Andrei Tarkovsky says of his film: "The Sacrifice (1986) is a parable. The significant events it contains can be interpreted in more than one way. The first version was entitled The Witch and it told the story of the hero's amazing cure from cancer. His family doctor having told him that his days were numbered, Alexander answered the door one day and was confronted by a soothsayer - the forerunner of Otto in the final version - who gave Alexander a strange, almost absurd instruction: he was to make his way to a woman reputed to be a witch and spend the night with her. The sick man obeyed as his only way out and, through God's mercy, was cured; this was confirmed by the astonished doctor. And then one wretched, stormy night, the witch appeared at Alexander's house, and at her bidding he happily left his splendid mansion and respected life and went off with her with nothing but the old coat on his back." This nocturnal visit is retained as an episode in the finished version of the film, but the main crisis is changed to the threat of nuclear war.
Alexander, with his lengthy philosophical harangues about God and the fate of humankind, is surely meant to represent in part Tarkovsky himself, who was reportedly fond of indulging in similar ramblings. Actress Susan Fleetwood is made up to resemble Tarkovsky's second wife Larisa; she even collapses into a fit of hysteria at one point in the film, something which authors Vida Johnson and Graham Petrie assert actually happened to Tarkovsky's highly-strung wife on occasion (according to sources close to the director). In many respects, The Sacrifice is Tarkovsky's most personal film after the more overtly autobiographical The Mirror (1975).
At the same time, the film serves as a summary of Tarkovsky's career as a filmmaker so far. The film opens with an unfinished work by Leonardo da Vinci, "The Adoration of the Magi," accompanied by the aria "Erbarme dich" from Bach's St. Matthew Passion , thus paying homage to Tarkovsky's two favorite artists. The motif of the young boy (here Alexander's son) and the sapling deliberately echoes Tarkovsky's first film, Ivan's Childhood (1962). Other typically Tarkovskian touches include the scenes of levitation, abundant water imagery, images of artfully arranged debris, and the use of Japanese flute music on the soundtrack. The latter reflects his abiding interest in Eastern cultures.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the film is its cinematography. Sven Nykvist, Bergman's regular collaborator and one of the world's finest living cinematographers, provides the film with a delicate tonal range, incorporating footage in black and white and desaturated color. The process Nykvist used to create the desaturated color was similar to that used in John Huston's Moby Dick (1956). Color and black-and-white duplicate negatives were struck from the color camera negative, then they were combined in an optical printer to produce varying degrees of color saturation. The resulting color effects contribute a great deal to the ambiguous, dreamlike atmosphere of the film.
Tarkovsky's penchant for long takes reaches the breaking point in The Sacrifice: the film opens with a nine-and-a-half-minute virtuoso tracking shot depicting Alexander planting a tree with his son. One of the last shots in the film, which depicts the burning down of Alexander's house, lasts six and a half minutes. Tarkovsky insisted on filming this shot with only one camera, but due to mechanical problems the camera failed before the shot was finished and the house burnt to the ground; the crew had to rebuild the house in order to film the entire scene again from the start. Two weeks later, the new house was ready and the shot was completed without a hitch. These dramatic events can be seen in Michal Leszczylowski's documentary Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky (1988).
While Tarkovsky no longer had to face the problem of censorship which had long plagued him and other filmmakers in the Soviet Union, working in the West posed difficulties of its own, including differences in work habits. In his diary he writes, "The Swedes are lazy and slow and only interested in observing rules and regulations. Shooting has to start at 9 a.m. and not a moment later! And that's outside, on location! This must be the only country where they treat the shooting of a film like work in an office." The Swedish producers and crew, on the other hand, found Tarkovsky's impulsive and unpredictable working methods and his disdain for mundane financial concerns difficult to bear. One example of this, according to actress Susan Fleetwood, was his assumption that he could find hundreds of extras at a moment's notice for the disaster scenes.
The film was made during a period of great personal difficulty for Tarkovsky. His son was not permitted to join him and his wife in the West, and his relatives in Moscow were in terrible financial straits. Actor/director Maximilian Schell, whom Tarkovsky met during a visit to Berlin, sent 10,000 roubles to Moscow to help the Tarkovsky family pay off its debts. Tarkovsky's son Andrei was permitted to visit him only after he was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1985. Although the apocalyptic subject matter of the film has led people to assume that Tarkovsky knew he was dying of cancer while making the film, The Sacrifice was NOT intended as his last artistic testament; in fact his physical condition began to decline seriously in November 1985 and he was not diagnosed until December of that year, when the film was already in the late editing stages. He already had new projects in mind - among them Hoffmaniana, based on the writings of German Romantic writer E. T. A. Hoffmann, and an adaptation of Hamlet.
The Sacrifice won several awards at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival, including Best Artistic Contribution (for Sven Nykvist's work), the Special Jury Prize, the FIPRESCI International Critics Prize, the Ecumenical Prize, and the Prize of the Commission for Technical Excellence.
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Producer: Anna-Lena Wibom and Katerina Farago
Screenplay: Andrei Tarkovsky
Cinematography: Sven Nykvist
Editing: Andrei Tarkovsky and Michal Leszczylowski
Music: includes pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach and Watazumido Shuso
Art Direction: Anna Asp
Principal cast: Erland Josephson (Alexander), Susan Fleetwood (Adelaide), Allan Edwall (Otto), Gudrun Gisladottir (Maria), Valerie Mairesse (Julia), Filippa Franzen (Marta), Sven Wollter (Victor), Tommy Kjellqvist (Little Man).
by James Steffen