OFFRET - Film (Movie) Plot and Review

(The Sacrifice)

Sweden-France, 1986

Director: Andrei Tarkovsky

Production: Swedish Film Institute (Stockholm)/Argos Films (Paris), in association with Film Four International, Josephson and Nykvist, Sveriges Television/SVT 2, and Sandrew Film and Teater, with the participation of the French Ministry of Culture; Eastmancolor, part in black and white; running time: 149 minutes; length: 13,374 feet. Released 1986.

Executive producer: Anna-Lena Wilbom; producer: Katinka Farago; screenplay: Andrei Tarkovsky; assistant directors: Kerstin Eriksdotter, Michel Leszczylowski; photography: Sven Nykvist; camera operators: Lasse Karlsson, Dan Myhrman; editors: Andrei Tarkovsky, Michel Leszcyzlowski; editorial consultant: Henri Colpi; sound recordists: Owe Svensson, Bosse Persson, Lars Ulander, Christin Loman, Wikee Peterson-Berger; art director: Anna Asp; music: The St . Matthew Passion by J. S. Bach.

Cast : Erland Josephson ( Alexander ); Susan Fleetwood ( Adelaide ); Valérie Mairesse ( Julia ); Allan Edwall ( Otto ); Gudrún Gísladóttir ( Maria ); Sven Wollter ( Victor ); Filippa Franzen ( Marta ); Tommy Kjellqvist ( Little Man ); Per Kallman and Tommy Nordahl ( Ambulancemen ).

Award: BAFTA Award for Best Foreign Language Film, 1987.



Tarkovsky, Andrei, Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema , London, 1986.

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LeFanu, Mark, The Cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky , London, 1987.

Gauthier, Guy, Andrei Tarkovski , Paris, 1988.

Borin, Fabrizio, Cinema di Andrej Tarkovskij , Rome, 1989.

Turovskaia, Maiia Iosifovna, Tarkovsky: Cinema as Poetry , translated by Natasha Ward, London, 1989.

Green, William, "Video: The Sacrifice (Offret) Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky," in Sight and Sound (London), vol. 1, no. 12, April 1992.

Johnson, Vida T., and Graham Petrie, The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue , Bloomington, 1994.

Kovács, András Bálint, Tarkovszkij: az orosz film Sztalkere , Budapest, 1997.

Tarkovski, Larissa, Andrei Tarkovski , with Luba Jurgenson, Paris, 1998.


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de Brant, C.-H., "Krasota slaset mir. . . ," in Iskusstvo Kino (Moscow), no. 2, 1989.

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Lovgren, H., "Svart pa fragan ar livet sjalvt," in Chaplin (Stockholm), no. 3, 1990.

Iensen, T., and A. German, "Vysokaia prostota," in Iskusstvo Kino (Moscow), no. 6, 1990.

Iensen, T., and I. Norshtein, "Ognennoe iskushenie," in Iskusstvo Kino (Moscow), no. 6, 1990.

Gauthier, G., "Andrei Tarkovski et la tentation de l'Occident," in Cinemaction (Conde-sur-Noireau, France), July 1990.

Livingston, J., "New Rage," in Village Voice 36 (New York), Literary Supplement, no. 99, 8 October 1991.

Levgren, K., "Leonardo da Vinchi i Zhertvoprinoshenie," in Iskusstvo Kino (Moscow), no. 6, 1992.

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Paquette, J. -M., "Tarkovski: Cineaste Cynique," in Cinemas (Montreal), vol. 4, no. 3, 1994.

" Le Sacrifice ," in SĂ©quences (Haute-Ville), no. 181, November-December 1995.

Wiese, I., "Andrej Tarkovskij," in Z Filmtidsskrift , no. 1, 1996.

Beasley-Murray, J., "Whatever Happened to Neorealism?: Bazin, Deleuze, and Tarkovsky's Long Take," in Iris (Iowa City), no. 23, Spring 1997.

* * *

There is a documentary featuring Tarkovsky at work on his last film. Made by The Sacrifice's editor, Michel Leszczylowski, and entitled simply Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky , it provides a revealing insight into the Russian's methods. One episode in particular captures Tarkovsky's attitude toward his craft. The final shot of The Sacrifice lasts ten minutes and depicts the protagonist of the film burning down the house round which most of the action has centred. This is a typically complex Tarkovsky "take," involving elaborate camera movement and pulling together all the discrete strands of the narrative. As Leszczylowski shows, disaster struck. Although the house burnt down to the ground in a very satisfactory manner, and although the cast followed Tarkovsky's choreography to perfection, there was no footage to record the event; Sven Nykvist's camera had jammed at the crucial moment. Tarkovsky was distraught, claiming that The Sacrifice would be worthless without this image. He absolutely refused to compromise. He was not going to edit or to use trick photography or to alter the script; he wanted the shot in its entirety. Somehow, despite sub-zero temperatures, despite the hiccup this would cause in the schedule and in the budget, he managed to persuade backers, cast, and crew to rebuild the house. As soon as the house was rebuilt, it was promptly burnt down again. This time Nykvist's camera did not jam. A perfectionist with a highly personal view of the film he wanted to make, Tarkovsky would let nothing stand in his way. His skill was in convincing others that his idiosyncratic vision was their own.

Given the fact that The Sacrifice is a meditation on death and destruction, and considering that its maker succumbed to cancer shortly after its completion, it is hard not to see the film as Tarkovsky's last testament. The mood and tempo are certainly elegaic. In over two hours, there are only 120 cuts. (Tarkovsky was opposed to "montage cinema," believing that it constrained spectators, preventing them from bringing their own personal experiences or interpretation to bear on any given set of images: montage did the spectators' work for them.) The Sacrifice is a difficult film to watch. If cinema for Tarkovsky is "sculpting in time"—his favourite analogy—then, to see his sculptures, spectators must commit themselves for the duration: they must sacrifice their own time. Tarkovsky is keen to let us know that cinema is no mere popular cultural form. In his hands, it is "high art." (Just so we're aware of the fact, we see the opening credits over a Leonardo painting as we listen to Bach on the soundtrack.) Why did Tarkovsky make The Sacrifice? As he explains in his programme notes, we are living in a spiritually impoverished era: we are slaves to materialism. We need to find our souls. (For soul finding, as Strindberg, Ibsen, and Bergman have shown us, Scandinavia is the only place. The Sacrifice was shot in Sweden and financed by the Swedish Film Institute.)

Something Tarkovsky's hagiographers, of whom there are many, fail to notice is that his films are made not with "spirituality" or with "devotion" or with "inscrutable poetic instinct." Like most other films—with the possible exception of some of Stan Brakhage's work—they are made with cameras. From the laudatory reviews and fawning interviews that so often accompanied Tarkovsky, one gets the impression that his films came into being already perfectly formed; that they were divinely conceived. Tarkovsky did little to disabuse us of the idea. Critics he held in some contempt, and he demanded that we react to his films intuitively, with feeling and not with intellect. Children and animals always understand his films.

The Sacrifice has a quirky narrative structure. An old actor and writer, Alexander (Erland Josephson), is celebrating his birthday with his family at his secluded country house. He has spent the morning planting a tree with his son and discussing Nietzsche with the psychic postman. Jets fly overhead. Suddenly we learn that the world is liable to be blown up. Alexander makes the vow that he will live in isolation and silence if Armageddon can be avoided. The postman tells him that he can save the world by sleeping with his Icelandic, white-witch maid. Under the cover of darkness, he borrows the postman's bicycle and pays a visit to the maid. He threatens that he will commit suicide unless he is allowed to make love to her. She accedes to his wish, and the couple literally take off, hovering several feet above her bed. The next morning, he sets fire to the family house and is taken away in an ambulance.

Tarkovsky's Swedish landscape serves him well. At the beginning of the film, before there are any intimations of nuclear disaster, it seems pastoral, idyllic, a country retreat where a foolish, fond father can play with his son, But, with the possibility of destruction, the landscape itself becomes threatening: it is transformed into bare, denuded wasteland. (Mud, water, and fire are familiar motifs in all Tarkovsky's work.) Parallels with Bergman are obvious. The Swede dealt with a similar theme in Shame (1968) in which two concert musicians, Max Von Sydow and Liv Ullmann, are caught up in civil war. Alexander in The Sacrifice is not too far removed from the old doctor of Wild Strawberries (1957). Both are Prospero-like figures, half estranged from their families, confronted with death, ruminating over the past. The Sacrifice is photographed by the celebrated "master of light," Sven Nykvist, who has also worked extensively with Bergman. (Apparently, Nykvist initially had difficulties with Tarkovsky; he felt that the Russian, who was always first to operate the camera, and who dictated exactly what he wanted within the frame, was doing his job for him.) Whatever reservations one might have about its story and about Tarkovsky's homespun homilies on life and art (this is a wordy film: the soundtrack is largely composed of monologues) there can be no doubting its visual beauty. The long, lingering pans, the slow tracking shots, the use of natural light in the interior scenes, the black and white images of the devastated city, and, above all, the mise-en-scène, make the film a pleasure to watch. A characteristic Tarkovsky conceit is to make the movement of objects, the action in the external world, correspond to human emotion. To put it simply, every event, the planting of the tree, the burning of the house, the love making, are not straightforwardly physical, but are manifstations, visual metaphors of the characters' feelings. When the planes fly overhead, all the furniture in the house begins to quake. This seems plausible. A big cabinet is rattling. Noise vibration might cause this to happen. Out of the cabinet, in a gentle slow motion, a jar of milk falls, crashes on the floor, breaks into fragments. Why one is tempted to ask, is milk kept in a cabinet anyway? Wouldn't it be better off in the kitchen? Yet the image of the fracture of the jar encapsulates the burgeoning panic of every character.

The Scandinavian country house, familial discord, and 19th-century costume lend the film a theatrical, naturalistic air. Despite this, Tarkovsky is not overly concerned with formal realism. Events are not meant to make sense. They are supposed to have a dreamlike quality. If an ambulance arrives in the middle of nowhere without anybody having telephoned it, if lovers levitate, if the family home is burnt down for a bet, all is perfectly consistent. Were it not for the film's self-important gravity, if there were a little humour to leaven proceedings, we might be watching something surrealist, something akin to a film by Buñuel (whom Tarkovsky was known to admire) or to a canvas by Chagall. Characterization is weak. There is a squabbling family, with unfilial sons and daughters, potential Gonerils and Regans, and there is Alexander's neurotic wife, Adelaide. But Tarkovsky is not interested in familial relationships. The only perspective we are offered is that of Alexander. The psychic postman, whose bicycle seems to be the film's sole comic motif, the son, who is idealized, and the white-witch maid are not embroiled in the materialistic world: they help Alexander resolve this metaphysical anxieties. In the end, The Sacrifice is a solipcist's film; one man's redemption seems more important than the fact that a whole world has avoided calamity. It is perhaps instructive to note that, at the time of his death, Tarkovsky was working on a Hamlet script.

—G. C. Macnab

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