April 09, 2009

Penetrating the ZONE: Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker

“What was it? A meteorite that fell to earth? Or a visitation from outer space? Whatever it was, there appeared in our small land a miracle of miracles: the ZONE. We sent in troops. None returned. Then we surrounded the ZONEwith police cordons… We did right… Although I’m not sure…” –From an interview with Prof. Wallace, Nobel Prize winner, on RAI.  (epigraph to Stalker)

Andrei Tarkovsky, Stalker (still), 1979. Courtesy of Kino International

Andrei Tarkovsky, Stalker (still), 1979. Courtesy of Kino International

With every passing year the legend of Andrei Tarkovsky grows more intense and intoxicating. In a career spanning a quarter-century, Tarkovsky fought a heroic struggle to make his seven feature films — the first five in his native Russia, the remaining two as an exile in the west.The Russian films are largely accepted as canonical masterpieces of modern cinema, with Stalker (1979) last, but far from least, among them.

For all of Tarkovsky’s life, Russia was the central power of a Soviet Union which discouraged and at times punished with exile, thus inevitable death under the most brutal conditions, overt displays of religiosity or explorations of the “Russian soul.” Somehow — probably through a mixture of personal charm, obvious talent, and an incredible force of will — Tarkovsky managed every several years to persuade the powers of the Soviet film industry to grant him a contract to make yet another film, despite little chance of positive payback for its sponsors. His cinema was possessed of a bracing lure: similar to the final image of his penultimate work, Nostalghia, each film was analogous to a dacha, the Russian family summer-cottage which for Tarkovsky served as symbolic repository of the Russian soul, surrounded by the hovering technocratic Soviet superstructure. Tarkovsky’s films, possible only in the post-Stalin era, served as beacons to the spiritually and mystically inclined, standard-bearers of a realm of no small interest and importance within Russian history and culture.

Andrei Tarkovsky, Stalker (still), 1979

Andrei Tarkovsky, Stalker (still), 1979

Rather than the rigorously sparse means of expression Paul Schrader has identified as intrinsic to the “transcendental style” of the films of Ozu and Bresson, Tarkovsky plunges us into a Russian-inflected shamanic realm of over-abundant visionary experience. Via a surfeit of lyrical, dream-toned imagery photographed in alternating color and black and white; soundtracks suffused with allusive (and sometimes eerie) effects and music; shapeshifting narratives; and tortured, Dostoyevskian characters whose traumas mirror the confusion of an audience’s attempt to puzzle out the promise of meaning lurking around every corner, Tarkovsky transports those viewers so-inclined into instant spiritual ecstasy. Though experience of the numinous is the point of Tarkovsky’s work, the evocation of the ecstatic dimension wouldn’t be possible without the tension of contradictory social themes: the weight of Russian history in Andrei Rublev and in Mirror, or the perils of technocratic man confronted with imperatives of soul and psyche in Solaris and Stalker.

Stalker is often considered Tarkovsky’s most profound exploration of the spiritual alienation endemic to modern man. Although its characters and milieu couldn’t be more Russian, there’s enough internal evidence to indicate we’re in an abstract pan-European territory (La Marseillaise emanating from a passing train at the film’s opening, or the clues provided by the epigraph above with which the film begins), representing more a state of mind than concrete nation-state. This territory is beneficiary and victim of a phenomenon known as the ZONE: a region taken over by a mysterious force which upends the laws of physics, conveying those who dare enter it into a dreamscape of magic and terror. Most who enter are never heard from or seen again. In the center of the ZONE is reputed to be the Room, in which anyone who enters is granted the deepest desire at the core of his or her psyche. Those who have made their way through its doors and returned home have had immediate worldly success, gone insane, or committed suicide.

Suffering the anomie appropriate to their respective professions, a “Writer” and “Scientist” are guided into the ZONE by the eponymous “Stalker” in an apparent search for much-needed rejuvenation. To accomplish this, the group must first detach themselves from the Stalker’s long-suffering wife, who desperately wants her husband to give up his dangerous profession, and then make it through a no-man’s-land patrolled by machine-gun wielding troops serving a gargoyle-like, “abandon all hope ye who enter here” function. Having penetrated the ZONE, the trio find themselves in an area that at first seems like the one from which they’ve just traveled, and Writer and Scientist set to bickering, revealing themselves jaded cynics who have come to the ZONE merely to disprove its powers. The Stalker, a figure with analogs to Christ and Dostoyevsky’s Idiot, Prince Myshkin, is brought to the brink of despair by their acrimonious antics, but soldiers on: it is his vocation, his life’s purpose, to bring those who seek his guidance to the portals of the Room. As their trek proves ever more precarious and hallucinatory, Stalker leads Writer and Scientist deep into the labyrinth, to a confrontation with their secret hopes, demons, and the infinite…

Details of Stalker‘s narrative and the ZONE are as allusive and obdurately mysterious as the novels of Kafka, and the film is similar to them in tone and structure. The ZONE has been interpreted variously as a metaphor for the soul, the subconscious depths of the psyche, or the private inner realm divorced from outer social reality — all domains in relation to which contemporary consciousness has lost its bearings. The Stalker is a would-be shaman who denies himself full access to the potentialities of his talents by allowing his fear to prevent him from entering the Room himself. Because of the ZONE’s influence, however, by Stalker’s end we are witnesses to the evolution of a “new man” possessing powers capable of transcending the Stalker’s limitations.

Andrei Tarkovsky, Stalker (still), 1979. Courtesy of the Ronald Grant Archive

Andrei Tarkovsky, Stalker (still), 1979. Courtesy of the Ronald Grant Archive

Tarkovsky approached his work on Stalker with a fanatical devotion perhaps even leading to his death at age 54, felled by the same form of cancer which also took his wife (who acted as assistant director on Stalker) as well as Anatoli Solonitsyn, who plays the Writer. They are said to have been exposed to toxic chemicals in the evocative landscapes serving as Stalker‘s exteriors, an unfortunate legacy of the injudicious Soviet treatment of the environment. Despite whatever hardships (including unnatural death as an exile) Tarkovsky endured as an artist from the Soviet Union, however, it’s difficult to imagine what other country or political system would have financed such abstruse work at such high budgets. The Andrei Rublev budget, to my eye, looks almost unlimited, and he was allowed to make Stalker twice — after a year spent on location, it was discovered the lab had ruined the negative. Western studios probably would have junked the disastrous production as a tax write-off, but Tarkovsky was allowed to reshoot his film in its entirety.

Tarkovsky decried the corrupt commercialism he found in the West. Such a figure’s spiritual thematic would be seen as naïve, even primitive, by contemporary standards. The transformative gravity he ascribed to the means and purpose of art might now seem quaint. To be part of a group slowly becoming enthralled by such a film as Stalker, however, is an intoxicating experience. The members of Tarkovsky’s audience, if only subconsciously, are brought to awareness of their own hidden depths, of the calling of the soul, of the imperative quest for the sacred. To see his films is to experience the process the Russian filmmaker described as “scales falling from the eyes”.

Stalker screens in the Wattis Theater TONIGHT (April 9th) and SATURDAY (April 11th), as part of our Utopia/Dystopia film series. Russian with English subtitles. For a fantastic teaser: see this dream sequence on YouTube.

Comments (4)

  • @bilk

    This is a couple of years late in reply but whatever, the novel and the film share very little in terms of plot, story and even characterisation.

    Both are really interesting but very different in terms of meaning. Also compare the computer game S.T.A.L.K.E.R., which is another different and completely valid interpretation of the themes and ideas.

  • Oh, absolutely — terrific writers, as was Stanislaw Lem, whose Solaris Tarkovsky adapted into one of his great films. I have limited space, much to discuss, and unless I’m mistaken — for it’s been a long time since I’ve read the Strugatskys — spirituality is a relatively subtle element (if there at all) in their work, and that was my main theme. But I might omit mentioning Prosper Merimee in discussing Bizet’s Carmen. It’s a matter of the work at hand. Thanks for bringing them up tho — I wanted to myself.

  • oops, I forgot to mention the co-author of “Roadside Picnic,” his brother Boris:

    Arkady Strugatsky (1925-1991) and Boris Strugatsky (b.1931).

  • umm, some of the credit should go to Arkady Strugatsky,

    the author of the novel which “Stalker” was derived from, no?

    His novel was published in English translation with the title, “Roadside Picnic.”

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