Show Me Cinema #18: The Sacrifice

“This film is dedicated to my son Andriosha – with hope and confidence. Andrei Tarkovskij”

Those are the words that end Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice. Although a film dealing primarily with an impending apocalypse, which is generally associated with fear and death, Tarkovsky finds reasons for hope and for celebrating life and love. It becomes a highly emotional film, perhaps more emotional than most Tarkovsky films, and certainly one of his best. He creates a cinematic prayer for all of mankind to give up their material ways and to surrender themselves to a higher plane of existence.

Few directors have had a greater impact on cinema than Andrei Tarkovsky. Each of his films were a masterpiece in their own right, with Andrei Rublev, The Mirror and Stalker being my personal favorites. But after the hardships and pressures from Soviet authorities during the making of Stalker, he left Russia and never returned. He would continue to make two more films, Nostalghia in Italy in 1983 and The Sacrifice (Offret) in dear old Sweden in 1986. The Sacrifice would turn out to be the final film Tarkovsky ever directed, as he died a few months after its premiere due to lung cancer. Although I would obviously loved to have seen what films he might’ve made had he lived longer, in a way The Sacrifice feels like the perfect closing chapter to an extraordinary career, and a culmination of his cinematic philosophies.

The actual origins of The Sacrifice begin in the 1970s when Tarkovsky wrote the script with the intention of it starring his regular collaborator Anatoly Solonitsyn, but Solonitsyn died in 1982 and thus the script was altered. When Tarkovsky came to Sweden in 1984 upon invitation from the Swedish Film Institute, he decided to make the film here instead, and cast his Nostalghia co-star Erland Josephson in the lead role of Alexander. Because of its Swedish setting, the presence of Josephson and the fact that the film was shot by cinematographer Sven Nykvist, many people have called The Sacrifice Tarkovsky’s most Bergman-esque film. But it is by no means a pale imitation of Bergman, as Tarkovsky completely makes the material his own and finds ways to visually express himself in ways that only he could.

The actual story of the film is, like most of Tarkovsky’s films, relatively simple and easily explained in one or two sentences. The film follows Alexander, an actor and philosopher, who aims to celebrate his birthday with his family and friends when nuclear war is declared. He tries to make a bargain with God to prevent the death of the ones he loves, including his young son. Like previously stated, a fairly simple premise but stacked knee-deep in visual metaphors and poetic imagery that enrich the experience of watching the film unravel before your very eyes.

Although it’s usually quite hard and sometimes pointless to try to analyze a Tarkovsky film, I think ultimately the film is actually about how unconditional love conquers all. I know you think it’s starting to sound like the main premise of Interstellar but hear me out. The opening credits are set to a closeup of Leonardo da Vinci’s unfinished painting Adoration of the Magi from 1481, and depicts the Virgin Mary and Child surrounded by the Three Holy Men, and with a tree in the background. Mary obviously had nothing but love for her son Jesus, and a tree is often seen as a symbol of life. And the film begins and ends with Alexander’s son planting and watering a tree. When Alexander and his family receive the news of a nuclear war breakout (in a brilliant yet devastatingly emotional scene), he begins to sob and prays to God and says he will sacrifice himself if it means his son (known in the film as Little Man) and his friends & family will survive. Although it’s left ambiguous, it almost appears as if this act of sacrifice has worked out. Maybe if all of us could for once forget about our material possessions and act not out of fear but out of love, maybe humanity and the world would be different and we could see how beautiful life really is?

The Sacrifice is one of the greatest Swedish films ever made (the fact that a Russian had to come over here and show us how to make a masterpiece is quite sad actually), and one of the most moving pieces of art to ever exist. A fitting close to Tarkovsky’s filmography and also for 2020 as a year really.

Dedicated to both Sven Wollter (1934-2020) and Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-1986)


Published by davidalkhed

Co-creator, critic and columnist for A Fistful of Film.

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