The Bravest Scene in Cinema
Last night, I watched Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice, the last of the post-Andrei Rublev Tarkovsky films I had not seen. I am still trying to come to grips with it and don’t know if I will succeed. This is my attempt to get a handle on a small portion of the film in one of its less difficult (in one sense, and only one) moments, in the hopes that that will open the door to the rest of the film.
The first time I tried to watch the film, I ended up stopping after about an hour. After the threat of nuclear annihilation is announced, Alexander’s wife breaks down completely, drowning the viewer in hysterical, irrational screams. To say the least, it is painful to watch. When Victor finally sedated her, gratitude flooded through me, relief that someone—finally—put a stop to it. It was too much, however, and I paused the film, intending to take a fifteen minute break and return to it. I never did, and for several months The Sacrifice remained the Tarkovsky film I couldn’t finish.
Now, having seen the full film, I want to argue that that same scene that made me unable to finish the film my first time is, while not Tarkovsky’s best scene, certainly his bravest, and indeed the most courageous scene I’ve seen in any film. It is courageous precisely because it is so uncomfortable, so difficult, so unpleasant to watch. Tarkovsky forces the viewer to suffer, to really suffer, extreme discomfort, and to wish for nothing more than for it to stop, for that damned woman to just shut the fuck up.
Of course, there is a distinction between bravery and mere foolhardiness. To make the viewer uncomfortable without some very good reason would simply be foolhardy. It would be a stupidity, nothing more. But this scene is not a stupidity: it is genius, in the richest sense of the word. Tarkovsky, through this scene, forces the viewer to sin.
Early in the film, Alexander muses, as Tarkovsky’s characters are so wont to do, about the ills of contemporary society. Among these scattered thoughts, Alexander recalls a definition of sin given by a “wise man”: sin is that which is unnecessary. A google search for the quote leads only to The Sacrifice, so it is possible that it is Tarkovsky’s own definition. It also has distinctly Nietzschean overtones, though Nietzsche would of course not use the word “sin”. I bring up Nietzsche not because I love him, though I do, but because he comes up in an earlier scene thanks to Otto the postman. Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal recurrence, that everything will be repeated ad infinitum (or ad nauseum, if you prefer) exactly as it was, in just the same order, identical in every detail (Otto, interestingly, gets this wrong), implies that any action that was not necessary (in Nietzsche’s own peculiar sense) will be an infinite torment, infinite because repeated eternally in all its unnecessariness. In that sense, then, there is even a Nietzschean sense of hell and eternal punishment, and Tarkovsky’s use of “sin” (a concept so loathsome to Nietzsche) does not kill the Nietzschean flavor of the quote.
In any event, we have sin defined as that which is unnecessary. The whole of modern society, thinks Alexander, is built on sin, if this definition is correct. It is telling, then, that after Victor sedates Alexander’s wife, and moves to sedate Alexander’s daughter, he quells her protests (she does not wish to be sedated) by saying, “it is necessary.” Of course, it is not necessary at all. Alexander’s wife is having a genuine, painful, irrational, human, but again, above all else, genuine reaction to terrible news. Perhaps that is terrifying. Certainly it is uncomfortable. But the easing of discomfort that science has made possible (in this case through the use of a sedative) is not necessary—Nietzsche and Tarkovsky both recognized this—and in this case it is used to effectively kill a character precisely when she is most human, most empathizable (and, importantly, when it is also, paradoxically, hardest to empathize with her, precisely because she makes the viewer so uncomfortable). Never again is she a sympathetic character, so I do not think it overstatement to say that Victor killed her.
The viewer’s empathy—I should drop the third person—my empathy with Victor, then, is crucial. Tarkovsky forces me to feel true discomfort, to against my better judgment hate that woman, to feel gratitude for the “man” who drugs her because I long so deeply for my discomfort to just end, because I am running from the human, all too human. Only once that discomfort mercifully ends can I see just how wrong, how petty, how weak, how sinful that longing was, how misplaced my gratitude was. “Yes, it is necessary. It will be easier for all of us if you take it.” Well thank you, kind Doctor, for making us so com-fort-a-ble!
This scene, then, is brave, not only for being uncomfortable and difficult to watch, but because it forces the viewer to sin, to succumb to the very flaw that the movie is (in part) a reaction against. All things considered, this is a fairly minor strain in the film. It does not itself penetrate the profound mysteries of the film seen as a whole and not as a half. I have not touched on Alexander’s reaction to the announcement, and it is his reaction that the film explores most centrally. I do not understand this film. But, if I may be just one step bolder than Socrates, I know only this: never have I seen a more courageous scene in any film. In any work of art, regardless of medium, for that matter.