The Sacrifice – Andrei Tarkovsky (1986)

“Humanity is on the wrong road.”

Andrei Tarkovsky’s ultimate film, The Sacrifice, released in the year of the director’s death, is perhaps one of his bleakest films. Once more, I see a steady development towards an end; the end of a filmmaking career, a sophisticated development of ideas about the world and Man, a progress towards putting finishing touches on one’s oeuvre. I have seen this before with the final films of Béla Tarr (The Turin Horse, 2011) and Tsai Ming-liang (Stray Dogs, 2013). Sacrifice fits very much into this line as a sort of film that makes a final statement, a film that is, in parts, a recollection, a reminder, but also an outlook to the extent that there will be other filmmakers who will pick up on this and continue the story.

It was the second time I have attempted to watch Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice. I didn’t finish it the first time. It’s funny to say this now, but the film felt incredibly slow. More difficult to watch than longer slow films. I tried it again yesterday, years later, now with a good number of slow films of all sorts under my belt, and it still remains one of the slowest films I have seen! And indeed, my husband agrees that The Sacrifice is Tarkovsky’s slowest film. The running time of just over two hours is nothing special, nothing out of the ordinary, and, above all, nothing that I haven’t sat through before. Yet, this feeling of slowness was heavier than in other films I have seen. There is a real weight to The Sacrifice, which slows down the film, a weight that goes beyond the running time, beyond the usual aesthetics for slow films. It is a weight, which (slowly) creeps up on the viewer through the various, countless, daring monologues and dialogues.

This is one aspect, which made The Sacrifice a challenging film; the often highly sophisticated monologues that ask you to ponder, to reflect, perhaps even to respond, cannot be taken lightly. You cannot not react to them. You cannot not think about them. Tarkosvky forces you to be engaged in discussing humanity’s failure, Man’s shortcomings, our desire for destruction. “Savages are more spiritual than us. As soon as we have a scientific breakthrough, we put it into the service of evil”, says Alexander, the main protagonist, who has, according to himself, a non-existing relationship to God, but who pleads with God to save his family from the coming nuclear war. In return, he offers to destroy his house, to give up on his family, on Little Man (his son), and he promises to never say a word again: “if only God takes away this animal fear.”

Silence – another important factor in The Sacrifice. Despite the number of thought-provoking monologues throughout the film, Tarkovsky has created a very quiet film. We can hear suspected war planes flying above the beautiful house, built right at the coast. At some point we can hear a television set. And yet, The Sacrifice is, very much like The Mirror and Nostalghia, a quiet film, almost silent, which, I know, sounds contradictory, but I believe this is precisely what the director was going for: to create a discrepancy, a contradiction that confuses the viewer, confused like the characters are once the imminent nuclear war is announced on television. The end is near… Otto, the postman, a good friend of Alexander, says early on in the film: “One shouldn’t be waiting for something.” Waiting – this is perhaps the essence of The Sacrifice.

Waiting for something that you know is going to come without knowing when it’s going to hit you. This is very much the point Lav Diaz makes in several of his films, perhaps most evidently in Melancholia (2008). Three rebel fighters are stuck in the jungle. They’re the remaining fighters of a larger group, the rest of which has been killed already. The island they’re on has been surrounded. They know what’s coming for them, but they don’t know when. It’s psychological warfare, a very effective type that, as Diaz shows, can drive people to insanity. What is the origin of this insanity? Fear. But fear of what? Alexander says, “There is no death. There is fear of death, and it’s a terrible feeling. If only we could stop fearing death.” The Sacrifice is a film about fear. It is a film about the unseen, about the feared; about a nothing that is full of something, namely danger; about the question of what it means to fear death, to mourn your life in advance.

Waiting, silence, heaviness – these are the three main elements that contribute to the exceptional experienced slowness. But there is something else that struck me when I saw the film, already when I saw it for the first time. The Sacrifice could also well be filmed theatre. Fittingly, it is pointed out pretty early on that Alexander used to be a theatre actor. He received a birthday card from former colleagues. All interior scenes, set in Alexander’s family home, feel like a filmed stage, a theatre stage. The set-up as well as the movement and the behaviour of the actors and actresses contributes to the feeling of seeing a stage play in front of you. Often, the speaking person walks towards the camera as do theatre actors/actresses often do, too. There is a theatricality to the film that, to me, supports the idea of a major psychological breakdown going on in the film.

Yet, after all, after the passing of the imminent danger, after the breakdown of Alexander’s wife out of sheer fear, after the ominous remark of postman Otto that only Maria (the servant) could help prevent the apocalypse, after all of this, there is one thing that remains: the circularity of life. Nothing ever stops. Everything continues, in one way or another. Alexander pleads with God and promises never to speak again. His son, Little Man, as he lovingly calls him, is mute throughout the film. It isn’t revealed why. There is vague talk of an operation, but Tarkovsky never fully clarifies this. What matters is that when Alexander falls silent, Little Man begins to speak. “At the beginning was the word. Why is that, papa?”

Continuity, circularity – everything continues, everything circulates, nothing ever stops, despite sacrifices by one man. Life goes on. If you leave something, someone else will pick it up and continue the work. It is as though Tarkovsky, dying of cancer at the time, sent us a message with this film: when he is gone, someone else will continue the work he has been doing. Perhaps not in exactly the same way. Nevertheless, his work will continue, and so it did with the likes of Béla Tarr, in particular. But also Lav Diaz continues the work Tarkovsky had started in the 1960s. And it will be continued by many more filmmakers from around the world.

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3 Comments

Thank you, Nadin, this is a fine overview of The Sacrifice. I watched it again recently after a long gap and warmed to it in a way I hadn’t before. There is a thrilling level of sustained intensity.
Your reference to the ‘theatrical’ nature of the interior scenes is a point well made, and it is perhaps something that Tarkovsky shares with much of Bergman.
Bela Tarr is perhaps my favourite film director, and thanks for the pointer to Lav Diaz, I really like Norte but have not seen any of his other work yet.

thanks for this beautiful essay about Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice. i watched the film in late 2018 and still is mesmerized by the intensity of silence, emotional monologues and fear of the unknown. Tarkovsky always manages to put ideas and life to me in each films. The Sacrifice stands apart from the rest because of its bleakness but also its hopefulness towards the coming days. I haven’t noticed the theatrical aspect of the film, which adds another layer of surreal to it.
anyway, thanks for this good essay. much love from Indonesia

Tristan F

This was a very impressive essay that reminded, clarified and elucidated much of the film for me.

I found the film interesting for having a relatively linear plot (in contrast to Tarkovsky’s frequent disengagement with this principle) as well as how it rehearses so many Tarkovsky trademark images – water, mud, strange objects nestling in water or mud (eg coins) Paintings, Bach (of course!), sudden switches to B&W and of course fire. (The famous end scene of the house burning down reprises the barn burning down in Mirror)

Wind in trees – as when the camera lingering on the Leonardo (1.31:55-) painting gradually pans out to allow the framed glass of the painting merge with and reflect the swaying wind outside – followed by Alexander gradually stepping into the reflection. (Beautiful – Tarkovsky achieves more in that single sequence than many directors do in a lifetime I think…)

Wind 1h:21- (b&w) dislodging frozen leaves)

A definite penchant for Levitating (!) (1h:43) – as so famously in Mirror: incredibly haunting despite becoming a trope by its repetition in this film.

Oh, and mirrors (!) – as in that wonderful image of Alexander forlornly staring which is unexpectedly captured in the semi-opaque antique mirror next to the ridiculously ‘modern’ JVC stereo system next to it. (1h:58) (Also 52:36 – just before the television announcement we see Alexander reflected in the mirror for the first time – perhaps suggesting what a face looks like before the true horror starts)

I agree it is often very mannered in the interior scenes and The Sacrifice often reminded me of Chekhov, especially in the way the characters seem locked in to their various relationships and trains of thought – and how they aimlessly ebb and flow across the stage, desperately wanting to somehow change things, yet always failing. (Maybe Ibsen too, Ghosts?)

Maybe one thing you miss is the unexpected comedic element (and speed!) at the end (2h:19-) when Alexander is suddenly carted off to (presumably) the local mental hospital by the men in white who appear from nowhere (shadows of Streetcar named Desire for me).
It is surely pure slapstick when he is gamely chased around in circles (sporting a bizarre Japanese dressing gown) through the field and various puddles for what seems like ages by the ambulance drivers and the two other men – everyone waving their arms about manically in various failed attempts to catch him. He is finally caught and inserted unceremoniously into the boot of the ambulance-car only to escape moments later like some crazed Buster Keaten movie.
Earlier, Alexander falls off his bike on the way to his tryst with Maria which was also kinda funny!

Do you have any thoughts on what the many coins that Alexander discovers (locates?) in the deep mud that seem to spawn horribly by the end of the sequence around 1:19-?

The rooster wandering around the hallway about 4 fifths of the way through?

The perfect replica of the house apparently built by Little Man for his father yet discovered by him nestling in the mud around 46 mins?

I can’t help thinking the highly stylised yet wonderfully gorgeous image of the bed at 1.12:45 might somehow be a nod to the famous Persona (Bergman) image of an empty bed in the hospital where Elisabet is standing watching Tv)?

What about the two linked b&w sequences of the apocalyptic debris-strewn yet entirely deserted urban street (22:45-) with the up-turned burned our car which is revisited so memorably at 1h:55 when the previously empty, desolate street is suddenly over-ridden by a seemingly never ending stream of humanity as though unleashed like debris from storm tunnels – they emerge as a kind of witness perhaps to the impending nuclear holocaust, veering uncontrollably like an Old Testament flood around the impediment of the abandoned upturned car seen earlier – all this movement in a strangely engineered semi slow-motion set against the haunting strains of a Japanese wood flute. And am I wrong in thinking that the relentless, rushing, apparently chaotic ‘every man for himself ‘ volley of running people sometimes look as though they are in some kind of existential ballet with stylised movements and interactions – and strangely muscular, un-shirted young men weaving left and right?

And that terrifying yet wonderful colour-desaturated ‘family portrait’ (54:02) where the anachronistic, dishevelled bourgeois individuals + maid arrange themselves so carefully around the table-clothed table as they watch tv. The men bold and assertive in black jackets, the women wispy and looking like ghosts.
The egg and glass (reminds me of a Sudek photo) and ribbon tied sheath of old ink-written papers that the camera lingers on at 1:33-?

I apologise if I seem very gauche in this my first attempt to reflect on Tarkovsky – I saw Mirror once many years ago (walked away unimpressed – did not even finish it) and this was my only Tarkovsky experience until this last week when my life turned on its axis after acquiring a box set of Tarkovsky and shamelessly binge-watching most of his films – only Ivan’s Childhood and ~Andrei Rublev to go (a slightly more fulfilling experience than binge-watching Dexter the previous weeks!)
Finally, I must just state how absolutely stunning this film is for me – there is a lifetime of thought in it and some of those extraordinary, embedded images call to you endlessly…

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