Tarkovsky’s bleak brilliance: Frankie Dytor on his classic film ‘The Sacrifice’

End of the World films have now become synonymous with the
Big Budget mania of Hollywood. The recent Brad Pitt film ‘World War Z‘ is perhaps a good example of this. Plenty of fighting, a good looking protagonist,and lots of money to spend on special effects. So I must confess a certain degree of scepticism before watching Tarkovksy’s ‘The Sacrifice’.  The brief synopsis on the DVD packet promised a similar template to the Apocalyptic films that I know and have never loved.  The premise was simple: World War III is approaching, and Alexander, a retired actor, will do anything and everything he can to regain peace.

Now, in the film, War never actually breaks out. But it looms,
and when the threat is most apparent everything turns black and white. The boundaries between reality and perception are constantly blurred. It is crucially in Alexander’s dream that he finds the solution to ceasing the threat of nuclear warfare. We are never sure if his actions actually took place. But the moral necessity of his sacrifice remains.

Alexander promises that he will give up everything if the
war stops. And so when it does, he must bear the consequences of his promise. He sets fire to his house. As we watch the structure burn, so we see his sanity collapse, teetering on the edge of madness like the chairs he has arranged to construct the pyre.  Hysteria and silence run side by side in the film. In many ways Tarkovsky polarises gender, using long takes for the men who examine philosophy and semiotics, whilst the women are presented as irrational and wild. One is called a witch, another suffers from hysteria. Alexander’s mute child, known as ‘Little Man’, is unnervingly still. His only line is the final line of the whole film, an utterance of the opening of St John’s Gospel – “In the beginning was the word”. Language is questioned throughout the film in his continual silence but in that line we have hope that the world does have the possibility of another beginning.

Through the material purge of Alexander we can hope for a new simplicity. The world will not be transformed into a black and white one of war, but one where Alexander’s Japanese tree will finally blossom.

‘Offret’, Andrei Tarkovsky, 1986, Swedish Language

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