The Man Who Saw the Angel

Andrei Tarkovsky

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The May 8th headline from the Film Society Lincoln Center Newsletter read “Stalker Makes Box Office History”. It went on to note how the restored 2K scan of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film released by Janus Films “grossed a record-breaking $20,540 this weekend in its exclusive run at the Walter Read Theater. Not only does this mark the Film Society’s biggest re-release of all time, Stalker also had the second highest per theater average at the overall domestic box office, following Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.” It would be hard to think of two films that could be further apart in style, theme, form, content or execution, and it gives me, as an arthouse film programmer, hope for the future. With numbers like that, surely some younger folks are buying tickets to see gems from the past and helping to keep cinema’s rich legacy alive.

Hope for the future is one of the themes to be found in Tarkovsky’s last film, The Sacrifice (1986). The film begins with a freeze frame focused on a smaller detail of a larger painting. All we can see is a child’s hand reaching toward a gift being offered up by a bearded man, and just this for several minutes as the opening credits roll by to the musical offering of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Matthäus-Passion “Erbarme Dich” (“have mercy”) with Hungarian mezzo-soprano Julia Hamari on vocals. Only when the credits finish, about five minutes in, do we switch over to the sound of seagulls as the camera pans straight up what can now be identified as Leonardo Da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi. The baby Jesus appears briefly as the camera focuses on the blue palm tree behind him and travels up the trunk to stop at the tree top, and we then cut to the live action of an old man asking a young boy to come help him plant a barren tree by the seaside. The old man tells the boy the story of a monk who planted a barren tree, watered it every day for three years, and then saw it blossom.

The tree of life is a sacred concept found throughout most religions. Some have mocked Tarkovsky for being too obvious with his metaphors, but even secular cinephiles can fall under the spell of his transcendentalism, which is consistent throughout his work. I find it fitting that Jason Shulman’s photograph of Tarkovsky’s The Mirror (1975), in which he “captures the entire duration of a movie in a single image (see it in The Guardian‘s post of Final cut: films condensed into a single frame – in pictures) has only one identifiable image in what otherwise is a blur of impressionistic colors: trees.

I’m pretty sure Shulman, should he condense another Tarkovsky film into a single shot, would find the same would be true of The Sacrifice. If only one identifiable image should emerge, it would surely be of trees again.


The Sacrifice takes place under the shadow of World War III and what seems like the inevitable annihilation of humanity by nuclear weapons. Alexander, the main character, prays to God and offers to sacrifice everything if only God will restore the world to how it was before. It’s an act that will require a whole lot of faith. While Tarkovsky himself had a complicated relationship with his religion (he had been raised in the Russian Orthodox tradition) he did believe one could experience God through nature, and he believed in faith. In his diaries, Time Within Time, he wrote that it was important “To have faith in spite of everything; to have faith.” Making a film itself is an act of faith, as Tarkovsky points out in the last sentences of his book Sculpting in Time: “Perhaps the meaning of all human activity lies in artistic consciousness, in the pointless and selfless creative act? Perhaps our capacity to create is evidence that we ourselves were created in the image and likeness of God?”

The Sacrifice was shot off the coast of Sweden on the Baltic Sea island of Gotland with Swedish-French funding that allowed Tarkovsky to use cast and crew who had previously worked with Ingmar Bergman (actor Erland Josephson, production designer Anna Asp, cinematographer Sven Nykvist, and even one of Bergman’s sons, Daniel Bergman, who put in a stint as a camera assistant.) Tarkovsky credits Ingmar Bergman as a big influence on his own career (Bergman’s Winter Light [1962] and Wild Strawberries [1957] were among Tarkovsky’s top ten films of all time). Bergman, for his part, clearly felt the pupil was now the master when he said Tarkovsky was “the greatest”… “the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream.”

Tarkovsky died of lung cancer at the age of 54, and shortly after The Sacrifice netted him a triple win at the Cannes Film Festival: the Grand Special Jury Prize, the International Critics Prize and the Ecumenical Prize. It was later also deemed “a great film” by The Vatican. The last image in The Sacrifice ends with a coda that echoes the opening shot of a tree in Tarkovsky’s first feature film, Ivan’s Childhood (1962). The last shot of The Sacrifice and this should not be a spoiler, has the camera pan up the tree we saw being planted in the beginning, but this time it ends with a title card that dedicates the film to Tarkovsky’s son “with hope and confidence.”

And so it goes as the old pass life on to the young, whispering prayers to the angels in the trees along the way.

Pablo Kjolseth

3 Responses The Man Who Saw the Angel
Posted By kjolseth : May 28, 2017 3:58 pm

I’d like to add a link here as an addendum to this post, and in honor of Stan Brakhage. I was his classroom projectionist back when I was in college, and he was the one who introduced me to the films of Tarkovsky. Stan was also a religious man who claimed to see angels (although the ones he described to me were more like horrible apparitions warning him of his pending death – he died a couple years later of cancer in 2003). Another thing the two directors had in common was a passion for the music of Bach:

Posted By George : May 28, 2017 4:53 pm

If you’re in Nashville over the next few days and would like to see STALKER (and SOLARIS) on a theater screen …

Posted By kjolseth : May 28, 2017 5:08 pm

Hi, George -

I plan to screen those restorations as part of the film series I program here in Boulder, but I am due to visit Nashville and the Belcourt (and my friends there) soon.

Oh, and here’s another quote I forgot to toss in:

“What moved me was the theme of the harmony which is born only of sacrifice, the twofold experience 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.”
― Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time

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