Apart from legendary Battleship Potemkin genius Sergei Eisenstein, Andrei Tarkovsky is arguably Russia’s most renowned movie director from the Soviet era. The son of famous poet Arseni Tarkovsky polarizes, however. Opinions on him are divided. Some can’t really get into his films and only consider them to be dead boring. Others regard these works as masterpieces of cinematic history – Stalker among them. Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 science-fiction epic is unlike anything from the same genre we’ve ever encountered from Hollywood.
The only thing that’s certain about the movies by the Russian director, who died prematurely from cancer, is that they’re all but easy to digest. His productions are idiosyncratic, visually stunning, even metaphysical at times – and certainly nothing to watch casually. Andrei Tarkovsky, however, gives us a lot of freedom for interpretations as well. Stalker is as loaded with meaning as the rest of his works and, incidentally, was also his last movie in the Soviet Union before turning his back on his motherland forever.
Film reviews usually provide a summary of the story, but how to sum up a work that doesn’t have a clear-cut plot? We don’t really know where and when exactly the action takes place. All we learn is that Stalker is set in a city located at the edge of ‘the zone.’ In a text, the opening credits inform us that a lot of strange things happen in this area. Nobody can actually comprehend the reason for all these incidents, and the military has long sealed off the territory hermetically. Still, adventurous spirits are constantly attracted to the mysterious compound. The film calls them ‘stalkers.’ In a certain sense, they’re both trailblazers and tourist guides. The ‘stalkers’ make a living by providing illegal excursions through ‘the zone.’
Our cicerone (Alexander Kaidanovsky) is the father of a sick child (Natasha Abramova) and can hardly wait to get away from his wife (Alisa Freyndlikh) and the tristesse of the urban existence. He offers his services to two customers, whom the movie simply refers to as the ‘professor’ (Nikolai Grinko) and the ‘writer’ (Anatoli Solonitsyn). For reasons of their own, both of these men desperately want to enter ‘the zone.’ Legend has it that there’s a place where your deepest wishes come true. The author has long lost his inspiration, while the scientist intends to destroy the area so as to prevent it from possible abuse. In the course of their expedition, the three adventurers not only embark on an external but also on a spiritual journey. Where will their risky trip through the wayward ‘zone’ ultimately take them?
First and foremost, Stalker is an exciting movie to watch from an audiovisual perspective. Andrei Tarkovsky understands like no other how to create a cinematic masterpiece with arguably poor means. Some may find themselves dozing off during his films, because the Soviet director is, in a way, the exact opposite of modern Hollywood – at least with regard to the mise-en-scène. His works unfold at an unhurried pace. From a contemporary point of view, they only contain a low number of cuts, and their camerawork is almost static. For seconds, Andrei Tarkovsky’s lens shows one and the same motif, usually something from nature. There may be viewers to whom these shots feel like ages, but that’s one of the director’s very trademarks. He has an uncanny eye for detail, and his attention to detail is unmatched.
Visually speaking, Andrei Tarkovsky likes simple contrasts. This becomes particularly clear during the first half of the 163-minute movie. The beginning is presented entirely in black-and-white. Color only enters the equation when the voyagers have finally arrived in the realm of ‘the zone.’ Whether this stark contrast was the director’s deliberate artistic intention or not, it works splendidly in any case.
In the Soviet Union of the 1970s, there were several supply shortfalls in terms of color film stocks. Incidentally, that’s why parts of Nikita Mikhalkov’s famous Red Western At Home Among Strangers, Stranger At Home is kept in black-and-white. Maybe it’s also the reason why Stalker appears pallid and without color at the beginning. It’s no secret that Andrei Tarkovsky had to re-shoot sections of the movie because they had been destroyed by fire.
The score for Stalker by noted composer and frequent Tarkovsky collaborator Eduard Artemev is as minimalist as the visuals, but blends in well with the pictures on exactly these grounds. The Spartan synthesizer tapestries from the first heyday of electronic music are the perfect complement to the remaining soundscape of ‘the zone.’ Depending on the respective version of the film, there are even two slightly different versions of the soundtracks. Both of them, however, coexist legitimately.
Stalker doesn’t possess a conventional plot by any means. It’s probably better to regard it as a journey of sorts, but a rather curious one that leaves you asking more questions when all is said and done without having provided all too many answers. ‘The journey is the reward’ – that commonplace probably expresses best what Stalker represents. The biblical platitude ‘In the beginning was the Word’ is actually true for every Andrei Tarkovsky movie, albeit his films usually come in an extremely elliptical disguise. The director nonetheless likes to quote the poems by his famous father Arseny, one of the most important Russian bards of the 20th century in his own right.
Other than his storied begetter’s works, Andrei Tarkovsky also weaves a chapter from the novel Roadside Picnic by the brothers Arkadi and Boris Strugatsky into Stalker. His science-fiction epic is loosely based on that section. At the end of a three-year back-and-forth between the director and the writing siblings, there was an independent narrative called The Wish Machine. Depending on whom you believe, the Strugatskys penned between seven and nine versions of the screenplay. Andrei Tarkovsky, however, only liked the last one and finally turned it into a movie.
There are critics who see Stalker as a parable about the Soviet Union. That might be correct – to a certain degree. Yet the film is so much more than that, in particular because Andrei Tarkovsky doesn’t purport to provide an explicit interpretation. Is ‘the zone’ a savior or a savage? Does it devour those who believe in its mystical powers? At the end of the journey, we as the viewers are hardly any wiser. We leave that world without any clear insights.
Landscapes similar to that of ‘the zone’ actually still exist in post-Soviet Russia; this very writer saw them with his very own eyes not too long ago. They are beautiful as well as unsettling: remainders of industrial waste in the middle of uncontrolled growth. What will ultimately have the upper hand, Mother Nature or man’s creations? As in all of his works, Andrei Tarkovsky frequently uses reflective surfaces in Stalker. Who knows, maybe his intention was to hold a mirror up to his audience. We are supposed to observe ourselves with a critical eye in it.