Only recently have I penetrated the world of the “art film,” which I came to through an interest in Russian films in general. As I understand it, in the USSR and other countries the arts were generally government-sponsored. This meant that there was an elite branch of films which were not made to attract viewers so much as they were made to be “great art.” Unlike the commercial films of America in particular, auteurs such as Ingmar Bergman, Robert Bresson, and Andrei Tarkvosky had special vision and a style that exemplified the principle that whether or not the general audience understands or likes it is virtually irrelevant to its quality. They made films to touch a deeper chord–often of the sort that the average American viewer would walk out, bored, after the first ten minutes. Of Tarkovsky (1932-1986) I have seen three films: Andrei Rublev, Solyaris, and Stalker. Andrei Rublev was beautiful and fascinating, Solyaris profoundly intellectual. Stalker may or may not be as great as either one, but it had both of these elements.
Note: this review will try to avoid spoilers, but we’ll see how effective that will be. Perhaps, for those unwilling to sit through a slow and ponderous 163 minutes, I’ll add some highlightable spoilers at the bottom.
Stalker (referring not to the modern American idea of a stalker, but rather taken literally from “to stalk,” i.e. to walk stealthily) is a work of science fiction set in an indeterminate place and time. There is this place called the Zone, and there something catastrophic and unnamed transformed a peaceful rural setting into a dangerous, uninhabited (but still beautiful) landscape where nature has completely taken over. It is rumored that at some place in the Zone, called the Room, the deepest wishes of the heart will be granted. Fearful of its possibilities, the nameless government has completely surrounded the zone with armed guards and barbed wire.
The legend, however, attracts visitors to a dingy, impoverished city on the outskirts of the Zone, where the Stalkers live. They alone know how to get through the dangers of the Zone. We are introduced to one particular Stalker in bed with his wife and daughter, and there the film starts, shot in black-and-white strongly toned brown. Over the pleas of his wife, who begs him to remain at home, Stalker (who is never named) accepts a job as guide for two middle-aged men: the Writer, who seeks new inspiration, and the Professor, who wishes to explain the Zone with his science and become famous. After getting past the security force, the trio enters the beautiful and misty Zone, which is shot in color.
Most of the film is spent as Stalker leads his clients through the Zone, while the Writer and the Professor are forced not only to examine their own motives but also to question the wisdom of even reaching the room. Philosophical dialogue is the highlight of any Tarkovsky film, and Stalker is no exception. One thing about Tarkovsky is that to enjoy his films you have to empathize in some way with the characters, and I began to empathize with the Writer, who had (for me) some of the most meaningful lines about art and writing, such as these (chronological) monologues below. Initially tormented by lack of inspiration, he goes deeper and deeper into doubt.
A man writes because he is tormented, because he doubts. He needs to constantly prove to himself and the others that he’s worth something. And if I know for sure that I’m a genius [by gaining inspiration in the Room]? Why write then? What the hell for?
[Speaking to the scientist, while weeping] One more experiment. Experiments, facts, truth of the highest instance. There’s no such thing as facts. Especially here. All this is someone’s idiotic invention. Don’t you feel it? But you, of course, must find out whose invention it is. And why. What good can your knowledge do? Who is going to get a guilty conscience because of it? Me? I’ve got no conscience. I’ve just got nerves. Some bastard would criticize me, I get wounded. Another would laud me, I get wounded again. I would put my heart and soul in it, they gobble up both my heart and soul. I would relieve my soul of filth, they gobble it up too. They’re all so literate. They all have sensory deficiency. And they’re all swarming around, journalists, editors, critics, some endless broads. And they all demand: “More, more!” What hell of a writer am I if I hate writing? If it’s a constant torment for me, a painful, shameful occupation, sort of squeezing out hemorrhoids. I used to think someone would get better because of my books. No, nobody needs me! In two days after I die they’ll start gobbling up someone else. I wanted to change them, but it’s they who’ve changed me. Making me in their own image. The future used to be just a continuation of the present, with all the changes looming far behind the horizon. Now the future and the present are one. Are they ready for it? They don’t want to know anything! All they want to know is how to gobble!
The Professor, meanwhile, represents rationality and enterprise. He is driven by the need to understand the unintelligible. He cannot accept the simple fact that the Zone is beyond human understanding; there are greater powers at work. Eventually this drives him on a path of destruction.
Stalker himself is almost an overtly mock-Christ in some ways. And there are some ways in which he stands for faith as opposed to the doubt of the others. The problem is that his faith is useless, because, like all Stalkers, he can only lead people to the Room, but he cannot enter it himself. He also cannot make those whom he has led to the Room accept the gift he has given them, something which becomes key to his own self-torment. He is a believer in a time when no-one will believe; he is a gift-giver in a time where no-one will receive. And it is not happiness he offers; it is the deepest desire of a man’s heart, which is unknown even to himself, and may be tragic.
The Zone, meanwhile, is treacherous, constantly changing, and seems almost to have its own consciousness. It judges the hearts of those who enter, and shows mercy to some and kills others. Stalker believes that it only accepts those who are utterly broken, those who have lost all hope. The ruins of armies and buildings, indeed all civilization, are shown throughout the Zone.
Symbols abound: a black dog, oil, fish, an inchworm, destroyed weapons, and many others. The last scenes of the film, which I will not divulge in this review, are chilling. Some of the shots are magnificently beautiful, such as where the Writer stands before the last door, hesitant, or where the three of them are clustered on the floor of a concrete building and the rain comes, shining, in through the ruined roof, or as the camera pans through the drowned relics of human society and progress.
Christian iconography is pervasive. Tarkovsky throughout his life was a Christian who felt that Russia and the rest of civilization are leaving faith altogether. In his films he does not seek to provide solutions to doubt, only to raise questions and allow for hope. He wants us to realize what we have lost and are losing in our age of doubt. He is less a guide and more a mourner and a prophet. He warns us that materialism and a loss of faith is killing humankind. He unveils his brokenness to us also, and the somberness of his films and lack of resolution shows that he is not sure that there will be a redemption. An interesting, related fact is that Tarkovsky frequently referenced his own films with disdain, saying that his only excuse is that others made films that were worse. He knew his films were shots in the dark, and it is perhaps for this reason that they are so profound.
And by the way, I discovered this review online, which is far better and more poetic than mine, although I’m not sure I agree with its postmodernist take: http://theatrenotes.blogspot.com/2007/09/tarkovskys-stalker-poet-in-destitute.html
Another deserving review with pictures: http://www.sheilaomalley.com/?p=9948