Stalker: immersive film of beauty and ugliness, self-doubt and renewal of faith

Andrei Tarkovsky, “Stalker” (1979)

For Western audiences used to fast action science fiction movies, “Stalker” is a very slow-paced post-apocalyptic mover with a barebones plot that symbolises humanity’s search for hope and faith. In a future world devastated by war, a man (Alexander Kaidanovsky) known only as the Stalker works as a guide taking people through a territory called the Zone in his country. The area is actually off-limits to the public and heavily guarded and fortified and both the Stalker and his wife (Alisa Freindlich) know his work is illegal – he has been imprisoned before. The reason for taking people through the Zone though is to reach an area called the Room where entrants will find their deepest wishes fulfilled. So the Stalker – we’ll call him S for convenience – continues doing his risky work in spite of the wife’s pleas and anger. At the film’s opening, S is preparing already to meet two new clients, the Writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn) and the Professor (Nikolai Grinko), at a bar. This part of the film unfolds slowly: the opening scenes, done in sepia tints, are much like early 1920’s expressionist silent films in their close focus on still objects in S’s room. The deliberate use of sepia and not colour calls attention to the drab, impoverished surroundings in which S’s family lives and S makes his living.

Entering the Zone is fairly quick if tricky – the trio must evade guards on motorcycle and in a Land Rover – and the men then ride an open railway carriage into the heart of the Zone. The landscape changes from bombed-out ruins and mud tracks to a lush and verdant paradise where abandoned buildings are scattered here and there. The filmstock changes from sepia tones to colour to emphasise the men’s crossing from reality to a place of non-reality. Normal laws of physics apparently don’t apply in the Zone and S advises his clients to follow him and do exactly as he says to avoid the invisible dangers that surround them. He tests routes through the Zone with metal nuts that he throws with slings. While they advance towards the Room, the men have philosophical discussions and reveal why they want to visit the Room. The Writer (W) needs new inspiration for his work and the Professor (P) wants to make a discovery that will win him a Nobel Prize. Sometimes in conversation S refers to his mentor, a previous stalker called Porcupine, who himself entered the Room, came into a lot of money and then hanged himself.

They walk through fields, go through a long dark tunnel and travel through a chamber called the “meat mincer” where long ago, Porcupine’s poet brother died. On reaching the entrance to the Room, P reveals his reason for coming is to blow up the Room with a bomb in his knapsack to stop the general public from hearing about it and clamouring to visit to fulfill their desires which more often than not might be base and selfish. W, who has been skeptical about the Zone and the Room for much of the journey, accuses S of exploiting people’s hopes and dreams.Quarrelling and fisticuffs follow during which the reason that Porcupine’s brother died in the mincer is revealed.

“Stalker” doesn’t seem much like a science fiction film at all though it is based on a novella written by two brothers, Boris and Arkay Strugatsky, who are famous in Russia for writing science fiction stories and novels, some of which have been adapted to film. In its early sepia-toned scenes, the film resembles a war movie with film noir elements inserted, thanks to the style of cinematography used which emphasises sharp contrasts of light and shadow to the extent that darkness may frame shots, and textures of walls, detritus on floors and scum in water are readily noticed. The camera often operates from behind a wall or a structure, peering into a scene where action is occurring. Scenes are very prolonged so as to draw viewers into the action, the mood and the atmosphere: an extended scene of rainfall through an open ceiling while the men sit on the floor just outside the Room conveys their indecision and perhaps a loss of belief and faith in themselves and what the Room may hold. When the camera moves, it often tracks slowly, forwards or backwards in the tunnel scenes; around actors close-up, showing off their haggard profiles; or upwards over objects and relics buried in mud or shallow putrid water. The film seems to meditate on a notion of a lost civilisation and religion whose knowledge and wisdom can never be brought back.

The men and their journey may be symbolic in themselves: W and P represent the artistic, creative aspect and the scientific, rational aspect of humanity while S represents the spirtual impulse and belief in faith that bridges creative imagination and down-to-earth investigation and materialism. The journey can be interpreted in different ways: it could be a journey from the conscious world – the one outside the Zone – into the subconscious, represented by the Zone. The invisible dangers in the Zone that force S and his clients to improvise their route through the tunnel and the mincer represent inner complexes such as phobias and repressed memories that prevent us from tapping into our subconscious for inspiration and purpose to life. P’s plan to bomb the Room might represent some individuals’ denial or desire to control what they see as their irrational impulses; the possibility that he may be working for the tyrannical government that rules his society might suggest that governments desire to control what people think and feel. W’s skepticism could reflect a loss of faith and belief in one’s abilities: at one point in the film he admits he hates writing and rants about the culture of criticism in society and how too often it seeks to pull down talented if eccentric people to the same level rather than judge and improve the quality and worth of their artistic output. The journey through the Zone might also be interpreted as a flight or escape from the struggle and pain of life: shallow ponds of water and mud in parts of the Zone have religious icons and syringes buried in them, showing the ways in which people try to cope with problems in their lives. Incidents throughout the journey which include P’s search for his knapsack containing the bomb suggest that W may be right about S: that S does manipulate people’s hopes and beliefs for personal gain and so in a sense S represents organised religion that manipulates people’s desire to come close to God through rituals and prayers that lose meaning over time. Or perhaps the Zone is simply a bridge between life and death and S is its psychopomps: an ominous black wolf-like dog appears in the Zone and befriends S. Maybe the Room itself is irrelevant and the journey through the Zone and what S’s clients get out of it is the important thing. Viewers are free to interpret what they see depending on where they are coming from in terms of life experience and knowledge.

Significantly S loses his faith in himself and in his life’s purpose but redemption is unexpectedly at hand in the form of his crippled child Monkey who, though deformed by the Zone’s influence, also displays an unusual psychokinetic talent. This suggests that what the Zone and Room represent can always be found around us or within us in spite of limitations we have and people don’t have to rely on external phenomena or travel to places to find creativity, inspiration or purpose in life. The Zone then doesn’t really exist as a physical phenomenon and in that form it is a figment of S’s imagination to give him a reason to live and to enable him to cope with the problems of daily life.

Actors Kaidanovsky, Solonitsyn and Grinko play their parts well: they are minimal in their movements, speech and actions but convey a wide range of emotions as they are forced to admit their real reasons for entering the Zone and wanting to enter the Room, and through their conversations and arguments discover, gain or lose something in themselves that radically changes their lives forever. The only piece of acting that’s overdone and irrelevant to the film is the frenzy S’s wife goes into when S leaves to meet W and P in the bar. This is one of a few flaws in the film; other flaws include the concept of the “mincer” which doesn’t come across on screen as very frightening or frightening enough that it could kill someone. The music by Edward Artemev is a bit of a mishmash of orchestral music, some ambient and strings influenced by Russian and Middle Eastern music styles and for a movie like “Stalker”, really needs its own identity. The suggestion that religious belief must underpin creative and scientific endeavour may be too facile given that S is revealed as a flawed priest or prophet conducting a pointless ritual.

At times depressing and uplifting, ugly and beautiful, this film is worth watching at least once and preferably a few times to immerse oneself in its atmosphere and scenes of post-industrial decay and of nature reasserting itself among dilapidated factory buildings and tunnels still filled with pools of polluted water and spilt chemical toxins. Tragically several people associated with “Stalker”, including Tarkovsky himself and Solonitsyn, died of cancer-related conditions which may have been caused in part by exposure to pollutants in the places where the film was made.

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