The Sacrifice

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The Sacrifice
British film poster
Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky
Produced by Anna-Lena Wibom
Written by Andrei Tarkovsky
Starring Erland Josephson
Susan Fleetwood
Allan Edwall
Guðrún S. Gísladóttir
Sven Wollter
Valérie Mairesse
Filippa Franzen
Tommy Kjellqvist
Music by Johann Sebastian Bach
Cinematography Sven Nykvist
Editing by Andrei Tarkovsky
Michał Leszczyłowski
Distributed by Sandrew (Swedish theatrical)
Release dates
  • 9 May 1986 (1986-05-09) (Sweden)
Running time 142 minutes[1]
Country Sweden
United Kingdom
Language Swedish

The Sacrifice (Swedish: Offret) is a 1986 drama film directed by Andrei Tarkovsky and starring Erland Josephson. It was the final film by Tarkovsky, who died shortly after completing it.


The film opens on the birthday of Alexander, an aging journalist, theatre and literary critic, university lecturer on aesthetics, and former stage actor. He lives in a beautiful house with an actress wife (Adelaide), a young stepdaughter (Marta), and a "mute" young son (who is referred to as "Little Man"). Alexander and Little Man plant a tree by the sea-side, when Alexander's friend Otto, who works part-time for the post office, delivers a birthday card to him. In the conversation, Alexander mentions that his relationship with God was "nonexistent". After Otto leaves, Adelaide and Victor—a medical doctor and a close family friend who recently performed a throat operation on "Little Man," which has left the boy unable to speak—arrive at the scene and offer to take Alexander and Little Man home in Victor's car. However, Alexander prefers to stay behind and "chats with" Little Man. In his monologue, Alexander recounts how he and Adelaide found this lovely house near the sea by accident, and they fell in love with the house and surroundings at first sight.

Back home, families and friends (Otto and Victor) gather in Alexander's house to celebrate his birthday. Their maid Maria leaves, while the nurse-maid Julia stays to help with the dinner. People comment on Maria's odd appearances and behavior. ("She scares me.") As the guests chat inside the house, where Otto reveals that he is a student of paranormal phenomena, a collector of "inexplicable but true incidences." Just when the dinner is almost ready, the rumbling noise of low-flying jet fighters interrupts them and soon after, a news program announces the beginning of what appears to be all-out war, possibly a nuclear holocaust. In despair the protagonist vows to God to sacrifice all he loves ("I'll give Thee all I have, I'll give up my family, whom I love, I'll destroy my home and give up Little Man") if only this act of fate may be undone. Otto advises him to slip away and lie with Alexander's maid Maria, whom Otto convinces him to be a witch, "in the best possible sense".

When he awakes the next morning everything seems "normal", but whether Alexander dreamed the episode is never made explicit. Nevertheless, Alexander sets forth to give up all he loves and possesses. He tricks the family members and friends into going for a walk, and sets fire to his house when they are away. As the group rushes back, alarmed by the fire, Alexander confesses that he set the fire himself, running up and down furiously. Maria, who until then was not seen that morning, appears in the fire scene as Alexander tries to approach her but is restrained by others. Without an explanation, an ambulance appears in this very remote area and two paramedics chase Alexander, who "appears" to have lost control of himself, and drive him off (perhaps to an institution). Maria begins to bicycle away, but stops halfway to observe Little Man watering the tree he and Alexander planted the day before. As Maria leaves the scene, the "mute" Little Man, lying at the foot of the tree, suddenly utters his only line in the film, quoting the opening of the Gospel of John: "In the beginning was the Word. Why is that, Papa?" as Johann Sebastian Bach's aria Erbarme dich, mein Gott, (Have Mercy, My God) from the St. Matthew Passion, which also opens the film, plays in the background.



  • Watazumido-Shuso, Hotchiku flöjt (海童道祖 法竹)"
    "Shingetsu" (心月)
    "Nezasa No Shirabe" (根笹調)
    "Dai-Bosatsu" (大菩薩)
    The Everest Records Group 3289


The cinematography consists largely of slow dolly shots, containing the hallmarks of Tarkovsky and cinematographer Sven Nykvist. The film's sound-track includes three distinct pieces: the passionate aria Erbarme dich from Johann Sebastian Bach's St. Matthew Passion, soothing Japanese flute music played by Watazumi Doso Roshi, and eerie traditional chants from the Swedish forests (in the old days farm girls used to call home the livestock from their forest pastures in this way). The film also contains long close-ups of Leonardo da Vinci's Adoration of the Magi.

The film uses long takes more often than in Tarkovsky's previous films. The opening, post-credits shot (a tracking shot of Alexander, Little Man, and Otto talking and walking) lasts nine minutes and twenty-six seconds, the longest single take in all of Tarkovsky's work. Shots lasting between six and eight minutes are common in the film, and there are only 115 shots in the entire film.


The Sacrifice originated as a screenplay entitled The Witch, which preserved the element of a middle-aged protagonist spending the night with a reputed witch. However, in this story, his cancer was miraculously cured, and he ran away with the woman. Tarkovsky wanted personal favorite and frequent collaborator Anatoly Solonitsyn to star in this picture, as was also his intention for Nostalghia,[2] but when Solonitsyn died from cancer in 1982, the director rewrote the screenplay into what would become The Sacrifice and also produced Nostalghia with Oleg Yankovsky as the lead.[3] Sacrifice lead Erland Josephson played major character Domenico in the 1983 production.

Most of the film takes place inside or around a house specially built for the production. The climactic scene is a long tracking shot in which Alexander burns his house and his possessions. It was done in a single, six minute, fifty second take, often incorrectly identified as Tarkovsky's longest take. The shot was very difficult to achieve. Initially, there was only one camera used, despite Sven Nykvist's protest. While shooting the burning house, the camera jammed, ruining the footage. (This disaster is recorded in the documentary entitled Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky and the documentary One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich.)

The scene had to be reshot, requiring a quick and very costly reconstruction of the house in two weeks. This time, two cameras were set up on tracks, running parallel to each other. The footage in the final version of the film is the second take, which lasts for several minutes and ends abruptly because the camera had run through an entire reel in capturing the single shot. The cast and crew broke down in tears after the take was completed.[4]

Relationship with Bergman[edit]

The film reflects Tarkovsky's respect for the Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman. It was set in Sweden on the island of Gotland, close to Fårö, where many of Bergman's films had been shot. Tarkovsky wanted to film it on Fårö, but was denied access by the military.[5]

Erland Josephson was a recurring figure in Bergman productions, especially from Hour of the Wolf onwards; counting that 1968 production, he acted in nine of his films before The Sacrifice. The film's production designer, Anna Asp, had previously won an Academy Award along with Susanne Lingheim for the sumptuous décor of Fanny and Alexander, and also worked on Autumn Sonata and Bergman's 1984 television film After the Rehearsal. The Sacrifice was filmed by Bergman's favourite cinematographer, Sven Nykvist. Additionally, one of Bergman's sons, Daniel Bergman, worked as a camera assistant.


The film won the Grand Prix and the FIPRESCI Prize at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival.[6] At the 22nd Guldbagge Awards the film won the awards for Best Film and Best Actor (Erland Josephson).[7]


  1. ^ "The Sacrifice (1986)". Retrieved 19 December 2013. 
  2. ^ Thompson, Lang. "Nostalghia". Retrieved 13 December 2013. 
  3. ^ Parkinson, David. "Foreign Classics: Andrei Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice - To Sleep, Perchance to Dream?". Retrieved 13 December 2013. 
  4. ^ Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. Dir. Michal Leszczylowski. Perf. Brian Cox, Erland Josephson and Andrey Tarkovskiy. Svenska Filminstitutet (SFI), 1988.
  5. ^ "Ingmar Andrei Tarkovsky". Retrieved 2011-07-11. 
  6. ^ "Festival de Cannes: The Sacrifice". Retrieved 2009-07-11. 
  7. ^ "Offret (1986)". Swedish Film Institute. 14 March 2014. 

External links[edit]

Awards and achievements
Preceded by
Grand Prix Spécial du Jury, Cannes
Succeeded by