It’s difficult to fathom that Sacrifice would be Andrei Tarkovsky’s final film, because there’s a significant grace in his artistic conviction for delivering a very humane story about coming to terms with one’s own demise. The story is about Alexander, who’s celebrating his birthday with his estranged family in a house that feels somewhat like it’s on the desolate outskirts of a misplaced world known as purgatory. Most of the dialogue between Alexander and his family all seem to reminisce about the past, which is something that’s often examined when someone is close to death’s doors. However, in the midst of Alexander’s birthday celebration a declaration of nuclear war has begun with the eerie, screeching sounds of the overhead airplanes summoning up a looming apocalyptic threat that essentially induces a chaotic fever of anxiety and panic among the characters in the film. Adelaide, Alexander’s wife goes bonkers screaming that something must be done while Victor, the doctor injects a sedative to calm her nerves. Her emotional hysteria rattles Otto and Alexander’s nerves as both decide to have a drink. Typical male behavior, when most sane, emotional women sink into momentary insanity.
As the ordinary world, runs into full disarray, Tarkovsky uses desaturated colors, nearly black and white to convey a world of doomsday despair in Alexander’s dream sequence where in one frame he runs down a hallway as the water drips in a non-diegetic fashion. While in the next frame, Alexander is sitting next to a window looking out into the bare snowy land, then suddenly in another frame, he’s outside seeping his hands into earthy sludge while uncovering a piece of cloth. The ground shakes again with the lovely tracking shot of the ground, with leaves being blown and fragments of snow flake away. The dream sequence is a metaphor for Alexander’s weariness about life in terms of depression, technology and modern science changing the world, while his need for refinement of peace, solitude, and hope is a need for precedence. As Alexander ranted his unraveling about humanity to Little Man, while sitting under a tree, he says, “We have acquired a dreadful disharmony between our material and our spiritual development.” He’s losing control over his life, and what generally occurs next is the mixture of denial, bargaining, depression, anger, and eventually acceptance and at the core of it all, he turns to spirituality. Alexander prays and turns to God begging for everything to be restored back to normal and he’ll give up everything that binds him to life, his ultimate sacrifice. Tarkovsky skillfully and masterfully conveys God’s power in granting Alexander to live and as the film begins to conclude, he slowly severs himself from his family and life by basically being mute, hiding himself away, and lighting his house on fire. Consequently, life embodies this pattern of creation and destruction very similar to how artists express themselves in their work. The beauty of this cinematic marvel is Tarkovsky’s poetic knowledge that when something ends, something almost always accordingly new begins. An ending always has a start and vice versa. The cycle is never ending, with the destruction of the burning house and in the final frames of the film, Little Man is sitting at the base of the tree he helped plant with Alexander, signifying that something new will eventually grow.
As Alexander awesomely says, “We wait for something. We hope, we lose hope, we move closer to death. Finally, we die.” There’s a continuation of yearning for something and through the course of the story, Alexander reiterates that he’s been waiting around for something and that is whole life has been one long wait. Obviously, life is about living and finding meaning, and seemingly how we project are own perceptions of the here and now, while lingering for the inevitable occurrence event known as death, but it’s also about finding sacrifice. Perhaps, this is what Alexander was waiting for. His own peace within accepting sacrifice for his loved ones. Humans do, do crazy things in the foundation of love. Alas, there are varying thematic elements Tarkovsky has woven in his final splendor of a film all ranging from living, waiting, dying, questioning, loathing, creating, and destroying. He’s ultimately sculpted a universe demonstrating humanity’s ongoing battle and perhaps charade of existential behaviors, prompting the question about what it truly means to sacrifice.