34. STALKER (1979)

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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

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FEATURING: Aleksandr Kaidanovsky, , 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.

Still from Stalker (1979)


  • 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.


“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)

“Weird, imagist allegory of the perils of intellectualism in Russia.”–The Guardian (DVD)

“… 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)


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.

20 thoughts on “34. STALKER (1979)”

  1. I saw the movie many years ago. Your very meticulous and insightful review brought me back to those years and the memories of how it was then. Most likely you do not know that its appearance in the theatres was all the time delayed and later when it ultimately appeared the number of copies was so limited that it was shown just in few theatres in turn. There were long lines of people trying to buy a ticket, many could not get inside. So, the next day they were trying their luck again at another theatre. Only after the collapse of the Soviet Union the movie appeared again without any restriction.

    I liked your very careful way of presentation of the movie to the site guests. Really this film is not for everyone. But it opens its ‘doors’ gradually, one by one, years after years if one dares to go back to it again and again. It’s worthy of doing that.

    What I appreciate mostly in your review is the way you talk about the sonic features of the movie. Really it was something absolutely new then and astounding. Unfortunately I do not remember the composer’s and the sound engineer’s names.

    Sometimes I think that Zone is the very remote corner of one’s soul. Tarkovsky has just shown his explorations of the human soul, with all those vague fears, expectations, hopes and memories, while Stalker had never left his room. He is both the Writer and the Scientist, and your remark on them representing the right-brain and left-brain functions just supported this my feeling.

    Yes, after the Chernobyl catastrophe we here refer to the location as “Zone” thus associating it with the Zone in “Roadside Picnic” and the movie, and the people who go there as “Stalkers”. But it would be a very simple way explanation.

    Thank you once more for your very careful and appealing review.

  2. Irene,

    Per the IMDB the composer was Eduard Artemyev and the sound designer Vladimir Sharun.

    Although I always make sure people know what they’re getting into when the watch a Tarkovsky movie, I notice that I get more comments on a Tarkovsky movie than other movies. Those who love his work really, really love it.

  3. A 4-star movie with now a Must-See?!! Man, no offense, but your rating system confounds the living hell out of me sometimes.
    But, no worries! I would say this is definitely a “Must-See” film. Im glad that you leaned your view towards so, as well.

    1. Caleb, when you remember old ratings and stuff, you confound my ability to change things on the fly! Over time my opinion of this movie has grown, and now that I’ve finally checked out Solaris I think that Stalker is probably the “Must See” for weird movie fans in Tarkovsky’s catalogue. Not that it’s necessarily better than Solaris, but it’s equally good, and definitely the weirder of the two.

      Also, I’d rather be conservative and not mark something as a “Must See,” then upgrade it later, than to do the opposite and face fans who are upset their favorite film’s been downgraded.

  4. I guess its how meticulously I pay attention to this sight. You grow a certain degree of attraction, and certain amount of developed assumptions that you flow in trend.
    Im certainly glad a website can logically confound my expectations, and deliver another interesting surprise.
    Sounds like one truly weird site. (:

  5. I have to admit that I’m in two minds about “Stalker”. On the one hand, it’s certainly “weird” in a typically slow-moving Tarkovsky fashion. But then again, it does no justice at all to the source novel “Roadside Picnic” by the Strugatsky brothers. Read that book, and then imagine a colour English-language remake directed by Ridley Scott, starring Russell Crowe. Would that be a more faithful adaptation? Undoubtedly. Would it be a “weird” film? Probably not, because it would very likely be sufficiently mainstream to make some serious money.

    But is this necessarily a good thing? In the source novel, the “Meat Grinder” section of the Zone is so called because a barely-seen thing wrings you out like wet washing and hangs you out to dry. The worst of it is that a human being who is literally twisted into a pretzel may not actually be quite dead yet. In the film, the Meat Grinder is “the place where absolutely everybody dies horribly, except us because the special effects budget didn’t run to it, therefore the camera wobbles a bit and then we’re inexplicably OK despite what I just said”. And there is of course the scene taken directly from the novel in which a major character’s leg-bones dissolve. As filmed by Tarkovksky, this is a laughable Monty Python moment involving ridiculously cheap rubber legs. There is no attempt at all to convey the idea that this is actually a very traumatic thing to happen to anyone!

    Sorry, but I have no patience with movies which are “cult” or “weird” just because they’re pretentious. This is a slow, boring, under-funded version of a novel with an incredibly cinematic plot which, if it were done properly, would be Blade Runner meets Salvador Dali, and which would almost certainly have no place on this website because it would make vastly more money than the earlier “weird” version simply because it was a lot more enjoyable to watch. I honestly think a better, higher-budget adaptation of this book would be both technically “weirder” – and the more faithful to the source novel, the better – and more commercial in terms of being a film that doesn’t send you to sleep.

    Now there’s a gauntlet for you! Take it up who will!

  6. I myself have been a great fan of Tarkovsky’s oeuvre and I must agree with you that it’s not for everyone. I think that you analysis of Stalker does great justice to the movie as well as Tarkovsky’s style of filmmaking. Congratulations on your great movie website.

    Also, I had only recently written a review of Stalker for my movie-blog ‘A Potpourri of Vestiges’. I would be honored if you could take sometime out to read it and let me know of your opinion:


  7. Love this site. Love this film. As always, thanks a heap for reviewing this. Just saw it today for the first time. Ever have one of those odd experiences where you’re reading a book, and then happen to decide; “Oh, I’ve got 4 hours to burn, so I might as well watch that weird Russian film” only to discover… it’s like they made an adaptation of the book without knowing it? Maybe it’s just me. If you’re at all interested in delving more into the ‘philosophy’ behind the themes of this film; I highly recommend checking out even just the first 15 pages of Sheldon Kopp’s “Even a Stone Can Be a Teacher: Learning and Growing from the Experiences of Everyday Life”.

  8. Something very odd has just happened to me. I was thinking about this movie, and I realized that my memories of it – I haven’t seen it since shortly after it first came out – included at least two sequences that directly contradicted each other, and a lot of other peculiar ambiguities. So I watched it again.

    I was amazed to discover – and I don’t think this has ever happened to me with a movie before – that my brain had compensated for its aching slowness and uneventfulness by making me clearly remember things which weren’t in the film at all, but should have been because they were in the book, and would have made the film far more fun! For example, in my previous comment I mentioned a scene in which one character’s leg-bones painlessly dissolve, leaving him with useless and alarmingly floppy limbs. It’s in the book, but nothing like this occurs in the movie, and in fact that character doesn’t appear at all.

    What seems to have happened is that I remembered how much tedious rambling about the meaning of life (those actual words are used at one point) the characters go in for at wildly inappropriate moments, and subconsciously concocted a scene in which it would have been even sillier. I can still clearly see in my mind’s eye a chap with a beard wearing a greatcoat and a bowler hat being absurdly deadpan and waxing pretentiously existential while bending his very fake rubber leg the wrong way, even though it was never filmed.

    I also clearly remembered the Stalker’s Zone mutant daughter “Monkey” being an actual monkey, which in the book she is, though in the film she merely has no legs (allegedly – we never see her lower half)). And the scene from the book where they set off a trap and writhe on the ground in agony, feeling that they are being burned alive, but unable to stand up and run away from the pain because a couple of feet above the ground the effect gets stronger and they really will cook – I remembered that being in the film too.

    Though what actually happens is that they lie on the ground because they’re tired out from walking about a quarter of a mile very slowly, grimacing as if in pain because they always do, and inexplicably try to go to sleep on wet, lumpy rocks, even though they’ve just crossed a flat, dry field, because at this point the hero needs to have a dream sequence. Which, by the way, is dull and desperately unimaginative. In the Zone, guns, money and religious icons end up at the bottom of the river. That’s not even symbolism, it’s the actual things themselves saying: “Oh look, in the Weird Place I’m useless!” And I don’t care if it’s shot in a pretty shade of sepia. By the way, I don’t dream in sepia – does anybody?

    Personally I think the film works pretty well as a disguised remake of The Wizard of Oz. Seriously, it does – think about it! It would certainly explain the presence of the dog. Though admittedly I haven’t tried watching it while listening to The Dark Side of the Moon.

    PS – Not long before this film was made, the Soviet government released official footage of some lady who could move objects with her mind. It seems to have been a carefully orchestrated hoax designed to convince America that they had some kind of top secret X-Men program, thus causing them to waste a significant portion of their limited resources for spying inside the USSR trying to find out about something which would be tremendously important if it really existed, which it didn’t. That footage looked one heck of a lot like the seemingly irrelevant final scene in this movie.

  9. dear Otto Black, (and/or anyone else who is so inclined to respond),can you recommend another read similar to roadside picnic? I too find it far superior in terms of compelling. I have some time to myself over the next month and am fiending. My mind is swirling with possibilities, and i like/concur with your take on things. Do you have any recommendations for like-minded films (similar themes,artistry)that you think pull it off better?

    thank you in advance,

  10. It’s my understanding that the Zone is Tarkovsky’s view of an entirely disenchanted atheist and materialist world. Because the spiritual spark has forsaken it, everything seems dead and decaying in the Zone, inhabited by a muted sadness and mourn. Tarkovsky is saying that even while atheists claim that they would be looking for and value understanding and wisdom, they ultimately reject spirituality when it’s right in front of them, as do Writer and Scientist when they finally reach the room which in the film stands for the wish fulfillment (or rather, in Tarkovsky’s view, need fulfillment) granted by spirituality.

    It’s also why we hear a military train rushing by outside in the end playing the Internationale as the ultimate atheist hymn, as Stalker, who looks tormented (as he always does in this atheist world) while asleep in his bed. Stalker is basically a priest or shaman figure who tries to lead people towards the spiritual but to his frustration repeatedly fails (even his own wife considers him crazy for it). The true Tarkovskian meaning of the word “Stalker” within the film would be that of a spiritual trespasser, a commuter between worlds.

    I don’t agree with Tarkowsky on an ideological level, but as a film, an aesthetic experience, and one helluva mystic trip, I consider it the best of those of his movies I know so far. My initial reaction upon first viewing was that the entire Zone would be somehow a magical alternate dimension, but that perception changed once I read up on Tarkovsky and the message he had really intended.

    I think the repeatedly brought up, half-finished, and manifold conjectures on the origin and nature of the Zone never meant to serve any purpose towards an explanation or humility towards the unexplainable, other than keeping the viewer’s interest up, to make them stick to the film and want to find out, rather than walk out of the theater prematurely. They’re like mysteriously fascinating narrative promises laid out by a treasure map to entice us as the audience, the very fact that they’re so mysterious and surreal is what makes them fascinating, but once we get to the X the treasure is entirely different from what we imagined it to be like. Didn’t Hitchcock call this technique a “red herring”?

    It’s why “Stalker” is probably the one sci-fi movie with the smallest SFX budget in history. One of my suggestions for review here, Schamoni’s “Ein großer, graublauer Vogel” (1969) works a lot like that, only ingeniously hinting at grand spectacles in the dialogues but never showing them, so that most of the fascinating mystique really happens only in the viewer’s mind.

    I’m not sure whether the glass incident at the end with Stalker’s daughter would be truly a miracle, at least on the film’s superficial sci-fi layer. After all, doesn’t her mother tell the viewer in the end that she’s a mutant child like many that have been born in the vicinity and under the influence of the rotten atheist Zone? In this context and especially within Tarkovsky’s spiritual messager, her condition seems closer to that of a Thalidomide child to me, and her mother certainly talks of everything to do with the Zone like that.

  11. I really enjoy this film as I do all Tarkovsky poetic cinema in the sense as I traveled alone, extensively, very far as young single man in the late 1960’s through the mid – 1990’s before I finally settled down into a favorable career with benefits. What I like most is his cacophony of the visual inexplicable as each film is journey into adventure which only makes sense of or not to each viewer. Why did I never take photos on my trips? Because they were all unique sojourns stored in the memory of my experience. No two alike. All pleasantly recallable. I can relate. Time disappears. Worlds more alike to ones I have seen now gone.

  12. I just finished watching this today. It must be one of the dankest films I have ever seen; every scene around the Zone oozes melancholy and menace, especially the ”Meat Mincer” tunnel. I agree that is not for everyone, and perhaps with those who might argue that Tarkovsky’s overall message is the simplistic one of the loss of spiritual values in a materialized world, but it has enough gorgeous set designs that, like the sets themselves, makes my mouth water.

  13. This is such an enigmatic film. It’s crazy to me how well it works and how it’s already burrowing in my mind. Happy that Criterion has it.

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