How to Face a Nuclear Apocalypse: Tarkovsky’s “The Sacrifice”
The Russian master’s “final testament” is a crowning achievement of a man constantly in pursuit of moral truth and cinematic perfection.
Andrei Tarkovsky did not know that The Sacrifice (1986) would be the last feature he would ever direct: initial preparations for the film started in 1983, two years before he was diagnosed with the cancer that would eventually kill him. But the great Russian master must have possessed an uncanny premonition of his imminent demise, because The Sacrifice—the second of his films produced during exile from his native land—bears unmistakable signs of a “final testament.” For one thing the film is dedicated to his son—“with hope and confidence”—almost as a personal farewell gift or parting word of advice. It also contains as a central narrative device a worldwide nuclear war that will destroy civilization. The film thus functions in part as a dire warning about the fate of mankind itself.
Nonetheless, if Tarkovsky wished with his last picture to offer a final address to the world, he certainly refused to attenuate his enigmatic style of filmmaking in order to do so. The Sacrifice begins with the longest take of Tarkovsky’s career, a nearly ten minute slow tracking shot in which only the most minimal actions occur. A former actor and current professor, Alexander (Erland Josephson), tells a parable to his mute son (Tommy Kjellqvist) as they plant a “Japanese tree” in a barren, marshy landscape; soon thereafter the local postmaster (Allan Edwall) joins them to talk about Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of “the eternal return.” The scene and the ones that immediately succeed it spell out several of Tarkovsky’s lifelong concerns: the need to discipline oneself and grow amidst difficult conditions; the wrong path taken by modern societies “built on force, power, fear, dependence”; the inability of an ineffectual, over-intellectual man to do something to change rather than just speak about what he sees as unjust; the desire to grab hold of the present amidst the merciless, ceaseless flow of time. With the last of these, by emphasizing the real time play of the scene, Tarkovsky cinematically enacts what he philosophically preaches.
Unlike the complex mosaic structures of Tarkovsky’s previous films Mirror (1975) and Nostalgia (1983), the narrative of The Sacrifice is actually relatively straightforward: Alexander overcomes his atheistic and intellectual ennui by sacrificing to God all he has, including his sanity, to save the world from nuclear war—the deal is consummated when Alexander sleeps with the village witch who is also one of his maids (Guðrún S. Gísladóttir). But Tarkovsky complicates the story with abstruse dream sequences, unexplained and unresolved actions, and, of course, an almost otherworldly patient rhythm. Meaning is deepened and expanded by a plethora of symbols and references: a map of 1600s Europe, the postmaster’s collection of “unusual incidents,” the yin and yang sign on Alexander’s robe, allusions to Richard III, The Idiot, and The Gospel of John. The influence of Ingmar Bergman can be particularly felt on the whole of the picture: not only was the film shot in Sweden, Bergman’s home, but Tarkovsky worked with famed Bergman collaborators Josephson and cinematographer Sven Nykvist, whose precise camerawork and rich compositions contribute enormously to look and tone.
What makes The Sacrifice so powerful is Tarkovsky’s ability to bring together such diverse elements to achieve a complete personal vision of the human potential for goodness as hopeful as it is apocalyptic. The film’s famous concluding scene, in which Alexander burns down his family house to make good on his pact with God, is a terrifying statement about the madness brought on by a technological civilization constantly at the brink of self-destruction. At the same time it’s a comically absurdist, almost slapstick realization of Nietzsche’s anti-nihilistic “philosophy of laughter,” a combating of resignation through joyful anti-conformism and individual daring. It is here that Tarkovsky creates his most powerful image of whole-hearted, unqualified sacrifice, an act that can overcome the stasis, paralysis, and cynicism of materialistic attitudes and relationships that so often cripples his characters. The haunting yet bold resolution of Tarkovsky’s “final testament” thus serves not only as a moving tribute to the viewers and loved ones to whom he wished to dedicate his last work, but also as a fitting crowning achievement of a man constantly in pursuit of moral truth and cinematic perfection.
Michael Joshua Rowin writes about cinema for The L Magazine, Cineaste, Artforum, LA Weekly, and Reverse Shot.