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.
Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) is a critic’s favorite among the works of the esteemed Russian director, with a reputation that continues to grow over the years.On the British Film Institute’s 2012 poll of 846 international film critics for the 50 greatest films ever made, Stalker was ranked 29th. What fascinates these critics is not so much any kind of gripping plot line, but more the film’s reflective immersion in existential speculation.
Of course a moody ambiance is something that invariably emerges from Tarkovsky’s unique mise-en-scene. His long, slow tracking shots often confine the viewer’s gaze, as they follow a character in closeup as he, himself, is gazing. In general this film is a mixture of closeups and long shots, sometimes with both in the same moving-camera shot, and with very few medium shots . Tarkovsky was a meticulous craftsman, and it was said that he often spent two days planning such shots before an actual take. Much of Stalker is composed of these long-duration shots, and the film has only a total of 122 shots in its 163-minute running time.
Working in this way on location settings would undoubtedly be difficult, but the production of Stalker was apparently particularly arduous. Tarkovsky first shot much of the film in Tajikistan, but an earthquake ruined that effort, and he had to start over somewhere else. Later he found an apt location in an abandoned hydroelectric power plant in Estonia. But after shooting much of the film again, Tarkovsky didn’t like the developed film that he saw, and he started over again at the same location. This Estonian location had other problems, too – it was downstream from a highly polluting chemical plant, which is alleged to have been the cause of Tarkovsky, his wife Larissa, and actor Anatoly Solonitsyn all dying of cancer within the following decade.
Stalker was scripted by Arkadi and Boris Strugatsky, who based it on their 1971 novella Roadside Picnic, a science-fiction tale set in the near future. The movie’s final script, though, included substantial changes from the novella that were introduced by Tarkovsky. The background of the story, which takes some time to be revealed to the viewer due to Tarkovsky’s employment of slow disclosure, concerns activities around a site known as “The Zone” in an unknown country where a meteorite is said to have crashed and devastated the local area some twenty years earlier. When people and government soldiers had gone to investigate what happened there, many of them disappeared. So the government cordoned off the area with military fencing and guards. After awhile, rumors arose that within the Zone there was a mysterious place known as “The Room” that had mysterious powers – anyone who entered the Room would have their deepest wishes miraculously granted.
Naturally, the government’s use of lethal force to prevent anyone from entering the Zone only fueled more belief in the magical powers of the Room. There were many people who wanted to get to the Room and were willing to risk their lives to do so. Out of these circumstances there arose a shady profession known as “stalking”. Stalkers (actually “Trackers” might have been a more apt English translation of the Russian word) would offer their services at a high price to guide those people past the armed-police lines so that they could gain entry to the Room. This film is about one such stalker who escorts his two customers into the Zone in order to enter the Room.
These circumstances may sound like they set the stage for all sorts of spectacular, mind-bending events to happen. But, actually, not a lot of action does happen in this slow-moving story, and many people find the film empty and boring. What does happen takes place on a more imaginative plane, and this is where you might find satisfaction, depending on your tastes.
Thematically, Stalker features a multi-faceted investigation into what is real. This involves extended disputation among the three main characters, each of whom has an initial and distinct perspective on how the world is constituted and how one should lead one’s life within it. As the story unfolds, these characters argue with each other about what should be done – not only about what should be done in the immediate circumstances, but also about what should ultimately be done in life as a whole. To a certain extent the Zone represents a fourth, inscrutable character, and I will discuss more about that below.
Stalker unfolds in five acts, the first and fifth of which are outer bookends for the inner tale.
1. The Stalker takes on a new job
The opening of the film, shown in sepia-tinted monochrome, is very slow, as the camera moves in on the Stalker (played by Alexander Kaidanovsky) sleeping with his wife and daughter on a large bed. He is about to take on a new stalking job, even though he has just gotten out of prison for doing this work, and his wife (Alisa Freindlich) throws a fit about it. He leaves his cramped apartment and goes to a dingy bar, where he meets his two clients, who are not previously acquainted with each other.
Noone gives their real name in these circumstances, and the two clients are only identified as the Writer (Anatoli Solonitsyn) and the Professor (Nikolai Grinko). The Professor is a physicist and says he wants to go to the Zone to investigate its properties scientifically. Throughout the film he is clearly a rationalist who seeks to identify the objective properties of the world around him. As such, he is similar to all those who believe in the efficacy of science to ultimately discover all that is intelligible about the world.
The Writer, on the other hand, is an intellectual from the humanities side of academic thought. His method is dialectical disputation in the manner of the postmodernists. By doubting everything and always looking at things from a critical perspective, he has become a cynical nihilist: nothing is true absolutely, and there is only an answer that is “more correct” for a given context than the other possibilities. When we first meet the Writer, before his first encounter with the Stalker, he is talking somewhat flirtatiously to a classy woman about the Zone and its mysteries, and he assures her that there is no god and that the world is ruled by cast-iron laws. But this seems to be more of a pose than a true belief. He doesn’t know what those cast-iron laws might be.
The Writer soon engages the Professor in a contentious discussion about their contrasting modi operandi. He tells him that searching for truth (as a physicist does) is boring, because objective truth is always hiding and the scientist keeps searching for it. On the other hand while he, himself (the Writer), is digging for truth, so much happens to it – the act of digging changes it.
2. Getting to the Zone
Now the Stalker gets his clients into a jeep as they attempt to sneak through the military fencing and enter the Zone. They pass in by closely following a train that is allowed to enter the Zone, and then they dodge gunfire from the guards who see them passing.
While finding a breathing moment at one point, the Writer continues his commentary to the Professor, this time about the idea of a Room which will give him what he wants, which is inspiration to write great things:
“I don’t give a damn about inspiration. How would I know the right word for what I want? How would I know that actually I don’t want what I want?. . .They [truths] are elusive things: the moment we name them, their meaning disappears, melt, dissolves like a jellyfish in the sun. My conscience wants vegetarianism to win over the world. And my subconscious is yearning for a piece of meat.”
Eventually they make it into the Zone on a motorized railroad trolley, and once they are inside, the previously sepia-tinted world shifts to color. During another pause in their movements, the Professor fills the Writer in on some facts that he knows about the Zone. He tells him the following:
Their Stalker has served several prison sentences and has been harmed in the Zone.
The Stalker’s daughter, who is known as “Monkey”, is a crippled mutant.
Their Stalker learned everything about the Zone from his mentor stalker, known as “Porcupine”.
Stalkers are not supposed to go into the Room, but evidently Porcupine did go in there and afterwards became fabulously wealthy. However, within a week he committed suicide.
This is further evidence that getting what you want might not be the best thing for you, and it reminds me of the three proverbial Chinese curses, the most malevolent of which was: “May the gods grant you all your wishes”.
3. Wandering in the Zone
The world outside the Zone that the viewer has been shown up to this point is a detritus-filled industrial dystopia. It is a dark and dank man-made world of ruin and garbage. Inside the Zone, though, everything is green and lush. There is still debris and broken artifacts strewn around from human habitation, but it is being reclaimed by nature.
The Stalker says he loves the Zone for its natural purity, but he warns his two clients that the Zone is also dangerous and unpredictable. It continually changes itself in response to human presence and has no static reality. To successfully get to the Room, one must follow a different ad-hoc course each time. Although they soon come to a point where the building with the Room is only a couple of hundred yards away from them, the Stalker stipulates that he must chart a twisted course to it by (a) throwing a metal bolt nut tied to a thin piece of cloth in a random direction, (b) walking over to where the cloth string had landed, and (c) repeating this process many times. He believes that pure on-the-fly intuition is the only way to safely reach the Room.
At another stopping point in the Zone, the Writer, continuing his disputational conversation with the Professor, wonders aloud what would happen if he were to be granted his wish of being a great writer:
“A man writes because he’s tormented, because he doubts. He needs to constantly prove to himself and to the others that he’s worth something. And if I know for sure that I’m a genius, why write then?”
And scornfully dismissing the worthiness of science and engineering, he says that all the engineering artefacts are just extensions, artificial limbs so to speak, and have no higher purpose. Art is a higher calling.
“Mankind exists in order to create works of art. Unlike all other human activities, this one is unselfish.”
After they lie down along a little stream and rest (during which the Stalker mysteriously goes into a sepia-tinted dream), the Stalker wakes up and adds his own thoughts about art as a calling:
“You were speaking of the meaning of our life, . . . .of the unselfishness of art. Take music, for instance. Less than anything else, it is connected to reality. Or if connected at all, it’s done mechanically, not by way of ideas, just by sheer sound, devoid of any associations. And yet, music, as if by some miracle, gets through to our heart. What is it that resonates in us in response to noise brought to harmony, making it the source of the greatest delight which stuns us and brings us together? What’s all this needed for? And most important, who needs it?”
The Stalker represents a third component of this triangular discussion that is going on between the Writer, the Professor, and himself. In general, though, the Stalker expresses more wonder than certainty in these exchanges, unlike his more intellectually-minded clients.
Continuing with his bolt-tied cloth tossing, the Stalker guides his companions through different places in the Zone near the Room. Along the way, the Writer and the Professor sometimes stubbornly defy the Stalker’s dire warnings about what will happen to them if they don’t follow his instruction precisely. But nothing bad does happen to them on these occasions, which proves that the Stalker’s knowledge of the Zone is limited.
Eventually they pass through a large tubular water channel and then into a notorious (to the Stalker) sand-dune-filled chamber known as the “Meat Grinder” before finally coming to a small chamber just outside the Room.
4. Before the Room
Having reached their precious destination, the obedient Stalker won’t go in, but he urges the other two to go ahead, and advises them that the most important thing for them at this point is “to believe”. But belief is precisely what the cynically skeptical Writer doesn’t have. He hesitates.
When they turn to the Professor, he reveals to them that he brought along in his knapsack a miniature 20-kiloton atomic bomb to destroy the Zone and all that is in it. He says that the existence of the wish-granting Room is too dangerous for mankind, because there could always be some hate-filled fanatics who might use it to bring on the apocalypse. The Stalker immediately tries to forcibly take the bomb away from the Professor. While the Professor thinks the existence of the Room is a threat to mankind, the Stalker says that hope is all the people have and that this is the only place they can hope to come to. In the ensuing fistfight the Writer, who doesn’t believe in fairy tales like hope, defends the Professor, and after an inconclusive struggle the exhausted combatants pause to catch their breath.
The dialectical -minded Writer is, as you might expect, of two minds. If one’s innermost wishes actually do come true here, he ponders, what will happen?
“Coming true here is only in line with your essence, of which you know nothing. But it’s there in you, directing you all your life.”
On the other hand, the Writer doubts whether the Room really works at all and gets the Stalker to admit that he has never verified that it has made anyone happy.
Now they are all paralyzed by incertitude and left despondent. In a mournful shot of 4:48 duration, the Professor begins dismantling his bomb and throwing the pieces into a pool of standing water, while they all sit down and stare dejectedly.
5. The Aftermath
Although the quest for the Room has ended in fear-induced paralysis, there are still more than twenty crucial minutes left to this story, and now the focus shifts over entirely to the Stalker. Back at the dingy bar and with the image color returning to sepia-tinted monochrome, the Stalker’s wife enters and modestly urges him to come home. At home he complains to her about the uselessness of “intellectuals”. In a slow in-tracking shot of 2:30, he says the world is too cynical and he’s not going back into the Zone again. She soothingly offers to go with him to Room, but he says no, “what if it didn’t work with you, either?”
Then we shift to a 3-minute shot of his wife speaking straight into the camera and, referring to the Stalker in the third person, defending her decision to spend her life with him. Like her husband, she, too, says that life is all about hope. There are ups and downs in life, she says, that are not only unavoidable but essential.
Finally, in a mysterious 4-minute shot to close the film, Monkey is seen in her room, and in color, reading some poetry to herself. Then she slowly and contemplatively uses telekinesis to move some drinking glasses about on the table in front of her.
One of the fascinating things about Tarkovsky’s Stalker is that his characteristic mise-en-scene is not only an effective vehicle for telling the story, but is also an essential thematic element of the film. Through various cinematic means, he conveys a sense of almost claustrophobia-inducing confinement. This is not just the feeling of being in a closed room, but the feeling that reality itself is impinging upon us. He does this in several ways:
There are frequent tracking shots of people in closeup gazing at something; but we don’t, at least initially, see what they are looking it. This makes us want to see beyond the visual frame, which is confining our view.
Similarly, there are numerous offscreen sounds that are heard of activities that we cannot see. These noises are not essential to the action, but they give the viewer a sense that things are going on around us that are just out of our view. Again, the viewer feels that the world is encroaching upon him from unseen sources. A notable example of these unseen noises that occurs several times in the film is the thunderous sounds heard from inside the Stalker’s apartment of a train passing close by. The sounds of the rushing train are mixed with the energetic sounds of an anthem being played. These noises also have an unnerving claustrophobic effect on the viewer, giving one the feeling that life, itself, is rushing by without him or her.
The music in the film is a curious mixture of instrumental and electronic music that is sometimes made to blend in with the real, story-based noises heard. This blending of sounds gives a further eerie feeling to the world presented.
Tarkovsky’s fascination with water is in strong evidence here. The world is drenched in water, as the film’s participants repeatedly slog and wade through swampy, rain-soaked conditions. This water is intrusive, too, weighing everything down and further confining and hindering movement.
The reason why these techniques are thematically significant is because the film’s main theme concerns the very nature of reality. How do we discern meaningful elements out of this phantasmagoria of images that is presented as conscious experience? Tarkovsky seems to be saying, perhaps in line with the later Heidegger , that the technological landscape that we have constructed with our scientific mindfulness has led us to a blinkered dystopia. This dystopia is the squalid sepia-tinted monochromatic world shown outside the Zone. But true reality, in all its richness, is what is shown in the Zone – and that is its secret gift. The outside world is limited and static. We name things, as the Writer says, but as soon as we name them their meaning disappears. The Zone, on the other hand, is overflowing with life. It is unpredictable, but always vital and interactive..
The film features several discussants concerning these issues, and this kind of triangular discussion is characteristic of a number of Tarkovsky films, such as Ivan’s Childhood (1962) and Andrei Rublev (1966). Let us return to the four discussants and their perspectives here.
The Professor represents the objectivist, scientific view of reality that tries to reduce everything to mechanical reasoning. This mechanical reasoning has undeniable power in connection with divide-and-conquer problem solving, but its soul-crushing reductionism leaves us with an impoverished view of life’s possibilities.
The Writer is also a rationalist, but he relies on postmodernist pragmatic reasoning. This is situationally useful, but it is also frustrating and leads to disheartening cynicism.
The Stalker, and also his wife, believes in putting his faith in uncertain hope. As such he is another instance of the Holy Fool that was present in Andrei Rublev. Unfortunately, he has no compass beyond his hope and the rituals that he has faithfully committed himself to follow.
Monkey is a fourth view that finally emerges as an embodied agent of the Zone in the final act. She represents the vital complexity of the Zone, itself. Monkey, like the Zone, is serene and natural appearing, but her utter mystery may encompass menace, too.
To a certain extent I would guess that Tarkovsky envisioned himself as sometimes like the Writer and sometimes like the Stalker. But here he is glimpsing into the unfathomable richness of the Zone, itself. As he once remarked on this notion ,
“From a symbolic point of view, [the little girl’s powers] represent new perspectives, new spiritual powers that are as yet unknown to us, as well as new physical forces.”
The Writer might say that the Zone represents the intricacies and hidden cavities of the mind, or mental consciousness. But since we do not really know what the mind is, it is more phenomenologically authentic to say that the Zone represents the dynamic interactive vitality of true, existential reality.