In Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice, the distance from hope to despair is a short jump—a chasm crossed with the help of something so immediate as a television transmission. As his birthday celebration winds down on a gloomy summer evening in remote Sweden, retired intellectual Alexander (Erland Josephson) tiptoes half-drunk into his living room to find a small company of friends and family bewitched by the soft blue glow of a TV set’s screen, out of which emanates an announcement of nuclear conflict. The warning winds down, the TV is turned off, and the mood descends—first into stunned silence, then into outright hysteria, and then into a kind of sedated anxiousness from which the film never quite resurfaces. In certain contexts, this dramaturgical pivot might register a bit maudlin, but in 2018, when Twitter and cable news provide an endless gushing stream of outrages, the film’s evocation of being rapidly thrown into disarray by a piece of topical turmoil hits home.
The subject of The Sacrifice, made when Tarkovsky was dying of lung cancer, is the existential desperation occasioned by crossing this emotional threshold. When finality is no longer an abstraction but an imminent reality, how does the mind cope? In positing possible responses, Tarkovsky at first defaults to reactionary hypotheses, with Alexander’s wife (Susan Fleetwood) flailing in extreme panic while the local doctor (Sven Wollter) reflexively roleplays alpha-male stoicism by syringing all the women in the room with a powerful tranquilizer. The film’s emphasis, however, ultimately falls on Alexander, whose recourse to the divine is altogether less predictable and fixed. When old-fashioned prayer proves fruitless amid the ongoing whirr of passing fighter jets, the nervous, overly cerebral patriarch dips into ancient apocalyptic superstition, goaded along the way by the folksy local mailman (Allan Edwall), and settles on an irrational pact with God to forgo his speech and belongings in exchange for the continued survival of Earth.
Alexander holds the Tarkovskian belief that man’s material and technological progress has far outpaced his spiritual development, yet he’s not without optimism for the future. His mute son (Tommy Kjellqvist), referred to as Little Man, embodies that optimism, and the child’s temporary disappearance in the film’s latter half signals a symbolic test of faith. Moreover, the frail, leafless tree the two plant together in the opening scene exemplifies the relative prosperity of that faith, while the splendid cottage Alexander has fashioned for his family acts as a dispensable material appendage. That The Sacrifice is conceived in such blunt schematic terms isn’t unusual in Tarkovsky’s body of work—few directors ever made such evocative use of elemental symbology—but what’s damning here is that the scaffolding itself is so visible, thanks in large part to an abnormally talky script that spends its first act highlighting these thematic underpinnings in lengthy monologues.
The Sacrifice’s occasional theatrical bearing betrays its debt to the artistic lineage of its host country, which sits alongside nods to Japanese folklore and Renaissance painting. The trope of an enlightened man suffering under the weight of humanity’s follies, in addition to the minimalist decoration of the room where the central melodrama takes place, call to mind August Strindberg, though the more foundational influence is Ingmar Bergman. It’s in the presence of Josephson and Edwall, who both hail from the Swedish auteur’s stock company; in cinematographer Sven Nykvist’s soul-baring close-ups, redolent of so many of Bergman’s films; and the use of a nuclear crisis as both instigator and agitator of a spiritual crucible (a la Shame and Persona). Because the two directors shared a mutual admiration, it can be tempting to link them in the mind, but in fact their strengths were quite distinct from one another, and Tarkovsky’s film only suffers in channeling Bergman’s tendencies.
Like Alexander himself, however, who inexorably moves toward an act that’s both foolhardy and awe-inspiring, The Sacrifice eventually transcends the flaws in its design. In its second half, the film embraces a dream logic that captures its protagonist’s mix of woozy terror and almost childlike guilelessness more elegantly than any of his early verbal musings could. Formal strategies that at first serve to demarcate states of reverie—from the use of slow motion and black-and-white stock footage, to disruptions in visual perspective and spatial clarity—start to impinge on the ostensible reality of the narrative space until the film inhabits a hallucinatory middle ground where an anemic bluish gray is the predominant shade. In doing so, Tarkovsky gives form to Alexander’s breakdown of rationality and adoption of a messianic state. Regardless of whether or not one accepts the legitimacy of his actions—Tarkovsky asks only that we respect his profound conviction—there should be little doubt as to the depth of his despair.
This tight synergy between Alexander’s mad desperation and his creator’s uncompromising willingness to take his predicament seriously apexes in the film’s concluding sequence, a one-take feat that stands as the most disciplined expression of the temporal philosophies Tarkovsky espoused in Sculpting in Time. Over the course of a fully exhausted 11-minute film reel, Alexander watches as a flame he lit grows to engulf his entire house, with the rest of the ensemble emerging in horror from the horizon after it’s too late. In a back-and-forth tracking shot captured from a distant vantage point, Tarkovsky memorializes both the chaos and serenity of the real-time event, counterbalancing the frenzied action of the figures within the frame with the breathtaking beauty of the burning foundation as it’s reflected in the marshy landscape. Though an incredibly protracted shot, what it really asks is for us to take a short leap: this time from despair back to hope.
The Sacrifice, Andrei Tarkovsky’s seventh and final film, was in dire need of a transfer that would do justice to its fount of visual detail, its often daring embrace of underexposure, and its ineffably subtle sound design, and Kino Lorber’s transfer, sourced from a 4K restoration, is up the task. The scene detailing Alexander’s long prayer, conducted in the unforgiving half-light of dusk, has looked muddy in past home-video editions of the film, but here it’s incredibly sharp, while the dreamy swaying of vividly green grass in one of the opening scenes is so immediate as to jump off the screen. The cavernous mix, which encompasses soft natural ambiances, distant reverberations of choral music and Japanese bamboo flute, and room-shaking rumblings of incoming warfare, really deserves a theatrical space for ideal immersion. Suffice it to say that, at home, this is a headphones movie if there ever was one.
Kino has wisely kept the focus on contextualizing behind-the-scenes pieces, the most notable of which is Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, a 102-minute documentary on the film’s making by editor Michael Leszczylowski. The feature offers what must be the most candid glimpses of Tarkovsky at work that exist publicly, and there are plenty of surprises and insights to be gained, from the director’s unexpected playfulness on set to his easy rapport with Sven Nykvist. Leszczylowski himself weighs in on his cherished relationship with the director and the fraught final months of the film’s post-production in a generous interview on the main disc, and Robert Bird contributes the refreshingly measured liner notes, which eloquently assess the film’s visceral impact while also taking a sobering view of the artist’s hang-ups.
A high-fidelity version of Andrei Tarkovsky’s swan song was one of the few missing links left in the home-video archiving of the Russian master, and Kino has delivered a set that admirably preserves the film’s delicate effects.