An ex-actor turned theatre and literary critic, Alexander is celebrating his birthday with his son, who is recovering from a throat operation and can’t speak, as well as with the family doctor, his grown daughter, his English actress wife, two maids and an eccentric postman called Otto. In the midst of the ‘celebrations’, some kind of apocalyptic attack takes place, the roaring of jet planes is heard overhead and the end of the world is nigher than nigh; it’s actually here. The only way to reverse everything, he is told by Otto the postman, is to sleep with the maid Maria, who might be a witch.
And so to recap: literary critic has to sleep with maid to save world from nuclear holocaust. You have to admit it is original as far as excuses go. And that this dirty diggler of a scribe spends the first hour and 50 minutes of the film railing against a modern society that has lost its spirituality makes the hypocrisy all the riper.
The gigantic problem with this film is just how seriously to take it and what exactly it is we’re taking seriously. Offret (The Sacrifice) could very easily be a comedy, and yet it is rarely seen as one, and in a way this is understandable. For one reason, it’s in Swedish, and although I fully expect there are rafts of Swedish comedies, this is the Sweden of Ingmar Bergman - the actual island where he lived as it happens - and Bergman’s cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, provides a similar palette and tone.
Secondly, it’s Tarkovsky’s last film, made while he was dying of lung cancer (rumoured to be of unnatural [i.e. KGB] origin). Thirdly, Tarkovsky likes his long takes and a soundtrack heavily ladled with Bach and in particular Saint Matthew’s Passion, the prelude of which runs over the long opening credit roll, which informs us sombrely that catering was provided by Puck Jansson, who was also the caterer for Göta kanal eller Vem drog ur proppen? (Who Pulled the Plug?), the 1981 Swedish comedy (a-ha!). And finally there is the end of the world, which Tarkovsky shows in a series of bleached-out slow-motion overhead shots of a desolate street scene.
But Tarkovsky has a sly wit that runs all the way through the film. Otto, the postman, clowns around in an overly buffoonish way, but he is also the messenger of the plot’s main improbability and therefore a kind of puckish saviour of humanity. There is Alexander’s own creeping about in his Japanese dressing gown, which takes on elements of French farce. Isn’t there also something ludicrous in a man who rails against modern life, only to be delighted when his telephone rings and he switches his lamp on and off? Despite Alexander’s renunciation of acting the theatre has become his life. His wife has just stepped out of an Ibsen play; the doctor has the Chekhovian declaration that he is going, not to Moscow, but much more sensibly to Australia; Alexander quotes Macbeth and has his Hamlet moment of soliloquy. Even the nuclear attack (if that’s what it is) is stage-managed rather than portrayed. It represents not so much the end of the world as the arrival of Godot. ‘It is what I have always been waiting for,’ Alexander confesses. And like a theatrical production the film allows itself the magic of rewinding the story to start anew.
There is also the possibility that very little of this ever was happening. At the very beginning of the film, Alexander is seen in a long take amiably waffling away. At a certain point he realises his son is no longer with him. Suddenly his son jumps onto him, scaring the bejesus out of the poor man. Alexander collapses, clutching his heart. The incident is never referred to again.
Could not the rest of the film be a psycho-drama taking place in Alexander’s head as he dies? A corrective purgatory, teaching the misanthropic Alexander the true value of the world as it is, rather than as some distant fantasy, his loopy Japanese obsession? The burning of his house is (again in theatrical terms) a catharsis. And the film is finally free to combine its comic and tragic impulses, with a fairly demented Alexander running around in a flapping kimono being chased by his family and the men in white coats who turn up with suspicious alacrity, as if they had been waiting in the wings all along.