Dir. Andrei Tarkovsky. Starring Aleksandr Kaidanovsky, Anatoli Solonitsyn, Nikolai Grinko
Watching Stalker, I felt as if my knowledge of how movies worked had been made irrelevant. The way the camera moves in with the most measured slowness on its target, so slowly that you hardly recognize it’s happening until it’s happened. The sudden appearances of heads and bodies where we did not think they could appear. The use of ambient sounds, especially the sucking and falling and dropping of water. Textures that challenge the balance of comprehensibility. The way that near silence is paired with nonstop conversation back and forth over long minutes. Stalker, my first Tarkovsky movie, was like learning how to walk again. What you expect to see and how you expect to learn is thrown, irrecoverable, into some well (doubtless splashing in some way that reverberates endlessly around every wall). One result is that Stalker feels so strange even when its elements are not, in themselves, particularly unusual; another is that moments that would be pedestrian in one movie (the sound of bullets firing, a character blithely munching on a sandwich, a green hillside) are jawdropping in this one. With this concept Tarkovsky could have made, if he wanted to, the most terrifying movie of the 1970s. Instead, he focuses his power over our pulses very differently.
In Speaker for the Dead, Orson Scott Card recounts an experience Ender has trying a blade of native grass from an alien planet. It’s not delicious, but is so “strong” that it leaves a powerful impression, so much so that Ender says it could be “addictive.” I don’t know if I loved Stalker, or enjoyed it more than I enjoy most movies I watch, but it is vital and strong; you can feel it breathing as you watch, and afterwards the thought of the movie is overpowering.
The setting is not weird, precisely – he filmed it in Tallinn, the most populous city in Estonia and its capital, and from my own experience I didn’t think it was so bizarre there – but it is clearly abnormal. Fog bubbles up from nowhere, and quickly. Every structure is in some enormous state of disrepair, crumbling or peeling but never collapsing outright. One never fears that a traveler to the Zone will be eaten alive by his environment via some grand inhuman chewing, but it always seems possible that he may simply vanish. The characters are anonymous – Stalker, Writer, Professor, the Stalker’s wife, and Monkey, the Stalker’s daughter – but they do not remain that way. The Stalker is alternately agitated and nearly comatose. Kaidanovsky, with his even teeth and distinctive voice, has a rodent smallness in his bearing that Solonitsyn and Grinko don’t share. He is terrified, in many ways, of the Zone. He may understand the basics of navigating it as well as any person alive, but he is incapable of predicting just how it will act, and so he is constantly on edge. Yet when he returns to the Zone with the Writer and the Professor, he almost immediately leaves them to go for a walk by himself. He stops walking after a short time, choosing to lie down in the plant growth instead, breathing deeply. His philosophy is weakness, exemplified by nature itself. The newest things are the most flexible: an infant, a sapling. But a grown person and a great tree are both hard and set in themselves, and the closer they are to total rigidity the nearer they are to death.
The Writer is a hard drinker and a difficult man to speak with. He is frequently confrontational, an obvious loner, weaving unpredictably between his own unconfidence and willingness to explain to everyone what they are really thinking and feeling and why those deepest thoughts are wrong. On the way to the Zone, he alone keeps his eyes closed and his head down. His comrades scan the horizon and look about themselves to see the town disappear, but the Writer seems to be most deeply connected to something inside himself, however mean it is. He understands that people are driven by their wants, which, in his opinion, is why so many of us eat meat even when we can see that vegetarianism is a healthier and more sustainable life. The Professor, tallest and seemingly the oldest of the three, is also the quietest. That’s almost ironic, since he is the only person who speaks with any regularity of colleagues or friends. Similarly, although he is a physicist who has significant learning, he also appears to be one of those specialists who has lost touch with the lessons outside his discipline. He manages to keep an explosive surprise hidden from his peers until he reveals it on the edge of the Room itself – it is a weapon far more powerful than the handgun that the Writer secreted into the Zone. The Stalker is apoplectic, and not without reason. Didn’t you see the tanks? he screams; the Zone has the power to defend itself, as evidenced by a graveyard of tanks blown to bits more or less on top of one another.
About forty-five minutes of the film is placed in colors which I had never seen in a movie before, in which the colors themselves have been victimized by contrasts. There is brown and black and light, but none of them appear to have any colors at all. It is disorienting in the extreme at first before ultimately becoming a recognizable kind of haze. Meaningfully, this is set up as the place where the Writer and Professor feel most at home. Coming to the Zone, which is at best fairyland and at worst a sentient killing field, is painted as an incredible trip; I’m sure I’m not the first one to remark on the similarities between Stalker and The Wizard of Oz, which both recognize the beauty of a fantasy-world through color as well as its more profound lethality. (The septic colors of the “meat mincer” the Writer unwillingly travels through first are not so different in effect from the burning reds of the poppies or of the dust in Dorothy’s death-countdown hourglass.) But it is worth noting that the Stalker cries out that he and his clients have come “home” once their little trolley car stops. It is a hint of the deep faith that is infused throughout Stalker; the Stalker looks at the Zone the same way we might react to Eden. Frequently, habitually, the party refers back to the power of God or the mind of God or the expectation of God. (Only once does anyone talk about God humorously; the Writer, doffing an impromptu wooden crown, tells the Stalker that he will not forgive him.) The end of the world – whatever that means, precisely – is never very far from anybody’s mind or mouth.
The film’s climactic moments are placed outside the Room. The Stalker, who has been guiding the Writer and the Professor there, tries to explain. “This the most important moment in your life,” he says. Go into the Room, clear your mind, think of your whole life as best you can, believe in the Room: collect, someway, somehow, your heart’s desire. (The mechanism for doing so is not made clear, either because the Stalker does not understand it or does not know how it can be explained.) Who will go first? he asks. The Writer refuses to go in at all, having comprehended more of the Room than the Stalker can. The most personal wish of the heart is a profoundly embarrassing thing to share, even with a room. Its effect has consequences which no one can predict or read in advance; what you may believe to be the greatest wish in your heart might be, in fact, a lesser consideration than a more venal pursuit, and the knowledge of that which might have been ignored previously could well become a curse. It amounts to a separation of the self from the self. The Professor, who feared the Room’s power to grant wishes (although the Writer challenges his word choice, arguing that the Professor fears the granting of “ideologies” rather than desires), spares it. The Stalker knows that anyone of his ilk who goes into the Zone under the false pretense of profit – such as going into the Room – will die. For a long while, exhausted and beaten, the three men stare into a cavern. The light changes, and water pours from an unseen source, and as the Professor disassembles his weapon, we understand why we saw so many other objects in the water earlier in the film. Merely coming this far into the Zone strips people bare a few layers too deep to enter the Room itself.