Movies by the Minute: Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky)

Andrei Tarkovsky’s final Soviet feature is a metaphys­ical journey through an enigmatic postapocalyptic landscape, and a rarefied cinematic experience like no other. A hired guide—the Stalker—leads a writer and a professor into the heart of the Zone, the restricted site of a long-ago disaster, where the three men eventually zero in on the Room, a place rumored to fulfill one’s most deeply held desires. Adapting a science-fiction novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Tarkovsky created an immersive world with a wealth of material detail and a sense of organic atmosphere. A religious allegory, a reflection of contemporaneous political anxieties, a meditation on film itself—Stalker envelops the viewer by opening up a multitude of possible meanings.    
                                                                         —from Criterion Collection website

I watched Stalker with my teenage son, a passionate and dedicated film aficionado whose examinations of them go way beyond the ordinary movie buff’s understanding of film elements. This is probably the biggest reason why I didn’t really “get” Stalker, a movie almost painful to watch—something I say only half sarcastically. The thing about Stalker is that it possesses a poetic, magnetic quality that pulls you in as much as the Room lures in the men the Stalker guides. CinemaTyler refers to movie critic Roger Ebert’s assessment of the work, that it absorbs, rather than entertains. Indeed, here is the mystery and allure of a frame-by-frame lyrical captivation; the long silences drive the heart rate up and the anticipation at times is almost unbearable. I don’t think I want to ever watch it again, yet I know I will. Part of me remains unconvinced I have what it takes to completely “get” the film.

My son disagrees, and he could be right—and that’s indicative of the pull of Stalker. We will meet again. Knowing this could be something I have in common with its director (on a far, far, far, far lesser level), who also couldn’t stay away from it. Described by a crew member as a “mirror of a hellish trip,” Stalker was one of the most difficult movies in cinematic history to produce, but Tarkovsky couldn’t give up on it. Some of the issues he faced:

  • Poor conditions in various locations including the crew standing for hours “up to their knees in stinking puddles of oil while effluent discharge upriver from a paper processing plant enveloped the set in a fetid miasma”—this went on for months
  • Tarkovsky’s wife, Larissa, demanded to play the role of the Stalker’s wife and was so difficult on set that she was given the unflattering nickname “the Empress”
  • After months of filming on experimental film stock, the footage was developed and discovered to have a horrible green hue to it—it was destroyed, largely because Soviet labs were inexperienced in its development
  • Starting over with some new crew members, months of re-shooting on a different Estonian location (the previous one had suffered an earthquake) resulted in footage Tarkovsky hated
  • The film’s first version could not later undergo restoration technology because it was destroyed in a fire

That is, to say the least, a lot of distraction. If that weren’t enough, as years went by, crew began to die from various maladies associated with their exposure to hazardous chemicals and radiation, including Tarkovsky. When I’d first begun to watch the film, I commented that it reminded me of Chernobyl, and before I could even finish my thought, my son told me Stalker was released seven years before the horrific disaster. I marveled more at such a prophetic vision, how true to life Tarkovsky’s images were to what I had seen in pictures and on TV about the abandoned city, Pripyat, and the shell of a reactor left of the nuclear power station nearby.

I don’t know enough about Tarkovsky to be able to say if he could have predicted such an event. Though part of me almost believes I wouldn’t be surprised if he did, I resist it, because this would seem to mean that he understood the heavy price he would pay. Yes, the results of Chernobyl were so much more devastating in scope and even in many individual cases, but that doesn’t really matter. Tarkovsky is just as dead, and the haunting element of his film seems to take on a new meaning as we watch now, knowing what we know and wondering what could have been, perhaps afraid to confront what we might meet once we reach the Room.

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