Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky 1979) – BlogalongaRusskie #5
The latest instalment of a quest (to watch all of Andrei Tarkovsky’s films) that is taking longer to complete than one of the Russian master’s own films. Still, when I’m getting to see films as good as Stalker, I’m not complaining.
(Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979)
The whispering devotees have it right. Stalker is an audacious, awe-inspiring film – but you have to see it to understand why
The more I learnt about Andrei Tarkovsky over the years, the more one film seemed to stand out as the one to watch. Yes, Andrei Rublev is the world cinema classic, Solaris and Mirror the art-house hits; but for the cult crowd – the acolytes whose whispered, fervent devotion hits hardest and deepest – it was always Stalker. It didn’t take long to learn of the film’s premise but, as its fans would say, it’s not about plot but atmosphere, spoken of in the abstract, impossible terms beloved by hipster cinephiles: weird, unique, transcendental…
It’s hard not to be sceptical when faced with that level of pretension and hyperbole but, suffice to say, the fans aren’t kidding. Stalker is cinema on a level I scarcely knew existed, even after five months of watching Tarkovsky develop his slow, piercing technique. This is a film that, for most of its running time, consists of three characters walking through the countryside, but it takes on extraordinary vivid contours thanks to indescribable locations in forgotten corners of the Soviet Union’s ravaged industrial landscape, and the hypnotic patience of Tarkovsky’s camerawork. It’s all the more extraordinary because the director had to reshoot all of his exteriors because of a cock-up processing the original footage.
Like Solaris, it’s a genre film, a trippy dystopia in which an eerie, isolated Zone – caused by a meteorite, alien intervention or possibly just human stupidity in the nuclear age (much has been written about how Stalker’s imagery anticipates the Chernobyl disaster) – has created a special Room where a person’s innermost wishes come true. The Stalker of the title, gifted with special knowledge of the Zone, is paid illegally to escort determined lost souls to redeem themselves in the Room. The plot, such as it is, sees him taking a Writer and a Professor (known only by their professions) into the Zone.
You can probably write the Hollywood version now, not least because Lost stole so much of this film’s iconography. Like the Lostaways, the trio bicker philosophically as they make their arduous way through a landscape whose safe routes continually change and where the precise nature of the destination is up for grabs. But Tarkovsky doesn’t give anything away. There are no polar bears or smoke monsters to confirm the weirdness, so the Stalker’s claims that one false move will unleash fatal retribution are made with zero proof. And the Zone is the antithesis of Lost’s island paradise, being a hellish world of stagnant water and dilapidated technology (in the film’s stand-out set-piece, the two combine in a pipe system full of brackish mud and broken glass). The film was shot downstream from a chemical plant, and many involved, including Tarkovsky himself, would die prematurely from over-exposure to toxins.
Occasionally, Tarkovsky throws us a bone. There’s a strangely gripping action sequence early on in which the travellers break through the perimeter security of the Zone, and a surprising amount of humour as the moaning, scaredy-cat Writer (played by Tarkovsky’s favourite actor, Andrei Rublev himself, Anatoly Solonitsyn) is forced to take the lead as they enter unknown territory. But mostly this is challenging stuff, a film at right angles to the usual way of doing things. Much of the talk is cerebral, but in a way it’s a film that needs to be experienced rather than explained – as one character actually remarks, “when you name something, its meaning disappears.”
Forced to offer a verdict on its themes, I’d say this is strikingly simple. At its heart, it’s a very Soviet dialectic about the competing claims of literature and science towards establishing truth, and how their arguments come tumbling out until both sides are revealed as hypocrites and opportunists. When it comes to the crunch, neither art nor science can cope when faced with a genuine leap of faith. In contrast, the Stalker is an throwback, a medieval prophet carrying undeserving pilgrims to a Mecca they don’t really believe in.
Put like that, it’s easy to scoff at the undergraduate theology and portentous symbolism (I feel silly simply typing all these names and places using capital letters), but Stalker really is a case where seeing is believing. That’s why the film’s devotees whisper. If they shouted, you’d roll your eyes and stop listening. But because you can’t quite make out why they think the film is so good, you’re lured into watching it – and then you’re a convert.