A Drop of Water Reflecting a Divided World

The Sacrifice (1986)

A scene from The Sacrifice (Tarkovsky, 1986)

A part of me no doubt feels like I’m dabbling in blasphemy. Putting a single frame from Andrei Tarkovsky’s cinema under the microscope is strange. The granular essence of the Russian master’s philosophy, spirituality, and endless search for the meaning of existence flows through his cinema like sand through an hourglass. Rhythm, and the passing of time, are the keys that unlock the mystical magnetism of his poetry. It’s expressed, naturally, through his patient, meditative long takes, rightly immortalized as some of cinema’s greatest ever. Indeed, a Google search of “the long take in cinema” highlights three Tarkovsky films right at the top. 

Be that as it may, that voice which makes me feel like I’m performing some act of disservice is stifled by the haunting of a single image from Tarkovsky’s final film, The Sacrifice. As the second wave of the pandemic engulfed our world, I found myself in a pensive, introspective mood, the kind that presents itself like a trustworthy companion in dark times. Tarkovsky has arguably come closer than any other filmmaker to faithfully capturing that mood. So, like a moth to a flame, I dug into my collection and sought refuge in his films. 

The Sacrifice is not as celebrated as his previous masterpieces, but it’s the most germane to our current global disarray. It’s made me think about my own life, about the sacrifices that people have been forced to make in 2020, of the canyon-like abyss that exists between people’s perception of the important things in life.    

Many of these symptoms plague Alexander (Erland Josephson), who—upon hearing of an impending nuclear apocalypse—makes a vow to God that he will sacrifice everything in his life if it means he can save the world. Has he lost his mind? Does he actually believe the doom and gloom he heard on TV to such an irrational extent? Is it an act born out of narcissism, naivete, nihilism, or a cocktail of all three? Or could there be something else going on here…an unexplainable incident?

The film’s cathartic climax happens in the early hours of the morning, during innocent daylight, as an endless horizon stretches out eternally on open land. The entire film, and Alexander’s whole life, has been building up to this moment. In a near seven-minute prodigious take, shot in a wide angle, we see the consequences of Alexander’s actions unfold in real time. 

He has just set fire to his own house, making good on his promise to God, as his family arrives to bear witness to his ultimate sacrifice. The burning house, never out of frame for too long, disintegrates before our eyes. The crackling of wood, followed by a sudden explosion of the family car parked too close to home, then further crackling, audibly suffocate the sobs and gasps of Alexander’s wife, Adelaide (Susan Fleetwood), as she comes to grips with this new reality. 

Finally, crushed by the emotional weight of watching her entire world collapse in front of her, Adelaide exhaustively drops on the swampy, Tarkovskian marshland. She doesn’t faint, she doesn’t become hysterical (as she did in an earlier scene), she simply succumbs. With one arm entrenched in the quaggy earth, supporting her from total collapse, she looks on as the fire continues to mercilessly consume her house and  the dark-fueled smoke from the car continues to permeate the air. 

On the right side of the frame, adjacent to the burning house, stand trees taller than the house itself, untouched by the fire. The house and the trees dominate the upper half of the frame and are reflected by the pools of water in which poor Adelaide has sunk herself in. Take the mirroring away, and you take away an essential component of Tarkovsky’s philosophy. As he wrote in Sculpting in Time, “the image is not a certain meaning, expressed by the director, but an entire world reflected as in a drop of water.” 

The still image of Adelaide slumped at the invisible axis of the frame, perfectly centered, divides this world in two. There’s the materialistic, non-essential side that burns (Hell?) and the natural, essential side that flourishes (Heaven?). The palpable atmosphere conjured by this frame has gradually formed into a mark imprinted on my mind’s eye. Like an ineffable tornado, the image stirs in me all forms of emotion. Awe and wonder, at the complete mastery of artistic composition. Empathy, for Adelaide who has lost everything and doesn’t understand why. Remorse, for all the times I failed to recognize the important things in my own life. Fear, at the thought of what the future holds given how divided today’s culture has become. Hope, for the important things in life to remain even when people make great sacrifices. Elation, that a single frame can contain within it such a boundless array of intellectual and emotional layers. 

Even while paused, the frame continues to breathe life into the shot; through the burning flames, the slanted trees, the ripples in the water, the dense smoke emanating from the car, and the nooks and crannies of the wooden structure of the house in mid-collapse. The direction of flames and branches give it away, but the wind pulsates through the frame with ghost-like presence. 

An isolated pine tree is caught in the blaze for being too close to the house—a reminder, perhaps, that nature cannot go completely unscathed in a sacrifice as grand as this one. The outdoor tables and chairs to the left of the house, along with the other trees, are spared from the inferno thanks to the friendly wind. Going back to this vision of a divided world projected from the frame, a piece of the material world is left unharmed on the right with the rest of nature, and a piece of nature is harmed on the left with the rest of the material world. It’s yin and yang, and the eternal battle between order and chaos—presided over by a human in mourning—paints the visual identity of the frame.            

To derail the train of thought towards a technical destination feels almost arbitrary, but I’d be foolish not to acknowledge that Sven Nykvist is half the reason the frame makes such a lasting impression. Nykvist was Ingmar Bergman’s famed cinematographer and, as Tarkovsky called him, a “brilliant master of light.” Shot during the wee hours of the morning, with a sense that a mist has just dissipated moments ago and the sun is about to rise any second now, Nykvist’s mastery shines through. 

The camera slowly follows Adelaide, and, for 20 seconds or so, positions her perfectly center in the frame; a punctuation to the near seven-minute journey the whole shot has taken us through. She is the very definition of what it means to be human in a world divided. The mirror images in the water, magnifying the presence of the burning house and the trees, are the spectral pillars that hold this world afloat—reflected as in a drop of water. The ballet-like move to pack all of that into a single frame just so by the camera is a testament to Nykvist’s intuitive understanding of Tarkovsky’s vision.       

The entire shot is famous for being a technical miracle to pull off—they had to do two takes and rig a second house after the first one burned down and a camera got damaged. But the end result is inscribed in that image of Adelaide looking on, surrounded by earth, wind, and fire. These elements provide the texture that is one of the trademarks in a Tarkovsky film. But, as Lewis Bond says, even more than the aesthetic wonder that these images evoke, it goes deeper than that:

Rising smoke or tattered fabric may look good, but the emotional intensity its intangible ingredient can bring is far greater.

This holds water for every syllable in Tarkovsky’s uniquely spiritual film language, be it a sequence, a take, or a single frame, but this particular still in The Sacrifice gains extra strength when seen and felt in 2020, amidst all the uncertainty we live in. 

What has been lost, what will remain, who will suffer for it and will we learn anything? Adelaide may not, but I believe there’s hope for us.  

Tarkovsky wrote eloquently about his intentions with The Sacrifice and why the power of the image was the only way to realize them. Reading his words, one can readily imagine a burning house and some wind-filled trees reflected in water, as a forlorn figure of a woman watches her life change before her eyes:          

My film is not intended to support or refute particular ideas or to make a case for this or that way of life. What I wanted was to pose questions and demonstrate problems that go to the very heart of our lives and thus to bring the audience back to the dormant, parched sources of our existence. Pictures, visual images, are far better able to achieve that end than any words, particularly now, when the word has lost all mystery and magic and speech has become mere chatter—empty of meaning, as Alexander observes. We are being stifled by a surfeit of information, yet at the same time our feelings remain untouched by the supremely important messages that could change our lives.