Disc Spotlight: Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice

By  · Published on July 5th, 2011

Despite having only made seven feature films, Andrei Tarkovsky is largely considered one of the most important Russian filmmakers of the twentieth century, perhaps second only to Sergei Eisenstein (who was, aesthetically-speaking, his polar opposite). However, after enduring enormous troubles with Soviet censors, Tarkovsky expatriated to Italy, where he made his sixth film Nostalghia (1983) and later to Sweden where he made The Sacrifice (1986), which became his final film as he succumbed to lung cancer shortly after its production. Earlier this summer, one of Tarkovsky’s most beloved titles, Solaris (1972), was updated to Blu-ray by Criterion, and now Kino has updated their DVD of The Sacrifice to Blu as well, making this summer something of an embarrassment of riches for American Tarkovsky fans who have longed to see the filmmaker’s intricately beautiful work in high-definition.

The Film:

Tarkovsky was an outspoken fan of Ingmar Bergman, and when Tarkovsky’s status in the international arthouse community, his admiration of Bergman grew into a mutual respect. While Tarkovsky’s films, still possessing a distinct signature of their own, echo Bergman’s work in their explorations of human consciousness, emotional experience and despair, and share a similar preoccupation with religious themes, The Sacrifice feels more like a tribute to Bergman than any other film Tarkovsky made. Besides the unmistakable Swedish setting, the film stars Bergman regular Erland Josephson (Scenes from a Marriage, Fanny and Alexander) and was shot by Sven Nykvist, Bergman’s regular cinematographer who here adds a special layer of elegance to Tarkovsky’s signature long shots.

The Sacrifice is essentially about a life altering forty-eight hours in the life of a man who it seems has lived many lives. Josephson plays Alexander, a wealthy patriarch who, as we come to understand through his interactions with his family, the postman, housekeepers, and the family doctor, has at some point in his life been an actor, a writer, and a psychologist, who has now decidedly slowed his life down to take care of his very young son who we come to know primarily as “Little Man.” However, after hearing planes in a distance and receiving notice via television of an international conflict, it becomes clear that World War III has interrupted the idyllic contentment of their country home in a way that couldn’t be more sudden and world-shaking. The end of the world has become imminent. Loyalties and the value of ostensibly important relationships are tested as secrets are revealed. Everybody reacts to the news in their own way.

Alexander, previously an agnostic, begs God to undo what has been done and promises to sacrifice everything he can if The Almighty makes that happen. Otto the Postman (Alan Edwall), who has heretofore revealed that he is something of a “collector” of the supernatural, informs Alexander that one of his housekeepers is a witch who may hold the key to his means of sacrifice. Alexander visits the housekeeper and what follows after is something for first-time viewers to experience on their own. Let’s just say this film’s devastating ending allows a multitude of interpretations, and none of them come cheap.

Tarkovsky famously viewed cinema as a means of “sculpting in time,” or as a way to experience the deliberate movement of time in ways that no other art form made possible (the filmmaker was so devoted to this idea that he wrote a book that recounts how he implemented it throughout his own limited but impressive filmography). Tarkovsky’s films are famous for their long takes and daunting running times. A Tarkovsky film is a rare kind of experience, and never an easy one. I’ve seen his entire body of work and watching Kino’s Blu-ray was my second time to experience (rather than merely “watch”) The Sacrifice, but each and every time I view a Tarkovsky film they retain their affective power if not exponentially build on it. The Sacrifice is no doubt a great film, but while it’s not amongst Tarkovsky’s very best in my opinion (elements of the ending deflate much of the power of the rest of the film), it is just as astounding.

Tarkovsky’s films are often exhausting experiences as they are both emotionally devastating and aesthetically challenging for the viewer. But I return to his brilliant work time and again because watching a film that feels so carefully sculpted in time is simply unlike any other cinematic experience. It’s as engrossing and hypnotic as it is ultimately draining. While Tarkovsky’s work expects a great deal from its viewers, the ratrity of such an experience in a growing age of distraction makes films like The Sacrifice ever more valuable, which is why being able to see his work in such a strong high-definition transfer makes Kino’s new release of The Sacrifice so much more than a better version of a beautiful and haunting film. This film may reconnect you to nature even better than nature can.

The Blu-ray:

Having seen the Kino DVD before, this BRD update is easily the best way to see The Sacrifice at home. Tarkovsky’s films are about sustaining and exploring the carefully coordinated detail within the frame, and with this transfer the detail is apparent like it has never been before on home video. Similar to Kino’s original DVD release, the BRD of The Sacrifice comes accompanied with a DVD of the documentary Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky (1988), a feature-length fly-on-the-wall account of Tarkovsky in production of The Sacrifice, framed with narrated excerpts of his book Sculpting in Time, interviews with family and coworkers, and historical footage. This fantastic documentary, originally produced for Swedish television, is thankfully far from the generic talking-head interviews we routinely receive as special features that are completely mislabeled as “Behind the Scenes.” What you get instead with Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky is a frankly detailed account of all the detail: we learn how long it took and how difficult it was to build the set and coordinate the long takes for The Sacrifice, and we see Tarkovsky’s presence in each and every decision.

Besides a palpable reverence to the filmmaker’s ideas, what’s most striking about this documentary is that it doesn’t always portray Tarkovsky himself in the best light. I have a great deal of respect for the documentarians (especially since the program was aired after his untimely death) for including the moments where Tarkovsky comes across as talkative, hyperkinetic, impatient, and even condescendingly dictatorial rather than somebody whose personality fits in any way with the tone of his work. Notoriously, there were troubles incurred in filming one of the last scenes/shots of The Sacrifice, and an unfortunate malfunction in machinery meant that an entire set needed to be rebuilt. Incredibly, that moment, and all the layers of heated emotion accompanying it, is here in this documentary. It may even make you watch The Sacrifice in a completely different way altogether.

Bottom Line:

This high-definition release of The Sacrifice is essential for anybody who admires Tarkovsky’s work, for the beauty of his filmmaking deserves to be seen in the most detail possible. For those curious about Tarkovsky’s work, this Blu-ray of The Sacrifice is a perfect way to see the movie for the first time and, in perusing its accompanied documentary, understanding his work better along the way.

Including Criterion’s recent update of Solaris, two of Tarkovsky’s seven films are now available in high-definition. Kino has previously released The Mirror and Stalker on DVD, so hopefully we’ll see more updated transfers of Tarkovsky’s time sculptures from Kino at some point.

You can purchase The Sacrifice from Amazon here.