Andrei Tarkovsky, ‘Offret’ (The Sacrifice) 1986

(spoilers warning: link above is the final scene of the film)

Zarathustra’s gift in Tarkovsky’s The sacrifice:

not the foreknowledge of death
but the project of seeing conscious life
rescued from death defines and will
atone for the human. [1]
Les Murray, “Travels with John Hunter” in the collection Conscious and verbal (

What has become perfect, everything ripe - wants to die!
…But everything unripe wants to live: alas! [2]

Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus spake Zarathustra

The sacrifice as Testament

“Death,” as Adrian Martin has noted, “has a knack of turning the final work of an artist into his or her ‘testament’ - simultaneously the summation and apotheosis of everything that preceded it.”[3] Tarkovsky’s final film, The sacrifice (Offret sacrificatio, Sweden 1985), still in editing stage when its director was diagnosed with terminal cancer, has certainly appeared to many as just such a final summation and testament, an impression amply confirmed by the director’s poignant dedication of the work - with “hope and confidence” - to his young son, Andrejusja. Yet, for all its undoubted brilliance and its emotional intensity, its striking imagery and its technical virtuosity, the film has generally been judged by even its most favourable critics as a flawed masterpiece, certainly a “mature” work and something of a summa of the familiar Tarkovskian themes and motifs but ultimately also a work strongly undermined by considerable narrative and thematic confusion. [4]

As is widely known, the film had a long gestation. The idea for the film had first come to Tarkovsky whilst he was still in the Soviet Union and long before he had even thought about making Nostalgia (Italy/Russia 1983). It was originally titled The witch and the focal point, as Tarkovsky himself recounts, “was to be the story of how the hero, Alexander, was to be cured of a fatal disease as a result of a night spent in bed with a witch.”[5] In 1983, while in Cannes with Nostalgia Tarkovsky signed a contract for the project, at this stage still called The witch, with Anna-Lena Wibom and the Swedish Film Institute. He continued to work on the script for the rest of that year, during which, however, he altered a number of details, changed the name to The sacrifice and, crucially, added an apocalyptic nuclear-war scenario. The part of Alexander, which Tarkovsky had originally written for Anatoly Solonitsyn, was re-written for Erland Josephson, who had played Domenico, the “holy fool” of Nostalgia. Josephson had been one of Bergman’s favourite actors and the film was scheduled to be shot by Sven Nikvist so, not surprisingly, the entire project took on a Bergmanesque feel. All these changes thus altered the original conception, leading to the film as we now have it: [6]

After a long credits sequence superimposed over a detail of Leonardo’s unfinished Adoration of the magi (which is accompanied by the “Erbarme dich” of Bach’s St. Matthew passion and which ends with a slow upward pan along the central tree in the painting), the film begins with Alexander and his young son busy trying to plant a withered tree against a luminous sea, with the father all the while recounting something resembling a Zen parable to his son.[7] Otto, the postman, soon arrives on his bicycle, bearing a number of congratulatory telegrams. We thus learn that it is Alexander’s fiftieth birthday and he and his family are soon to be joined in their celebrations by both the postman and Victor, a close family friend and a medical doctor who has recently performed a throat operation on the young boy, or “Little Man” as he’s continually called, which has left the boy unable to speak.

Alexander, a retired actor and now successful journalist, philosopher and academic, is outwardly calm and collected but actually undergoing something of a personal crisis and patently afflicted by what one can only call existential malaise. In the course of the day’s rather demure “celebrations” we learn more about Alexander and his past life - and also about Otto’s experience and knowledge of paranormal phenomena - until, abruptly, in the early evening, an ominous TV broadcast appears to confirm that the sound of jets (or missiles), which we have earlier heard streak overhead, is related to the definitive outbreak of an all-out nuclear war. As the child sleeps in his cot and the rest of the company, muted and despondent, settles downstairs to await the end, Alexander in the upstairs study of his beloved house makes a vow to God: if God (in whom until this point he has not believed) will perform the impossible and restore the world to its previous state, Alexander will henceforth live in silence, forsaking everything that is dearest to him, including his young son and his beloved family home.

Later that night Otto, the postman, visits Alexander in his study and urges him to go immediately to sleep with Maria, a part-time servant girl who lives on the other side of the island but whom we have seen earlier in the film in Alexander’s house and who, Otto insists, is a witch, “of the best kind”. This, Otto declares - is the only way to return things to their previous state. Alexander borrows the postman’s rickety bike and, in the dead of night, cycles to Maria’s house. After ritually washing his hands and then recounting a pathos-laden story connected with his mother, Alexander is able to convince the meek and accomodating Maria to make love with him. Their sexual union concludes in a levitation of their entwined bodies which is strongly reminiscent of similar scenes in Tarkovsky’s earlier films.[8]

Brilliantly photographed and with a soundtrack as haunting as Tarkovsky ever achieved, the film exhibits all the signs of a great and culminating work and yet, as we’ve already said, has also seemed to many to be severely compromised by thematic and narrative confusion.


And there would seem to be a whole host of other unresolved obscurities in the film, not least the significance of the enigmatic return at various points to the unfinished Adoration of the magi by Leonardo.

Nevertheless, and in spite of all these enigmas and aporias, there has been general critical consensus in reading Alexander’s sacrifice in The sacrifice in Christian terms and in seeing Alexander himself as an extension of the self-immolating Domenico of Nostalgia. and thus as the last and culminating instance of the Tarkovskian “holy fool”. Tarkovsky’s own remarks about the film, in Sculpting in time and elsewhere, also consistently characterized it as a “parable” exemplifying the specifically Christian notion of self-sacrifice.[12] And yet, as I hope to explore here, an emphatic reference to “Nietzsche’s dwarf” very early in the film opens up the tantalizing possibility of a more eccentric, but in some ways perhaps richer, interpretation of this frustratingly enigmatic final work.

Nietzsche’s dwarf and Zarathustra’s gift

The reference to “Nietzsche’s dwarf” is made by Otto, the postman, in the film’s very first postcredits sequence (a long single shot which, at nine and a half minutes, is the longest in any of Tarkovsky’s films). After chiding Alexander for always being “so gloomy”, Otto suggests that he is probably like most people, living their lives as though waiting for something else, “something real and important” to happen. It’s at this point that he confesses to being often assailed by thoughts of “[…] that dwarf, that notorious […] - You know, that….hunchback! From Nietzsche! The one that sent Zarathustra into a fainting fit!”.[13]

Now, although this reference to Nietzsche has often been noticed, it has, curiously, never been further explored, presumably because it has been regarded as mere badinage in the mouth of the rather garrulous Otto or perhaps just name-dropping on the part of Tarkovsky.[14] And yet this lack of critical attention is indeed curious, especially since its occurrence so early in the film would seem to suggest an important role for it. Alexander (played by Erland Josephson who, we should remember, had actually played the role of Nietzsche in Liliana Cavani’s Beyond good and evil [Italy/France/Germany 1977]) explicitly recalls this reference to Nietzsche later on in the film when Otto comes to the study to urge him to go sleep with Maria.[15] There would also seem to be a thinly-veiled allusion to Nietzsche’s essay On truth and lie in an extramoral sense in Otto’s outburst: “The truth! What is the truth?” and his story of the cockroach running around a plate as an exemplification of perspectivism.[16] In any case, Otto’s reference to Nietzsche here at the beginning of the film can hardly be a case of mere name-dropping or quoting the odd neat epigram because “Nietzsche’s dwarf” really evokes nothing less than the entire so-called “doctrine” of the Eternal Return, the notion which is generally regarded as Nietzsche’s “thought of thoughts” and at the very heart of his attempted “revaluation of all values”.[17]

Critical neglect of this reference to Nietzsche is even more puzzling, however, when one considers that Nietzsche’s doctrine of the Eternal Return is a philosophical re-interpretation of the theme of Time for Time was, after all, a major obsession with Tarkovsky. As is well known, Tarkovsky’s preferred way of characterizing the art of filmmaking was as a “sculpting in time”, which was the title he gave to his volume of reflections on the cinema, and his published diaries were also significantly titled Time within time. One might further note that Nostalgia, Tarkovsky’s previous film, is as much a quest for lost time as for lost place and, as Johnson and Petrie have pointed out, the temporal duration of many of the shots in this, Tarkovsky’s final and culminating film, really push cinematic time close to its absolute limit.[18] Considered within this context, then, an explicit reference to Nietzsche’s doctrine of the Eternal Return must appear highly charged with significance.[19] Indeed, it hardly seems surprising to learn that Tarkovsky himself had, at one point, actually considered changing the title of the film from The sacrifice to, in fact, “The Eternal Return”.[20]

At this point, however, we should turn to Nietzsche himself in order to explore this complex notion a bit further.

Nietzsche’s “dwarf”, as Otto rightly calls him, appears early in part three of Thus spake Zarathustra, in the section entitled “Of the vision and the riddle”. (176 ff.) There Zarathustra narrates what he calls “a riddle and a parable” to sailors on a ship, in which he recounts his solitary attempt to reach the top of a mountain during the course of which he is abruptly assailed by his “devil and arch-enemy”, the Spirit of Gravity. “Half-dwarf, half-mole; crippled, crippling”, the Spirit squats on Zarathustra’s shoulders, weighing him down with leaden words and leaden thoughts, paralyzing him to the point where Zarathustra is forced to confront the great nay-sayer with his “most abysmal of thoughts”, a thought he knows the dwarf cannot endure. What Zarathustra then recounts is generally regarded as the fullest expression of the Nietzschean doctrine of the Eternal Return and is thus worth quoting in full:

“Stop, dwarf!” I said. “I! Or You! But I am the stronger of us two - you do not know my abysmal thought! That thought you could not endure!”

Then something occurred which lightened me: for the dwarf jumped from my shoulder, the inquisitive dwarf! And he squatted down upon a stone in front of me. But a gateway stood just where we had halted.

“Behold this gateway, dwarf!” I went on: “it has two aspects. Two paths come together here: no one has ever reached their end.

This long lane behind us: it goes on for eternity. And that long lane ahead of us - that is another eternity.

They are in opposition to one another, these paths; they abut on one another: and it is here at this gateway that they come together. The name of the gateway is written above it: ‘Moment’.

But if one were to follow them further and even further and further: do you think, dwarf, that these paths would be in eternal opposition?”

“Everything straight lies,” murmured the dwarf disdainfully, “All truth is crooked, time itself is a circle.”

“Spirit of Gravity!” I said angrily, “do not treat this too lightly! Or I shall leave you squatting where you are, Lamefoot - and I have carried you high!”

“Behold this moment!” I went on. “From this gateway Moment a long, eternal lane runs back: an eternity lies behind us.

Must not all things that can run have already run along this lane? Must not all things that can happen have already happened, been done, run past?

And if all things have been here before: what do you think of this moment, dwarf? Must not this gateway, too, have been here - before?

And are not all things bound fast together in such a way that this moment draws after it all future things? Therefore - draws itself too?

For all things that can run must also run once again forward along this long lane.

And this slow spider that creeps along in the moonlight, and this moonlight itself, and I and you at this gateway whispering together, whispering of eternal things - must we not all have been here before?

- and must we not return and run down that other lane out before us, down that long, terrible lane - must we not return eternally?”

Thus I spoke, and I spoke more and more softly: for I was afraid of my own thoughts and reservations. Then, suddenly, I heard a dog howling nearby.

Had I ever heard a dog howling in that way. My thoughts ran back. Yes! When I was a child, in my most distant childhood:

- then I heard a dog howling in that way. And I saw it, too, bristling, its head raised, trembling in the stillest midnight, when even dogs believe in ghosts:

- so that it moved me to pity. For the full moon had just gone over the house, silent as death, it had just stopped still, a round glow, still upon the flat roof as if upon a forbidden place:

that was what had terrified the dog: for dogs believe in thieves and ghosts. And when I heard such growling again, it moved me to pity again.

Where had the dwarf now gone? And the gateway? And the spider? And all the whispering? Had I been dreaming? Had I awoken? All at once I was standing between wild cliffs, alone, desolate in the most desolate moonlight.

But there a man was lying! And there! The dog, leaping, bristling, whining; then it saw me coming - then it howled again, then it cried out - had I ever heard a dog cry so for help?

And truly, I had never seen the like of what I then saw. I saw a young shepherd writhing, chocking, convulsed, his face distorted; and a heavy, black snake was hanging out of his mouth.

Had I ever seen so much disgust and pallid horror on a face? Had he, perhaps, been asleep? Then the snake had crawled into his throat - and there had bitten itself fast.

My hands tugged and tugged at the snake - in vain! they could not tug the snake out of the shepherd’s throat. Then a voice cried from me: “Bite! Bite!

Its head off! Bite!” - thus a voice cried from me, my horror, my hate, my disgust, my pity, all my good and evil cried out of me with a single cry.

You bold men around me! You venturers, adventurers, and those of you who have embarked with cunning sails upon undiscovered seas! You who take pleasure in riddles!

Solve for me the riddle that I saw, interpret to me the vision of the most solitary man!

For it was a vision and a premonition: what did I see in allegory? And who is it that must come one day?

Who is the shepherd into whose mouth the snake thus crawled? Who is the man into whose throat all that is heaviest, blackest will thus crawl?

The shepherd, however, bit as my cry had advised him; he bit with a good bite! He spat far the snake’s head - and sprang up.

No longer a shepherd, no longer a man - a transformed being, surrounded with light, laughing! Never yet on earth had any man laughed as he laughed!

O my brothers, I heard a laughter that was no human laughter - and now a thirst consumes me, a longing that is never stilled.” (178-180)

In the sections that follow the recounting of this remarkable vision Zarathustra continues to spar with his dwarf, the Spirit of Gravity, repeatedly invoking and refining this strange and difficult idea of Eternal Recurrence which he estimates to be his “richest gift” to mankind. The notion itself had already been presented in a more concise form in The gay science under the telling rubric, “The greatest weight”:

What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you in your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you live it now and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence - even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!’[21]

Clearly such a thought, “the hardest of all thoughts to bear”, can either lead one to despair if one judges one’s life not to have been worth living (but then why continue to live?) or to a supreme and willing re-affirmation of every aspect of one’s existence if one has the courage to “become what one is” and to respond, as Zarathustra himself does, with: “Was that life? well then, once more!” (178)

Eternal Recurrence, then, is presented by Nietzsche/Zarathustra as the most effective antidote to nihilism; but what exactly is nihilism? Nietzsche was to give a variety of answers to this question in different contexts.[22] Nevertheless, personified in the dwarf, the Spirit of Gravity that weighs down, crushes and sickens the human spirit, nihilism - even, and perhaps especially when it takes the form of idealism - betrays its essential nature as a failure to value the present moment in its eternal “nowness”, thus manifesting a dissatisfaction with, and ultimately a hatred of, the world, life and oneself. For Nietzsche nihilism is an existential ailment or nausea, a sickness typified by a yearning for a different, better world or condition but a yearning which, in its “otherworldliness”, inevitably deprecates and de-values this earth and this life.[23]

The symptoms of nihilism are a gloomy world-weariness, a nay-saying to life, a sort of looking at the world from the backside up, as Zarathustra puts it:

“To the pure all things are pure” - thus speaks the people. But I say to you: To the swine all things become swinish!

That is what the fanatics and hypocrites with bowed heads whose hearts too are bowed down preach: “The world itself is a filthy monster.”

For they all have an unclean spirit; but especially those who have no peace or rest except they see the world from behind - these afterworldsmen!

I tell these to their faces, although it doesn’t sound pleasant: The world resembles man in that it has a behind - so much is true!

There is much filth in the world: so much is true! But the world is not itself a filthy monster on that account.” (222)

Zarathustra offers some advice to these world-weary nay-sayers: 

There stands the boat - over there is perhaps the way to the great Nothingness. But who wants to step into this “perhaps”?

None of you wants to step into the death-boat! How then could you be world weary?

World-weary! And you have not even parted from the earth! I have always found you still greedy for the earth, still in love with your own weariness of the earth!

Your lip does not hang down in vain - a little earthly wish still sits upon it! And in your eye - does not a little cloud of unforgotten joy swim there?

There are many excellent inventions on earth, some useful, some pleasant; the earth is to be loved for their sake.

[…] But you world-weary people! You should be given a stroke of the cane. Your legs should be made sprightly again with cane strokes![…] And if you will not again run about merrily, you shall -pass away! (224)

Considered against this backdrop Alexander’s maudlin tirade against “how the world goes”, in the scene following the one where Otto has recounted his obsession with Zarathustra’s dwarf, must appear decidedly redolent of nihilism and enervating world-weariness. Alexander’s monologue at this point seems to be a continuation of Domenico’s moralizing denunciation in Nostalgia just before he sets fire to himself on the Roman Campidoglio but the accusations here soon become more self-reflexive, more filled with self-loathing and bloated with logorrhea: “Words, words, words,” Alexander finally quotes wearily and in obvious exasperation; and then “Why can’t I do something?”[24] Significantly, at this point, “Little Man”, who has disappeared offscreen during Alexander’s monologue, abruptly jumps onto his shoulders and knocks him to the ground. Having already appeared seated on his father’s shoulders in the previous scene and now looking like a “wounded demonic goblin”, as Mark Le Fanu characterizes him,[25] the child here uncannily evokes the dwarf’s crushing effect of Zarathustra.[26]

The subsequent outbreak of a nuclear war, then, on the very day of Alexander’s fiftieth birthday, locates him at something very much like the portal of the Moment where Zarathustra had been forced to confront his own Spirit of Gravity. Indeed for twentieth-century man, the definitive outbreak of a nuclear war must surely count as a sort of absolute moment, a decisive instant breaking world history into two, with an eternity running off in both directions. And significantly, although he had originally denied to Otto that he has lived until now as in a sort of animated suspension, waiting for a “real” moment of reality to happen, Alexander’s first reaction to the news of the outbreak of war is: “I have waited my whole life for this”. This decisive event, this eternal moment during which Alexander glimpses with terrible clarity the waiting boat to the great Nothingness, thus forces him to a confrontation with his own “dwarf”, his own nihilism, his habitual devaluation of present life and time in favour of an otherworld elsewhere and at another time. And if Alexander is being forced to confront his own nihilism here, his own self and his own past, undoubtedly, beneath the all-too-transparent mask, lies Tarkovsky’s own visage.[27]

If one considers the fundamental role played by Alexander’s house in fostering his nihilism and his nay-saying to life- and the figure of the house is, in any case, always a fairly transparent symbol of the self - Alexander’s setting fire to the house at the end of The sacrifice must now appear - at least from within the Nietzschean context sketched in above - less a penitential gesture of Christian self-denial and more a joyful act of affirmative self-transfiguration.[28] In fact, as Philip Strick unwittingly saw clearly enough in his review of the film quoted earlier, what we are witnessing is indeed something of a Zoroastrian fire ritual although one in which the Nietzschean Zarathustra’s supreme exaltation of the moment (his “greatest gift to mankind”) has redeemed the moralistic pessimism of his historical forebear and namesake.[29]

Furthermore, given the insistence with which the dacha, the Russian house, has appeared and re-appeared in Tarkovsky’s previous films, what is being consigned to the flames here, transfigured and volatilized in this great and final conflagration in perhaps the last scene that the director would ever film, is not just Alexander’s house but all of Tarkovsky’s houses, all those nests of stored memories and congealed time, anchoring the self to the past and fatally undermining the joy of the present through a yearning for another time, another place, another state, in a word: domiciled worldweariness. And perhaps Tarkovsky’s aim here is even more specific for if, as has sometimes been noted, Nostalgia and The Sacrifice may be read as forming something of a diptych,[30] then the supreme exaltation of the present Moment and the redemption of past time which is being enacted in Alexander’s/Tarkovsky’s burning of the house in The sacrifice is a precise inversion of that final, stunning but immobile (and immobilizing) image which both sums up and seals Nostalgia like the engraved portal of a mausoleum. As Paul Coates has suggested, “the closing section of The Sacrifice can then be read as an immolation of the darkness of Nostalgia”.[31] Indeed, more than an “immolation” one should speak of an “overcoming” for if the burning house of The sacrifice stands as the definitive act through which Alexander vanquishes his previous world-weariness (and simultaneously, with the generosity of a gift, also liberates the others who have been subjected to its enervation), it would also seem to function as a precise antidote to, and an overcoming of, the cloying attachment to the past so beautifully congealed in the final image of Nostalgia.

It’s significant, nevertheless, that, even as it precisely inverts the final emblematic shot of Nostalgia, the image of the burning house is not itself the final shot of The sacrifice . Instead, the film closes one step further on, as it were, with the child/Little Man regaining his power of speech in order to express innocence and wonderment. As with Alexander’s sacrifice, this conclusion has also been most commonly read in a Christian key and yet it too might also be interpreted from a Nietzschean perspective for the child, as an allegory of an affirmative attitude to existence and a delight in what Nietzsche called “the innocence of Becoming” is, in fact, the third and highest of the Three Metamorphoses of the Spirit taught by Zarathustra, the bearer of the gift of Eternal Recurrence:”The child is innocence and forgetfulness, a new beginning, a sport, a self-propelling wheel, a first motion, a sacred Yes.”(55)

The Leonardo Adoration and amor fati

Seeing the burning house of The sacrifice as a positive reversal, and thus as a redemption and overcoming, of the final, beautiful but gloom-laden image of Nostalgia, also opens up the possibility of a revaluation of the significance of the Leonardo Adoration which hovers over The sacrifice in a similar way to that in which Piero della Francesca’s Madonna del parto (Pregnant Madonna) hovers above the whole of Nostalgia.

It would seem significant that in both films these respective religious images of birth engender fear or dread. At the beginning of Nostalgia Andrei refuses to go with Eugenia to look at the Madonna whilst in The sacrifice Otto eventually confesses to always having found Leonardo “sinister”, preferring instead Piero della Francesca. At one level the significance of each painting seems to be clarified by each film’s final explicit dedication: Nostalgia being dedicated to Tarkovsky’s deceased mother; The Sacrifice, appearing to repeat the gift-giving of the Magus to the Child in the painting, being dedicated “in hope and confidence” to Tarkovsky’s son. And yet if expectant motherhood is what is conveyed in Piero della Francesca’s Madonna why should Andrei be so loath to look at it? If a gift is all that is conveyed by the Leonardo Adoration, why should Otto be terrified of it and why should Alexander himself, in the published screenplay, also think, as he looks at the dark glass of the Adoration: “The picture really is very terrifying”?[32]

Perhaps some light might be thrown on the matter if we were able to determine what exactly is the gift that the Magus is offering to the Child. We are shown the relevant detail of the painting for several minutes as the credits appear but when the camera moves to pan up along the tree trunk we are none the wiser as to what the proffered chalice contains. Evidence about Leonardo’s own intentions is scarce but the tradition suggests that the three magi (who originally were learned Persian, possibly Zoroastrian, priests and not kings)[33] brought the Child gold, in homage to his kingship, frankincense, in homage to his divinity and myrrh, a fragrant ointment used in embalming, as a foreshadowing of the sacrifice of his death.[34] Might it not be this latter “gift-as-sacrifice” which is being offered to the Child in the Leonardo Adoration, presaging his fated death on the Cross even as it celebrates his birthday?[35] But if the myrrh thus remembers forward to the tragic destiny of Christ even as it celebrates his entry into life, it also betokens Nietzsche’s notion of amor fati, the joyful acceptance of one’s fate which, in its temporal aspect, is a conjoining of the past and the future in the eternal moment of the affirmative present.[36] In fact, as if to underscore the way in which this gift coalesces past and future into the present, the face of the Christ-child seems already to be wrinkled with age.

The assimilation of time present to time future enacted by the gift-sacrifice of the myrrh in the Leonardo Adoration might then perhaps be juxtaposed with the Madonna of Nostalgia.

The forward thrust toward the future and fulfilling moment of birth which is being hailed as close at hand in the Madonna del parto is nevertheless heavily compromised by the world-weary nostalgia which suffuses the entire film from start to finish.[37] Appropriately dedicated to the director’s deceased mother, Nostalgia’s temporal drift is, however, not in the future direction of birth but clearly drawn towards the past, a past which has become distilled as a congealment of time. But this backward nostalgic drift, patently contradicting and negating the imminent birth being announced in the Madonna , is finally and decisively reversed by the Adoration of The sacrifice for not only has the child who was announced in the previous film now been born, but the gift of myrrh presages his future. A fated future marked out for certain death but a fateful future which may be joyfully embraced, since it is also already inscribed with resurrection and eternity. In the end then perhaps this is the ambivalent gift that Tarkovsky is offering us as well as his own son: an injunction to live and love our own life as no other for only in this life and this moment is eternity realized and only by embracing our own fate can we become who we are.

The Eternal Return again

As Tarkovsky’s culminating film and testament The sacrifice is undoubtedly a complex work which resists neat explication according to any single schema. Nevertheless, as I hope I have succeeded in demonstrating, at least some of the film’s emotional and philosophical richness undoubtedly derives from Tarkovsky’s willingness to engage, at some level, with the Nietzschean doctrine of the Eternal Return. And yet if, as I’ve suggested, it is with that final searing image of the burning house that Tarkovsky achieved his supreme exaltation of the present by volatilizing all the past time he had so carefully hoarded in previous films, Fate itself would seem to have intervened to mark the scene forever as always and already doubled. For, as all now know, at the first setup for the burning house Sven Nikvist’s camera jammed, as did the auxiliary camera, and so nothing was recorded on film. With great effort and at great expense the house was rebuilt and a fortnight later the conflagration was filmed a second time, resulting in the final scene as we now have it. One wonders if, on that second occasion, Tarkovsky was inwardly gnashing his teeth or mentally smiling at the cosmic irony and repeating, together with Zarathustra: “Was that life. Well then, once again!”

[33] For a full discussion of the origin of the magi see Gilberte Vezin, L’Adoration et le cycle des mages dans l’art chrétien primitif (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1950), 7 ff.

[34] SeeJames Hall, Dictionary of subjects and symbols in art, intro. by Kenneth Clark (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press,1979), 6.

[35] Here one might recall Otto’s gnomic assertion as he presents Alexander with the huge original seventeenth-century map that he has brought him as a birthday present: “Of course it’s a sacrifice. Why wouldn’t it be? Doesn’t every gift involve a sacrifice? Otherwise what sort of a gift would it be?”

[36] Amor fati, Nietzsche’s term for the willful and joyful acceptance of one’s fate, even (and especially) in all its most questionable aspects, is the major correlative of the Eternal Return and Nietzsche’s formula for affirmative self-creation. Its clearest statement is given in Ecce homo, the book significantly subtitled “How One Becomes What One Is”: “My formula for what is great in humanity is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what’s necessary, still less conceal it - all idealism is mendaciousness in the face of what is necessary- but love it.” Basic writings of Nietzsche, trans and edited, with commentaries by Walter Kaufmann (New York: The Modern Library, 1968), 714.

[37] Tarkovsky himself confesses that “when I saw all the material shot for the film [Nostalgia] I was startled to find that it was a spectacle of unrelieved gloom.” Sculpting in time, 203. Is this why Otto accuses Alexander of “being so gloomy” just before he refers to Nietzsche’s dwarf?

See also Petr Král’s piece in the Classics section, “Tarkovsky, or the Burning House”, Screening the past 12 (March 2001).