(Dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, Soviet Union, 1979)
Testing the Supernatural
With a canon made up of a mere seven feature films released over the course of three decades, Andrei Tarkovsky has incredibly built the most unshakable reputation based on the fewest number of works of any director in cinema, with perhaps the exception of Carl Theodor Dreyer (who, fittingly, is one of Tarkovsky’s greatest influences). His significance in the medium was likely solidified with his fourth film, the semi-autobiographical Mirror, a film that both reflected the personal struggles of an artist and the all-encompassing travails of a nation’s recent turbulent history. And, while that film is typically regarded as his opus, it is his fifth film – the satisfyingly opaque and unquestionably accomplished Stalker – that is arguably his greatest. It is surely the culmination of his efforts up to that point. It boasts the poetic flourishes of his debut Ivan’s Childhood, the scope of his historical epic Andrei Rublev, the glacial, contemplative pacing of his other sci-fi classic Solaris redefining the genre for an audience hooked on cheap thrills, and the impenetrable metaphorical draw of Mirror that invites innumerable repeat viewings.
And yet, Stalker is, of course, more than just the sum of these parts. While Tarkovsky certainly welcomed the idea of an authorial voice assigned to the director of any given film (a notion in full swing in the post-Novelle vague world in which he worked), Stalker represents not simply another chapter in a string of films forming some narrative arc, but rather the fullest exploration of metaphysical thought in his entire oeuvre. Like Solaris before it, the story that sets Tarkovsky’s film in motion is remarkably simple. Somewhere in Russia an extraterrestrial force has taken over a once populated region of the countryside and left the area – dubbed the Zone – mysteriously uninhabitable for humans, and those who enter are never heard from again.
The government has understandably sealed the area off with armed soldiers, barbed wire fences, and guarded entry points, but there remain those who still wish to venture inside. Thus, Tarkovsky introduces us to a guide, known as a stalker (a possibly mistranslated term that has nevertheless stuck with the film in the West), who has braved the dangerous unknown of the Zone, believes in the mystical powers of its presence, and smuggles in those willing to pay. The unnamed stalker at the center of this film (Alexander Kaidanovsky) agrees to accompany a desperate writer in need of inspiration (Anatoli Solonitsyn) and a quiet professor with hidden motives (Nikolai Grinko) into the Zone as they risk their lives on a quest through the unknown.
With a thirst for knowledge, a man of faith, a man of the arts, and a man of science each enter the Zone to either prove or disprove what he already believes. As more is revealed about this modern wasteland (which Tarkovsky brilliantly shoots in color as opposed to the sepia toned introduction and epilogue that take place outside the Zone), we learn that there is an equally unexplainable phenomenon that allegedly occurs in a location known as the Room. Inside, some believe the living, breathing space grants individuals their wishes. On the surface, then, it appears quite obvious why these three men might journey into the depths of this restricted area, following seemingly overcautious rules set out by the stalker that dictate their every carefully placed step. The promise of this wish fulfillment dangles in front of them, just out of reach, as the stalker leads the pair in a circular pattern and through a series of obstacles as they slowly approach the Room rather than head straight for it. Their guide insists the Zone must be respected; they are not allowed to simply do as they please, nor apparently what seems most logical.
This section of the film unfolds in this way as the trio circles the ruins that supposedly host the sacred-like Room. The stalker’s blind faith in the Zone and its unexplained intricacies keeps the other two on their toes as he insists on new rules to follow. At first, the professor follows quietly while the writer cynically objects. But, as their time within drags on, both professor and writer find themselves at odds with the stalker’s zeal for the Zone when his promise of the supernatural lurking behind every corner appears inconsistent with reality. Sure, an eerie atmosphere lingers throughout the lush ruins of the Zone, but aside from one major physics-defying misstep that the stalker labels a “trap,” the supernatural evades them.
As the three draw nearer to the Room, their motivations and desires become clearer. The writer, who has become disillusioned with both humanity and his craft, doubts the power of the Room, yet fears it. The professor, who at first appears to enter the Zone for scientific study, reveals that he wishes to destroy it for fear that someone with evil or destructive desires should enter some day. The stalker, too, with his own secrets reveals that he himself has never been inside. At the threshold of Room, then, in Stalker’s defining moment, the three choose not to enter. All three – the stalker included – begin to doubt any good could come from entering. What if the Room only grants its visitors’ deepest, subconscious desires rather than requests? What if entering the Room leaves them with no greater understanding, no further inspiration? What if nothing happens at all? These doubts, these unsettling questions, keep this trio from fulfilling their most dangerous of missions and threaten to leave Tarkovsky’s viewers unsatisfied.
Following this defeat, he takes us outside the Zone where the writer and professor go their separate ways and the stalker returns to his wife (Alisa Freindlich) and child (Natasha Abramova). Crushing disappointment has left the man literally lying on the floor of his home, numb to the comforts of his concerned wife. The pair he led into his personal holy of holies ultimately leaves unaffected or, at least, unappreciative in his eyes. But, his own unwillingness to enter the Room exposes his own doubt with regards to its supposed power. Early on in the film the stalker journeys to the Zone to escape his ordinary life claiming, “everywhere is a prison to me” to his wife who’s opposed to his upcoming trip. Yet, now his devastation may be less related to again being forced to leave the Zone than leaving unfulfilled.
What, then, is the Zone? Tarkovsky, typically, offers no clearly defined answers. It’s an area where occasionally some unexplained incidents do occur, but in the end it proves to be mostly devoid of the supernatural. Interestingly, however, Tarkovsky chooses to shoot these scenes in color, perhaps painting the Zone how the infatuated stalker perceives it, or possibly hinting at something more than what we – and those who venture inside over the course of the film – see. As mentioned previously, Tarkovsky switches back to stark sepia toned palette for the film’s epilogue. Yet, there are two notable exceptions in color, both featuring the stalker’s unnamed daughter. The only information the audience receives with regards to this minor character is through dialogue between the writer and professor, one of which reveals the girl suffers from some physical ailment as a result the Zone.
In the film’s understandably much-discussed final scene, Tarkovsky’s camera rests on this young girl sitting at the kitchen table. Before long she rests her head upon the surface and begins moving cups and glasses across the table with her mind. It’s the first true moment of the supernatural caught on camera in a film full of doubts (not unlike the jaw-dropping miracle at film’s end in Dreyer’s classic Ordet). The film’s final scene could be interpreted as Tarkovsky acknowledging that though we may be disappointed in the Zone as well, there could still be hope for the existence of the supernatural after all. Here, in the stalker’s home outside the Zone the spiritual intersects with the physical. Of course, the three men who enter the Zone searching for answers miss it. While they are busy testing the supernatural, venturing deep within the unknown, all three fail to see what they’ve been hoping to find just outside the parameters of their search.
It’s impossible to know if Tarkovsky intends to confirm some specific Christian, or otherwise, belief system, but the film’s finale does seem to suggest that faith – in art, in science, in religion – is important, yet may not always yield the answers we’re looking for. The same is true for the cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky. It’s part of what makes it so difficult to write about his work. There is certainly deep meaning there; it’s nearly impossible to finish one of his films unmoved, but he leaves the burden of interpreting his work to his audience. It makes him one of the most satisfyingly challenging filmmakers in the history of the medium, and Stalker the most rewarding feature he ever directed.