Original release: August, 1979
Running time: 160 minutes
Country of origin: Soviet Union
Original language: Russian
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Writers: Arkadiy Strugatskiy, Boris Strugatskiy, Andrei Tarkovsky
Cast: Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy
To say that Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker attains the heights of cinematic art is to put it mildly. The film is a masterpiece and a must see for anybody seriously interested in the possibilities of film.
A meteor has fallen, creating a place called the Zone in which the usual laws of physics do not apply. Fenced in and jealously guarded by the military, the Zone contains the Room, a place within which it is said your deepest and most secret wishes are granted.
A Stalker (Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy) guides two men towards the Room, one a famous writer, burnt out by cynicism and self-doubt, the other a pedantic professor (Nikolay Grinko) who seems to be out for a stroll, complete with knapsack, flask and sandwiches, but who in fact has ulterior motives for embarking on the journey. Their actions are dangerous and illegal: the Stalker’s wife tries to persuade him not to go, warning him that he will be sent back to jail. However, the men are driven by different motives and even the Stalker seems on the verge of a crisis as he recounts the history of a former Stalker—called Porcupine—who taught him everything he knows and came to a disastrous end.
Everything is set up as if it is an allegory — everyone is called by their occupation rather than their name (Professor, Writer etc.) — but the allegory which at first seems like simplicity itself, becomes increasingly opaque as the film and the characters circle the Room, carrying out rituals as if taking part in some elaborate but deadly game. The initial breaking into the Zone is reminiscent of a war film — Tarkovsky’s brilliant debut Ivan’s Childhood (1962) features a similarly tense sortie behind enemy lines — and, at the time, must have had dangerous parallels to people attempting to break out of the Soviet Union.
The monochrome sepia of reality is then replaced with a lush colour of verdant greens. It is as if the first half hour of the film, which lingers on dripping industrial wasteland and dank draughty rooms, is a preparation for seeing nature, as if for the first time. Weirdly, it is normality that looks magical whereas the everyday urban reality the travellers leave that is tinted with nightmarish strangeness.
Although worthy of many monographs — most recently Geoff Dyer has produced a book about his experiences of watching the film repeatedly — I can only briefly point out what I find so enthralling about this film.
First, Tarkovsky is a director who puts the physical into metaphysical. Although Stalker explores themes of belief and faith and the meaning of life, this film is gritty. Not in the usual sense of Ken Loach-like social realism, but actually gritty, as in the men tramp through grit, shale, pebbles and broken glass, and sand. Tarkovsky’s camera and his immersive and occasionally disjointed sound design surrounds the viewer with a physical world which is there in all its thereness.
Rain, dampness, dripping, ponds, wells, stones, filthy sewers: there’s all this stuff the travellers need to get through. Perhaps the best symbol of this linking of the ineffable mystery with the rudimentary is the Stalker’s own technique of navigating via throwing a strip of cloth which he has knotted around a rusty bolt ahead of them to check their safety. There is something subtly terrifying, fed by the Stalker’s own obvious fear of the Zone’s invisible forces, and yet at the same time, something childlike and silly about the process. The Writer soon tires of it, but before long ,they all fall into step with the Stalker’s instructions, even as they facetiously mock him with names taken from James Fennimore Cooper novels.
To say that something is deep, or multilayered, is in danger of spouting a critical commonplace, but in this film, depth is literally and visually realised. When the characters rest in a building adjacent to the Room, there are so many planes of interest. There is water visible through the floorboards; a telephone, which surprisingly connects us for a moment to the real world of office politics; a window looking onto a blank sky.
When the shots linger with a meditative slowness, Tarkovsky always compensates by having a mise-en-scene which is so rich and so intricately detailed that to call it boring would be tantamount to admitting that you’re basically not watching the film. When the Stalker falls asleep by a stream, the camera tracks a close-up overhead shot of the water and we can see at various depths sunken hypodermics, torn letters, floating fronds trying to float, leaves, the water itself, and a gun rusting at the bottom. Formally, it is similar to the overhead shots of nuclear destruction in The Sacrifice (1986) and like those, it is at once a post-mortem and an archaeological summation.
The thingness of the world aside, it would mean little if the characters weren’t themselves believable and a director of such visual and aural virtuosity could be forgiven perhaps for neglecting this element. However, the performances are all compelling and wonderful. Tarkovsky’s gaze lingers on each character and each one is given lengthy speeches.
The characters escape the rudiments of their occupation: the Writer is more than the drunk rake we see at the beginning; the Professor is tortured in ways we cannot guess. The Stalker himself is perhaps the most troubled and troubling presence: an agent, a messenger, a guide who leads from behind and tricks his clients he has asked to trust him. His relationship to the Zone is one of self-destructive dependence (all those needles). Even his physical appearance with his staring eyes and a patch of weird white hair suggest someone on the edge of psychosis. When the Writer answers the telephone and says ‘This is not the clinic’, the joke seems only half a joke.
Of course, all of this could collapse under its own weight, but there is an essential humour and humanity to it all. Although in the Zone, characters curl up in the wet grass and sleep in ponds, on returning home the Stalker’s wife puts him straight to bed; ‘you’re soaking’. He complains no one understands him and despite talking about the Zone and the Room, it takes on the same tone of a domestic complaint.
It is this grounding that keeps Tarkovsky’s vision vividly true. The sense that the strange, the magical and the mysterious are not otherworldly but essentially of this world, this odd, odd world.
John Bleasdale is a writer based in Italy. He has published on films at various internet sites and his writing can be found, along with blog posts, collected at johnbleasdale.com.
He has also contributed chapters to the American Hollywood and American Independent volumes of the World Directory of Cinema: (Intellect), Terrence Malick: Films and Philosophy (Continuum) and World Film Locations: Venice (Intellect). You can also follow him on Twitter @drjonty.