Spirituality, Film and Worldview

Ingmar Bergman, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Robert Bresson and Andrei Tarkovsky are all masters of cinema and all shared, to varying degrees the same spirituality; one based on the Christian faith. While we can point to Bergman’s angst in the face of his father’s Lutheran faith, and the sense of abandonment as revealed in “Through a Glass Darkly”, his dialogue is still with God; with the faith of his father. We could suggest that, if he was so convinced, he should have moved on, rather than holding a long conversation with God about his troubles!

Lutheranism in Bergman’s day was known for its rigid moralism. We should note that this was also Kierkegaard’s experience of Northern European Christianity, something he wrestled with in his writings. (See Fear & Trembling) We have two men, both troubled by their father’s faith and the strict moral regime mediated through it. In the light of their struggles, both men went on to have a significant impact on Western culture; one on a very personal journey and another seeking a restoration of his faith, grasping it from the moralisers of the day.

Andrei Tarkovsky stands as one of the foremost Russian film-makers. His film “The Sacrifice” initiates a dialogue with Bergman’s “Through a Glass Darkly”. Both films are set in very similar geography, their characters live on the edge of the civilised world, suffering a crisis of some form or other. Bergman suggests that only mad people believe in God, a cynical existentialist game, wherein we can all play and suggest the contrary; that belief is quite sane, but the moralistic packaging needs changing. Tarkovsky on the other hand posits the question of whether someone will sacrifice themselves, striking up a deal with God, to save their family.

Bergman of course didn’t like the close attention Tarkovsky paid to him in “The Sacrifice”. In an interview published in “Ingmar Bergman: Interviews”, he his quoted speaking to Jan Aghed in 2002,

“For him [Tarkovsky] leaving the Soviet Union was a complete artistic disaster. Take The Sacrifice. This film was a hopeless waste.” (p197).

The Sacrifice - Ingmar BergmanI would of course disagree on so many levels. The Soviet authorities had made it impossible for Tarkovsky to work consistently – 5 film releases from 1962 to 1979 testifies to this; a vastly reduced output under any circumstance, was due to the excess of the Soviet regime’s film censorship. One wonders how Bergman would have fared under such tyranny! To say that Nostalgia and The Sacrifice are disasters, suggests something other than so-called “objective” scrutiny. I think the reference to the latter film simply means that Bergman didn’t like such close observation of his filmmaking, of his perception and conclusion about life.

Tarkovsky’s Assistant Director on Stalker Yevgeni Tsymbal, relayed to an audience at the Arnolfini’s magnificent Tarkovsky Season, in May 2008, that the film censors had questioned the slow start to the film (Stalker) and how the audience where to respond to, make sense of it. Tarkovsky replied. “I’m only interested in two responses to my film, Bresson’s and Bergman’s!”

Bresson of course offers a much less poetic style than Tarkovsky. Known for his minimalistic approach to characterisation, cinematography and the use of non-professional actors and actresses; his call to the actor was always to pare everything down, without embellishing the delivery of words with facial or physical gestures.

manescaped11A Man Escaped” or: “The Wind Bloweth Where It Listeth” (1956) was a testimony to his storytelling asceticism. The story of André Devigny – a member of the French Resistance – who was incarcerated in Fort Montluc during World War 2. The film stands as a metaphor for salvation and that like the wind – the Spirit behind salvation’s movement – it cannot be contained by tyranny or cultural confinement. The barbed-wire fences of secular, humanistic political philosophies cannot contain the spirit of man nor the Spirit of God, but the verse used by Bresson in the title goes on to say “…you neither know where it comes from, nor where it goes.” This suggests that Devigny was set for escape, that man-made structures of oppression could not hold him.

Kieslowski may seem to also share something of Bresson’s minimalism, but whereas Bresson’s was more of a creative style, a leitmotiv for his films, if you will, Kieslowski utilised it as a sort of shorthand for “our” social condition, especially in his later work “The Dekalogue”, (1988). Whilst showing the meagre existence of everyday life in Poland at the time, there is a sense of the aesthetic breaking through. With Kieslowski’s use of filters, it is almost at times like looking through a stained-glass window on to one of his scenes.

Kieslowski commented on the reason for conceiving of a project based on the Ten Commandments:

For 6,000 years, these rules have been unquestionably right. And yet we break them every day. People feel that something is wrong in life. There is some kind of atmosphere that makes people now turn to other values. They want to contemplate the basic questions of life, and that is probably the real reason for wanting to tell these stories.

This brings us back to Andrei Tarkovsky and spiritual crisis. In his book, “Sculpting in Time”, 1987/2006, University of Texas Press, translated by Kitty Hunter-Blair, Tarkovsky wrote,

I believe that it is always through spiritual crisis that healing occurs. A spiritual crisis is an attempt to find oneself, to acquire new faith. It is the apportioned lot of everyone whose objectives are on the spiritual plane. And how could it be otherwise when the soul yearns for harmony, and life is full of discordance. The dichotomy is the stimulus for movement, the source at once of our pain and of our hope: confirmation of our spiritual depths and potential.

Bergman saw the crisis being that God had abandoned us, a kind of negative transcendence. For Kieslowski, God in his “Dekalogue” films was present but impassive, a mere onlooker to our plight of making the right or wrong moral decisions; to our spiritual crisis. God ponders the action by the frozen pool, appears transient as he moves travel cases around the housing estate, but does not interact. For Bresson, salvation may be found, but it is an ascetic affair, a bare bones kind of existence, akin to that offered by Medieval Scholasticism.

Tarkovsky perceived it this way; that such a crisis leaves us with a choice.

It seems to me that the individual today stands at a crossroads, faced with the choice of whether to pursue the existence of a blind consumer, subject to the implacable march of new technology and the endless multiplication of material goods, or to seek out a way that will lead to spiritual responsibility, a way that ultimately might mean not only… personal salvation but also the saving of society at large; in other words, turn to God. (p218)

As a writer where do I find allies for the vision of life I’m creating on the page, or visualise on screen? Probably in all four of these men there are elements of this “vision of life”, but for me it is in Tarkovsky that I find a soulmate; aesthetically, spiritually, cinematically. – someone with whom I could share a table, a good meal and an appropriate drink. Not as a copyist, but as a point of departure for the journey ahead, from a common spirituality, faith and worldview.

Our time calls for a new “movement” of storytellers, who look beyond our material and social circumstance, to our spiritual condition and the search for fulfilment; harmony, personal and communal salvation; who shun the overly simplistic worldview embedded in the genre of “social realism” and look through a lens darkly, at the whole person, the big picture of human living, producing an extensive worldview.

A new movement in British filmmaking is long overdue. The tired scenes of working-class life, seen in the light of the everyday and through those now weary hands grasping on to the hand-held camera, call for a more dynamic aesthetic which embraces a spiritual style for cinematic storytelling. The search for the truth of the human condition by so-called objective cinema is a fallacy.

Tarkovsky puts it this way:

Nothing could be more meaningless than the word ‘search’ applied to a work of art. It covers impotence, inner emptiness, lack of true creative consciousness, petty vain glory. ‘An artist who is seeking’ – these words are merely the cover for a middle-brow acceptance of inferior work. Art is not science, one can’t start experimenting. When an experiment remains on the level of experiment and not a stage in the process of producing the finished work which the artist went through in private – then the aim of art has not been attained. (Sculpting in Time, “SIT” p95/96).

The aim of art! That may seem a thought out-of-time, or with little meaning today. But here’s the rub,

“it is perfectly possible to be a professional director or a professional writer and not be an artist: merely a sort of executor of other people’s ideas.” (SIT, p188)

Tarkovsky speaks of the responsibility of the artist not to reflect life, but to “create life such as it has never quite been before…” (ibid)

Film then, becomes a mirror in which we can gaze to find out more about ourselves, leading to the ultimate mirror of our transformation. Social Realism and it penchant for reflecting life as-it-is, objectively, becomes pallid in comparison to Tarkovsky’s call for us to fight the “spiritual crisis”, with the “spiritual weapons” that cinema gives us. Ostensibly, the human condition is understood as spiritual and when reduced to socio-economic factors, it suggests that a mere realignment of policy will transform us and society. This overestimates the power of politics and also limits film to the propaganda tool of a political, cultural elite; a cynical utility of art.

The call to us today, is to resist this limiting of human life and explore the creation of “new life” through the imagination of the storyteller. As someone has written, it calls for a redescribing of reality. Our aim at Handy Cloud is for such a renewal of British filmmaking.

– Geoff Hall