Peter Larkin reviews 'The Sacrifice' (1986), a Swedish film directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. "/> Peter Larkin reviews 'The Sacrifice' (1986), a Swedish film directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. " />


The Local’s Swedish film of the month: The Sacrifice

Film writer Peter Larkin reviews 'The Sacrifice' (1986), a Swedish film directed by Andrei Tarkovsky.

The Local's Swedish film of the month: The Sacrifice
The Sacrifice, starring Erland Josephson. Photo: Arne Carlsson/Svenska Filminstitutet

Ingmar Bergman considered Andrei Tarkovsky to be cinema's greatest director. Tarkovsky made seven feature films: five in his native Russia, one in Italy and one in Sweden, his final film, The Sacrifice (Tarkovsky, 1986). Tarkovsky died of lung cancer at the age of only 54, one year after finishing The Sacrifice.

The film concerns Alexander (Erland Josephson, a frequent Bergman collaborator) as a former actor turned critic and lecturer of aesthetics. At the beginning of the film Alexander speaks philosophically about life with his young son who is temporarily mute due to a throat operation and can only listen. The young son's first name is never given, the family refer to him as 'little man', he is absent for much of the film but often spoken of.

As French film critic and theorist Michel Chion notes, Sweden and its place names are never mentioned and its characters' names are not particularly Swedish, though the landscape is recognisable and hearing the Swedish language we assume it is Sweden. While looking at an old map of Europe, Alexander says: “It must've been lovely when men thought that the world looked like this.”

Panic occurs when an all-out war is announced on the radio which will possibly bring a nuclear holocaust. The fear, anguish and long emotional monologues remind the spectator of Bergman whose frequent cinematographer Sven Nykvist shot this film. Whereas Bergman's compositions within the frame are often static, almost theatrical in their staging, Tarkovsky chooses to move the camera around a space such as the large living rooms of the characters' homes and the wide open outdoors.

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Tarkovsky and Nykvist reduced the colour for dramatic effect during certain scenes; the effects of the lighting are different judging from screenshots from the various DVD and BluRay releases of the film. Anna Asp who worked three times with Bergman designed the interiors in the film which arguably hold happier memories within the characters' lives before the film begins. The sets are given a melancholic feel through the use of sharp lighting.

Tarkovsky uses two long takes: one at the beginning and the other near the end of the film. They are filmed from a distance so that we can observe rather than identify with the characters. The sacrifice of the title is Alexander's pleading with God to spare his family from the horrors of a nuclear holocaust by offering something in return.

In between the sounds of airplanes and rockets through the sky it is silence that governs the characters as they imagine the fate of those flying objects. It is often mentioned that Tarkovsky's cinema blends reality with dreams; certain moments in the film show Alexander's dreams and nightmares of the after-effects of a nuclear holocaust shot in sharp black and white. Alexander's visions contrasted with the nine-minute distanced long shot at the beginning are a perfect case in point for reality versus dreams.

Tarkovsky's revelation of the radio announcement and the characters' reactions to it are dealt with very slowly, time passes by as they come together in Alexander's living room for his birthday. As a spectator I felt like Alexander's young son in my lack of understanding of the situation, but minute by minute, pieces came together.

Ambiguity runs through the film from the philosophical discussions to its gripping finale. Tarkovsky uses tracking shots to show Alexander spying on his friends from a distance which at times is almost comical. Erland Josephson's performance is a stunning portrait of a man driven arguably to madness by the thought of World War III.

Peter Larkin is an Irish film writer currently based in Sweden. Read his blog here.


How a Swedish film festival is offering a nurse downtime during pandemic

A front-line Swedish nurse is getting some Covid downtime with a week of private screenings of the Gothenburg film festival, in a former lighthouse off the country's west coast.

How a Swedish film festival is offering a nurse downtime during pandemic
Competition winner Lisa Enroth.

More than 12,000 candidates from 45 countries applied to watch the festival's films in almost near isolation on an island 400 kilometres (250 miles) from Stockholm.

The prize is a week viewing as many of the festival's 70 premieres as they like in a hotel in the former Pater Noster Lighthouse. But they will be in isolation and will have no access to their own computer or laptop.

READ ALSO: Decision on stricter restrictions for foreign travellers to be made quickly

The bright-red lighthouse, built on a tiny island off Sweden's west coast in 1868, is surrounded by a scattering of squat, red buildings originally built to house the lighthouse keeper's family. It can only be reached by boat or helicopter, depending on the weather.

After a series of interviews and tests, festival organisers chose emergency nurse and film buff Lisa Enroth for the prize, in keeping with the 2021 festival's theme, Social Distances.

Before boarding a small speedboat out to the island on the clear, chill winter's morning, Enroth said she had applied not only out of her love for the cinema, but also to seek respite from her hectic work as an emergency nurse during the pandemic.

“It has been hectic, so it's a nice opportunity just to be able to land and to reflect over the year,” she said.

Months working amid Covid crisis

Sweden, which has taken a light-touch approach to the pandemic compared to its neighbours, has been facing a stronger than expected second wave of the virus. So far, more than 11,500 people have died from Covid-19 across the country.

Enroth works in the emergency ward of a hospital in Skovde in central Sweden. Since the start of the pandemic, her hospital's work caring for virus patients on top of their regular workload has been intense.

Lisa Enroth on her way to the remote festival location. Photo: AFP

“We had a lot of Covid cases during this year and every patient that has been admitted to the hospital has been passing through the emergency ward,” she told journalists.

The organisers said they were surprised by the numbers of applicants for the prize but were confident they had chosen the right candidate — not only for her love of cinema.

“She has also dedicated this past year in the frontline against the Covid-19 pandemic,” the festival's creative director Jonas Holmberg said to AFP.

“That's also one of the reasons we chose her”. 

Isolated screenings

Boarding the boat dressed in a thick survival suit, Enroth sped over the calm, icy waters, jumping off in the island's tiny harbour and disappearing into her lodgings.

A screen has been set up in the lantern room at the top of the windswept island's lighthouse, offering a 360-degree view of the sea and coastline around.

Another wide screen has been set up in one of the island's buildings.

Enroth will also have a tablet and headphones if she wants to watch films elsewhere on the island, which measures just 250 metres by 150 metres.

With only one other person staying permanently on the island — a safety precaution — Enroth's only contact with the outside world will be through her video diary about the films she has viewed.

The festival's films will be shown online and two venues in Gothenburg itself will allow screenings for just one person at a time.

Holmberg, the festival's creative director, said he hoped events like these would maintain interest in the industry at a time when many screens are closed because of pandemic restrictions.

“We are longing so much to come back to the cinemas and in the meantime we have to be creative and do the things that we can to create discussion,” he told journalists.