Andrei Tarkovksy made several films that are generally held in higher esteem, but none of them capture my imagination to the same degree as STALKER. The Stalker of the title (Alexander Kaidanovsky) lives in poverty with his wife and daughter on the outskirts of “the Zone”, a mysterious rural quarantine protected by the military. It is said that hidden at the centre of the Zone is a room which will grant the innermost subconscious desire of any who enter. For the right price the Stalkers will guide individuals safely through the perils of the Zone, an offer taken up by two men referred to only as “the Writer” and “the Professor” played by Anatoly Solonitsyn and Nikolai Grinko respectively, both of whom appear in Tarkovsky’s breakthrough masterpiece ANDREI RUBLEV (1966). The film begins in black and white but switches to vibrant colour as soon as the three men successfully penetrate the Zone. It makes extensive use of Tarkovsky’s trademark long takes with cameras panning slowly over the astonishing landscape, though there is a surprisingly high amount of dialogue for a Tarkovsky film, who frequently told his stories with images rather than words.
The exact nature of the Zone and how it came to be is kept deliberately vague. At a time when Western audiences were struggling with the pace and symbolism of films like ALIEN (1979) and 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968), STALKER wears its ambiguity on its sleeve. The only clue is given in an opening quotation:
What was it? A meteorite? A visit of inhabitants of the cosmic abyss? One way or another, our small country has seen the birth of a miracle – the Zone. We immediately sent troops there. They haven’t come back. Then we surrounded the Zone with police cordons… Perhaps, that was the right thing to do. Though, I don’t know…
When we consider the time and place the film was made the idea of a prohibited “Zone” takes on numerous connotations. It brings to mind the Gulag, the isolation of West Berlin and the nuclear catastrophe at Chernobyl that left large regions poisoned and uninhabitable (it has been alleged that Anatoly Solonitsyn’s death in 1982 was due to exposure to toxic chemicals during location filming for STALKER). Although the Chernobyl disaster did not take place until seven years after the film’s release, a serious contamination incident had also occurred at the fuel processing plant at Chelyabinsk in 1957 but Tarkovsky always denied that his film was a comment on such incidents or on nuclear power in general. Nevertheless the images of Mother Nature taking over abandoned, decaying outposts in the Zone remind me strongly of the photographs taken by solitary motorcyclists speeding through Chernobyl. Tarkovsky would return to address this theme directly in his final work THE SACRIFICE (1986), a beautiful, haunting film which begins with a family awaiting the end of the world at the hands of nuclear holocaust.
STALKER is loosely based on the 1971 science fiction novel ‘Roadside Picnic’ by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky. The book’s characters and the main narrative are radically different but we can perhaps glean extra information about the meaning of certain scenes in the film. The Stalker finds a safe path through the Zone by throwing metal nuts tied to strips of cloth ahead of him. In the book this is explained as a test for localised gravitational anomalies that crush objects passing through them. No such explanation of the danger is given in the film. But in the end these details don’t matter because STALKER is a film about its characters and the philosophical struggle of modern man. Will the Room make its inhabitants happier? Will it bring them closer to God, or exile them? We are told of a former Stalker known as “the Porcupine” who dared to enter the Room himself and became fantastically wealthy. A week later he hangs himself. There is a strong anti-materialist streak running through all of Tarkovsky’s films; he was frequently critical of the West and its abandonment of the spiritual path. To me the film seems to contain clear allusions to Christ – especially with the words the Stalker’s wife speaks directly to camera about how she met her husband and the state they find themselves in (“You’ve probably noticed already that he is not of this world… He approached me and said “Come with me”, and I did, and never regretted it”). This was another interpretation strongly denied by its director. The ambiguity continues right to the final scene, when the Stalker’s daughter (who is referred to as “a child of the Zone”) moves a glass with the power of her mind… or is the train rumbling past the house causing the table to shake? Ultimately this is the one of the joys of STALKER: there are so many ways to interpret it that it becomes a uniquely personal experience and, like the Zone itself which changes and reassembles itself behind its inhabitants’ backs, a different one every time.