same dialogue and the dynamics of the situation utilising real time and real locations and you have “something wonderful – that exquisite lucidity which I would call – clarism.’ The opposite indeed of ‘obscurism’.

This is because in Tarkovsky landscape doesn’t serve as a backdrop to the anthropocentricity of man, it is the essence of man: it is where, as Heidegger says, the “presencing of beings in unconcealment” can take place. If Dovzhenko cuts to nature whilst showing an elderly man passing away at the beginning of Earth, and Ozu utilized what have been called pillow shots – cutaways to objects and places – to contextualize man’s position in the world, Tarkovsky relies on the long take and the physical presence of nature to bring forth the twin sense of dwelling. So often we see Tarkovsky’s characters hugging the earth as opposed to appealing to the heavens: trust in the immediate reality of one’s environment over abstract notions of spirituality would appear to be Tarkovsky’s maxim. Yet, as Zizek points out, Tarkovsky isn’t interested in any conventional notion of realism, however much he appreciates the reality of nature over the nature of reality. As Zizek says, Tarkovsky’s films work in an “intermediate spectral domain whose visual equivalent are perhaps the protracted stains which ‘are’ the yellow sky in late van Gogh or the water or grass in Munch: this uncanny massiveness pertains neither to the direct materiality of the colour stains nor to the materiality of the depicted object – it dwells in a kind of intermediate spectral domain of what Schelling called geistige Korperlichkeit, spiritual corporeality.”

For Zizek this spiritual corporeality can be seen not just in nature per se, but in nature in decomposition – with Stalker as a particularly good example. But it’s maybe more useful to think again of the spiritual corporeality, so that we see nature neither giving way to thought, nor thought giving way to nature, but the two in a complex relationship with each other. Gilberto Perez talks in The Material Ghost about the idea that cinema is both icon and index, that “it is an icon because it gives an image, a likeness of the subject it represents [and that it is] an index because it has a direct connection with that subject….”  For Perez, as for Bazin before him, what we have is the iconic in relation to the preconceived, the obviously rendered, and the indexical, which records rather than renders. As Bazin said, talking of the indexical aspect of photography, “all the arts are based on the presence of man, only photography derives an advantage from his absence.”

Tarkovsky’s genius is to understand that the iconic is secondary to the indexical, and thus any preconceived significance – dialogue, characterization etc. – is less important than the already present. This is what Tarkovsky’s getting at when he talks about the rhythm of the shot in Sculpting in Time. “The dominant all-powerful factor of the film image is rhythm, expressing the course of time within the frame. The actual passage of time is made clear in the characters’ behaviour, the visual treatment and the sound – but these are all accompanying features, the absence of which, theoretically, would in no way affect the existence of the film.”

It Is this rhythm that reflects a life rhythm, a sort of rhythm that goes beyond dramatic rhythm and dramatic unity, for one closer to that of not so much life as the real within life rather than in the dramatic expectations of art. Hence dramatic notions such as suspense, conflict and audience release have little intrinsic place in Tarkovsky’s aesthetic. Consequently attacks on Tarkovsky’s films as being full of kindergarten psychology and inane melodrama are misapplied, or rather focusing on superficial tropes to the detriment of underlying significance. It’s not that Tarkovsky completely ignores the psychological or the melodramatic; it’s just that they’re used the way Michelangelo Antonioni or Philippe Garrel might use them – as superficial means to ontological ends. There’s the heart of darkness journey in Stalker, for example,  a hoary device that resembles, say, Aguirre, Wrath of God and  Apocalypse Now (released around the same time), but gains its singularity not from its dramatic function but its metaphorical dimension: that the real in Tarkovsky doesn’t come from the dramatization of iconic elements, but the way the dramatic contains the indexical.  This is surely what Tarkovsky means when he says that the characters’ behaviour, the visual treatment and the sound are all accompanying features.

The question one might then ask is what are they accompanying? If Tarkovsky utilises the superficial elements of drama as Rayns suggests, and yet we disagree with Rayns’ simplifications, then what is Tarkovsky getting at?  Nothing less it seems than a Heideggerian notion of dwelling but by either means, by cinematic means. If Heidegger talks of the importance of dwelling, in the sense of  being at one with the place in which one lives, Tarkovsky’s work is often an illustration of homelessness attached to a sense of bereavement. To bereave in homelessness is of course not the same as being homeless: ontologically, the homeless person and the person constantly moving home would be in similar situation – it could even be argued that the person without a home is less homeless if in his homelessness he can still dwell, than the person frequently moving on.

It is from this perspective that Tarkovsky’s final film, The Sacrifice, proves especially challenging. Here a playwright (Erland Josephson) retreats to his coastal home in the south of Sweden and becomes wracked by the idea that the world will end if he doesn’t make a sacrifice, doesn’t sacrifice something to save the planet from the nuclear annihilation he believes to be imminent as he hears fighter planes hurtling lowly through the sky. He makes the sacrifice – burning down his house – and the world returns to normal, but has his sacrifice been an act of stupidity or an act of higher enlightenment? What Tarkovsky sets up is the opposition of the scientific and the theological, whilst the place of dwelling is the sacrifice in between. We might say that the central character goes mad at the end of the film – after burning down the house he’s bundled into an ambulance – but we could say the madness lies in the dichotomy of the thinking, of a thinking that’s actually quite prevalent if we remove the sacrificial element.

What is set up is the idea of the end of the world by scientific means, but its existence credited to religious beginnings. Yet at the beginning of the film the local postman talks about Nietzsche’s idea of eternal return, of neither beginnings nor endings. “…we wait for something, we hope, we lose hope, we move closer to death, finally we die and are born again – but we remember nothing. Everything begins again, from scratch. Not literally the same way, just a wee, wee bit different. But it’s still hopeless. And we don’t know why.” The playwright responds by saying “do you really think mankind could devise a universal concept, a model, so to speak, of absolute law, of absolute truth…it would be like creating a new universe?”

Often, though, it is the creation of this new universe – in Solaris, in Stalker and in the playwright’s actions at the end of The Sacrifice – which flies in the face of the dwellingness that provides the ontological underpinning of Tarkovsky’s work.  If Tarkovsky’s sympathies seem closer to the religious than to the scientific, this isn’t necessarily because Tarkovsky is religious, but because religion remains the most coherently developed alternative to the science. But to see Tarkovsky’s work as a Manichean struggle between good theology and bad science is to miss out on what makes Tarkovsky significant: the way that, like melodrama and psychology, theology and science are superimpositions, mere trifles in the being of Being.  If so frequently Tarkovsky’s dialogue seems laden, his musings clunky (Paul Coates in The Story of the Lost Reflection talks about “the weakness of the pseudo-philosophical maunderings of Nostalgia”) then we should perhaps re-read their heavy portentousness. That the conversations are not portentous in the sense of cliches, but portentous in the sense of portent – the way they set forth an argument that it is both trivial (in both dramatic and philosophical terms) but allusively profound. Thus the huffiness of the central character in Solaris towards his father and his father’s friend concerning science, and the postman’s ramblings about Nietzsche in The Sacrifice, aren’t moral arguments or chunks of wisdom, but a means by which to combine the philosophical with the dramatic, to arrive at an aesthetic form that combines portent with aesthetic realization, and thus finds the very dwellingness that the abstract demands of theology and science generally eschew.

It is as if Tarkovsky’s very purpose has been to generate, even create, an aesthetic dwellingness, so that the central character’s sacrificing his own house has a double-edged irony: on the one hand he loses his home, on the other his being has been without dwelling. Unlike the local postman, does he not fail to see that being lies not in technology or theology – the dichotomous beliefs that sustain man – but, to offer Heiddegger’s formulation, being at home in Being? When Heidegger says, “Homelessness so understood consists in the abandonment of Being by beings”, is it not the playwright’s very inability to comprehend the notion of dwelling that means he must lose its concrete embodiment? Here we see the way Tarkovsky dramatizes dwelling.

And so in Stalker we see, again, the way the absence of dwelling becomes an issue of madness, of perceptual unease as the characters lose their coordinates searching out the Zone, this strange, metamorphosing world that allows people to dwell too much in thought and not enough, perhaps, in the land. The central character’s fear about science in Solaris becomes part of the viewer’s confusion in watching the film, as the real and the unreal constantly dissolve in front of our eyes. The postie’s belief in The Sacrifice in the oneness of things gains its significance not in the bluntness of his Nietzschean offerings, but from the very way that the central character then acts according to the beliefs the postie suggests are insignificant.  So when Tarkovsky says “it is important to confine yourself within a framework that will deepen your world, not impoverish it, help you to create it,” we should see his musings not as philosophical insights on the world, but dramatic possibilities within the art work that then may comment on the world.

It is this dramatic philosophy, if you like, attached to the rhythm of the real, that allows for Tarkovsky to arrive at Schiller’s spiritual corporeality, just as it also allows him to clarify Heidegger’s notion of dwelling. We can see how central it is to Andrei Rublev, where the significance of art turns into the epiphany of the closing colour section as the paintings illuminate the harsh physicality Tarkovsky’s spent two and a half hours showing us, whilst at the same time in utilizing the pictures as documents, Tarkovsky shows not just how harsh realities can be transformed into aesthetic beauty, but how the art works can, in their presence as documents, reverse the process. They can show us beauty but at the same time comment on harshness. Thus Tarkovsky doesn’t have a ‘message’;  he instead offers that twin sense of the real documented and the documenting of the real: he creates the real out of the art, just as the icon painters created the art of the real that allowed him to reverse, and yet at the same time contain, aesthetic purpose. It is as though Tarkovsky has worked from these iconic paintings to ‘find’ his way back into the historical past. Here we see the iconic (of the paintings) and the indexical (of film) feeding into each other.

Andrei Rublev is an especially interesting example in Tarkovsky of the existent means refusing to give way to the means of existence, and it’s from such a perspective we can understand the depth of feeling coming out of Tarkovsky’s famous, vituperative comment about genre being a tomb. Is genre not a self-generating system moving ever further away from the real? Is Tarkovsky’s cinema not about returning to the real and any genre element merely a means to that end? Hence we can see Tarkovsky’s work as not simply escaping from the mystical through the presence of material reality, but also that Tarkovsky’s relationship with the real incorporates the notion of a certain type of aesthetic integrity. “Cinema must record life with life’s own means, it must operate with the images of actual reality. Here we see the purpose of Tarkovsky’s work’s lying between the technologically abstract and the theologically rarefied whilst often incorporating both. If Philippe Garrel believed cinema was manual work with the sub-conscious, we might say Tarkovsky’s work is manual work with the spiritually essential, but that the spiritual comes out of the manual work, out of the filming of reality. This is why a Tarkosvky script adapted for the stage would be platitudinous; it would lack the Schiller spiritually corporeal.

Tarkovsky of course is not unique in this – we see it in Terrence Malick, its presence in much nineties Godard, in Paradjanov – but no other filmmaker has quite as completely fused the opposites of science and religion to arrive at a meditative space that creates a Beingness in the viewing experience, that Beingness, which the postman invokes when talking about a hope within hopelessness, that is conjoined with Heideggarian dwelling to arrive at a position we could call spiritually meditative. This is not a theological given, but an aesthetic undertaking. As Tarkovsky said: “what I want is an explosive fusion of the emotional …with the aspiration to understand certain philosophical and ethical questions which touch on the meaning of life.”


©Tony McKibbin