The Sacrifice

For other uses, see The Sacrifice (disambiguation).
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 third film as a Soviet expatriate, after Nostalghia and the documentary Voyage in Time, 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 takes his gun, leaves a note in his room, escapes the house, 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?"




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][n 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]

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] [n 3]

At the 1984 Cannes Film Festival, Tarkovsky was invited to film in Sweden, as he was a long-time friend of Anna-Lena Wibom of the Swedish Film Institute. He decided to film The Sacrifice with Erland Josephson, who was best known for his work with Ingmar Bergman,[n 4] and whom Tarkovsky had directed in Nostalghia.[n 5] Cinematographer Sven Nykvist, a friend of Josephson and frequent collaborator with Ingmar Bergman,[n 6] was asked to join the production. Despite a contemporaneous offer to shoot Sydney Pollack's Out of Africa, Nykvist later said that it was "not a difficult choice", and like Josephson, he became a co-producer when he invested his fees back into the film.[9] Production designer Anna Asp, who worked on Bergman's Autumn Sonata and After the Rehearsal, and had won an Academy Award alongside Susanne Lingheim for Fanny and Alexander,[10] also joined the project, as well as Daniel Bergman, one of Ingmar's children, who worked as a camera assistant.[n 7] Many critics would comment on The Sacrifice in the context of Bergman's work.[n 8]


While often[12][13][14] erroneously claimed to have been shot on Fårö,[n 9] The Sacrifice was actually filmed at Närsholmen on the nearby island of Gotland; the Swedish military denied Tarkovsky access to Fårö.[16][17]

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.[9][n 10]

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][18]


Tarkovsky and Nykvist performed significant amounts of color reduction on select scenes. According to Nykvist, almost sixty percent of the color was removed from these parts.[n 11]


The film won Tarkovsky his second Grand Prix, after Solaris, his fourth FIPRESCI Prize at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival, and his third Palme D'Or nomination.[19][n 12][n 13] The Sacrifice also won the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury.[21][n 14] At the 22nd Guldbagge Awards, the film won the awards for Best Film and Best Actor (Erland Josephson).[22] In 1988, it won the BAFTA Award for Best Foreign Language Film.[23] The film was selected as the Swedish entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 59th Academy Awards, but was not accepted as a nominee.[24]

Since the 1980s, reviewers have been responding positively to the film; the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports an approval rating of 81%, with an average score of 7.5 based on 32 reviews.[25]

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.[26]

However, critics have commented on The Sacrifice's religious ambiguities. Dennis Lim points out that it is "not exactly a simple allegory of Christian atonement and self-sacrifice".[27] Catholic film critic Steven Greydanus contrasts the film's "dialectic of Christian and pagan ideas" with Andrei Rublev, writing that, while Rublev "[rejects] the advances of an alluring pagan witch as incompatible with Christian love", The Sacrifice "juxtaposes" both sensibilities.[28]

See also


  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. It is also worth noting that an idea that appears in Tarkovsky's diaries as early as 1970, which he titled Two Saw the Fox, possibly contains elements of what would become The Witch, and by extension, The Sacrifice. An entry from April 1980, during a trip to Italy concerning negotiations for Nostalghia, poses an idea for an ending in which a character commits suicide after a world leader makes a televised speech on the outbreak of war, which turns out to merely be a scene from a movie on the television.[4]
  3. 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]
  4. Josephson, who met Bergman in 1939, began working with him in the mid-1940s at the Helsingborg City Theatre.[7] Although he would not have a major part in a Bergman film until 1968's Hour of the Wolf, he would become the most frequent male actor in the director's films from that point forward; Max von Sydow's final Bergman collaboration was 1971's The Touch, and Gunnar Björnstrand only had a few appearances after Shame before his death in 1986.
  5. Though Natalya Bondarchuk was eventually cast in the role, recurring Bergman actor Bibi Andersson, who met Tarkovsky in June 1970, was at one point considered for Hari in Solaris, and around that time, Tarkovsky thought of casting her as the mother in what would become The Mirror.[8]
  6. Nykvist served as cinematographer for all of Bergman's films from The Virgin Spring through Fanny and Alexander, as well as 1953's Sawdust and Tinsel.
  7. Daniel would later become a director in his own right, with films like Sunday's Children.
  8. 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".[11]
  9. Fårö was Bergman's home for much of his life, and several of his films were shot there.[15]
  10. This disaster is recorded in the documentary Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, which was made by Sacrifice co-editor Michał Leszczyłowski, and in One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich, a 1999 French television documentary directed by Chris Marker.
  11. Nykvist recalled that his work on color reduction prompted a conversation with Akira Kurosawa in the 1990s.[9]
  12. Solaris won the Grand Prix, Andrei Rublev and Nostalghia received FIPRESCI Prizes, and Solaris and Nostalghia had received Palme D'Or nominations.[19]
  13. 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".[20]
  14. 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 in Cannes competition.[21]


  1. "The Sacrifice (1986)". Retrieved 19 December 2013.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 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. 1 2 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. Ingmar Bergman: Reflections on Life, Death, and Love with Erland Josephson. Dir. Stefan Brann. TV4 AB Sweden, 2000.
  8. Tarkovsky, Andrei (1989). Time Within Time: The Diaries 1970-1986. London: Faber and Faber Limited. pp. 5–6, 9. ISBN 978-0571167173.
  9. 1 2 3 Nykvist, Sven; Forslund, Bengt (1997). Vördnad för ljuset ("In Reverence of Light"). Albert Bonniers Publishing Company. pp. 181–88. ISBN 91-0-056316-1. Retrieved 2 October 2014.
  10. "The 56th Academy Awards". Oscars. Retrieved 21 October 2014.
  11. de Brantes, Charles. "La foi est la seule chose qui puisse sauver l'homme". La France Catholique. Retrieved 29 May 2014.
  12. Levy, Emanuel. "Sacrifice, The (1986): Tarkovsky's Masterpiece". Retrieved 2 June 2014.
  13. Ebert, Roger. "The Sacrifice". Retrieved 2 June 2014.
  14. Howe, Desson. "'Sacrifice' (PG)". The Washington Post. Retrieved 21 October 2014.
  15. Pergament, Danielle. "The Enchanted Island That Bergman Called Home". The New York Times. Retrieved 21 October 2014.
  16. "Ingmar Andrei Tarkovsky". Retrieved 2011-07-11.
  17. "Vintersång och toner till minne av Tarkovskij" [Winter songs in the memory of Tarkovskij]. Sveriges Radio. 29 December 2012. Retrieved 25 June 2015.
  18. Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. Dir. Michal Leszczylowski. Perf. Brian Cox, Erland Josephson and Andrey Tarkovskiy. Svenska Filminstitutet (SFI), 1988.
  19. 1 2 "Andrei Tarkovski". Cannes Film Festival. Retrieved 2014-10-07.
  20. Tarkovsky, Andrei. "Andrei Tarkovsky's Martyrolog on... The Sacrifice". Retrieved 2 June 2014.
  21. 1 2 Vaccaro, Pierre (May 2008). "Jury Œcuménique - 34ème année" (PDF) (in French). Jury Œcuménique. p. 4. Retrieved 2008-09-04.
  22. "Offret (1986)". Swedish Film Institute. 14 March 2014.
  23. "Foreign Language Film in 1988". Retrieved 4 June 2014.
  24. Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
  25. "Offret (The Sacrifice)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 3 June 2014.
  26. "Vatican Best Films List". United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Retrieved 2 June 2014.
  27. Lim, Dennis. "A Second Look: Andrei Tarkovsky's 'The Sacrifice'". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 8 October 2014.
  28. Greydanus, Steven. "The Sacrifice (1986)". Decent Films. Retrieved 6 October 2014.
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