By 1984, the life of Andrei Tarkovsky had reached an impasse. Soon after the release of his Soviet/Italian co-production Nostalgia, Tarkovsky called a press conference and announced his decision not to return to the Soviet Union. This decision to leave home and begin building a new life in the West had been born of intense professional frustration and the realisation that while his international reputation ensured that he would always be tolerated by the Soviet film industry, only defection would ensure the ability to make the kinds of films that he wanted to make.
While Tarkovsky may have initially celebrated his newfound creative freedom, he soon came to view it as something that had only been secured at great personal cost. Indeed, the decision to leave the Soviet Union meant not only abandoning his friends and colleagues but also his beloved son Andrei Jr. For a year after announcing his defection, Tarkovsky worked on a project he called The Witch. Like most of Tarkovsky’s films, The Witch was to have revolved around man’s search for meaning. Unlike most of Tarkovsky’s films, The Witch was to have concluded with the alienated protagonist finding true love and disappearing off over the horizon with a new sense of purpose but Tarkovsky soon came to see this ending as cheap, sentimental, and entirely underserved.
When Tarkovsky’s attempts to recruit long-time Russian friend and collaborator Anatoly Solonitsyn were thwarted by the actor’s untimely death from cancer, the director is said to have darkened the ending and changed the title from The Witch to The Sacrifice, a title more in line with the director’s own feelings about the price he had paid for his new-found creative freedom.
The Sacrifice was filmed in Sweden with the help of actors and technicians who had previously worked with the legendary Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. While it is tempting to look back at Bergman’s work and consider the possibility that some of Bergman’s habits might have rubbed off on the younger Russian director, all we know for sure is that a) many of Bergman’s collaborators complained about the way Tarkovsky worked and b) The Sacrifice is a noticeably different film to anything that Tarkovsky had previously done in either Russia or Italy. The most obvious difference is that while earlier Tarkovsky films eschewed conventional narratives and exegetical dialogue in favour of evocative imagery and long, silent dream-like sequences, The Sacrifice is a film with a conventional three-act narrative structure that ebbs and flows through a series of dramatic and dialogue-heavy scenes featuring fully-realised characters. However, while this did mark a real creative departure for Tarkovsky, The Sacrifice is still a very slow and difficult film… So don’t expect The West Wing or even Deadwood.
The film begins with an old man planting a withered tree on a windswept Scandinavian beach. The man is named Alexander (Erland Josephson) and he appears to have given up on life. Once an internationally renowned actor, Alexander abandoned the stage and moved to rural Sweden in order to pursue a career as a journalistic arts critic. Isolated from the rest of the world, Alexander immersed himself in a world of books and art only to realise that the entire edifice of Western culture had been a colossal waste of his time. “Words… words… words…” he complains to his youngest son Little Man (Tommy Kjellqvist).
The figure of Little Man is one of the more evocative and elusive elements of this film. Little Man is a small child who is unable to speak as a result of having undergone major throat surgery. Rarely present on screen, he is either completely forgotten or transformed into a psychological fetish object by family members who rant and rave about the fate of ‘Little Man’ while actually complaining about anything from their own emotional wellbeing to the continued existence of mankind as a species. In some ways, Little Man is the metaphysical and spiritual boiled down to a thick Tarkovskyian paste in that he somehow manages to signify both everything and nothing at all.
Alexander’s monologues about the pointlessness of culture are interrupted by the arrival of his wife Adelaide (Susan Fleetwood) and their long-time friend and family doctor Victor (Sven Wollter). Victor performed the surgery on Little Man’s throat but also conducted a decades-long affair with Adelaide to the complete indifference of Alexander. The lack of passion in Adelaide and Alexander’s marriage turns out to be fairly typical for family group as while family, friends, and employees descend on Alexander’s home in order to celebrate his birthday, you get the impression of a community performing togetherness but with all of the associated emotional energy having been syphoned off for use elsewhere. There is talk of wine, dinner, and candles and none are visible. There is talk of a birthday celebration and yet people seem content to wander off and fall asleep without their absence being commented upon. The coldness of the occasion is brought into sharp focus when Alexander’s friend Otto turns up with an enormous antique map to give to Alexander for his birthday, but while it is clear that Alexander has nowhere to put the bloody thing, Otto’s gesture comes across as genuine and affectionate in a way that none of the performances do.
At some point in the afternoon, the isolate house is pummelled by the sound of jet planes passing low overhead. This barrage of noise shakes a few things loose but nobody seems that concerned or surprised by the event until they happen upon a TV broadcast warning them of an imminent nuclear exchange. As the power goes out and all broadcast channels go dead, the group retreat into themselves. One of the maids is the first to crack, breaking into deep angry sobs by Adelaide’s suggestion that someone should wake up Little Man so that he can experience the end of the world. Not long after, Adelaide joins her employee in hysteria forcing Victor to step in with a tranquiliser. Again, the violence of the women’s emotional outbursts serves to accentuate the group’s complete passivity and lack of emotional response. You might not expect a group of middle-class people to load up on shotguns and canned goods but you’d expect them to do something other than sit around and wait for death!
As in Tarkovsky’s other films, there is a shift between colour film and black and white film that coincides with a shift between reality and dreams. Before the jets pass overhead, Alexander has what might be called a premonition involving an abandoned city street that is littered with discarded clothes. By associating the shift to black and white with a shift away from reality, Tarkovsky makes the film’s middle act feel distinctly dream-like. Aggressively de-saturated and shot in grey crepuscular light, Tarkovsky creates a dark night of the soul that is neither completely real nor completely fictitious.
One of the interesting things about The Sacrifice is that it seems to begin where most Tarkovsky films end. Indeed, films like Stalker, Solaris, and Nostalgia all devote the majority of their running times to the construction of these vast symbolic systems only for these systems to collapse and leave the film’s protagonist trapped alone in a world that has been stripped of all spiritual meaning. The Sacrifice begins at the point at which most Tarkovsky films end in that Alexander begins the film having realised that culture, religion, and philosophy are all a meaningless waste of time. In effect, the film’s night of nuclear terror can be seen as an attempt to expand one of those great Tarkovskyian concluding shots and explore the full psychological impact of finding yourself trapped in a world that is overflowing with evocative images but devoid of any and all spiritual truth.
Alexander hits rock bottom about half-way through the film and decides to strike a deal with God: He promises to do absolutely anything in return for the life of his family and friends. Not long after, Otto turns up at Alexander’s window and announces that Alexander can save the world if he agrees to have sex with one of his female employees. Otto is understandably reluctant to explain their hair-brained scheme and mumbles something about Alexander’s maid Maria (Guðrún S. Gísladóttir) being a witch because she’s a bit weird and comes from Iceland.
Responding to the meaninglessness of life by grasping for whichever set of rituals come most easily to hand is an idea explored by Tarkovsky in his previous film Nostalgia. In that film, the protagonist become obsessed with a man who became convinced that the world was about to end and so decided to keep his family locked in the house for years on end. That character concluded his life by setting himself on fire but the film ended with a shot of the protagonist trying to walk across an empty swimming pool with a lit candle. This kind of desperate clutching after any form of meaning recalls the tradition of the ‘acte gratuit’ in Existentialist literature whereby the protagonist does something transgressive purely in order to demonstrate his own radical freedom: In Andre Gide’s The Vatican Cellars, an old man is thrown from a train. In Albert Camus’ The Outsider, the protagonist kills two Arabs on a beach. In Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the equation is inverted and the book begins with the brutal murder of an elderly pawn-broker before spending hundreds of pages trying to work out why the protagonist should do such a terrible thing. Crime and Punishment ends on a perversely upbeat note when the protagonist’s existential agonies are put to an end by a police inspector who tells him precisely why he committed the crime that began the book. Given that Tarkovsky grew up in the Soviet Union, it is perhaps not surprising that his films should share certain characteristics with the work of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and the conclusions to both Nostalgia and The Sacrifice involve characters submitting themselves to the first symbolic order they happen upon because they cannot stand the hardships of a life without meaning.
Tarkovsky presents Alexander’s tryst with Maria as a magical moment and the couple float above the bed in a moment of pure dream-like happiness that recalls both the levitation sequence from Ivan’s Childhood and the hot air balloon flight from Andrei Rublev but while the threat of nuclear war does pass as a result of Alexander following Otto’s advice, Tarkovsky never explains why sleeping with an Icelandic woman should have saved the world. Now convinced that God had heard his prayers and granted him his second chance at life, Alexander decides to set fire to his own house as a sacrificial offering. Extraordinary in its deliberate lack of grandeur and dignity, this scene ends with Alexander being chased around his garden by a pair of ambulance men. The absurdity of the situation and his limping gait serving only to underline the silliness of believing that any god would make humanity’s continued existence dependent upon an aging intellectual deciding to have sex with one of his employees.
The film concludes with Alexander being carted off to hospital while his home burns and his family tear themselves apart. Quietly, Little Man lies on his back looking at the sky and asks his absent father precisely the kind of question to which he kept supplying answers at the beginning of the film.
While The Sacrifice lacks both the evocative poetic realism of Stalker and the breath-takingly stark minimalism of Nostalgia, it does show Tarkovsky to be a director capable not only of re-invention but also of real psychological subtlety. Existentialism is a philosophy that bloomed most enthusiastically after World War II and hindsight allows us to view concepts like existential angst as overly-broad attempts to articulate the traumatised and alienated worldviews of conflict survivors whilst maintaining the veil of silence demanded by post-War propriety. In other words, Existentialism encourages people to talk about existential angst and radical freedom because it doesn’t want to have a conversation about trauma, guilt, bloodlust and depression. Tarkovsky’s shift away from evocative silence and towards character-driven dialogue suggests a desire to move beyond the pixelated emotional vistas of Existentialism and towards a more open and transparent sensibility. Indeed, The Sacrifice is not just a film about man’s search for meaning, it is a film about a man who left home in order to achieve creative freedom but wound up regretting the price he had paid. It is also a film about a man who missed his son with an ache that would not fade. It is when viewed through a biographical lens that the figure of Little Man comes into focus… Tarkovsky’s films are littered with quotations from his father’s poetry and films like Mirror suggest that Tarkovsky took very seriously the idea that the son should continue to build what his father had started. The fact that Little Man only finds his voice after his father has destroyed himself speaks both to the anguish caused by Tarkovsky’s separation from his own son and the regret that he was not able to sustain a creative partnership with his father for longer than he did. Within a year of The Sacrifice being completed, Tarkovsky had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Within a year of being diagnosed, Tarkovsky was dead. Finally allowed to leave the Soviet Union, Tarkovsky’s son Andrey A. Tarkovsky received his father’s Grand Prix du Jury at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival but like the film’s Little Man, he only acquired the freedom to speak after his father had gone.
Like all of Tarkovsky’s films, The Sacrifice is vast, beautiful, and demanding. Beautifully shot and carefully constructed, the film develops its complex ideas through a combination of evocative imagery, cultural referencing, and impassioned dialogue. Both refreshingly different from the films that came before it and an obvious development of their themes and methods, it hints at the type of director that Tarkovsky might have become had he not died at the age of 54. Best appreciated as part of the broad arc of Tarkovsky’s artistic development, The Sacrifice marked a fittingly frustrating end to the career of a man who was never content and forever lighting fires.