The Review/ Feature/

A Man’s World? Bergman, Tarkovsky, and The Sacrifice

The mutual admiration between the two filmmakers did not preclude their very different perspectives on gender

by Michael Sicinski
Nov 1, 2018

Neither Andrei Tarkovsky nor Ingmar Bergman were shy about divulging their feelings regarding the work of other filmmakers with whom they resided in modernism’s cinematic pantheon. Stan Brakhage once related a story about the time he first met Tarkovsky and showed the Russian master his own films: the Russian reportedly ranted and raved that the films were unintelligible, much to Brakhage’s delight. (Tarkovsky also bristled at comparisons of his own film Solaris to 2001, declaring Kubrick’s film to be “phony on many points” and “cold and sterile.”) For his part, Bergman opined that Alfred Hitchcock was “a very good technician” but “infantile,” and Jean-Luc Godard “self-obsessed…and without interest”; Antonioni, meanwhile, simply “never learnt his craft.”

One area where the two men did find considerable agreement, however, was on each other. Bergman was quoted as calling Tarkovsky “the greatest of them all,” while on a 1972 top-ten-of-all-time list generated at the behest of Russian critic Leonid Kozlov, Tarkovsky included no fewer than three Bergman films: Winter Light, Wild Strawberries, and Persona. (Only Robert Bresson, who merits two films on Tarkovsky’s list, comes close to the Swedish filmmaker.)

The reasons for the mutual admiration are not so hard to see. Both men regarded cinema as an art with spiritual roots in great literature: the drama of Ibsen and Strindberg for Bergman, the poetry of Pushkin and his own father, Arseny Alexandrovich, for Tarkovsky. Both artists were devoted to exploring questions of Christian belief within relatively antagonistic landscapes: official Soviet atheism in Tarkovsky’s case, which made him a dissident artist, whereas Bergman was merely responding to the crisis of faith brought on by Western Existentialism. But in one another, these artists found kindred souls, men who believed not only that cinema was capable of tackling the great philosophical questions, but that it was uniquely suited to the task.

There is probably no film that displays these commonalities quite like Tarkovsky’s final feature The Sacrifice, a modern-day parable about a man who makes a contract with God in order to stave off an apocalypse. A Swedish production, and the third of the director’s works-in-exile (following Nostalghia and the documentary Voyage in Time), The Sacrifice finds Tarkovsky working with a cast and crew largely assembled from Bergman’s frequent collaborators, most notably leading man Erland Josephson (who had previously starred in Nostalghia for Tarkovsky) and cinematographer Sven Nykvist. (Nykvist and Josephson also served as producers on the film.)

While there are numerous visual and thematic motifs in the film that are immediately recognizable as Tarkovsky signatures, in this new geographical and cultural context one can begin to see these Tarkovskian constructions in a new, distinctly Bergmanian light — “through a glass darkly,” as it were. And, further, this combination of styles and concerns makes apparent certain similarities between Tarkovsky and Bergman that may have previously eluded detection, as well as that which sets these two mutually admiring artists decisively apart. What we find in The Sacrifice is a particular refraction of Tarkovsky and Bergman’s attitudes toward religiosity, eschatology, human psychology, and — perhaps most importantly — gender. Compared to other Tarkovsky films, The Sacrifice seems uniquely progressive: it initially appears to posit that God is alive in our fallen world, He is listening, and that men and women working together can convince Him to save our planet from ourselves. However, when the film is looked at against the Bergman corpus that inspired it, the conservatism that undulates throughout so much of Tarkovsky’s work is thrown into greater relief.

The Bergmanian derivation of The Sacrifice is evident in the very first shots of the film: the open sky and Scandinavian colouring of the atmosphere on the sparsely populated island where the action takes place — a setting that knowingly recalls the many Bergman films shot and set on the island of Fårö, where the filmmaker made his home for five decades — is instantly legible as a Bergman/Nykvist engram. From here, we move quickly into another element of visual rapport between the Russian and the Swedish filmmaker: the use of trees, particularly action shot through trees or with trees in the foreground, which, following Cézanne, has both a flattening and depth-provoking effect. This is a compositional technique we see frequently in Tarkovsky, all the way back to Andrei Rublev.

Composite 02-Cezanne

Left to right: Cézanne’s Pine Tree at L'Estaque (1876) and Mont Saint-Victoire with Large Pine (1887)

Andrei Rublev

Andrei Rublev

The Sacrifice begins with Josephson’s patriarch Alexander and his young son, the mute “Little Man” (Tommy Kjellqvist), on the shore planting a tree, trying to prop it up with rocks. While this tree is symbolically significant as a representation of “nature against nature” — a Japanese transplant that Alexander is trying to force to grow in an environment where it probably doesn’t belong — it also serves a graphic function, functioning as a vertical marker against the horizontal expanse of the land- and seascape.

The Sacrifice 1

The Sacrifice

While Bergman is not as aggressive in his use of trees in his compositions — his “aggression,” if you will, is more often seen in his cramped blocking of performers, or in outright visual abstraction of the sort that achieves its apex in Persona — we can see related examples in films such as The Virgin Spring, Shame, and Persona itself.



The visual style of The Sacrifice also clarifies other similarities between Tarkovsky and Bergman, such as their treatment of interiors. Both men share a predilection for 19th-century wooden fixtures and plastered walls, craggy surfaces that really capture the shadows of texture in the directors’ crisp, deep-focus cinematography. The second act of The Sacrifice, which takes place primarily in the gathering rooms of Alexander’s home, displays this general tendency, with its spare arrangements and broad, grey-white expanses.

Wall - The Touch

Bergman’s The Touch (left); The Sacrifice (right)

Wall - The Sacrifice

One does not have to look very hard to find examples of this parsimonious visual style in Bergman: in many respects it is his signature, so much so that this sparing, almost Whistleresque approach to mise en scène seems to connote “Scandinavia” in cinematic terms. Partly, that’s because this is something both filmmakers also have in common with Carl Theodor Dreyer, whose Passion of Joan of Arc and Ordet feature similarly textured planes and unadorned expanses. The Sacrifice reflects a combination of this clean Swedish approach and the heavier, more wood-and-glass-intensive curvatures of Tarkovsky’s Russian design.


Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet

If The Sacrifice’s relationship to Bergman were limited to visual style, we could simply chalk it up to Tarkovsky’s having worked with so many members of Bergman’s Swedish crew. But the affinities run much deeper than this: The Sacrifice is also Tarkovsky’s most overtly discursive film, the one among his seven features where he is least content to allow images to do the talking. In this regard, Tarkovsky adopts some elements of Bergmanian dramaturgy, if only to turn it on its head.

Alexander is an academic whose philosophical musings, first heard in his early-film discourse with the postman Otto (Allan Edwall), are off-puttingly arid and circular. In this sequence Tarkovsky presents the two men as wandering and rambling, in nature but decidedly not of nature. The fact that, during their discussion, Little Man is able to play a prank — tying Otto’s bicycle bumper to a tree without his noticing — serves to make both men into clowns.

As the son of a celebrated poet, Tarkovsky is certainly not averse to language. On the contrary, he feels that there is an existential distinction between what Lacan called “full” vs. “empty” speech: the former denoting the speech of a subject who has assumed his or her desire, who has embraced the existential conditions of Being; the latter, speech that is mere distraction, circularity, self-deception. In Tarkovsky, as in Bergman, “full” speech is typically exhibited in extreme situations, dramatized through crises of identity, war, or global catastrophe. Compare the pseudo-intellectual banter of Alexander and Otto to, for example, the discussion between the poet Andrei (Oleg Yankovsky) and the holy madman Domenico (Josephson) at the midpoint of Nostalghia, or Sister Alma’s (Bibi Andersson) breakdown during her “confession” to her mute patient Elisabet (Liv Ullmann) in Persona.

Alexander’s literal moment of truth, the turning point of The Sacrifice, is when he assumes absolute full speech: his desperate plea to God to avert an imminent nuclear holocaust. In this moment, we see a man stripped of all intellectual pretense, willing to do anything in order to preserve the world that he loves and the people who mean everything to him, especially his son. He makes a solemn vow to rid himself of all earthly possessions, to abjure speech — essentially to become an unrecognizable “non-person,” a hysteric mute, outside of discourse and outside of society as a whole — if God will spare the Earth from destruction. Curiously for a film by this most Christian of artists, the route to divine intervention runs through sorcery: on Otto’s advice, Alexander sets out to make love to his maid Maria (Guðrún Gísladóttir), who is rumoured to be a witch, as a precondition for saving the planet. (It is possible that this is less a sign of Tarkovsky’s openness to the supernatural than it is to the influence of Bergman, who contrasted Christian iconography with Norse and other pagan mythologies in films such as The Virgin Spring and Hour of the Wolf.)

In the end, Alexander’s “sacrifice” does appear to save the world, although we do not see concrete evidence of this fact. There is no incontrovertible miracle, as in the conclusion of Dreyer’s Ordet; instead, it seems as though Alexander, and the world, have woken up from a horrible dream, one only he can recall. At this point, he begins setting about destroying his home with fire and, having gone mute, relegating himself to the realm of the insane.

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The Sacrifice

Although Tarkovsky’s depiction of Alexander, and his opinion as to whether or not his sacrifice is the cause of the world’s salvation or merely a self-generated delusion, is deeply ambivalent, it nevertheless speaks to the Russian filmmaker’s fundamental divergence from Bergman, as an artist and an intellectual. Whether Alexander is being punished or lionized, it is clear that, for Tarkovsky, holy madness is a uniquely male prerogative. In this regard, The Sacrifice is an extension not only of Josephson’s previous role in Nostalghia, but of a holy-seer motif that can be traced all the way back to Tarkovsky’s first film Ivan’s Childhood, whose eponymous 12-year-old protagonist is a singular witness to the horrors of war and whose experiences lend him a privileged, if benighted, status.


Ivan’s Childhood

Compare this with Bergman: in the near-apocalyptic Shame, which chronicles a couple’s struggle to survive after war engulfs their island home, it is the wife (Liv Ullmann) who is the consistent moral agent and frequent averter of disaster, whereas her husband (Max von Sydow) is selfish and weak-willed, cowardly and incompetent. In terms of his depiction of madness, Bergman is also considerably more progressive. Like Alexander, Ullmann’s Elisabet in Persona is an actor who, tired of the falsity of words and empty speech, chooses to go mute as an act of defiance, and like Alexander is regarded as mad by those around her. Tarkovsky, however, brings us within Alexander’s anguish and, however ambivalently, compels us to regard his actions as a gesture of heroism and his subsequent “madness” as an act of martyrdom. By contrast, Bergman keeps us resolutely on the outside of Elisabet’s inner turmoil, allowing us to see how her far humbler intervention, in daring to take charge of her own life, pathologizes her in the eyes of society. Without dreaming of arrogating to herself the power to alter global fate or desperately reverting to a mysticism that stands entirely at odds with both Christian faith and modern Western society, Elisabet nevertheless renders herself an outsider — the social fate of women who refuse to make themselves “legible” to the prevailing order.

Liv Ullmann face portrait Persona Bergman


If there is an ultimate distinction to be made between Bergman and Tarkovsky, it probably resides in their respective, highly gendered notions of destruction and rebirth, the generative power of art and the world. For Bergman, this power of destruction was almost always seen as a male principle, whereas women were the keepers of logic, understanding, and a practical spirituality that could serve as a locus for regeneration in the face of horror; Tarkovsky, by contrast, vaunts the (male) poet as the fount of creation, and the Holy Trinity as the site of spiritual rebirth. What makes The Sacrifice particularly fascinating in this regard is that here we see Tarkovsky engaging with Bergman’s stylistics and eschatological concerns not by placing a woman’s subjectivity front and centre, but by essentially “feminizing” a man: making Alexander a supplicant who, with the sexual assistance of Maria, becomes the midwife for God’s miracle of salvation. Or, seen another way, Alexander becomes a male hysteric, his fantasy of salvation projected outward onto the entire universe — though as opposed to a classical hysteric in the Freudian sense, Alexander is more like the paranoid German judge Daniel Paul Schreber (whose memoirs Freud analyzed in a 1911 essay), who believed himself to be the impregnated wife of God, persecuted by a world that misunderstood his sacrifice.


The final scene of The Sacrifice

However, despite these intriguing hints of gender transference or fusion, The Sacrifice concludes with an affirmation of the masculine. At the end of The Sacrifice, after Alexander is taken away in an ambulance, we see Little Man resting by the Japanese tree, now fully erect; his voice suddenly regained, he asks aloud, “In the beginning was the Word. Why is that, Papa?” The mantle of full speech, of a total commune with nature and with God, has been passed down from Father to Son, a universe saved through patriarchal dedication. Bergman’s cosmology, by contrast, always affords the female gender a central role: the beloved daughter whose resting place gives forth the purifying water in The Virgin Spring, cleansing her father of the bloody vengeance he wrought upon her killers; women acting in tandem as in Persona, or, as in Shame, women actively compensating for the shortcomings of men. To limit their sacrifice to a sexual one, as Tarkovsky does with Maria in The Sacrifice, would be unthinkable for Bergman. And this is why even here, in his most distinctively Bergmanesque film, Tarkovsky displays just how distinct his artistic personality truly is from this filmmaker he so much admired.