Wednesday, August 3, 2011


Tarkovsky on the set

Tarkovsky on the set with Aleksandr Kaidanovsky as The Stalker

STALKER  (Сталкер)                                     A                    
Russia  Germany (163 mi)  1979  d:  Andrei Tarkovsky

Here we are at the threshold. This is the most important moment of your lives. You have to know that here your most cherished wish will come true. The most sincere one. The one reached through suffering.       Stalker (Aleksandr Kaidanovsky) from STALKER (1979)

“It is about the existence of God in man, and about the death of spirituality as a result of our possessing false knowledge.”    —Andrei Tarkovsky

Now the summer has passed.
It might never have been.
It is warm in the sun,
But it isn’t enough.

All that might’ve occurred
Like a five-fingered leaf
Fluttered into my hands,
But it isn’t enough.

Neither evil nor good
Has yet vanished in vain,
It all burned and was light,
But it isn’t enough.

Life has been as a shield,
And has offered protection.
I have been most fortunate,
But it isn’t enough.

The leaves were not burned.
The boughs were not broken,
The day clear as glass,
But it isn’t enough.
—But There Has to be More, by Arseny Tarkovsky, the director’s father, recited by the Stalker outside The Room

One of the great achievements in cinema history, Tarkovsky unearths new grounds in this beautifully hypnotic, oddly ambiguous, near complete re-write of a Russian science fiction novel Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, where Tarkovsky eliminates all but the barest traces of science fiction, turning this instead into a philosophical parable on human existence.  Much like the journey of the three Wise Men seeking spiritual guidance, yet ironically a film requiring the tacit approval of the Communist Soviet State, this film incorporates several Scriptural references, including a strangely unbiblical Revelations dream sequence and a reference to Emmaus Road where two of Jesus' disciples failed to recognize the person who (in an atheistic, totalitarian controlled society) shall not be named the resurrected Christ, not to mention a character wearing a crown of thorns, and features a similar quest for knowledge and insight, but it’s set in an unnamed future evidenced by train whistles and a corrosive post-industrial world of toxic waste, rot, and decay, where the interior human component comes to mirror that soulless reflection of destroyed, meaningless lives.  

Beset with difficulties from the outset, Tarkovsky initially shot nearly half the film before realizing the Kodak film stock, rare in Russia, was defective, where he immediately petitioned for additional funding, which was granted only on the condition he’d shoot a 2-part film, and money was forwarded for the 2nd part.  In the second attempt at filming, the crew experienced equipment problems, also shutting down production. Tarkovsky actually suffered a heart attack after firing his original cinematographer Georgi Rerberg, who filmed MIRROR (1975), and also his production designer Aleksandr Bojm, claiming artistic differences, which allowed the director time to change the entire concept of a film that was initially conceived in 'Scope and ended up in a more tightly constricted, boxed 1:33 aspect ratio, and where the character of the Stalker evolved from an arrogantly confident smuggler to a man constantly at odds with his own fragile human limitations.  Cameraman Leonid Kalashnikov showed up on the set for a few weeks before being replaced by Aleksandr Knyazhinsky, while Tarkovsky himself assumed the set designer duties.  In addition, the shooting took place near an abandoned hydroelectric plant in Tallinn, Estonia, where the actors and film crew may have spent months exposed to chemical poisoning from the toxic white foam floating down the Jägala River, causing allergic reactions on the set and where Tarkovsky himself, his wife Larissa, and his favorite leading actor Anatoliy Solonitsyn all died within a decade from similar causes, pulmonary lung cancer.  Due to bureaucratic censor boards and ongoing feuds regarding artistic integrity and a continuing difficulty obtaining State funding, this is the final film Tarkovsky shot in Russia, shooting his final two films in Italy and Sweden.  

Opening in a Sepia-toned Black and White, Aleksandr Kaidanovsky plays the Stalker, a painstakingly conscientious guide with the mental capacity to illegally lead people successfully through a dangerous and forbidden, unpopulated area known as The Zone, "the quietest place in the world" where the faint sounds of birds can be heard, the result perhaps of alien activity or an intelligence greater than our own, and of a meteorite falling several decades earlier, where in the center is a destination known as The Room, a place where one’s innermost desire can become true.  Soldiers initially entered the swampy region in tanks with weapons and never returned, now full of syringes, medical waste, contaminated standing water, and discarded human artifacts and debris, overgrown with vegetation over time, surrounded by gates and barbed wire and protected by military personnel.  Against the wishes of his distraught wife and physically deformed daughter, somehow the genetic result of his activities in The Zone, the Stalker agrees to guide two men into The Zone, Anatoliy Solonitsyn as the cynical Writer and Nikolai Grinko as the science Professor.

Their harrowing ride into the eerie stillness of The Zone leads to one of the most brilliantly constructed sequences, a seamlessly envisioned train ride where the edited images, seemingly captured in one shot (there are 5) perfectly match the haunting, anticipatory mood and psychology of the men with the quiet, rhythmic clacking of the train, where once they finally reach their destination the world around them quickly turns into color.  While the two are contemptibly suspicious of their guide's unerring caution, the Stalker is wary about proceeding too quickly, never taking a straight line, but zigs and zags in the direction where they’re going, where the mystery of The Zone changes with each visit, a maze of constantly shifting traps, where the rules of entry also seem to change, allowing the passage of some but denying entrance to others.  For the Stalker, he never knows the intentions of his passengers and can only hope for the best, proceeding as cautiously as possible.  Despite the apparent simplicity of the journey itself, Tarkovsky creates vivid suspense throughout the entire length of their quest, making this something of an edge of your seat thriller, as one never knows what to expect, not even the Stalker himself who recounts some of his earlier adventures, some not so successful.  Notable are the inclusion of unique dream sequences, some spectacular passageways, a gorgeous electronic soundtrack from composer Eduard Artemyev, Tarkovsky’s signature interior rain sequences, and the appearance of a black dog that grows attached to the Stalker.      

STALKER begins a pattern that continues in Tarkovsky’s final two films, expressing a self-destructive world of commerce or transitory concerns that has lost touch with its own existence and all connections with nature, a world where faith and spirituality have also been lost or discarded, featuring Stalkers, Holy Fools or lost souls who are treated with scorn and contempt by those they attempt to save.  Looked upon by others as weak, despised, and even a bit mad, Stalker recognizes his own limited human condition, a rugged but wounded soul most likely damaged from his exposure to some poisonous chemical or radioactive substance, grown weary from a world in constant decay, filled with a palpable fear for having to live with the potential damaging consequences of continuously exposing himself and his family to the unknown elements of The Zone.  Yet it is his awareness of his human weakness that is the source of a spiritual connection that others lack.  While plainly an attack on the spiritual emptiness of society, in STALKER, all the initial hopes expressed to alter man’s destiny are dashed by the complexity and near incomprehensibility of reaching the precipice of The Room, that moment when all potential solutions vanish from the minds of mortal beings, described by some as that “poverty of spirit,” perhaps struck by the all-knowing omniscience and enormity of it all, where at least in one of the earlier scripts (there were supposedly 10), Writer acknowledges “We haven’t matured to this place.”  One of the most emotionally compelling moments is when trifling personal motives are exposed and the painfully disappointed Stalker breaks down to reveal the extent of his own personal anguish and the heavy toll this journey takes on his wounded psyche, as he can lead others to the mysteries of The Room, hoping they can find wisdom and salvation, but cannot receive any personal benefit himself, claiming “It lets those pass who have lost all hope, not good or bad, but wretched people.”  In the end, The Zone is less a place than each man's individual reaction to it.       

In Sculpting in Time, Tarkovsky acknowledges a central theme of “human dignity (and) how a man suffers if he has no self-respect,” reflected in the Stalker’s draining faith in mankind, also the redemptive powers of love expressed by Stalker’s wife in her final monologue, calling it a “final miracle to set against the unbelief, cynicism, (and) moral vacuum poisoning the modern world…It is about the existence of God in man, and about the death of spirituality as a result of our possessing false knowledge.”  While the Writer and Professor are ultimately humbled and rendered human, as if challenged by passing through the rigors of Dante's Inferno, a kind of Vladimir and Estragon lost in the incomprehensibility of their banal existence in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, their arrogance and hubris are reflected in iconic Russian figures, Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor comes to mind from The Brothers Karamazov and the worshipping of false prophets, also the imposter, the Pretender Tsar from Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, both works that also feature a similar witnessing Holy Fool character that was also present in ANDREI RUBLEV (1966).  The false Trinity of Stalker’s misguided faith, the Professor’s wrongful use of reason, and Writer’s art that ultimately is expressed in self doubt, fail to produce the expected miracle that instead appears in Stalker’s own family, combining his own spirituality and his wife’s steadfast devotion with his daughter’s unexplained mysticism that is nothing less than transcendence, especially considering the squalor and industrial ugliness that is everpresent in the polluted landscape of this world, where the muted sounds of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy can strangely and ironically be heard.  Tarkovsky certainly attempts to draw a distinction between what is human and what is eternal in his films, where this film shows a myopic tendency for humans to dwell on phantoms and incidental matter that is purely transitory, failing to recognize the distinguishing human element that defines our earthly existence—the selfless capacity to love.  


  1. I will delight in reading your thoughtful and sophisticated review, but for the love of God...

    you got the country wrong.

    Arkadiy and Boris Strugatskiy are Soviet writers! They are Russian! And not too obscure either.

  2. You are so correct, as I was mistakenly thinking of Stanislaw Lem who wrote Solaris. Thanks for pointing out the error, which I appreciate, and it has been quickly corrected.