Andrei Tarkovsky’s bizarre philosophical science fiction epic may be his most successful picture overall — every image and word makes its precise desired effect. Three daring men defy the law to penetrate ‘the Zone’ and learn the truth behind the notion that a place exists called The Room, where all wishes are granted. Plenty of art films promise profound ideas, but this one delivers.
The Criterion Collection 888
1979 / Color / 1:37 flat full frame / 161 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date July 18, 2017 / 39.95
Starring: Aleksandr Kaidanovsky, Anatoly Solonitsyn, Nikolai Grinko, Alisa Freindlikh, Natasha Abramova.
Cinematography: Alexander Knyazhinsky
Film Editor: Lyudmila Feyginova
Original Music: Eduard Artemyev
Written by Andrei Tarkovsky and Arkady Struagtsky, Boris Strugatsky from their novel Roadside Picnic.
Produced by Aleksandra Demidova
Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky
If the definition of film artist is ‘one who goes his own way,’ Andrei Tarkovsky qualifies mightily. Reportedly cursed with a halting career due to problems both governmental and health-related, the Russian filmmaker turned several times to themes that could be called science fiction. Some list The Sacrifice as Sci-fi because of its quasi-apocalyptic storyline. His masterpiece Solaris is of course a partial adaptation of a well-known book by Stanislaus Lem. 1979’s Stalker, Tarkovsky’s final Russian-made film, suffered a horrendous production history. Some say that a year’s work had to be written off when an ‘experimental Kodak film developer’ ruined everything that had been filmed. (That needs more explanation to make sense). Possibly for the better, Tarkovsky filmed the show again with half the funds. His crew had to be extremely resourceful, but Stalker may have benefited from the opportunity to re-think the concept. Many a filmmaker would surely have been grateful to be able to throw out ‘version one’ and start again. On either side of the ideological divide, the economics of moviemaking rarely allowed such an extravagance.
Stalker is a demanding art picture with its own idea of what pacing should be. Many shots last more than a minute, and some go on for several minutes. As with Solaris, it’s more of a philosophical meditation on a science fiction premise, than an eventful narrative. That’s no reason to stay away, however, as the show develops uniquely expressive visual qualities. It has the focus of an obsessive student film, looking for telling details. Even without show-off visual tricks, it achieves the dreamy beauty of an early avant-garde film, like L’Herbier’s L’Inhumaine.
A standard adventure fantasy almost always has one scene, if not twenty, where people stare in awe at a matte painting or other special effect, but the film’s weird setting is communicated without a single special optical effect. Stalker is based on the novel Roadside Picnic, a complicated fantasy with a social agenda. A number of ‘Zones’ around the world may have been created by alien visitation; they’ve been placed out of bounds because artifacts taken from them are dangerous or disturbing. Artifact smugglers called stalkers sometimes die in The Zones, and it is said that their children suffer mutations.
As he had done with Solaris, Tarkovsky skips most of the technical details and sci-fi hardware and greatly reduces the scale of the story. There is only one Zone and nothing concrete is known about it. There is no proof of the miraculous things supposed to have happened there. In place of the book’s investigation of a worldwide phenomenon, the movie falls back on a nervous ambiguity. It’s as if, in John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos, the purported kids fathered by aliens were only a rumor, and their supposed super-powers only heard about third-hand — maybe people only think that their brats are little demons. Tarkovsky retains Lem’s notion of a stalker in an unhappy family, which includes a child that cannot walk. An earlier stalker known as ‘Porcupine’ came to a bad end. The film’s stalker doesn’t retrieve artifacts, but instead guides paying customers to a place called ‘The Room,’ where it is said wishes are granted.
We are in a grim, rainy hellhole of an industrial outpost, amid withered vegetation and giant factory smokestacks. Against the wishes of his wife (Alisa Freindlich), The Stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky) agrees to conduct a Professor (Nikolai Grinko) and a famous Writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn) to The Room. The Professor says that he wants to come back with revelations that will make him world-famous. He has a bag that he says carries scientific instruments. The Writer says that he wishes to gain inspiration, and reignite his talent. As The Zone is off-limits and patrolled by armed guards, the Stalker must smuggle his clients through a warren of buildings. They drive a jeep on a rail line and finally employ a track inspection car to take them the rest of the way. The Stalker tries to impress on his clients the notion that The Zone is a living thing that reacts differently to different intruders; some are killed, especially in a grim tunnel called The Meat Grinder. On the way to The Room, a deadly trap may lie beyond each odd chamber and steel door. The Stalker is convinced that the Zone is illogical. At one point The Professor drops back to retrieve a knapsack he left behind. The Stalker and the Writer leave him and go forward, but then encounter him on the path ahead.
The movie is in two halves divided by a ‘part 2’ title, even though there is no narrative interruption. Although the film is in color, all of the scenes outside of The Zone, and some inside, are printed in a bright yellow-sepia monochrome. This color choice accentuates rough wooden floors and craggy human faces. The first six minutes or so consist of only two or three shots, giving an incorrect impression that we’re in for an art movie ordeal. But Tarkovsky’s individual shots are so rich that they bear a close inspection. The fast jeep drive to evade the Zone Guards is a fine action scene. The trio run a maze of strange half-abandoned buildings, where freight trains appear without warning; we don’t seem to be getting anywhere (a recurring issue in a story about a goal-oriented trek). At one point a motorcycle guard appears in the distance. In a matching reverse shot he’s facing the wrong direction — more spatial dislocation at work. The sequence ends with a much-lauded extended series of close-ups of the fugitives on the rail inspection vehicle, moving through an endless gauntlet of difficult-to identify fences, barbed-wire barriers and twisted metal. The clackety-clack noise of the rail car changes in tone and becomes more stylized — until a cut to full color announces the penetration into The Zone. All that’s missing is a Tex Avery signpost: ‘Technicolor Begins Here.’
There are lot of structural parallels with Solaris. In place of a rocket launch and space voyage, it uses a single POV shot of a car on a freeway, driving into some Japanese city. It’s a placeholder for generic scenes that did not interest the filmmaker, and is just wearying enough for us to feel that we’d undertaken an inner trip to another galaxy. Tarkovsky also downgrades The Zone’s literal miracles to a philosophical abstraction, in the exact same way that Solaris’ ‘living planet’ dropped the book’s impossible special effects requirement. In 1972, nobody could have visualized Lem’s sentient ocean as it mimicked images extracted from the minds of humans.
Through a great deal of dialogue and arguing, the two pilgrims and their guide exclaim various reasons and rationalizations for why they have undergone an expensive and illegal trek. They spend most of their time covered in muck, making only tentative progress toward their goal. The Stalker talks the Writer into going first through The Meatgrinder, and only afterwards admits that it’s rumored that the first person through is always the one to die. A heated discussion follows, understandably.
Whether his shots are locked off, or use (incredibly smooth) tracking movements, Tarkovsky continually hits us with unexpected visual riches. Interiors aren’t just hazy — little particles of feathers or lint drift through the air. People seem to live in an airy soup, like a catfish we see underwater. A number of downturned trucking close-ups cruise solemnly over details in shallow marsh water — money, weapons, what look like large hypodermic needles. Are these what remains of the hostile investigators that the Stalker talks about? The hypodermic-things remind us of specific alien objects found in Roadside Picnic that turn out to be dangerous.
I won’t get into what happens as the men near the legendary Room, the one purported to grant wishes like The Wizard of Oz. Everything the Stalker has said is questioned. For some reason the Professor finds a working telephone (in a room with active electricity) and calls a colleague. A dog sighted in The Zone keeps coming back — we wonder if it is possessed by an unseen Alien, or something to that effect. With little or no physical manifestation of the promised phenomena and miracles, anything is possible. We also wonder if some kind of hoax is afoot. When that seems unlikely, Stalker begins to shape up as an allegory about the nature of faith. The Stalker insists that belief and faith in harmony with The Zone are essential to learning its mysteries. But he personally claims to want no miracle for himself. He’s never wanted to enter The Room. The Professor has a hidden ulterior reason for making the trip, which is quite disturbing; a fistfight breaks out at the entrance to the mystery chamber. If The Zone is sensitive to those that would visit, these three don’t present a positive image of human nature.
To its credit, the movie never becomes a philosophical speech-fest, as eventually bogs down Solaris — the characters remain individuals with motivations beyond expressing an authors’ message. As a basic description of Stalker resembles a Twilight Zone- style shaggy dog story, we fear a real let-down of a final scene: “Uh, I guess we don’t get to learn the secrets of the universe after all.” But the finale is more satisfying than any Tarkovsky film I’ve yet seen. The last images are a sensation of underplayed ‘miraculousness.’
Anybody recall Jean Cocteau’s film Orpheus, with its no-man’s land between Earth and Hades, that looks like a bombed-out city? It was called ‘La Zone.’ Critic Raymond Durgnat had a lot to say about the sequence’s connection to the European war experience, as well as the Freudian subconscious. Cocteau used many camera tricks for a surreal effect, but Stalker remains free of overtly fantastic visuals. Precise naturalistic images instead communicate allusive notions. The odd sand chamber in The Zone may remind of the folds on a person’s brain. A patch of swamp is covered with floating vegetation and earth — a dust storm blows and ripples move across the entire pond. A view into a well, with ripples reflection on its oily surface, is remarkably evocative.
One isolated image in Stalker shows a catfish near purple liquid leaking from a nuclear device, conjuring mental visions of radioactive iodine. Is The Zone simply an allegory for a nuclear meltdown ‘event?’ Although Chernobyl came seven years later, The Zone reminds us of the no-go radioactive zones that various nuclear disasters have created, where God-knows-what mutations are presently underway. We’re told that accidents of that sort had already happened in the Soviet Union, but it would seem unlikely that the Russians would want them publicized — as it is, a fully uncensored Roadside Picnic was suppressed for nearly twenty years. The Japanese have not been forthcoming about conditions in the several square miles now rendered uninhabitable around Fukushima, an information blackout that is already creating Zone- like mythologies of strange forces at work. Film fans might think of the atomic ‘Forbidden Zone’ of the 1968 Planet of the Apes, a blighted area that appears to include New York City. Other notable ‘zones’ created by nuclear war show up (courtesy of Durgnat reminders) on alien planets in This Island Earth and The Silent Star. Stalker uses science fiction as a springboard into Tarkovsky’s personal philosophical inquiries.
The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of Stalker fulfills a strong desire to see a picture that I probably should have gotten close to thirty years ago. If it was as good as people said, I wanted to take it in all at once under good conditions. When Sherman Torgan showed it at his New Beverly Cinema I could imagine myself squirming and smarting in the uncomfortable worn-out theater seats he once had. When it was on TCM I was concerned that it might be cut, or that I’d be interrupted by something and lose the story thread.
The restored image and sound are great. Tarkovsky chose to frame his picture in the long-abandoned standard screen ratio, which seems fine in this context. That vivid yellow-sepia look is fascinating to see, and makes us wonder if the original shoot was all filmed in color before filtered printing. The textures in the sepia sequences are visually arresting, while the rich, dark hues of the full-color reels make us feel sorry for the actors, who likely worked for months in overcast, cold conditions, often lying half-underwater in brackish marshes. Ruined steel mills, etc, serve as locations, chosen by Tarkovsky or his designers with a sharp eye for weirdness. The fact that few if any of the settings are constructed sets adds a dimension of believability to what is really wild fantasy – those actors really did wade through that slimy gunk.
Eduard Artemev’s music adds grace notes without curbing the show’s relentless ambiguity. I mentioned the musical-electronic transformation of the train wheel noises, but other tricks with cues come forward. A few bars of Tchaikovsky peek through machine noise at one point, to excellent effect. Elsewhere a burst of Ravel’s Bolero teases us with the potential for a spawning of radioactive monsters. Or am I just reading sixty years of atomic monsters into the shot?
Criterion gives us a lengthy visual essay analysis of Stalker by author Geoff Dyer, but be forewarned because the interview piece will be a circus of spoilers for anybody who hasn’t seen the film. Older interviews give us the thoughts of Tarkovsky’s cameraman, composer and set decorator. They talk about the disastrous first attempt to film Stalker but none gives a fully satisfactory explanation of what exactly happened. When asked if Tarkovsky was ‘sabotaged,’ the reactions indicate that their words have all been carefully chosen.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Stalker Blu-ray rates:
Supplements: New interview with Geoff Dyer, author of Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room
Interviews from 2002 with cinematographer Alexander Knyazhinsky, set designer Rashit Safiullin, and composer Eduard Artemyev; insert folder with an essay by critic Mark Le Fanu
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (Russian- language extras only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 17, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson