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The Sacrifice (1986): The Final Requiem of Andrei Tarkovsky

The films of Andrei Tarkovsky are known for their powerful imagery and deep-rooted feelings of melancholy. When it comes to cinematic art by way of Russia, his name, along with Sergei Eisenstein, are most commonly mentioned. Tarkovsky crafted a unique style of filmmaking that fused long camera takes, breathtaking cinematography and poetic harmony. In doing so, he created elaborate worlds that took audiences on long journeys within them. Kino Lorbers’ new restoration of his final film, Offret (The Sacrifice, 1986), isn’t just a fitting tribute to the director’s legacy, but a reminder that in the darkest of times, there are still examples of humanity that shine bright.

While the director’s previous film, Nostalgia (Nostalghia, 1983), had reflected his feelings of exile away from his native Russia, it’s impossible to watch The Sacrifice and not feel that Tarkovsky knew he wasn’t long for this world. With the mounting tensions of the Cold War, and the threat of a nuclear holocaust looming in the balance, he left us with a meaningful message of hope and a stern warning about the corruption of materialism. The evil and darkness that exists in the world was something brought about by our own actions. It also wasn’t the first time the director addressed how warfare affects the human experience.

His debut feature, Ivanovo Detstvo (Ivan’s Childhood, 1962), had depicted the ordeal of a young child caught in the midst of the great patriotic war. (Which is how WW2 is referred to in Russia.) The film followed the protagonist’s desire to play solider, combined with the imagery of a time before the outbreak of conflict. The Sacrifice differs from other Soviet war films such as Elam Klimov’s Idi i smotri (Come and See, 1985), which had been released the previous year. There is no glorification of the Russian citizen as a hero. Nor is it similar to Sergei Eisenstein’s Bronenosets Potemkin (Battleship Potemkin, 1925), which had established through conflict the rise of the Soviet Superman, and in doing so, elevated Party doctrines as a new religion. The Sacrifice displays the lengths one person will go to to prevent destruction for the greater good of humanity.

It’s the story of Alexander (Erland Josephson), a retired actor living with his wife (Susan Fleetwood), stepdaughter (Filippa Franzén), and his youngest son, who’s referred to as Little Man (Tommy Kjellqvist). (Perhaps coincidentally, this is also a combination of the two nicknames given to the first atomic bombs, both of which were named Fat Man and Little Boy.) Alexander is preparing for a birthday gathering, but events that are unfolding away from his estate will soon make a very large impact on the celebration. The film begins with Johann Sebastian Bach’s St Matthew Passion, the same musical piece that had accompanied Pier Paolo Pasolini’s biblical epic Il vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel According To St. Matthew, 1964). Right from the beginning, this establishes the allegorical link to some of the religious themes that will be a central part of the story. The first images of the film show Alexander and his son planting a tree as they attempt to bond with one another.

Afterwards, we’re introduced to Otto (Allan Edwall), a postman and close friend of Alexander, who helps introduce some of the key philosophical ideas contained within the film. Mainly, Nietzsche’s theory on eternal recurrence, the hypothesis that certain events will always continue to reoccur throughout infinite time without end. It’s very notable that one of the first questions Otto asks Alexander pertains to his relationship with God, which the latter describes as non-existent.

While the relationship between Alexander and God will become one of the most important aspects of the film, it’s through an early monologue that the audience receives Tarkovsky’s worldview of humanity. As he sits with Little Man, Alexander reveals his inner thoughts about the world. He speaks of technological breakthroughs that have been used for evil purposes, and that the human race has become imbalanced, with culture ultimately becoming defective. Alexander is one of many protagonists that Tarkovsky was known for crafting who struggles with a sense of purpose and deals with isolation and self-discovery. Alexander views the material world as dead weight–an enclosed prison that lacks any spirituality.

The house in which Alexander’s party is to take place becomes more than just a dwelling. In a literal sense, it becomes a stage, with the many players moving about delivering monologues to the audience. At one point, Otto recounts a lengthy story of being a collector of  ‘inexplicable but true occurrences.’ (Possibly referring to the act of filmmaking itself, which is full of imagery that’s both real and fantastic.) Tarkovsky’s use of framing and character position in these sequences gives off the impression of an actual stage production. This gathering soon gives way to the major catalyst of the film where the threat of a nuclear war is introduced. Instead of warheads flying through the sky, we’re shown vibrations surging through the house, and its occupants running about attempting to make sense of what’s occurring.

As well as being the main catalyst of the plot, the missile launch introduces many religious motifs that appear throughout the rest of the film. Alexander is seen looking down at a replica of his house built by Little Man for his birthday. If we think of Alexander’s house as a representation of the material world, the replica illustrates a mirror reflection. What I take away from this particular moment is that Alexander (the creator) looks down upon what his son (creation) has constructed from a omniscient point of view. When applying the Hermetic axiom of ‘As above, So below’ (a theory that states actions perpetrated on earth have a mirror image in heaven) it comes across that God looks down upon the recent actions of impending war in silence.

News reports in the house warn others of the upcoming nuclear war, and events begin to take on a whole new meaning when it’s revealed that the warheads are four in number. (Possibly symbolic of the four horseman of the apocalypse.) The pending destruction of mankind causes Alexander to make an agreement with God. Offering his family, possessions, and his voice in exchange for how things were moment before the missiles were launched. While a confrontation between Alexander and God is never displayed, it’s Otto who delivers a way for him to fulfill his oath. In some ways, he seems to be speaking for Tarkovsky when he speaks of  ‘A chance, one last hope.’ Hope—it’s the ultimate message of the film, and Tarkovsky continually delivers it to us. Even if you weren’t alive during the Cold War, and are watching this film for the first time, that’s what speaks to you on a very deep level.

In order to bring about the desired change, he must consummate with his maid Maria (Guðrún Gísladóttir), a witch. Furthering the Christian allegory, Alexander falls off of his bicycle while riding to her house, mimicking Christ stumbling with the cross on his way to Calvary. The moment of consummation with Maria is brought about by Alexander’s plea of ‘Save us.’ Further establishing how God possibly views the ongoing destructive nature of man, Alexander tells Maria about his mothers’ old garden and how it deteriorated, asking, ‘Where had all the beauty gone?’ Even while within the embrace of the maid, there’s something very moving about Alexander crying, knowing he is doing what has to be done to save the world from the unimaginable suffering brought about from war.

The next morning Alexander realizes God has spared the world from destruction, and he must hold up his end of the bargain. Always one to utilize imagery to its full potential in telling a story, Tarkovsky applies brighter lighting and color to illustrate that the world has changed. Longtime Ingmar Bergman collaborator Sven Nykvist did the cinematography for The Sacrifice, and his work during this transition from darkness to light is instrumental in displaying this change. Up until this point, the film contained tones that were bleak and drab, coinciding with the events that were occurring. The dramatic change is nothing short of remarkable, and shows the promise of what a new day brings.

The conclusion of The Sacrifice is truly something that encompasses both beauty and tragedy all at once. As Tarkovsky’s cameras slowly pan back and forth like a spectator surveying a work of art, Alexander sets fire to his house and it slowly burns to the ground. With little to no dialogue, the scene firmly illustrates that material possessions have built a prison for humanity. By destroying them, we have a chance to start a new. In short, rip it up and start again. As per his visual style, the scene consists of one long unbroken take, allowing the entire sacrifice to be observed and taken in. It’s a powerful moment, and one that would reduce anyone to tears and bring about introspection. In the final moments of the film, everything comes full circle. Little Man sits under the tree from the beginning, and recites the opening passage from the book of John: ‘In the beginning there was the word…’ In this moment, Tarkovsky reveals to us that we can change destiny, and while eternal recurrence is very real, there is always a chance for a new beginning.  

Over thirty years later, the emotional response that Tarkovsky’s last film invokes is just as powerful now as it was in 1986. A good story is timeless; and a parable of self-sacrifice will always smash nihilism and apathy into bits. A remarkable final statement from one of cinema’s most influential figures, The Sacrifice isn’t just a great work for its time, it’s a masterpiece for all time.

About Jerome Reuter

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