The Sacrifice Review

Michael Brooke has reviewed the Region 0 release of The Sacrifice – a long, intricate, emotionally devastating parable of nuclear war and redemption that was the last film by the great Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky. The DVD is only adequate technically, but there’s a more than welcome bonus in the form of a 101-minute documentary.

AndreiTarkovsky’s last film The Sacrifice opened in London in January 1987, less than a week after his untimely death at the age of 54, and I saw it for the first time shortly after reading the obituaries – a decidedly strange experience considering that this is a film where death or its premonition are constantly on the horizon (it’s generally accepted now that Tarkovsky may not have known he was dying when he shot it, but he certainly did during the editing).

It also came out at a time when, although things had somewhat thawed politically between the two global superpowers, nuclear war was still very much on the agenda – and there was much discussion of Tarkovsky’s political motives at the time given his status as probably the most internationally renowned Soviet exile since Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov.

Seeing it again for the first time in over a decade, it feels far less like political commentary and more like a statement of universal values – indeed, it’s hard to think of another major film of its era that is so nakedly spiritual. Apart from a few trappings of late 20th-century life – a car, a television, a stereo – there’s little to set it in a specific time or place.

It’s also rather less indebted to Ingmar Bergman than seemed the case when it first appeared – although it’s in Swedish and features numerous Bergman regulars both in front of and behind the camera (most notably the great Sven Nykvist as cinematographer), it’s nonetheless entirely bound up in Tarkovsky’s own personal universe, one of the most distinctive in film history (I don’t normally have much time for the auteur theory, but Tarkovsky is an exception: Stalker, Nostalghia and The Sacrifice were made with different casts and crews in different countries and even different languages, yet look and feel almost identical).

For what is comfortably one of the most uncompromising “art” films of the late 20th century, the plot is remarkably straightforward, almost fable-like. Alexander (Erland Josephson) lives on a beautiful if somewhat desolate Swedish island with his wife (Susan Fleetwood) and son (Tommy Kjellqvist). Although he often muses on the subject of death, and has sinister premonitions about war-ravaged cities, he is shocked to the core when he hears that nuclear war has broken out nearby and that the end of the world is quite literally nigh. After a long, dark night of agonising soul-searching, he prays to whatever God will hear him, offering to sacrifice all that he holds most dear in exchange for the salvation of humankind. When he wakes in the morning, everything is back to normal. Was there ever really a nuclear strike, or was it all a dream? No matter, a bargain has been struck, and it must be kept…

The performances are astonishing, especially given the demands made on the actors in terms of presenting spiritual anguish in largely wordless scenes. Erland Josephson had already worked with Tarkovsky before (on Nostalghia), quite apart from extensive work with Bergman, so he was more than up to the task, but in many ways the most impressive performance is Susan Fleetwood’s – dubbed into Swedish for the most part, the nervous breakdown she undergoes at the news of impending nuclear holocaust was so unnervingly convincing that Tarkovsky decided, wisely, to leave it in her native English: the emotional impact more than makes up for the unexpected language switch.

Late Tarkovsky (Mirror, Stalker, Nostalghia and The Sacrifice) is about as “difficult” as films get in terms of presenting intricate tapestries of images and sounds interwoven to create multiple layers of meaning in lieu of a simple, straightforward narrative – but if you’re new to his unique world, this is as good a starting-point as any and better than most: it’s less hermetic than Mirror or Nostalghia, and shorter than Stalker, and has a more dramatic climax than any of them.

And, probably not coincidentally, it’s also the most emotionally powerful film Tarkovsky made – at least from a Western point of view. The Sacrifice was the first Tarkovsky feature to make any kind of impact in the US, which had largely ignored his work during his lifetime, which is why it’s a little ironic that four of his films are currently (July 2000) available on American DVD labels, which is four more than you can get in Region 2! That said, I’m a little surprised that his two sci-fi features Solaris and Stalker aren’t among them, given the well-known correlation between sci-fi buffs and DVD owners…

Given that there’s over four hours of material on the DVD, I was a little worried that it might fall prey to excessive compression – but in the event it does a reasonable job given the caveat that Tarkovsky’s films really aren’t particularly suited to the small screen at all.

The print is generally in very good condition, and the DVD transfer makes a surprisingly effective fist of capturing the original’s immensely subtle palette of blacks, muted browns and greys. The image is slightly soft, but I suspect the sharpness of the subtitles accentuates this, and the backgrounds are prone to artefacting, a probably inevitable side-effect given the number of very slow-moving scenes set against patterned or textured surfaces (Warner’s original 1999 transfer of Barry Lyndon had similar problems). That said, though, this is a clearly superior transfer to both Criterion’s Andrei Rublev and especially Fox Lorber’s Nostalghia, even if it falls short of the other Kino Tarkovsky DVD, The Mirror.

I do have one small complaint, though – the 1.66:1 picture is framed correctly in terms of the film’s original aspect ratio, but it’s slightly too high up the original 4:3 frame, which meant that watching it on my widescreen TV’s 14:9 zoom mode involved shaving a tiny amount off the top, with a very small black border at the bottom to remind me of what I was missing. That said, this is a very minor quibble, and the film was perfectly watchable. The subtitles are compulsory, but are very clear and, thankfully, framed in a 16:9 friendly way.

The sound is the original mono, but the transfer is pretty well flawless – an important consideration for a film whose soundtrack is arguably as important as its picture (in fact, there’s often more going on on the aural side of things). And normally, I’d be outraged if a two-and-a-half hour feature only came with twelve chapter stops, but not in this case: The Sacrifice moves so slowly, and has so few conventionally ‘dramatic’ moments that it makes little difference. To be honest, this isn’t the kind of film where you can just dip into a few minutes: you either surrender to it in toto or not at all.

As a hardened veteran of DVD production featurettes and behind-the-scenes documentaries, I know all too well that most of them are pretty worthless (little more than extended ads, for the most part), and the number of genuinely interesting and informative ones are in a tiny minority. An even smaller handful actually managed a cinema release on their own – Hearts of Darkness (Apocalypse Now), Burden of Dreams (Fitzcarraldo), A.K. (Ran) – which is why it’s disappointing that the relevant DVDs didn’t include them.

Given that most of the Kino DVDs I’ve seen have no extras whatsoever, I wasn’t expecting anything different here – but I’m delighted that they’ve proved me wrong, because the 101-minute Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky not only falls into this select group (it had a brief London cinema run in the late 1980s), but it’s also been included on the DVD. This is especially generous considering that The Sacrifice isn’t exactly short to begin with, and the combined footage total certainly justifies the absence of any other extras.

And, to be honest, this is pretty much all you’d need – Tarkovsky’s films are peculiarly difficult to pin down in words (you may detect a certain heartfeltness here), so nearly two hours of seeing him at work on The Sacrifice illuminates his working methods in a way that third-party critical analysis simply couldn’t begin to.

We see the sheer amount of effort that goes into the creation of what on screen are breathtakingly simple images (for instance, the shot of Alexander’s son asleep in bed, the curtain billowing inwards, the lighting “breathing” in time with the wind), quite apart from the problems involved in communicating through an interpreter – Swedish and English seem to be the dominant languages on the set, but Tarkovsky only spoke Russian, and his frustration at failing to get his point of view across is at times all too obvious, fully matched by the problems associated with long, complicated takes, the most elaborate of which had to be reshot (no small consideration when take in question involved a house burning down to the ground!).

It’s by far the best documentary on Tarkovsky to date – as with the much-bootlegged Making The Shining (at least until Warner included it on their DVD), the sheer rarity value of the footage more than compensates for any technical shortcomings, and it’s a very welcome bonus.

Michael Brooke

Updated: Feb 27, 1999

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