Stalker was screened at the BFI, London as part of their KOSMOS season, the second instalment of their Russian cinema season KINO.
Described by Ingmar Bergman as “the greatest of us all,” no Soviet sci-fi season would be complete without at least one of Andrei Tarkovsky’s seminal classics from this speculative genre of filmmaking. Whilst Solaris (1972) may be better know to Western audiences (due primarily to the Steven Soderbergh remake starring George Clooney), Stalker (1979), Tarkovsky’s second foray into science fiction, is perhaps one of the most revered films to emerge from the repressive regime of the Soviet Union.
Set in a timeless dystopian future, three characters, known simply as Writer, Professor and the film’s titular Stalker, leave their world of near uninhabitable destitution and embark on a perilous journey into ‘The Zone’ – a forbidden region, steeped in mystery and heavily guarded by those who fear its power.
Within the confines of this furtive, spiritual territory is a place merely described as ‘The Room’, a building purported to house an unimaginable power that makes the inner most wishes of those who enter it come true. The Writer is here in search of inspiration and the Professor is determined to make a “discovery.” The Stalker is their guide, a clean and intellectually innocent man, who gives himself completely to his task, taking refuge in The Zone, seeing it as a peaceful and deeply sacred area in which he can escape his desolate life, his nagging wife and his deformed child. However, The Zone is an unforgiving region which must be respected by those who enter its lush, green but eerily bleak landscape, especially the unfulfilled ‘tourists’ who hope to reap the rewards of this supposedly enchanted Room…
The scale of Stalker is nothing short of epic. Tarkovsky’s bewildering study of the human condition, set against this apocalyptic backdrop, presents us with a sense of inadequacy towards our own natural behaviour, which soon overshadows the initial horror conjured up by these desolate surroundings. This deeply pessimistic allegory illustrates how we, as a species, are doomed to collapse inwardly due to our negative outlook on life and a dependence on fictitious spiritualism to save us from our own self inflicted traumas – it depicts a timeless future which was as appropriate then as it is now.
For the viewer, the existence and the origins of The Zone and its Room seem almost mythical – despite their physical presence within the film, they appear to solely serve as a mirror, revealing the true personalities of our central characters through the desires they wish to materialise within this sacred tomb. The Writer’s search for inspiration is questionable due to his nihilistic attitude towards life and his disregard for the respect which must be paid to this foreign land. Instead of lacking inspiration, this despondent dreamer appears to lack an inherent desire to live, recklessly fighting against the Stalker’s authority and unwilling to play by the rules. The Professor’s quest for knowledge is uprooted by the climactic revelation of his true motivation for this journey, whilst the Stalker himself, with his fearful reluctance to even enter the Room (believing his job to guide people here is a righteous one and of greater importance than his own selfish whims) asks more questions than it answers.
Tarkovsky’s attempts to locate the spiritual message behind Stalker’s rich tapestry of ideas uses a wide range of close-up shots to allow the audience to gaze into the eyes of the characters, allowing us a gateway into their souls, and revealing the fears and desires of these deeply troubled men. These numerous compositions of pure human emotions and inner turmoil creates a strong backbone from which the film’s truly affecting, metaphysical narrative and philosophical message can resonate.
Despite being a science fiction film, little attention is paid to the futuristic gadgets and otherworldly paraphernalia normally associated with the genre, allowing Tarkovsky to strip down this science based medium of film to its bare thematic essentials. Therefore, the film’s powerful social warning about the direction the world is heading in is allowed to flourish, whilst also offering a worrying insight into our over reliance on fate, religion, luck, or whatever other false deity you decide to place your confidence in, instead of heeding these obvious concerns and addressing the issues at hand.
Shot mainly around the disused and deserted factories of the derelict industrial heartland of Tallinn, Estonia, Stalker’s image of the future is one ravaged by material greed where the population is desperate to escape the repressive regime of an over controlling government. It draws obvious parallels with the numerous problems of the Soviet Union, whilst acting as an interesting precursor to the Chernobyl disaster, with the uninhabited Zone baring a remarkable resemblance to the devastated Ukrainian town. The numerous tanks and items of heavy machinery shown devoured by vegetation also seem to symbolise nature fighting against mankind’s destructive habits.
The dreamlike qualities of this forsaken world are painterly presented through colour film within The Zone (capturing its floral glory), whilst the world outside is shot using sepia tones that perfectly express the magnitude of despair felt by its inhabitants. Combined with some subtly glacial camera pans and Eduard Artemyev emotive score (beautifully amalgamating Eastern tones with distorted Western rhythms), these technical astute elements create an enchanting, trance like atmosphere around the film.
Whilst maybe not Tarkovsky’s greatest film, it is a testament to his overall body of work that Stalker still remains a towering achievement in science fiction and as necessary now as ever. Transcending the usual clichés of the genre, Stalker creates an elegant, challenging but thoroughly rewarding film, whose vision of the future successfully combines important remnants from the past, an insight in to our troubled present and a worrying vision of what might be.