Watching Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky’s final work, The Sacrifice / Offret (1986), is an exercise in cinema appreciation. That’s not because The Sacrifice is a great film, but because it has great moments interspersed with moments of sheer boredom. In fact, The Sacrifice is one of those rare films that goes to the antipodes of what is good and bad in that art form. Overall, it’s worth seeing; but it is in no way, shape, or form a great film – much less a masterpiece.
Tarkovsky, who had fled the Soviet Union, filmed The Sacrifice in Sweden, using Swedish actors - including Erland Josephson, the star of many Ingmar Bergman films – and Bergman’s longtime cinematographer Sven Nykvist. This was a wise choice, as The Sacrifice is one of the more arresting visual works anyone is likely to see onscreen, especially in its interesting choice of medium shots as the dominant frame, or mise-en-scene.
Yet, instead of maximizing the positive traits of Tarkovsky and the Bergman contingent, The Sacrifice falters by bringing out the worst elements of both Tarkovsky and Bergman. As an example: Tarkovsky wrote the screenplay; like most Tarkovsky films The Sacrifice is long (142 minutes on the Kino DVD), but it lacks the subtle poesy found in his earlier films (Solaris, Stalker), indulging instead on overwrought scenes of terror and regret. Compounding matters, the film’s last three quarters are filled with some astonishingly bad acting – which has to be laid at Tarkovsky’s feet.
Bergman, who was possibly the greatest screenwriter of the twentieth century, was always concise in his screenplays. Whereas that strength of Bergman is ignored in The Sacrifice, Bergman’s greatest weakness is employed: a relentlessly depressing view of life and its characters. One knows from the beginning that they are all doomed, and save for the youngest character, this comes to fruition.
Actually, even that exception is only so if one renders the most positive interpretation of the film possible. In all other ways, the ending is likely a delusion, which means Bergmanian dourness combined with a dearth of Tarkovskian poesy to make The Sacrifice dark, despairing, and oftentimes dull.
The tone The Sacrifice strikes invokes two of Bergman’s greatest films from the 1960s: Winter Light and Shame. However, Tarkovsky’s effort is nowhere near the level of those two earlier classics, despite its Chekhovian chamber drama feel and almost anti-filmic posturing.
On the positive side, Tarkovsky is such a great a director that even by indulging in his worst self-pitying modes (he was dying of cancer at the time of filming) he was unable to create an unmemorable film or one whose imagery would not stick with the viewer long after the final credits.
Before I dissect the ills and successes of The Sacrifice any further, let me give a précis on its screenplay. And this is what actually takes place onscreen (as opposed to information available in press releases):
The lead character is a man named Alexander (Erland Josephson), who is seen with a young child called Little Man (Tommy Kjellqvist). Later we surmise that the boy is Alexander’s son. He also has a wife and apparently a teenage daughter, Julia (Valerie Mairesse). We know next to nothing about the clan, despite many reviews which claim Alexander is an atheist or an artist, Little Man a mute, and the younger wife (by two or so decades) an actress. None of this is conveyed in the film itself – or at least not in the golden subtitles found on the Kino DVD.
While planting a tree on the shores of a sea, Alexander tells Little Man some homilies, then talks with a neighbor, a postman named Otto (Allan Edwall - another Bergman regular), who is clearly not in his right mind. They return to Alexander’s house, and debate philosophic and other matters.
Then, we hear the roar of missiles overhead. The house shakes, but we see little of the devastation that the characters feel, as they listen to TV reports of a war having been unleashed. After Otto faints, the others retire for the night, and Alexander recites the Lord’s Prayer, begging that he will give up all to undo the war so his family and friends can live in peace. Given that The Sacrifice is contemporaneous, and the Cold War was in its death throes at the time, such pessimism is odd. Tarkovsky, however, handles it well. (The representations of Alexander’s state of mind, for instance, are aptly conveyed through the use of color, sepia tones, and black and white.)
Also, there is a repeated black-and-white shot, of people running out of an urban tunnel and down stairs into some bombed out courtyard, that works supremely well. This is especially so in the second use of this scene, which continues past where the first scene ended, to show a bloody, and possibly dead, Little Man. It is clearly a dream, but also marvelously echoes a similar image from Bergman’s Persona (1965).
Other elements found in The Sacrifice that work well are the score, which features Johann Sebastian Bach, flute music, and traditional Scandinavian chants, as well as moments when several of the main characters almost seem to break the fourth wall and speak directly to the audience.
Back to the film’s plot: Eventually, normalcy seems to be restored – except that Alexander is now clearly insane. Whether or not he was from the outset, and the film merely depicted his insanity and fear of a nuclear war, is not made clear. Alexander turns into a pyromaniac, so an ambulance comes to take him to an asylum. The fact that the ambulance arrives in the middle of nowhere only a few minutes after the fire is set – among other things – suggests that the viewer is not seeing an objective reality.
Some claim that the film’s final scene is the actual dream, that Alexander gives up his sanity to save the world from a nuclear holocaust. However, that does not explain the many later scenes that are clearly from an objective point of view, nor Little Man’s watching his father carted to the loony bin. The best explanation is that Alexander is insane and the early part of The Sacrifice is all in his mind, while the later sections show an intermingling of dawning reality until the fire totally frees the film from Alexander’s mind. Either that, or The Sacrifice is a lucid dream, dreamt by an unseen godhead.
Having said all that, the fact that Tarkovsky was a religious man consciously trying to fit his film into the atheist confines of a Bergmanian worldview is a stumbling block the characters never successfully surmount. And here is the main point: little in The Sacrifice will compel a viewer to care one way or the other if the film is set in reality or not, because it will bore to tears the average filmgoer – even the average Tarkovsky or Bergman fan.
Additionally, there are some really atrocious scenes, such as when Alexander’s wife, Adelaide (Susan Fleetwood), goes apeshit crazy, well out of proportion to what has been suffered. It is a bad bit of scenery-chewing that made me think of some similar scenes in Bergman’s own overwrought melodrama Cries & Whispers. A bit later, the family’s other maid, Marta (Filippa Franzen) has a similarly bad scene when she bizarrely refuses to wake Little Man from a nap. In this manner, despite the focus on Alexander, the film is not a character study of an individual (as many critics claim), but a depiction of possible mass psychosis.
As a plus, the Kino DVD includes a fabulous 1988 documentary called Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, which shows behind-the-scenes moments on The Sacrifice. The director’s widow provides a number of explanations, including Tarkovsky’s philosophy that cinema is about sculpting in time. Not a single other extra is included - no audio commentary, or even a theatrical trailer. But the documentary is worth it.
For instance, it shows scenes not included in the final cut and details how the final screenplay was a meld of two earlier ones: one about a witch motif and the other about Armageddon. The information on the origins of the screenplay amply distills the problem the final tale has, while the inclusion of one scene that was cut shows how Tarkovsky confused dream and reality in The Sacrifice - which either needed more of the dream logic of Solaris or a more straightforward narrative to take the viewer along with it. Sitting on the fence was the worst option.
As seen in the documentary, the original scene features Alexander in a coffin, then pans left to show him on a couch surrounded by the other characters. That is followed by a series of shots of odd goings-on in the house, ending with a shot of a nude Julia running after chickens. As a whole, the sequence is enigmatic - in a good sense, for in it there is Negative Capability [the ability “of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason” as explained by John Keats].
In the final cut of the film, however, we see only Julia running naked after the chickens. That comes out of nowhere and makes no real or “negatively capable” sense.
Aside from the thankful dearth of arrogant and ignorant talking heads and the peek into the making of The Sacrifice, what makes Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky so terrific is that it delves not only into Tarkovsky’s greatness as an artist, but also his flaws.
Tarkovsky, we learn, was too obsessed with ideas of art as a form of spirituality (in effect limning his own artistic limits) and on getting things just right, with no compromises at all – rather than letting the power of the artwork itself take a hold. For instance, the penultimate fire scene had to be refilmed (with the house rebuilt) because the camera jammed the first time around.
This is one of the greatest flaws that an artist makes - sticking with an initial idea or concept even when something better comes along. When that happens, one needs to abandon the original idea, and embrace the new and better concept because one can always return to the original idea later. The better idea, however, is usually of the moment and unrepeatable.
Furthermore, the fire scene, which Tarkovsky says was the genesis of the film and its raison d’etre, is actually unimportant. It is all anticlimax, for at that point we know exactly how The Sacrifice will end, but … we’ll never know if Tarkovsky would have been able to come up with something better had he attempted a different scene to fill in the gaps.
Any great artist will tell you that often it is the errors they make that are the things that elevate the art they are doing from merely good to great. Unless one is willing to allow the Negative Capability of a small failure work, the chances for greatness are diminished severely. Instead, Tarkovsky perdured, but his ideas well exceeded his grasp - a flaw he shared with the bulk of Classical Russian novelists, who similarly could get longwinded in their philosophical preenings.
In short, Tarkovsky did not heed his own idea about sculpting in time, for many more shards should have been shed in this film’s creation.
Ultimately, art is an intellectual exercise, not an emotional one. This fact does not deny emotion a place in art, it merely recognizes the primacy of the intellect in the construction of art; one of its elements which may, of course, be an emotional one. However, an emotion or a spiritual essence is the “thing” used - it’s not the user. Emotions are autonomic responses (think of when police toss a hostile suspect into a pink-colored room to calm him down), incapable of the contemplation and distillation that informs the processes that go into making great art.
Such a reflex reaction is not capable of the same sort or level of creation that a reasoned aesthetic appreciation can provide. Thus, when an art invokes merely an emotional response of like or dislike, the percipient is utterly incapable of explaining the whys and wherefores to another. The same is not true of someone who can discern good and bad. It was this lack of critical recognition by Tarkovsky which led to all the problems that suffuse The Sacrifice; at least so the documentary demonstrates.
The visual arts, of which film is the most poetic and powerful, are brands that sear their power into the mind, whereas the more abstract arts, such as writing, are like intricate woodcarving that is crafted bit by bit. A good screenplay requires the latter’s hold on the mind tempered by the former’s power in the belly. While The Sacrifice is laden with images that sear, ultimately, there is little more than crumbs as food.
© Dan Schneider
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Schneider, and they may not reflect the views of Alt Film Guide.
The Sacrifice (1986)
Dir. & Scr.: Andrei Tarkovsky
Cast: Erland Josephson, Susan Fleetwood, Tommy Kjellqvist, Allan Edwall, Gudún S. Gísladóttir, Sven Wollter, Valérie Mairesse.