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
Edited 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 Swedish film directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. Starring Erland Josephson, it centers on a middle-aged intellectual who attempts to bargain with God to stop an impending nuclear holocaust. The Sacrifice was Tarkovsky's second film as a Soviet expatriate, after Nostalghia, and was also his last, as he died shortly after its completion. Like 1972's Solaris, it won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival.


The film opens on the birthday of Alexander (Erland Josephson), an actor who gave up the stage to work as a journalist, critic, and lecturer on aesthetics. He lives in a beautiful house with his actress wife Adelaide (Susan Fleetwood), stepdaughter Marta (Filippa Franzén), and young son, "Little Man", who is temporarily mute due to a throat operation. Alexander and Little Man plant a tree by the sea-side, when Alexander's friend Otto, a part-time postman, delivers a birthday card to him. When Otto asks, Alexander mentions that his relationship with God is "nonexistent". After Otto leaves, Adelaide and Victor, a medical doctor and a close family friend who performed Little Man's operation, arrive at the scene and offer to take Alexander and Little Man home in Victor's car. However, Alexander prefers to stay behind and talk to his son. In his monologue, Alexander first recounts how he and Adelaide found this lovely house near the sea by accident, and how they fell in love with the house and surroundings, but then enters a bitter tirade against the state of modern man. As Tarkovsky wrote, Alexander is weary of "the pressures of change, the discord in his family, and his instinctive sense of the threat posed by the relentless march of technology"; in fact, he has "grown to hate the emptiness of human speech".[2]

The family, as well as Victor and Otto, gather at Alexander's house for the celebration. Their maid Maria leaves, while nurse-maid Julia stays to help with the dinner. People comment on Maria's odd appearances and behavior. 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, as Alexander enters, a news program announces the beginning of what appears to be all-out war, and possibly nuclear holocaust. In despair, he vows to God to sacrifice all he loves, even Little Man, if this may be undone. Otto advises him to slip away and lie with Maria, whom Otto convinces him is a witch, "in the best possible sense". Alexander escapes the house, taking his gun, and rides his bike to where she is staying. She is bewildered when he makes his advances, but when he puts his gun to his temple ("Don't kill us, Maria"), at which point the jet-fighters' rumblings return, she soothes him and they consummate while floating above her bed, though Alexander's reaction is ambiguous.

When he awakes the next morning, in his own bed, everything seems normal. 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 their house when they are away. As the group rushes back, alarmed by the fire, Alexander confesses that he set the fire himself, and furiously runs around. Maria, who until then was not seen that morning, appears in the fire scene; Alexander tries to approach her, but is restrained by others. Without explanation, an ambulance appears in the area and two paramedics chase Alexander, who appears to have lost control of himself, and drive him off. Maria begins to bicycle away, but stops halfway to observe Little Man watering the tree he and Alexander planted the day before.[n 1] As Maria leaves the scene, the "mute" Little Man, lying at the foot of the tree, speaks his only line, which quotes the opening Gospel of John: "In the beginning was the Word.[Jn 1:1] Why is that, Papa?"



  • 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
  • "Locklåtar från Dalarna och Härjedalen"
    Elin Lisslass, Karin Edvards Johansson, Tjugmyr Maria Larsson, o.a.
    SR Records RELP 5017


The cinematography consists largely of slow dolly shots, containing the hallmarks of Tarkovsky and cinematographer Sven Nykvist. The film's soundtrack includes three distinct pieces: the aria Erbarme dich from Johann Sebastian Bach's St. Matthew Passion, Japanese flute music played by Watazumi Doso Roshi, and 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). It also uses 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 his work. Shots lasting between six and eight minutes are common, 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.[2] In March 1982, Tarkovsky wrote in his journal that he considered this ending "weak", as the happy ending was unchallenged.[4] He wanted personal favorite and frequent collaborator Anatoly Solonitsyn to star in this picture, as was also his intention for Nostalghia,[5] but when Solonitsyn died from cancer in 1982, the director rewrote the screenplay into what would become The Sacrifice and also filmed Nostalghia with Oleg Yankovsky as the lead.[6]

Relationship with Tarkovsky's previous films[edit]

Tarkovsky considered The Sacrifice different from his earlier films because, while he commented that his recent films had been "impressionistic in structure", in this case he not only " develop [its] episodes in the light of my own experience and of the rules of dramatic structure", but also to "[build] the picture into a poetic whole in which all the episodes were harmoniously linked", and that because of this, it "took on the form of a poetic parable".[2]

He also drew a comparison between the Nostalghia character Domenico, who Josephson played, and Alexander, because both "carry the mark of sacrifice" and make offerings of themselves, although Domenico's act (self-immolation in the Piazza del Campidoglio) "produces no tangible results".[2]


Alexander's house, specially built for the production, was to be burned for the climactic scene, in which Alexander burns his house and his possessions. The shot was very difficult to achieve, and the first failed attempt was, according to Tarkovsky, the only problem during shooting. Despite Sven Nykvist's protest, only one camera was used for this scene, and while shooting the burning house, the camera jammed and the footage was thus ruined. (This disaster is recorded in the documentary Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, which was directed by Sacrifice co-editor Michał Leszczyłowski, and in 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 six minutes (and ends abruptly because the camera had run through an entire reel). The cast and crew broke down in tears after the take was completed.[2][7]

Relationship with Bergman[edit]

Critics have compared[8][9][10] The Sacrifice to the works of famed Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, and critic Emanuel Levy wrote in his review of the film that "the casting of one of Bergman’s famous actors in the lead and the use of Bergman’s brilliant cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, not to mention shooting the film on Fårö, made comparisons with the Swedish filmmaker’s spiritual work inevitable".[11] In fact, it had actually been shot on the nearby island of Gotland, as Tarkovsky had been denied access to Fårö by the military,[12] but this error was not uncommon in reviews. 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 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, who worked on every Bergman film from The Virgin Spring through Fanny and Alexander, excluding All These Women and The Serpent's Egg. Additionally, one of Bergman's sons, Daniel, worked as a camera assistant.

In an interview he gave in June 1986, Tarkovsky denied a Bergman influence, saying that "for [him], God is not a mute". He questioned how well critics who made the connection really understood Bergman and existentialism, adding that "Bergman is closer to Kierkegaard than to problems of religion".[13]


The Sacrifice was received positively; Rotten Tomatoes reported an approval rating of 83%, with an average score of 7.4 based on 29 reviews.[14]

The film won the Grand Prix and Tarkovsky's third FIPRESCI Prize[n 2] at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival, and was nominated for the Palme D'Or.[15] In his diaries, Tarkovsky, who did not attend the festival due to his health, commented on how the film which had won the latter award, The Mission, had apparently been unfinished, and yet had won the festival's top honor. Nevertheless, Andrei wrote that "those who want to give their attention to my films are the greatest prize".[16] Sven Nykvist received an award for "Best Artistic Contribution", and the film also won the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury.[n 3] At the 22nd Guldbagge Awards, the film won the awards for Best Film and Best Actor (Erland Josephson).[17] In 1988, it won the BAFTA Award for Best Foreign Language Film.[18]

In 1995, the Vatican compiled a list of 45 'great films', separated into the categories of "Religion", "Values", and "Art", to recognize the centennial of cinema. The Sacrifice was included under the first category, as well as Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev.[19]


  1. ^ 'In the opening shot, before Otto meets them, Alexander tells Little Man the legend of Ioann Kolov, pupil of an Orthodox monk named Pamve, who was ordered by his master to climb a mountain every day, to water a dead tree he had planted, until the tree came back to life, which, after three years, it did.[3]
  2. ^ Andrei Rublev and Nostalghia also won, in 1969 and 1983.
  3. ^ As his previous films, Stalker and Nostalghia, had received the prize in their respective years of competition, Tarkovsky is the only director to have won it three times.


  1. ^ "The Sacrifice (1986)". Retrieved 19 December 2013. 
  2. ^ a b c d e Tarkovsky, Andrei (1989). Sculpting in Time. University of Texas Press. p. 222. ISBN 978-0-292-77624-1. 
  3. ^ Green, Peter. "Tarkovsky's Poetic Cinema". Retrieved 13 September 2014. 
  4. ^ Tarkovsky, Andrei. "Andrei Tarkovsky's Martyrolog on...The Witch". Retrieved 2 June 2014. 
  5. ^ Thompson, Lang. "Nostalghia". Retrieved 13 December 2013. 
  6. ^ Parkinson, David. "Foreign Classics: Andrei Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice - To Sleep, Perchance to Dream?". Retrieved 13 December 2013. 
  7. ^ Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. Dir. Michal Leszczylowski. Perf. Brian Cox, Erland Josephson and Andrey Tarkovskiy. Svenska Filminstitutet (SFI), 1988.
  8. ^ Ebert, Roger. "The Sacrifice". Retrieved 2 June 2014. 
  9. ^ "The Sacrifice". TV Guide. Retrieved 2 June 2014. 
  10. ^ Schwartz, Dennis. "Sacrifice, The (Offret)". Dennis Schwartz's Movie Reviews. Retrieved 2 June 2014. 
  11. ^ Levy, Emanuel. "Sacrifice, The (1986): Tarkovsky's Masterpiece". Retrieved 2 June 2014. 
  12. ^ "Ingmar Andrei Tarkovsky". Retrieved 2011-07-11. 
  13. ^ de Brantes, Charles. "La foi est la seule chose qui puisse sauver l'homme". La France Catholique. Retrieved 29 May 2014. 
  14. ^ "Offret (The Sacrifice)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 3 June 2014. 
  15. ^ "Festival de Cannes: The Sacrifice". Retrieved 2009-07-11. 
  16. ^ Tarkovsky, Andrei. "Andrei Tarkovsky's Martyrolog on... The Sacrifice". Retrieved 2 June 2014. 
  17. ^ "Offret (1986)". Swedish Film Institute. 14 March 2014. 
  18. ^ "Foreign Language Film in 1988". Retrieved 4 June 2014. 
  19. ^ "Vatican Best Films List". United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Retrieved 2 June 2014. 

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