[Editor’s Note: The following embedded video is not a trailer, but in fact the entire film of Stalker. Many of Tarkovsky’s films are in the public domain and can now be viewed for free online and elsewhere.]
In Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, three men leave the confines of a rotting Eastern European city and walk through a pleasant-looking rural setting. Their destination is a room which sits at the center of this countryside, a room in which dreams are rumored to be fulfilled. This strange landscape is the Zone, the site of a metaphysical trauma around which armed guards patrol. Twenty years ago, an object thought to be a meteorite crashed here, and countless people went missing in the vicinity. The Zone was cordoned off, and is now protected with such zealotry that people are shot down rather than be permitted to slip into it. Despite looking benign, even cheerful (next to the grim realities of the city), the Zone is said to be protected by obscure traps, all but unpredictable dangers which have destroyed careless questers for years. As a result of this situation, a new profession has arisen, that of the Stalkers. Part tour guide, part coyote, part spiritual advisor, these people bring their customers into and through the beautiful, perilous Zone, offering counsel on what might be accomplished in the wish-granting room all the while. Tarkovsky works all this material into a profound, eerily quiet meditation on faith, nihilism and hope. Had Ingmar Bergman decided to tackle science fiction, he may have produced a film equally fascinating, but Tarkovsky’s vision was, and remains, a unique entry in weird cinema.
Stalker is visually quite arresting. Tarkovsky uses color to set apart the different worlds, filming the scenes set in Stalker’s home city in gloriously dismal sepia and those in the Zone in color. That city is a grim glimpse of a thoroughly industrialized and poverty-stricken future. Everything seems to be leaking or cracked and the sounds of machinery predominate. The people are as exhausted and worn down as their surroundings. The Zone, however, is lush and green, an organic profusion of growth and chaos which creates a stark contrast to the decaying rigidity of the city. Old and abandoned mechanisms litter the fields of the Zone, remains of the human habitation which were displaced by the bizarre catastrophe two decades ago. Clearly, the authorities attempted to evacuate as many people as possible: what look like tanks and other implements of war are strewn throughout the Zone. Oddly, though, the sight of these hunks of metal rotting in bucolic glades and valleys is serene, even calming, rather than dispiriting. An undercurrent of eeriness underlies these scenes, certainly, as we do not know what sort of force could have turned back such power. And yet, the impression of nature absorbing back into itself the most brutal of devices dreamt up by humanity lends a peaceful aura to the Zone. Deeper inside, as the film’s protagonists approach that mysterious room, this world takes on a more cryptic air. Shortly before they reach it, Tarkovsky’s camera glides across images of drowned detritus, a strange two-minute floating gaze which seems to herald their arrival at the heart of the mystery. Within a warren of rooms, they find one covered in sand dunes, a sight simultaneously creepy and beautiful. Stalker unfolds itself in these small, still ways, content to suggest far more than it will show, possibly far more than other movies even try to show.
This succession of dreamlike images has a cumulative effect, one out of reach to movies in which the weird is presented in a more straightforward, heavy special-effects manner. Stalker has inspired later movies as well as literature with its evocative setup. Cube, for instance, with its enigmatic setting and bizarre traps, seems to me a descendant of Tarkovsky’s film, as does YellowBrickRoad. This film, however, takes a radically different path than most of those in “genre cinema,” which may explain why it is rarely cited as a great “SciFi” movie when it in fact is. Andrei Tarkovsky was a prime example of the filmmaker as poet, and that is precisely how Stalker is best approached: as a poem. The premise of the film, baldly stated, may mislead viewers into expecting something closer to a monster movie, or a travel through alien territories. That is unfortunate, as disappointment and confusion may obscure an appreciation for what Stalker has to offer. This film is a cousin to such stories, but a subtler, dreamier and, in the end, more puzzling one. At two-and-a-half hours, Stalker means to immerse you in its spell. Tarkovsky uses this time not to introduce lots of plot convolutions or fast-paced set-pieces, but rather as a way to dwell on the encounter between three men and their interactions, as well as on their intentions in seeking out the room at the center of the Zone. While his camera meditates on the quiet, potentially doom-laden landscapes of the Zone, Tarkovsky’s characters engage in a series of increasingly contentious philosophical arguments and personal attacks.
The Stalker on which the film centers (who bears an amusing resemblance to Woody Harrelson) is drawn to the Zone like an addict to a fix. At the beginning of the movie his wife angrily tries talking him out of going back to his precious Zone, but he calmly rejects her pleas. They have a daughter together, a crippled girl named Monkey, who suffers from disabilities apparently brought on by her father’s repeated visits to the Zone. He has been recently released from prison for his excursions into the forbidden area, and she fears he will get an even longer sentence. The Stalker, however, feels his everyday life is already a prison. From the beginning, we see signs that he regards the Zone as an oasis in his gritty, down-trodden life, as a salvation from the position of non-entity in which he finds himself in the city. What we cannot be sure of is just how much his psychological bond with the alien space informs his explanations of it. This is an ambiguity which his customers will recognize and verbalize. Is the Stalker preternaturally attuned to the dangers of the Zone, to its muted voice? Or is it merely a space in which this working-class schmuck gets to play sherpa and guru to clients wealthier and more respected than he? The Stalker is weary of the clichéd and low-minded desires of his charges. They enter this miracle, this space which is virtually holy to someone such as himself, all motivated by venal desires for revenge, for money, for professional advancement. One of these clients is the Writer, a shabby, talkative man who despairs of ever writing anything of lasting worth. He treats the Zone carelessly, at least at first, as his cynicism barely lets him conceive of anything beyond his own tired comprehension. While he grows more wary of the dangers this place may pose, the Writer’s nihilism just seems to grow more rank. His literary output is little more than “squeezing out hemorrhoids,” and even the production of a deathless work of literature may not be enough to wish for. The Professor, the third of this merry bunch, claims to have a more objective purpose in his visit to the Zone. He wishes to study this space, a region fascinating to scientists but one which has been inaccessible since the government closed off the area. He comes to disdain the Stalker’s superstitious fears regarding the traps in the Zone and he despises the Writer’s endless palaver. As they move deeper into the Zone, he more confidently strides across barriers the Stalker insists must be respected, and he behaves as if he is on nothing more than a field trip. But is he actually indifferent to the Zone’s ominous reputation, or does he have secret intentions of his own?
The arguments between these men slowly close in upon Stalker’s central concerns: the relationship between hope and reality, the vagaries of human intentions, the need for mystery. The Professor seems intent on measuring the forces at work within the Zone. He is, the Writer claims, “putting miracles to an algebra test.” Even the seemingly supernatural granting of wishes, this materialist believes, will leave some physical trace, something which can be measured (or annihilated, for that matter). A disappointed idealist (that is, a nihilist), the Writer expects little good to come of hope. He would agree with Friedrich Nietzsche, that great enemy of nihilism, in one respect, when the philosopher wrote of Pandora’s Box and the final horror it conceals: “Hope: in reality it is the worst of all evils, because it prolongs the torments of Man” (Human All Too Human). While the Writer seems to be searching for new inspiration, his journey into the Zone may actually be the act of a doom-eager man, a man hoping to lose hope. If he can only see this last great mystery demystified and proven to be worthless, then how can he owe the world anything more than the filth he has already given it? The nature of the Zone may even be amenable to this cynical desire. According to the Stalker, the wretched have a better chance of surviving a trip through it, while hopeful people seem to fall prey more easily to its dangers.
For the Stalker, though, the Zone is itself a last hope. It gives him a meaning along with a profession, a vision of greater purpose than any afforded in the depressing world outside. More pragmatically, he is tempted to use the room to wish away the ill effects his genes have conferred on his daughter. He is frightened, though, to ask for something. His mentor in Stalking, a man named Porcupine, once broke the rule that admonishes Stalkers not to use their travels for their own selfish ends. Porcupine retired from Stalking, became rich, then hung himself. The succession of causes which produced these effects are only explained when the group reaches the room, but they explain much of the Stalker’s ambivalence over asking the Zone for what he desires the most, the healing of his daughter Monkey. Finally, though, it is the effect the Zone has as a mystery on these characters that reveals not only the depths of their characters, but also one potential meaning the alien space may hold in Tarkovsky’s film.
In the claustrophobic world Stalker presents to us, the Zone is the only open space, it is a clearing in which the new can become manifest. In it, the laws of nature are supposedly suspended, ready to shift with little notice. Flowers are scentless in the Zone, as if they form part of a façade just barely maintained. The room brings out the hidden desires of those who reach it, fulfilling not those daydreams which people carry around in their conscious minds, but rather the deeper wishes, even those which are horrid. The Zone works like the imagination, and that is where I see the focus of this film. Tarkovsky seems to be wrestling with, among other things, his artistry, the very eye through which we are seeing this story. Going into the Zone involves trying to be attuned to a shifting landscape, a world which changes in accord with its visitors. Every work of art which transcends mere didacticism or advertising changes in similar ways based on its reader, its listener, its viewer. The imagination poses a threat to the most literal and materialistic of worldviews, as it threatens to disrupt all those tidy little categories into which the world is supposed to fit. Creativity threatens, as the Professor seems to intuit, not only the established order but also the very way in which order comes to be established. Lest that sound like an empty platitude, consider the role charisma and the use and abuse of art has played in movements from Nazism to the struggle for human rights. What sort of threat could imagination pose to members of the intelligentsia, though, or to artists? The Writer, for one, may represent a nihilistic strand of the same. This sort of creature, whether affecting ennui or the endlessly parodic manner of the thorough-going “post-modernist,” depends on the perception of the imagination as being exhausted. You can only declare “The Novel (or Poetry or Film or etc.) is Dead” if you can successfully avoid a brush with creativity. If Tarkovsky identifies with anyone in this film, it is obviously the Stalker: a frustrated poet, a man haunted by what he is leaving future generations and how much better a job he could have done. The Stalker stands vulnerable to the Zone, respectful of it, yet also aware of its treacherous and changeable nature. He knows this realm cannot be wrestled into stable categories and he knows a reckless, cynical approach will yield nothing but ashes. That the Zone, as interpreted in this way, could be seen as a threat to ardent materialists and burnt-out intellects should come as no surprise.
The threat such a space presents totalitarian governments is more obvious. Tyrannical regimes, be they based on extreme political ideologies, fanatic religious interpretations, or simply on the cult of some personality, all depend on the suppression of the imaginations of their subjects. After all, the imagination may enable the public to envision a better system of governance than the utopian system under which they slave; creativity may strip orthodoxies of their thin veneer of verisimilitude, exposing the myths hiding beneath the claim of absolute truth. The creative imagination can be particularly troublesome to hero cults, be it through the sort of de-idealization at work in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida (in which the heroes of the Iliad are exposed as drunken louts, fame-hungry fools, and sociopaths) or in the more humanizing, though admiring, portraits we see in films such as Spielberg’s recent Lincoln. Creativity, be it political, imaginative, metaphysical or even erotic, is a constant threat to those who would impose rigid systems on humanity. The Zone is patrolled for a reason, and not simply that suggested by the Professor at the end of the film.
Whatever the Zone may be said to “stand for,” Tarkovsky lays down a striking hint at the end of the film that it has not finished having its say. In the last two minutes of Stalker, he not only upends many of the conclusions viewers may have reached, he does so with a casual, rather self-assured gesture. I first saw this movie when I was 17, and I must admit I missed it at first. I had to rewind and watch those two minutes again. I still remember the goosebumps which accompanied that sight. I imagine for many viewers, as it did for me, that ending retroactively changed the mood of everything I had just watched. Give it a try and see what the Zone provokes in you.