Although Tarkovsky did not openly oppose the Soviet system, his work heavily emphasized spiritual themes, that were at conflict with the official anti-religious atheist ideology, prompting the KGB to open a file on him
Offret (The Sacrifice) was the final film by Andrei Tarkovsky, who died shortly after completing it. 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, 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. The 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 at the end of the film 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 documented in documentary entitled Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky and the documentary One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich.)
The scene had to be re shot, 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.
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.
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 camera work is slow, containing the hallmarks of Tarkovsky and cinematographer Sven Nykvist. The film’s soundtrack includes three distinct pieces: the passionate aria Erbarme dich, mein Gott 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.
During the summer of 1979, Tarkovsky traveled to Italy, where he shot the documentary Voyage in Time together with his long-time friend Tonino Guerra. Tarkovsky returned to Italy in 1980 for an extended trip during which he and Guerra completed the script for the film Nostalghia. During 1981 he traveled to the United Kingdom and Sweden. During his trip to Sweden he had considered defecting from the Soviet Union, but ultimately decided to return because of his wife and his son. Tarkovsky returned to Italy in 1982 to start shooting Nostalghia. He did not return to his home country.
Leonardo da Vinci‘s painting Adoration of the Magi, seen in the opening credits and referenced in the film, depicts the ceding of a pagan world to a Christian one. Tarkovsky’s theological scheme is not as clear-cut: Alexander is an atheist who turns to God, but salvation depends on persuading a witch to sleep with him, or so he’s told by the Friedrich Nietzsche-quoting postman who arrives bearing telegrams and perhaps a divine message or two.
The concluding annihilation is powerful not least for its ambiguity: an act of faith, madness and transfiguration.
Cover art of Зеркало (The Mirror ). In this 1975 art film, Tarkovsky paid homage to Leonardo Da Vinci and Bach’s St Matthew Passion for first time. It is a highly autobiographical and unconventionally structured film drawing on his childhood and incorporating some of his father’s poems. Tarkovsky had worked on the screenplay for The Mirror since 1967, under the consecutive titles Confession, White day and A white, white day.
Given the sheer beauty and unwieldy philosophical ambition of Tarkovsky’s films, it’s not too far-fetched to suggest that his true heir is Terrence Malick — a filmmaker whose approach to space and time is fragmented where Tarkovsky’s is unified but who shares with the Russian a mystical connection to nature and the elements and a compulsion to pose unanswerable questions with utmost seriousness and sincerity. (“The Sacrifice” opens and closes with the image of what you might call a tree of life.).
One prominent element in Nostalghia (1983) is fire – Heraclitus’ source of all things – which serves as a symbol of hope and destruction/despair at the same time, as one witnesses the ending for the two male leads in the film.
Some Russians burned their bridges behind Tarkovsky, but they wouldn’t destroy the strength of his legacy. It crossed after us.