They Burned Their Bridges Behind Tarkovsky

 Although Tarkovsky did not openly oppose the Soviet system, his work heavily emphasized spiritual themes, that were at conflict with the official anti-religious atheist ideology, prompting the KGB to open a file on him

 
 

Offret (The Sacrifice) was the final film by Andrei Tarkovsky, who died shortly after completing it. The Sacrifice originated as a screenplay entitled The Witch, which preserved the element of a middle-aged protagonist spending the night with a reputed witch. However, in this story, his cancer was miraculously cured, and he ran away with the woman. Tarkovsky wanted personal favorite and frequent collaborator Anatoly Solonitsyn to star in this picture, as was also his intention for Nostalghia, but when Solonitsyn died from cancer in 1982, the director rewrote the screenplay into what would become The Sacrifice and also produced Nostalghia with Oleg Yankovsky as the lead. The Sacrifice lead Erland Josephson played major character Domenico in the 1983 production.

 
 

 
 

Most of the film takes place inside or around a house specially built for the production. The climactic scene at the end of the film is a long tracking shot in which Alexander burns his house and his possessions. It was done in a single, six minute, fifty second take, often incorrectly identified as Tarkovsky’s longest take. The shot was very difficult to achieve. Initially, there was only one camera used, despite Sven Nykvist‘s protest. While shooting the burning house, the camera jammed, ruining the footage. (This disaster is documented in documentary entitled Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky and the documentary One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich.)

The scene had to be re shot, requiring a quick and very costly reconstruction of the house in two weeks. This time, two cameras were set up on tracks, running parallel to each other. The footage in the final version of the film is the second take, which lasts for several minutes and ends abruptly because the camera had run through an entire reel in capturing the single shot. The cast and crew broke down in tears after the take was completed.

The film reflects Tarkovsky’s respect for the Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman. It was set in Sweden on the island of Gotland, close to Fårö, where many of Bergman’s films had been shot. Tarkovsky wanted to film it on Fårö, but was denied access by the military.

Erland Josephson was a recurring figure in Bergman productions, especially from Hour of the Wolf onwards; counting that 1968 production, he acted in nine of his films before The Sacrifice. The film’s production designer, Anna Asp, had previously won an Academy Award along with Susanne Lingheim for the sumptuous décor of Fanny and Alexander, and also worked on Autumn Sonata and Bergman’s 1984 television film After The Rehearsal. The Sacrifice was filmed by Bergman’s favourite cinematographer, Sven Nykvist. Additionally, one of Bergman’s sons, Daniel Bergman, worked as a camera assistant

The camera work is slow, containing the hallmarks of Tarkovsky and cinematographer Sven Nykvist. The film’s soundtrack includes three distinct pieces: the passionate aria Erbarme dich, mein Gott from Johann Sebastian Bach‘s St. Matthew Passion, soothing Japanese flute music played by Watazumi Doso Roshi, and eerie traditional chants from the Swedish forests.

 
 


In 1965, Tarkovsky directed the film Андрей Рублёв (Andrei Roublev or The Passion According to Andreiabout the life of Andrei Rublev, the fifteenth-century Russian icon painter.

 
 

During the summer of 1979, Tarkovsky traveled to Italy, where he shot the documentary Voyage in Time together with his long-time friend Tonino Guerra. Tarkovsky returned to Italy in 1980 for an extended trip during which he and Guerra completed the script for the film Nostalghia. During 1981 he traveled to the United Kingdom and Sweden. During his trip to Sweden he had considered defecting from the Soviet Union, but ultimately decided to return because of his wife and his son. Tarkovsky returned to Italy in 1982 to start shooting Nostalghia. He did not return to his home country.

 
 

Opening credits of The Sacrifice.

 
 

Leonardo da Vinci‘s painting Adoration of the Magi, seen in the opening credits and referenced in the film, depicts the ceding of a pagan world to a Christian one. Tarkovsky’s theological scheme is not as clear-cut: Alexander is an atheist who turns to God, but salvation depends on persuading a witch to sleep with him, or so he’s told by the Friedrich Nietzsche-quoting postman who arrives bearing telegrams and perhaps a divine message or two.

The concluding annihilation is powerful not least for its ambiguity: an act of faith, madness and transfiguration.

 
 

Cover art of  Зеркало (The Mirror ). In this 1975 art film, Tarkovsky paid homage to Leonardo Da Vinci and Bach’s St Matthew Passion for first time. It is a highly autobiographical and unconventionally structured film drawing on his childhood and incorporating some of his father’s poems. Tarkovsky had worked on the screenplay for The Mirror since 1967, under the consecutive titles Confession, White day and A white, white day.

 
 

Given the sheer beauty and unwieldy philosophical ambition of Tarkovsky’s films, it’s not too far-fetched to suggest that his true heir is Terrence Malick — a filmmaker whose approach to space and time is fragmented where Tarkovsky’s is unified but who shares with the Russian a mystical connection to nature and the elements and a compulsion to pose unanswerable questions with utmost seriousness and sincerity. (“The Sacrifice” opens and closes with the image of what you might call a tree of life.).

 
 

One prominent element in Nostalghia (1983) is fire – Heraclitus’ source of all things – which serves as a symbol of hope and destruction/despair at the same time, as one witnesses the ending for the two male leads in the film.
 
 

Some Russians burned their bridges behind Tarkovsky, but they wouldn’t destroy the strength of his legacy. It crossed after us.

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The Tree of Life

Page from Darwin’s notebooks around July 1837 showing his first sketch of an evolutionary tree

 
 

Interpretation of handwriting: “I think case must be that one generation should have as many living as now. To do this and to have as many species in same genus (as is) requires extinction . Thus between A + B the immense gap of relation. C + B the finest gradation. B+D rather greater distinction. Thus genera would be formed. Bearing relation” (next page begins) “to ancient types with several extinct forms”

 
 

The tree of life is a metaphor describing the relationship of all life on Earth in an evolutionary context. Charles Darwin talks about envisioning evolution as a “tangled bank” in On the Origin of Species; however, the book’s sole illustration is of a branched diagram that is very tree-like.

 
 

“From the first growth of the tree, many a limb and branch has decayed and dropped off; and these fallen branches of various sizes may represent those whole orders, families, and genera which have now no living representatives, and which are known to us only in a fossil state. As we here and there see a thin, straggling branch springing from a fork low down in a tree, and which by some chance has been favoured and is still alive on its summit, so we occasionally see an animal like the Ornithorhynchus (Platypus) or Lepidosiren (South American lungfish), which in some small degree connects by its affinities two large branches of life, and which has apparently been saved from fatal competition by having inhabited a protected station. As buds give rise by growth to fresh buds, and these, if vigorous, branch out and overtop on all sides many a feebler branch, so by generation I believe it has been with the great Tree of Life, which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever-branching and beautiful ramifications.”

Charles Darwin

On the Origin of Species

 
 

17th-century depiction of the Tree of Life in Palace of Shaki Khans, Azerbaijan

 
 

The concept of a tree of life has been used in science, religion, philosophy, and mythology. A tree of life is a common motif in various world theologies, mythologies, and philosophies. It alludes to the interconnection of all life on our planet and serves as a metaphor for common descent in the evolutionary sense. The term tree of life may also be used as a synonym for sacred tree.

 
 

Depiction of the Norse Yggdrasil as described in the Icelandic Prose Edda by Oluf Olufsen Bagge, 1847

 
 

In George Herbert‘s poem The Sacrifice (part of The Temple, 1633), the Tree of Life is the rood on which Jesus Christ was crucified

 
 

Scenes from the Life of Christ19. Crucifixion, Giotto di Bondone, 1304-06

 
 

 In C. S. LewisChronicles of Narnia, the Tree of Life plays a role, especially in the sixth published book (the first in the in-world chronology) The Magician’s Nephew

 
 

Darren Aronofsky’s 2006 film The Fountain (as well as the 2005 graphic novel based on the screenplay) centers on immortality given by the Tree of Life.

 
 


The Tree of Life is a Terrence Malick film released in May 2011, starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain