Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice is a simple yet profound film. Simple in terms of – for want of a better word – plot: to save the world from nuclear annihilation a man vows to sacrifice everything that he loves. And profound in terms of what it says to the watcher. A parable Tarkovsky himself called it. The parable being that through faith and sacrifice man can right his wrongs and redeem the world. Tarkovsky didn’t care that this (his) way of thinking had become unfashionable. This was the reason why he made a film carrying such a message. In interviews at the time of the film’s release (May 1986) Tarkovsky expressed his despair at the direction in which the world was heading. Thus, echoing the film’s line that ”humanity is on the wrong road.”

Tarkovsky shot The Sacrifice in Sweden, on the island of Gotland, at the invitation of the country’s Film Institute. (He was in permanent exile from the Soviet Union at this stage). The great Sven Nykvist, famous for his work with Ingmar Bergman, was hired as the cinematographer. And Bergmanesque is a word which invariably crops up whenever The Sacrifice is written or spoken about because of the way Tarkovsky fuses the filmic and theatrical – the set is stagey, and the actor’s performances marvellously mannered. They seemingly float through the film like Ibsen’s ghosts. 

Andrei Tarkovsky on the set of The Sacrifice

The opening credits play over a backdrop of Leonardo da Vinci’s unfinished masterpiece The Adoration of the Magi. Specifically, a close up of one of the Wise Men kneeling and holding up his gift to the new-born King. It’s a moment forever suspended in time (”The important thing is to find TIME within TIME … It is enormously difficult, but it has to be done!” Tarkovsky wrote in his diaries) by da Vinci’s magic, and it’s a moment in which Tarkovsky signals his intent regarding the concept of gifts and sacrifice and a sacrifice being the greatest gift. Throughout The Sacrifice Tarkovsky’s lens intermittently returns to this painting, allowing it to further inform the film each time. Think, for instance, of how da Vinci’s Dreaming Tree is transplanted into the Russian’s morality tale.

The Sacrifice focuses on Alexander (played brilliantly by Bergman regular Erland Josephson) who’s an archetypal Tarkovsky protagonist – he, like Rublev and Kris Kelvin and Stalker before him, is suffering from some kind of sickness unto death. He’s also married (to a tormented wife, recalling Stalker again) with a daughter and much younger, mute until the last lines of the film and referred to only as ”Little Man,” son.

The Sacrifice begins on Alexander’s birthday which he intends to celebrate with his family and friends. One being Otto, a part-time postman slash mystic (yes really). We see Alexander and Otto discuss Nietzsche (who’s Eternal Recurrence is a theme of the film), the nature of ”waiting” (a la Beckett), and our hero’s (?) relationship with God (non-existent he says at the start). After giving Alexander a particularly lavish birthday present, Otto says, ”Every gift involves a sacrifice, if not, what kind of gift would it be?” And he also, after seeing the Adoration of the Magi hanging in Alexander’s house, confesses, ”God, what a terrible one! I’ve always been very afraid of Leonardo.” Words which turn out to be terribly prescient as soon after, Alexander’s birthday bash (which, to be fair, wasn’t exactly swinging to begin with) is broken up by the news that nuclear annihilation is imminent. At this point the horrified faces of the people in the film are reflective of the anguished faces of the people in the painting.

Alexander (seated) on his birthday

Out of despair (or is it faith?), Alexander makes a pact (a Tarkovskian twist on The Binding of Isaac) with God. Pleading: ”Lord, deliver us in this terrible hour. Do not let my children die, my friend, 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 only let everything be as it was before.”

Otto, however, has another plan. He believes that the holocaust can be halted if Alexander sleeps with his family’s maid (who’s also a witch, but ”in the best possible sense” according to Otto), Maria. Tarkovsky uses levitation, a cinematic trick that he mastered (see, Solaris and Mirror), to spellbindingly capture the spirit of this act of bodily communion.

In a publicity interview for The Sacrifice with the French film journal Positif, Tarkovsky claimed that language and the power of speech ”has lost its value” and that ”the world is jam packed with empty chatter. All that information of which we pretend to have such need – consider radio and television – all those permanent infinite debates to be found in newspapers, all that is empty and meaningless.” Continued, the great man warned us that, ”we shall all die beneath the weight of this garrulous information. In reality, it is better to act than to speak.” It is better to act than to speak. A sentiment which he worked into his film: ”Words, words, words” Alexander, quoting Hamlet, says when realising that the impotence of his actions are an impediment to any chance he or the world has of renewal or redemption.

The film’s infernus climax

After the darkest of nights, a new day dawns and disaster appears to have been averted. However, this is no happy ending because Alexander keeps his side of the bargain by making a bonfire out of his family’s home. This scene is both terrifying and awe-inspiring. Fire together with water (a shot of Alexander merely washing his hands takes on a holy simplicity) and wind are key elements in every Tarkovsky film.

Bergman once said, ”Tarkovsky for me is the greatest (of us all), the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream.” And this dreamlike, ethereal intangibility (Tarkovsky’s use of sound plays a key part in this) means that us, the viewers, don’t really know what to believe when watching The Sacrifice. Is Alexander a knight of faith or a holy fool (he receives a birthday card addressing him as Dostoyevsky’s Idiot)? Or perhaps neither? Or maybe both?

Tarkovsky admitted, ”it’s possible to interpret the film in different ways. For instance, those who are interested in various supernatural phenomena will search for the meaning of the film in the relationship between the postman and the witch. Believers are going to respond more sensitively to Alexander’s prayer to God. And finally a third category of viewers who don’t believe in anything will imagine that Alexander is a bit sick, that he’s psychologically unbalanced as a result of war and fear.”

While Alexander’s home goes up in smoke he’s chased in a surreal, rather Chaplinesque manner. First by his family and then by two paramedics who catch, restrain, and take him away.

The final scene of The Sacrifice sees ”Little Man” watering and lying by the tree that he and his father planted in the opening act. At this moment ”Little Man,” quoting the Gospel of John, speaks for the first time, saying: “In the beginning was the Word. Why is that, Papa?” And this ending of ”Little Man” and the tree neatly recalls the first scene in Tarkovsky’s first ever film, Ivan’s Childhood – thus completing the auteur’s cinematic circle.

Andrei Tarkovsky died of cancer, aged only 54, less than a year after the film’s release. Making The Sacrifice less his last film and more his last testament. Last gift.