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“My dear, our world is hopelessly boring. Therefore, there can be no telepathy, or apparitions, or flying saucers, nothing like that. The world is ruled by cast-iron laws, and it’s insufferably boring. Alas, those laws are never violated. They don’t know how to be violated…. To live in the Middle Ages was interesting. Every home had its house-spirit, and every church had its God.”–Writer, Stalker
DIRECTED BY: Andrei Tarkovsky
FEATURING: Aleksandr Kaidanovsky, Anatoli Solonitsyn, Nikolai Grinko, Alisa Freindlich
PLOT: A mysterious phenomenon known as the Zone arises in a small, unnamed country. The military sent soldiers in and the troops never returned; they cordon off the Zone with barbed wire and armed guards, but rumors persist within the populace that inside the Zone is a room that will grant the innermost wish of anyone who enters it. A Stalker, a man capable of evading both the police and the traps formed by the Zone itself, leads a writer and a scientist into the Zone in search of the mystical room.
- For information on director Tarkovsky, see the background section of the entry for Nostalghia.
- Stalker is very loosely based on a science fiction novel with a title translating to “Roadside Picnic” written by two brothers, Boris and Arkady Strugatsky.
- After shooting the outdoor scenes for over a year on an experimental film stock, the entire footage was lost when the film laboratory improperly developed the negatives. All the scenes had to be re-shot using a different Director of Photography. Tarkovsky and Georgy Rerberg, the first cinematographer, had feuded on the set, and Rerberg deserted the project after the disaster with the negatives.
- Tarkovsky, his wife and assistant director Larisa, and another crew member all died of lung cancer. Vladimir Sharun, who worked in the sound department, believed that the deaths were related to toxic waste the crew breathed in while filming downstream from a chemical plant. He reported that the river was filled with a floating white foam that also floated through the air and gave several crew members allergic reactions. A shot of the floating foam, which looks like snow falling in spring or summer, can be seen in the film.
- The Chernobyl nuclear disaster happened seven years after the film was released. The quarantined area around the disaster site is sometimes referred to by locals as “The Zone,” and guides who illegally and unwisely take tourists there as “Stalkers.”
- A popular Russian video game named “S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl” involves the player penetrating a “Zone” and evokes a similar visual sense as the movie.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Like most of Tarkovsky’s works, Stalker is a movie full of awe-inspiring visual poetry and splendor, making it hard to pick a single sequence. One key scene that stands out is Stalker’s dream. The film stock changes from color to sepia—but a very warm brown, almost golden—as the camera pans over a crystal clear stream. A female voice whispers an apocalyptic verse and the mystical electronic flute theme plays as the camera roams over various objects lying under the water: abstract rock formations, tiles, springs, gears, a mirror clearly reflecting upside down trees, a gun, an Orthodox icon, a fishbowl with goldfish swimming in it.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Stalker is an ambiguous, but despairing, existential parable containing narrative non-sequiturs wrapped inside of strange and gorgeous visuals.
Scene from Stalker
COMMENTS: It’s not fair to the potential viewer unfamiliar with Tarkovsky to start a review of one of his films without the following caveat: this movie isn’t for everyone. Most people find this director’s extreme, deliberate slowness hard to digest. There a relatively static, dialogue-free shots in Stalker that run for four minutes or more—a lot of shots like that, in fact, in a movie that runs for almost three hours. Add to this obstacle the additional hurdle that Tarkovsky movies are obscure and difficult to comprehend: there are lots of shots that are obvious symbols (dogs, flowing water) but which appear to add up to nothing, and snatches of poetry and philosophical ramblings that seem like they must be profound but are impossible to decipher within the context of the story. If the foregoing isn’t enough to turn you off, Tarkovsky movies are also oppressively doom-laden, full of dour Russian men with craggy faces who are slowly devoured from inside their guts by malaise. A smile in a Tarkovsky film is almost as rare as a four syllable word in a Michael Bay production.
If you haven’t been scared off yet—if the style sounds tolerable, or even intriguing—then step into Tarkovsky’s strange world and be prepared to glimpse miracles. If you are at the proper wavelength, Tarkovsky will cast a hypnotic spell on you like no other director. The Russian is every bit the equal of Stanley Kubrick as a visual stylist. Stalker contains awe-inspiring images: the sepia-lensed scenes that begin the film, set in the drab urban world, are like vintage photographs that transform poverty and squalor into beauty. The lighting in these sequences is set to blaring, increasing contrast and bringing out light tones so that the characters glow with an unearthly light. Tarkovsky provides unexpected textures to fill in the backgrounds: the wooden walls of the houses and barrooms are abstract and unnatural, the gray rock walls of the Zone are geometric and fractured, and at one point a rolling prairie turns liquid and wavy like a gently undulating lake. Stalker contains many of the director’s trademark pans, slow reveals, and tracking shots, including the one in Stalker’s dream where the camera travels over a path of submerged symbols. In some scenes, the lighting will shift slowly and almost subliminally, from grey to lava orange and back, in ways that could never happen in nature. The constant photographic invention and trickery makes Tarkovsky a filmmaker’s filmmaker, one whom those with great visual ambition study carefully.
In Stalker, Tarkovsky adds sonic artfulness to his visual mastery. The recurring theme from Stalker is an ahead-of-its-time mix of what we would today call “world music” and electronically altered instruments. Tarkovsky wanted a composition that sounded like a blend of Eastern and Western music, and the melody that flows from this desire is played on a Western flute accompanied by an Armenian string instrument called the tar, with the sound of both instruments modulated by a synthesizer. The resulting piece is strange, complex, and mystical, and creates an otherworldly atmosphere. Although the mix of wandering Oriental melodies and synthesizers is a relatively common way to achieve a “spiritual” ambiance today, it’s worth reflecting that, in 1979, there was nothing in the world that sounded quite like this. The musical experimentation did not end with the theme. As the three men ride into the Zone, the clickity-clack of the train wheels on the track is slowed down and electronically altered so that each revolution of the wheel sounds like an alien drumbeat, a truly weird effect that creates a sense of foreboding an proclaims that the journey is not to an exotic land, but rather deep inside the soul. Add to this a quiet sound design that makes careful use of ambient echoes and splashes of water in the abandoned, quarry-like rooms of the Zone, as well as long periods of carefully orchestrated silence, and you have a sonic environment that is the auditory equivalent of the unique visual world Tarkovsky creates. Together, the curious aural and visual worlds of Stalker combine with its unexpected narrative to create a singular, and unnerving, movie universe.
As for the story, the journey into and through the Zone provides a structure for the film, but Tarkovsky’s method constantly frustrates our expectations. In the end the film is much more about the characters than about the events that occur to them. Although we are told by Stalker that the Zone protects itself by constantly shifting its layout and creating traps, in the end each of the three men spends more time struggling with his companions (and even more effort wrestling with himself) than they do fighting their way through the perils of the Zone. At the outset of the journey, there is almost the sense that this will be Tarkovsky’s action movie, as the three men sneak past armed guards and even encounter gunfire. But the action shifts to a lower gear quickly. We are told that the Zone is dangerous and full of traps, and Stalker insists that the men never forge ahead unless he has first thrown a nut with a bandage tied to it onto the path to assure himself there are no traps, but we never see any real evidence of mortal danger from the sentient Zone. Instead, all the conflict comes from the men themselves. The man known only as Writer and the man known only as Scientist squabble incessantly, with Writer usually getting the upper hand. The two men come to distrust Stalker, and disobey his orders, without consequences. They sweat and tremble as they consider the possibility that a diabolical snare may lie behind the next door, but when the Zone finally springs its trap on them, it is purely psychological in nature: the existential trap causes Writer to deliver the sort of despairing monologue that he had been freely offering up throughout the journey anyway, without prodding from mystical forces. When, after some logic-defying occurrences such as the appearance of a ringing telephone (a wrong number, as it turns out), the men finally reach the antechamber of the room of wishes, the goal they have risked their lives for eludes them. For different reasons, each man is afraid or unwilling to enter the room. So, they sit there, on the cusp of having their ultimate dreams fulfilled, then turn back. The film ends with an entirely unexpected, ambiguous denouement, where an unexplained miracle of uncertain significance may, or may not, occur.
Writer obviously represents right-brain intuition, and Scientist left-brain logic. Writer is consumed by self-doubt, half-convinced that his talent is an illusion, that he is not a great genius and that his words will not live on past him. Scientist is more inscrutable, but it turns out in the end that his character has an important twist to provide the story. It’s Stalker himself who most engages our interest. Although he serves as the other men’s guide, as the journey progresses it is revealed that he is just as flawed, afraid and tormented as the others. There are intriguing suggestions that he is a Christ-like figure, one that the other two men defy and refuse to put their faith in, and that he suffers psychically from his failure to lead his charges to happiness—or to whatever exactly it is that the room will bring them.
Stalker is a movie which is built out of loose ends. Each of the three men sets out to complete a quest, but chicken out when the time comes for action, and end the story exactly where they began. Conspicuously highlighted symbols cascade through the movie, but never reveal their significance: water, trains, the dog that follows Stalker throughout the Zone, not to mention the long, random parade of submerged images Stalker envisions while he dreams of Biblical apocalypse. No rational explanation is ever offered for the origin of the Zone itself, and the existence of the possibly mythical room of wishes. The men philosophize and poetize about the meaning of life throughout the film, but never come to any firm conclusions. Their various speculations, considered together, demonstrate no consistency or intellectual rigor or add up to a thesis. Some might consider this overweening pretentiousness—filling the frame with half-explored ideas in order to suggest a profound meaning that the director is incapable of delivering. Others may find it humble, an accurate and honest realization by the artist that he is smart enough to recognize the big questions of life and the human soul, but not omnipotent so as to answer them. Stalker remains a fascinating, and frustrating, mystery, if we are capable of seeing it; but it bores us if we are firmly lodged in an age where our homes no longer have house-spirits, or our churches Gods.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“It’s certainly not necessary to construct an Oz or an E.T. in the service of every film fantasy. On the other hand, the fact that film is a visual medium cannot entirely be ignored. ‘Stalker’ offers the eye so little that it might well have made a better novel, or short story, than a nearly three-hour-long film.”–Janet Maslin, The New York Times (contemporaneous)
“… something akin to the essence of what man is made of: a tangled knot of memories, fears, fantasies, nightmares, paradoxical impulses, and a yearning for something that’s simultaneously beyond our reach and yet intrinsic to every one of us.”–Nick Schager, Slant Magazine (DVD)
IMDB LINK: Stalker (1979)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Stalker at nostalghia.com: The Stalker page at the ultimate Tarkovsky site (more of an academic resource than a fan site) features several interviews with the crew of Stalker and with Tarkovsky himself
Is Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker about the gulags? Chernobyl? EU immigration?: Reflections on the possible meanings of the film by novelist Geoff Dyer
A Unique Perspective on the Making of “Stalker”: The Testimony of a Mechanic Toiling Away under Tarkovsky’s Guidance – Recollections of Sergey Bessmertniy, who worked on-set as a mechanic, with behind-the-scenes photos, courtesy of Cinephilia & Beyond
DVD INFO: The 2-disc release by Kino (buy) contains the movie, not remastered and presented in full screen. There is an option to hear the dialogue overdubbed by a single actor in either English or French; this is an odd choice, and one that I can’t imagine many people would be interested in taking advantage of. Disc 2 contains interviews with the composer, cameraman, and production designer about their roles in the film’s production and memories of Tarkovsky. It also contains excerpts from Tarkovsky’s film school graduation project and some footage of Tarkovsky’s ruined childhood home.
The Kino release, although almost identical in content, supersedes the the Ruscico DVD, which was poorly received by many Tarkovsky fans because of the decision to replace Tarkovsky’s mono soundtrack with newly created Dolby 5.1 surround sound audio. In creating the new soundtrack, some of the music was altered and some ambient sound effects were added where the director had chosen to place only silence. The Kino release offers the option of listening to either soundtrack.