Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
By Roderick Heath
Andrei Tarkovsky is both notorious and adulated amongst movie fans as the maker of some of the most objectively forbidding films ever made, as well as several of the greatest. His patient, immersive, defiantly ambiguous works represent what is often considered to be one definitive extreme in cinema style. Tarkovsky’s movies are exemplified by their attempts to articulate things that are virtually inexpressible, and yet still, somehow, are part of the common pool of experience, and Tarkovsky wanted to provoke his audience to higher levels of awareness of just what’s going on in the cinematic space before them, but also to force the viewers to deal with their own preoccupations and interpretations. As such, Tarkovsky’s films manage to convey two almost disparate visions of film as an art, as the working definition of eccentric, anti-populist, “challenging” cinema, and yet also the products of an artistic sensibility that prizes the viewer’s receptivity. Tarkovsky’s approach could become enigmatic, even abstract, but at the same time he seemed to be trying to avoid mere obscurity or alienation: for the most part his images, conveyed through his famous fondness for long takes and extended shots that sometimes seem to be searching for some event or epiphany to give them purpose, are deceptively lucid, even guileless. And yet he knew precisely when and how to starve the audience’s flow of information, to force their interactive engagement with his material, the opposite of becoming absorbed by a standard narrative flow. For Tarkovsky cinema was not so much an intellectual game to be solved and broken down, but rather to be experienced on an emotional and intuitive level as well as the intellectual, but with a far broader and less forced definition of experience and emotion than that offered by most commercial cinema. Tarkovsky could offer some of the familiar elements of fine cinema, like smart writing, a vivid story, and nuanced acting, as much as any director, but subordinated them to his own cinematic ideals. In any event, his road less travelled represented a partial rejection of the hitherto definitive Griffith-Eisenstein model of filmmaking, even as Tarkovsky expanded on some of Eisenstein’s later impulses.
Stalker, his fifth film, was adapted by sibling writers Boris and Arkady Strugatsky from their own novel, and followed up Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1971) as an eminently different kind of science fiction movie. Stalker commences in a hovel in an industrial wasteland, the camera scanning the three sleeping members of a family sharing a bed in seemingly perfect contentment, and also noting the objects sprawled on the bedside table, including two enigmatic pills. The man (Alexander Kaidanovsky) is the film’s eponymous protagonist: he’s known as Stalker, but he’s only one of a number who apparently share his profession as Stalkers. This one, our Stalker, awakens and dresses. He tries to sneak out without his wife’s knowledge, but she awakes and upbraids him for recommencing a dangerous line of work that’s already seen him thrown in prison. He meets up with two men in a local tavern that’s as seamy as his place. The two men agree at the outset to only use nicknames based on their occupations—thus “Writer” (Anatoli Solonitsin) and “Professor” (Nikolai Grinko)—and begin the difficult process of penetrating the Zone. The Zone is a mysterious area, so the Professor tells the Writer, that seems to have sprung up since some kind of meteorite or other mysterious object came from the sky and devastated an area of ground. A legend sprang up that a room in one of the buildings in the area had become a space where any entrant’s wish might come true. This, more than the fear of fallout or other danger, made the authorities paranoid enough to entirely fence off the Zone and place armed patrols around it.
Yet the authorities are also deadly afraid of stepping within the Zone for reasons the Stalker tries to sensitise his charges to: the Zone’s environment is constantly changing, full of unseen forces that can kill a man in the blink of an eye. He can only navigate about the place by gut instinct and by tossing objects, usually nuts tied up in cloth, in a random direction. Stalker was schooled in the way of the Zone by a man nicknamed Porcupine, who mysteriously became rich after leaving the Zone, and then killed himself a week later. Stalker spots evidence of Porcupine’s final, apparently malicious damage and rearranging of landmarks within the Zone, something that makes the already precarious job of navigation all the more difficult. Fragments of mysterious magic are glimpsed: the earth at one point seems to throb as if on fire within; later, two birds are seen to fly over a sandpit, with one disappearing and the other flying safely past. Yet none of the dangers Stalker warns about actually strike the Writer and the Professor: the latter turns back to collect his knapsack in spite of Stalker’s imperative command not to, and the Writer safely crosses the threshold of a sandpit before the Stalker shouts a belated warning. Debating about the nature of the Zone, about their own life assumptions and what exactly finding a room that grants a wish might entail, the trio steadily approaches the object of their journey.
Tarkovsky’s career is often considered in tandem with Stanley Kubrick’s. Tarkovsky’s first science fiction film Solaris is called a more romantic, less Nietzschean 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Stalker, in its way, also suggests the latter film’s notions of humanity on the cusp of great transcendence or total degradation and anticipates aspects of The Shining (1981) in exploring the ambiguities of empirical existence and presenting situations where psychological credulity and supernatural obscurity are difficult to distinguish. Stalker is an epic odyssey, a purified quest narrative with roots in the most ancient myth and the traditions of folkloric parable, which, ironically, involves only the most minimalist props and actions. In spite of the film’s ambling pace and stark yet dreamy, paranoid yet becalmed atmosphere, it’s a work of cerebral but clear-cut ideas familiar from both its essential genre of science fiction, and from a distinctive strand of Eastern European fantastic and satiric drama. But the ideas are almost entirely manifested through talk, gesture, and emotion, rather than visualisation: the world around the character rarely deviates from the same old solid, empirical reality. Stalker can be described, on one level, simply as a film about three guys who walk around an overgrown industrial site for three hours, except for certain moments when something amazing and bizarre happens, possessing a precise, coiled, yet still inscrutable strength.
The bulk of Stalker was shot around a disused hydroelectric plant in Estonia, and some believe the pollution around the site was directly responsible for Tarkovsky, Solonitsin, and several others who worked on the film all dying of cancer within a decade. If true, such a tragic real-life consequence feels nonetheless all too harshly appropriate considering some of Stalker’s essential themes. Retrospective analysis has recast the film as a prediction of Chernobyl, a notion that seems absurd, and yet there’s no deep mystery to this seeming echo of future horrors. Soviet industrialisation, not to mention Nazi invasion, had long been making an environmental hell out of swathes of the country. To this day, millions of hectares in Siberia are caked in oil spewed out by decayed infrastructure. Chernobyl was merely the loudest, climactic act in that process of breakdown and despoiling, and the dark imprint of industrialisation’s by-products were surely already quite familiar to Tarkovsky and the Strugatskys. Other aspects are equally suggestive: Stalker’s daughter is a slightly mongoloid-looking girl who can’t walk because she reportedly has no legs, and misshapen children are apparently common amongst Stalkers’ families. Such information is immediately redolent of thalidomide and radiation birth defects.
The haze of everything malefic in the modern industrial world therefore hangs over the film in a thick pall, both metaphorically and, in the early scenes, quite literally. There’s a bleak, totalitarian aspect to the world we catch glimpses of, with the roaming security guards who randomly shoot off guns to try to cut down infiltrators of the Zone, factories billowing out smoke and grime, and locomotives that thunder past Stalker’s house. It could all be a particularly scabrous portrait of the decaying Soviet Union, a notion that’s particularly hard to resist considering that Stalker, with his shaven head redolent of the Gulag, angrily states “everywhere is a prison!”, and the Professor contends with his threatening, authoritarian boss over the phone. And yet they may also be just carefully structured visions of a perfectly ordinary modern nation, most of which have their rust belts, petty official and state-sponsored thugs, and top-secret areas.
When the Writer first appears, he’s come directly from a party, still pretty drunk, driven to the rendezvous by a chicly dressed young woman in a slick car who wants to join the expedition. The pair could easily belong to any society circle: Stalker simply, strictly tells the girl to go, and she speeds away, her whim casually extinguished. The Zone can be interpreted as a bomb-testing site or battlefield that’s become overgrown, but within which radiation or landmines still lurk. Shattered, rusting tanks and armament litter the Zone, remnants of the ill-fated attempts by the government, so Stalker recounts, to penetrate the Zone with military force. The detritus of a pulverised patch of civilisation is likewise scattered: in a long, seemingly pointless, but actually vital moment half-way through the film, Tarkovsky’s camera drifts away from his protagonists to study the material scattered in a waterway. Icons, books, prints, documents, ornamentation, machinery, medical equipment, a gun, utensils, and sundry other remnants of civilisation lie in a kind of dreamy stasis in the water. The Zone itself is steadily reclaiming all human materials into itself, which, whilst seemingly dominated by nature, has its own withholding, inhuman mystery restored.
Meanwhile, the Writer and the Scientist bicker and debate as they follow Stalker. That they stand in not only for their different professions, but also for philosophical disparities, is all too obvious, and the Writer lives up to his part with moments of sodden boorishness and self-pity with a certain level of stereotypical zest. He needles the Professor, a physicist who worked for a government department that seemingly oversees the Zone, over the inadequacies of his empirical worldview in the face of a place like the Zone, and the universe in general. Stalker’s natural, almost primitivist, crypto-spiritual intuition stands in contrast to both men’s forms of intellectualism. Writer nicknames him, half-pejoratively, “Chingachgook,” after James Fenimore Cooper’s Indian hero, and “Pathfinder” would be just as apt for Stalker, who feels rather than thinks his way across the landscape. What lends these schematic figures weight is the way everything is both abstracted to the point where almost nothing literal and everyday is identified definitively, so that the drama unfolding here can stand in for any era and many potential parables, and yet it’s all composed of entirely three-dimensional images and settings so potent in the physical details that you can practically smell the landscape, the characters sharply played and defined. In a way, Stalker is akin to a children’s game—remember how you once declared some random object a castle, and the ground suddenly became lava, and you had to find a way over it?
A similar sense of random danger and reality’s familiar rules rendered capricious dominates in the Zone. Indeed, Stalker expressly describes the Zone as capricious. Stalker relates to the Zone as a religion, a god, and quotes scripture incessantly: one of his more suggestive quotes comes directly after that long view of the detritus in the water, in which he speaks of men who did not recognise Jesus when he came to them because of his altered garb, suggesting that something within the story – the Zone perhaps, or perhaps Stalker himself, or his daughter – may be another divine messenger. At another point, Stalker recites passages from Revelations, and the mysterious object that fell to earth suddenly suggests the “star called Wormwood” from the same book, thus shifting the resonances of the story towards the apocalyptic.
Stalker defines the Zone as a place for people in a state of crisis and without hope; only the desperate can survive the Zone’s caprices, and perhaps only the Wishing Room can solve their problem. The Writer comes to view the Zone essentially as a heart of darkness, a regressive place that will reduce one’s will to a core, key desire, one that will become the “wish” in contradiction of any false (civilised) value one holds and tries to assert. An idealist may also be driven by covert misanthropy, and this hidden aspect will then define the wish. This view seems highlighted by the recounted fate of Porcupine, an enigmatic tale the Writer slowly unravels thanks to some of Stalker’s stories. Porcupine lured his talented poet brother there to be annihilated, and then, breaching the Stalkers’ code, entered the Wishing Room himself and received wealth. His suicide upon returning to the world was because he regretted killing his brother, but when he returned to wish for his brother’s return, the Zone would not grant it, because the original wish was truer. The threat of the wishes of utopians and religious freaks is as terrifying to the Writer and the Professor as those of the vengeful and the vicious. The Writer suggests his crises of faith and imagination at the outset when he tells the girl, “The world is governed by cast-iron laws, and it’s excruciatingly boring!” Cynical and driven by doubt, as he readily, even proudly, admits, he also seeks a proof of a god that will imbue his efforts with meaning. And yet he ultimately doesn’t want proof: he begins to understand that his doubt is a kind of weapon. The Professor is so scared of the Wishing Room’s potential that his own personal mission is to detonate an atomic bomb he’s been carrying in his knapsack in the Wishing Room, thus ridding the world of the threat entirely. Stalker tries to stop this, but Writer instead holds Stalker back, accusing Stalker of enjoying playing God in helping people reach the Wishing Room.
Stalker defends himself merely as a mediator, a man who tries to lead other men to the edge of something restorative. He seems more like a holy fool, and when he returns home he convulses in pain, both physical and emotional—that’s what those two pills (aspirin) were for—as he frets over the misanthropy and distrust of the two savants. On whatever level he believes in the Zone, as manifestation of the alien or even of the imagination itself, he worships its power. The possibility that the preternatural qualities of the Zone are an invention of Stalker’s is mooted, for the Professor learned everything about the place from him. There’s certainly something strange about the Zone is certain, confirmed by an opening scrawl written by a “Professor Wallace,” who may or may not be the same Professor in the film, the efforts of the guardians to keep people out of it, and the warnings of the Professor’s boss, but the peculiarity of the Zone might not necessarily be what Stalker says it is. What is certain is that Stalker takes his devotion to his job as seriously as any medieval monk. Such devotion is echoed by his wife, who recites a monologue directly to the camera stating that in spite of her writhing ecstatic tantrum at the outset, she’s never been unhappy with Stalker, knowing what she did about the dangers and how their children often ended up right from the start. Whether this can be read as a simple encomium to devotion as a trait in itself, or connected more deeply to her understanding of his sense of mission, such familial completeness as is seen at the start is both outset and endpoint of Stalker’s own journey. Stalker considers, at one point, moving his family into the Zone, reasoning they’ll be beyond harassment there.
For all the oblique, pensively intellectual, arty qualities of the film, it’s worth noting how unfussy the visuals are, and the workmanlike expertise with which Tarkovsky builds tension, particularly in the long, brilliantly orchestrated scene in which Stalker has the Writer enter a tunnel he dubs “the meat-grinder” because of the number of people who have died trying to traverse its length, and his subsequent stumbling into the sandtrap. Likewise, a certain wry, even black comedy percolates throughout, as when the Professor disappears and Stalker gives him up for dead, only to come upon him eating his lunch with ingenuous calm. This aspect of the film provides a definitive punch line once the three are inside the centremost building, only metres away from the Wishing Room. A telephone starts ringing, which the Writer, who was in the midst of one of his rants, picks up. He listens to the voice on the other end, shouts “No this is not a clinic,” slams the receiver down, turns away, and then all three men freeze dead still in sudden awareness of what just happened: this moment is delivered with the comedic precision of a Marx Brothers routine. The Professor’s response to realising there’s still a working telephone in the Zone is to call up his boss, who forbade him going on this mission, to mock him and gloat. The shadows of Beckett and Kafka lay over much of this material, even if the film’s specific flavour is less bludgeoning and negative than their work, and closer in spirit to magic-realism.
Finally, whilst the debates, confessions, and petty in-fighting of the three main characters are fascinating, it’s in Tarkovsky’s images where true wonder and ambiguity lie, refusing any simple reduction of the many interpretations and dimensions of the story, moving beyond the literal, and the literary, and into a realm of total cinema. It’s as if Tarkovsky set himself the task of pitting his images against intellectual formulae, and, amazingly, winning. The Zone retains its threat and mystery when the Writer and the Scientist and even Stalker himself have done everything to reduce its meaning and potential within coherent boundaries. More matter-of-factly, the film’s atmosphere is palpable, and Tarkovsky draws out the strange, poetic beauty of industrial wreckage invaded and infused by rebellious nature, as if in the median ground between civilisation, past, and future.
Where the film’s bookend scenes back in the city are filmed in a near-monochrome with a faintly bronzed tint, the Zone is a sprawl of muted, lustrous colour that returns in two concluding shots of Stalker’s daughter, immediately zeroing in on her as the vessel for something as strange and wondrous as in the Zone. Stalker’s devotion to her, carrying her on his shoulders across the inhospitable landscape, is both pathetic and joyous all at once, almost Dickensian, and yet the very last scene moves into a new realm. Like another, more earthbound, yet equally wondrous version of 2001’s star child, the girl sits in her little hovel vibrating to the passage of trains, stares dimly at glasses on the kitchen table, and begins to move them about telekinetically. Stalker’s adventures in the Zone have resulted in his offspring possessing something deeply abnormal, perhaps inhuman, and potentially terrifying. Yet Tarkovsky lets a snatch of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” creep into the soundtrack, suggesting that where now the world shakes her house, some day she’ll shake the world right back.