Andrei Tarkovsky and Sven Nykvist shooting the fire sequence
Andrei Tarkovsky and Sven Nykvist shooting the final sequence
Tarkovsky on the set of The Sacrifice, 1986
Andrei Tarkovsky and Sven Nykvist setting up the fire sequence
Andrei Tarkovsky passport photo
THE SACRIFICE (Offret) A
Sweden Great Britain France (142 mi) 1986 d: Andrei Tarkovsky
Perhaps the most underrated film in all of Tarkovsky’s works, though it’s hard to be placed above ANDREI RUBLEV (1966), THE MIRROR (1975), and Stalker (1979), with SOLARIS (1972) not far behind, where it can be seen as the summation of his life and career, even his last will and testament, as the experience is unlike any other, the kind of thing that reinspires one’s belief in humankind. While there is some question whether Tarkovsky was aware of the gravity of his illness during the shooting, falling ill while making the film, yet he was still contemplating future projects and wasn’t diagnosed with terminal lung cancer until well into the editing process at the end of 1985, receiving treatments in Paris the following January, ultimately dying of lung cancer later that year in December 1986, where his wife Larissa (12 years later) and favorite actor Anatoliy Solonitsyn (4 years earlier) also died of the same cancer, as all were exposed to suspected chemical poisoning from contaminated waters during the lengthy shoot of Stalker (1979), where he was too ill to attend the screening at Cannes in 1986, winning the Grand Prize (2nd place) for the second time, also the FIPRESCI and Ecumenical Jury Prizes for the third times in his career, his prizes collected by his son Andrei, to whom this film is dedicated “with hope and confidence,” while it’s also listed among the "Vatican Best Films List" in a select group of 45 films compiled in 1995 on the 100th anniversary of cinema, where it’s included under the “Religion” category along with his earlier film, ANDREI RUBLEV (1969). No one made films like Tarkovsky, or shot scenes with his degree of artistic assuredness, whose somber, mentally challenging, and spiritually transcendent films are marked by exquisite film composition, mesmerizing long takes, philosophic curiosity, a devotion to classical music and art history, a fascination with exploring a mystical and spiritual realm of human understanding, while seamlessly blending dreams and memories into real time, though his likely successor may be Terrence Malick, who is equally inspired by many of the same metaphysical qualities, but his influence would have to extend to Béla Tarr, Carlos Reygadas, Andrei Zvyagintsev, Alexander Sokurov, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and Claire Denis, who is credited as one of the casting directors in this film.
However, it should be pointed out that the unique beauty and reverential extravagance of Tarkovsky’s visual composition is matched by no other, so if viewers haven’t seen any of his films, it is recommended that you refrain from even looking at the images from his films on the Internet, YouTube or at stills in cinema books so that you will be exposed for the first time to the full impact of his visual mastery when experiencing his films. His films are that dazzling and awe-inspiring. The same can’t be said for anyone else. While he has a slim body of work, only completing 7 features in 25 years, his diaries were filled with ideas for dozens of films, as Tarkovsky complained bitterly about the bureaucratic resistance he encountered, where scripts had to be approved by official state censors, with the Party apparatus exercising increasing control over his films, forcing him to alter his original plans. For instance, he submitted his proposal for his second film ANDREI RUBLEV in 1961, which was completed in 1966, but not released in Russia until 1971, making it a ten-year process, though it was shown out of competition at Cannes in 1969 where it was immediately described as “the most profound, most powerful and most moving historical film ever to appear on the Russian screen.” Tarkovsky’s films are bewilderingly complex, sharing with fellow Russian citizens a mystical soul compelled to ask unanswerable questions with Dostoyevskian seriousness and sincerity, with viewers left adrift at the beginning of each new scene, where every single sequence leads to something that is completely surprising or unimaginable, often wondering how this event or that image fits into the overall understanding of the narrative, which may not become recognizable until well into the film, if at all. The dense tapestry compacted into each of his films are his trademark, where even decades later viewers are privileged to discover things you will find nowhere else, usually left with more questions than answers. But if there is a single image that runs through every one of his films it is water, including rivers, lakes, oceans, puddles, dripping water, or rain, especially rain, often coming in torrents that seem to catch his characters off guard, or even more incredulously rain falling indoors, where Tarkovsky uses rain as sculpture, with water seeping through a hole in the ceiling of a room, where no one else has been able to capture the movement—or the stillness—of water like Tarkovsky, and certainly no one has used it so artistically throughout their career.
Several Tarkovsky films begin or end with classical paintings or works of art that profoundly illustrate or reinforce what we see onscreen, opening here with a slow pan over Leonardo da Vinci’s The Adoration of the Magi during the opening credits, an early, unfinished painting from 1481 that still shows traces of the artist’s original drawing underneath the paint, depicting a pagan world transforming into Christianity, establishing the theme of a gift or sacrifice offered to God, a theme reinforced by the use of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, in particular an aria in the form of a repeated prayer beautifully sung by Hungarian mezzo-soprano Julia Hamari, Bach - Julia Hamari - Matthäus Passion - Erbarme dich ... YouTube (7:34), that describes Peter’s lament after having denied knowing Jesus three times.
Have mercy, my God,
for the sake of my tears!
Look upon me, heart and eyes
weep bitterly before You.
Have mercy, have mercy!
for the sake of my tears!
Look upon me, heart and eyes
weep bitterly before You.
Have mercy, have mercy!
Shot in Närsholmen, on the southeast coast of Gotland, Sweden’s largest island, with a cast and crew that more appropriately resembles that of Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, including his longtime cinematographer Sven Nykvist, yet this is essentially a Russian film, where characters have a Dostoyevskian tendency to philosophize at any given moment. The opening sequence of the film couldn’t be more intriguing, consisting of the longest tracking shot (nine minutes and twenty six seconds) in Tarkovsky’s career, where we are introduced to Alexander (Erland Josephson), a retired actor and aging literary critic, and his young son that he calls Little Man (Tommy Kjellqvist), who is temporarily unable to speak from a minor throat operation, so the father has a prolonged monologue, describing the story of the legend of Ioann Kolo, a pupil of an orthodox monk named Pamve, who was ordered by his master to climb a mountain every day, to water a dead tree he had planted, until the tree came back to life, which, after three years, it finally did. Simultaneous to the telling of the story, Alexander is planting what looks like a dead tree in a lone location just off a path overlooking the Baltic Sea. They are interrupted by a visit from Alexander’s friend Otto (Allan Edwall), a Holy Fool character who arrives by bicycle as the postman, bringing a letter celebrating Alexander’s 50th birthday filled with humorous references to Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, with Otto immediately breaking into a discussion on Nietzsche, adding his own spin on the encounter between the dwarf and Zarathustra, becoming something of his nemesis, jousting over the cycle of eternal recurrence, which suggests all events in one’s life will happen again and again, and continue happening infinitely. But as they walk, Otto teases Alexander for being so gloomy, while raising a curious idea that most of us are all living our lives in suspended animation, waiting for “something real and important” to happen, that he describes as an absolute moment that defines the rest of our lives into perpetuity, that could lead one to continual despair if life is judged as disappointing, or continual reaffirmation if one has the courage of one’s beliefs. After Otto leaves, Alexander sits down with Little Man and tells him the story of how he initially discovered this isolated house completely by accident (which is the real story of how Tarkovsky and his wife Larissa found their own house), thinking it’s the most beautiful place in the world before being reminded once again of the present and the emptiness of the human condition. “Words, words, words,” Alexander finally laments to himself in obvious exasperation, “Why can’t I do something?” This existential abyss is at the heart of the film, where in a godless world, with Alexander acknowledging God is “non-existent,” life has no meaning.
As they meander back home, strange shepherd’s calls can be heard in the background, recurring throughout the film, offering a mysterious presence of something eerie in the air, like the Sirens calling to Ulysses, sounding faint and off in the distance, but hauntingly beautiful. What follows is a black and white dream sequence, an overhead shot of a courtyard littered with debris, including an overturned car, but a noticeable absence of any people. By the time they get back to the vacation house, a picturesque locale overlooking the sea, we begin to see the quagmire of family dysfunction, having long ago abandoned any pretense of communication, where now they live desperately in an intensely private world of cold personal insults and verbal sparring, very much resembling the chilly world of Bergman chamber dramas, unlike anything previously seen from earlier Tarkovsky works, where even the choice of actors reveal traits heretofore unseen, especially that of British actress Susan Fleetwood (older sister to Mick, the founder of Fleetwood Mac) as Adelaide, Alexander’s wife, the only one speaking a combination of Swedish and English, where the emotional divide between them appears permanently soured. Also in the home is his somewhat indifferent teenage stepdaughter Marta (Filippa Franzén) and Little Man, to whom he is completely devoted, along with Victor (Sven Wollter), the medical doctor who performed the throat operation, who may or may not be having an affair with Adelaide. The spacious interior decors is designed by Anna Asp, Bergman’s exquisite production designer from FANNY AND ALEXANDER (1982), with the director resorting to meticulous choreography, as the actors move around the room during each shot, resembling the stifling, claustrophobic paralysis of a Chekhov drama, though it’s the visual stylization that holds our rapt attention, not the meaningless, rather banal conversation, though Otto at one point simply falls to the floor, as if dead on the spot, only to get up and declare, “An evil angel touched me.” Adelaide’s overbearing manner with her servants is the picture of arrogance and class contempt, literally ordering them around like pieces about to be sacrificed on a chessboard, where they’ve apparently learned to ignore her. Maria (Guðrún S. Gísladóttir) is from Iceland, living in town nearby, across an endlessly empty landscape, while Julia (Valérie Mairesse) tends to Little Man and more closely resembles the deeply religious maid in Bergman’s CRIES AND WHISPERS (1972). Just when dinner is almost ready, there is a ferocious, ear-splitting noise of jet fighters flying overhead, rattling the entire house, creating a transfixing moment of utter panic, where a pitcher of milk sitting on the cabinet spills onto the floor and shatters. When Alexander goes outside to investigate, color is strangely drained from the world.
The mood of the film shifts instantly, as does the musical soundtrack, where we hear the mysterious sounds of a Japanese flute performed by Watazumido-Shuso, Watazumi Doso Roshi, hocchiku - " Shingetsu 新月 " ("The ... “The Moonlit Soul” YouTube (5:22), which we later learn is a tape played by Alexander, but the peaceful calm is in stark contrast to the emotional shift that has taken place, as all sense the presence of unimaginable danger. When Alexander joins the others, they are watching an ominous television broadcast announcing the outbreak of a nuclear war before the screen goes blank, the phone lines are dead, and eventually the power goes out as well, though Alexander’s initial reaction is murmured to himself, “I have waited my whole life for this,” suggesting this is the decisive moment hinted at in the opening sequence with Otto, where suddenly his vision is clear, rising up against overwhelming feelings of loathing and self-contempt, and where the modern world lacks faith and spirituality, relying instead on technology, power, and fear, he has instantly found his voice. The autobiographical implications here are overwhelming, suggesting Tarkovsky was implicitly aware of his own fate, using Alexander as a force compelled to act against the impending doom of death and infinite nothingness, and in doing so, becomes the director’s own transparent voice. But first we’re forced to witness what is arguably the most uncomfortable scene in Tarkovsky’s career, as Adelaide starts implicating the others, hysterically pleading for them to do something, tossing herself on the floor, thrashing her legs violently as if in the throes of madness, where she goes on endlessly in the most shamefully overacted manner, screaming deliriously throughout, while as the viewer you’d do almost anything for her to just shut up, but it takes forever for Victor to finally sedate her with something out of his medical bag. Alexander, inspecting afterwards, finds a loaded gun. After a few rounds of cognac, the palpable fear in the room is tested, though the spookiest scenes involve Little Man asleep in his room, where Alexander wanders up there with the gun, presumably to put him out of his misery from the impending doom, as the blinds continually knock against the window, offering really tense and creepy atmosphere from a truly phenomenal sound design, which includes the continual shepherd’s calls as well, creating an ominous, ill-fated atmosphere, with characters occasionally staring straight at the camera. This leads to one of the most personal scenes of the film, which goes on for nearly five-minutes, where Alexander gets down on his knees and recites the Lord’s Prayer, followed by an eloquent plea to save mankind from Armageddon, delivered straight to the camera, brought on by a truly terrifying fear, as this is the ultimate war and nothing will be left afterwards, where one wonders if the director himself was ever driven to similar measures.
Lord, deliver us in this terrible hour. Do not let my children die, my friends, my wife... I will give you all I possess. I will leave the family I love. I shall destroy my home, give up my son. I shall be silent, will never speak with anyone again. I shall give up everything that binds me to life, if You will only let everything be as it was before, as it was this morning, as it was yesterday: so that I may be spared this deadly, suffocating, bestial state of fear.
In this hour of a nuclear-devastated landscape, Tarkovsky and Nykvist performed significant amounts of color reduction, where as much as sixty percent of the color was removed, but these scenes are intermixed with surreal dream images that move in and out of color as well, making it hard to distinguish sleep from waking reality, as after an eventful night, plied with plenty of cognac, Alexander himself lies asleep on the sofa. Marta undresses and offers herself to Victor, her mother’s lover, while time slows to slow-motion, revealing a darkened interior hallway with rain falling from the ceiling, where one hears the sound of coins dropping onto the floor. Alexander can be seen heading out into the snow, discovering a recognizable dreamscape where he sees himself trudging through mud, finding silver coins lying next to the sleeping (or dead) form of his son, an inherent metaphor for the tremendous cost he must pay, waking to the enormous sound of jets flying overhead. But Otto is poking him awake as well, in a terribly agitated state, suggesting there may still be hope for the world. While Alexander remains groggy, Otto insists he could avert the imminent global disaster by sleeping with Maria, who he has heard is a soothsayer and witch. Initially finding the suggestion ridiculous, what other option does he have? So he halfheartedly sneaks out of the house in something of a humorous gesture, even changing his mind halfway along the way when he falls off the bike Otto lends him, but eventually finds himself standing in front of Maria’s door, a building we’ve seen before in one of the dream sequences, where Tarkovsky adds a Buñuelian twist, with sheep racing back and forth in front of the house, adding a bit of levity to an atmosphere drenched in perpetual grief and sorrow. While the shepherd’s continue to call, events become even more surreal than anything we’ve witnessed, where after initially turning him down, only afterwards does she realize just how desperate he is, leading him into her arms and to a levitation sequence hovering above the bed, much like there was in THE MIRROR (1979) and SOLARIS (1972), where we enter into the world of the supernatural, with recurring dream sequences, this time with people flooding into the streets in a crazed panic, interweaving various images seen throughout the film, including Maria dressed in Adelaide’s clothing and Marta nakedly chasing after chickens, leading into the meditative sounds of the flute playing. As Alexander awakes in his own home, with color returning to the world, along with the telephone and television, and music playing, with all seemingly right again, he realizes what he must do. While the audience is never certain if the events that transpire are real or a dream, but Alexander fulfills his vow in a remarkable closing sequence, directing the others to the tree that was planted just the day before, while he meticulously goes about the business of setting his house on fire. In one of the most powerful shots in cinema history, beautifully choreographed where events are timed several minutes into the six minute and 50 second shot, it was very difficult to achieve, obtaining near mythological status, failing in the first attempt when the camera jammed, having to be reshot and the house rebuilt, requiring an extra two weeks, but the cast and crew broke down in tears after the final take was completed. The back and forth choreographed madness has an absurd comical element, yet at the same time, the beauty of Alexander’s sacrifice is that no one realizes what he is trying to do, which only emphasizes the ultimate emotional devastation. While much of the astonishing beauty of the film is its dreamlike inner coherence, the tenderness of the ending is surprisingly life affirming, coming full circle, suggestive of a timeless Haiku poem, or a still moment frozen in time.