Ingmar Bergman considered Andrei Tarkovsky to be cinema's greatest director. Tarkovsky made seven feature films: five in his native Russia, one in Italy and one in Sweden, his final film, The Sacrifice (Tarkovsky, 1986). Tarkovsky died of lung cancer at the age of only 54, one year after finishing The Sacrifice.
The film concerns Alexander (Erland Josephson, a frequent Bergman collaborator) as a former actor turned critic and lecturer of aesthetics. At the beginning of the film Alexander speaks philosophically about life with his young son who is temporarily mute due to a throat operation and can only listen. The young son's first name is never given, the family refer to him as 'little man', he is absent for much of the film but often spoken of.
As French film critic and theorist Michel Chion notes, Sweden and its place names are never mentioned and its characters' names are not particularly Swedish, though the landscape is recognisable and hearing the Swedish language we assume it is Sweden. While looking at an old map of Europe, Alexander says: “It must've been lovely when men thought that the world looked like this.”
Panic occurs when an all-out war is announced on the radio which will possibly bring a nuclear holocaust. The fear, anguish and long emotional monologues remind the spectator of Bergman whose frequent cinematographer Sven Nykvist shot this film. Whereas Bergman's compositions within the frame are often static, almost theatrical in their staging, Tarkovsky chooses to move the camera around a space such as the large living rooms of the characters' homes and the wide open outdoors.
Tarkovsky and Nykvist reduced the colour for dramatic effect during certain scenes; the effects of the lighting are different judging from screenshots from the various DVD and BluRay releases of the film. Anna Asp who worked three times with Bergman designed the interiors in the film which arguably hold happier memories within the characters' lives before the film begins. The sets are given a melancholic feel through the use of sharp lighting.
Tarkovsky uses two long takes: one at the beginning and the other near the end of the film. They are filmed from a distance so that we can observe rather than identify with the characters. The sacrifice of the title is Alexander's pleading with God to spare his family from the horrors of a nuclear holocaust by offering something in return.
In between the sounds of airplanes and rockets through the sky it is silence that governs the characters as they imagine the fate of those flying objects. It is often mentioned that Tarkovsky's cinema blends reality with dreams; certain moments in the film show Alexander's dreams and nightmares of the after-effects of a nuclear holocaust shot in sharp black and white. Alexander's visions contrasted with the nine-minute distanced long shot at the beginning are a perfect case in point for reality versus dreams.
Tarkovsky's revelation of the radio announcement and the characters' reactions to it are dealt with very slowly, time passes by as they come together in Alexander's living room for his birthday. As a spectator I felt like Alexander's young son in my lack of understanding of the situation, but minute by minute, pieces came together.
Ambiguity runs through the film from the philosophical discussions to its gripping finale. Tarkovsky uses tracking shots to show Alexander spying on his friends from a distance which at times is almost comical. Erland Josephson's performance is a stunning portrait of a man driven arguably to madness by the thought of World War III.
Peter Larkin is an Irish film writer currently based in Sweden. Read his blog here.