In Clifford Odets’ journal, he describes a conversation he had with Lee Strasberg, colleague, director, acting teacher:
[Strasberg] spoke of what he called “the blight of Ibsen”, saying that Ibsen had taught most writers after him how to think undramatically. He illustrated this by an example. A man has been used to living in luxury finds he is broke and unable to face life — he goes home and puts a bullet in his head. That, Lee said, any fair theatre person can lay out into a play. But it is not essentially a dramatic view of life. Chekhov is dramatic, he said, for this is how he treats related material: a man earns a million rubles and goes home and lies down on them and puts a bullet in his head.
Russian artists have always been deeply concerned about the state of man’s soul, and Strasberg’s point (while a bit of a generalization) rings very true when you look at their greatest works. Dostoevsky, in the Grand Inquisitor scene in The Brothers Karamazov delineates the struggle of how to lead a moral life better than anyone before or since. It has yet to be topped. That scene rivals the entirety of Paradise Lost in its depiction of man’s fear before God, and also his fear before himself, his battles with his own demons. The psychological aspect of things like boredom, money, love, family, are seen through a very specific cultural filter, where man’s spiritual life, his spiritual peace, is paramount. Yet nearly impossible to achieve in this lifetime. That’s the Russian torment.
It is impossible to speak of Andrei Tarkovsky’s films without talking about his philosophy of life. The two are inextricably linked. He did not make all that many films, but a couple of them I would classify as masterpieces, and while he died quite young, he was able to formulate, through his art, an entire philosophical system that had to do with the struggle of modern man to have a meaningful existence. Tarkovsky is hopeful, as many religious people are, that there will be redemption, but he also seems skeptical about the possibilities of it occurring any time soon. Either way, he knows it will not be easy. Tarkovsky is worried, truly worried, about the spiritual state of modern man, and nowhere is that more clear than in his 1979 masterwork Stalker.
Tarkovsky is an interesting case. He came into his career in the post-Stalin years in Russia, but the Cold War was at its apex when he was making his greatest films. He was able to work with the authorities, to stay within the system, but they gave him a hard time over the years, until it got so bad that he defected. He died a year or so after. I believe it broke his heart to leave Russia. He wasn’t a provincial man, he read widely, one of his dreams was to film Hamlet (and what I wouldn’t give to have seen that!), and he didn’t feel that he needed to be in Russia to be an artist. His inspiration came from mankind itself. His film Andrei Rublev (my thoughts here) catapulted him into worldwide fame. I suppose you could see it as a metaphor for what it was like for the modern-day Soviet, but Tarkovsky didn’t see it that way. Andrei Rublev was a 15th century monk in Russia who did giant triptychs, most of which were destroyed. As a matter of fact, only one remains intact. Nothing is really known about him. Tarkovsky wanted to examine what kind of man would devote his life to painting pictures of religious exaltation and eternal peace in the midst of a time of great chaos and brutality. As we all know, the Bolsheviks “got rid of religion”, apparently, but you would never know that from watching Tarkovsky’s films. He is a deeply religious man. It is a rare talent who can put his feelings for God on the screen. It is also amazing that he was able to “get away with” as much as he did in that environment. One of the reasons why I think Tarkovsky was able to operate freely for so long (“freely” being relative) is that he stayed away from politics entirely. You could read into his films, you could see them as grand allegories for current-day themes, but the films would suffer as a result. It’s similar to many of the great films coming out of Iran right now. You could see in Children of Heaven a buried message, involving the hardships of life in Iran, the ridiculous pressures put on the citizenry (a brother and sister having to share a pair of shoes?), the class divide which is so intense in Tehran – that is definitely all there, but if you only see it as the allegory, you take away much of its magic. It is an exciting story of a little boy and a little girl who try to take care of a serious problem on their own without adult interference. These directors, working under these conditions of censorship and oppression, have to be very very tricky, and the good ones always focus on story. Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev is a clarion call for spirituality, and a warning about what happens to a society when God is left out.
Tarkovsky was a fan of science fiction, and his 1972 film Solyaris was his first foray into that area. He returns to that territory again in Stalker (1979). Tarkovsky goes even deeper into his life-long concerns about the atrophy of man’s spirit in the modern world. He was an anti-materialist, and deeply conservative. His ultimate question about any event was always: Will this make man happier? Better? Will this bring him closer to his spirit? Or will this separate him even further? Ironically, Tarkovsky ended his life as an exile – but his films all along, made within Russia, have to do with man being exiled from himself and from God.
Stalker was based on the novella Roadside Picnic by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, but Tarkovsky made it his own, as he explains here in a 1979 interview:
I had recommended a short novel Picnic on the Roadside, to my friend, the filmmaker Giorgi Kalatozishvili, thinking he might adapt it to film. Afterwards, I don’t know why, Giorgi could not obtain the rights from the authors of the novel, the Strugatsky brothers, and he abandoned the idea of this film. The idea began to turn in my head, at first from time to time, and then more and more often. It seemed to me that this novel could be made into a film with a unity of location, time, and action. This classic unity – Aristotelian in my view – permits us to approach truly authentic filmmaking, which for me is not action film, outwardly dynamic. I must say, too, that the script of Stalker has nothing in common with the novel … except for the two words, “Stalker” and “Zone”. So you see the history of the origins of my film is deceptive.
In Stalker, there has been some sort of apocalyptic event pre-dating the film’s start. It is thought that a meteorite had crashed into “our small country” (the country is never named), but the meteorite was never found. Troops were sent to investigate the destroyed area and never returned. It became clear to the nameless authorities that the area had to be cordoned off, and it is now known as The Zone. A great mystery surrounds the Zone. Nobody knows the truth of it. What is it? There is a rumor that at the center of the Zone there is a Room, and in that Room, man’s greatest wish (whatever it may be) can come true. But how to get into the Zone when it is surrounded by electrical fences, barbed wire, and armed outposts?
This is where The Stalker comes in. The Stalker acts as a guide. People pay him money to take them into the Zone. It is a dangerous prospect, not just getting past the guards, but once in the Zone, all bets are off. The Zone is a place that changes, constantly, a place where the laws of physics do not apply. It is as though the land itself is alive, and it recognizes when strangers have arrived, so it starts to shift, throwing traps and pitfalls in their way.
The Stalker lives in a dreary cottage with his unhappy wife and daughter. His daughter has something wrong with her legs. She is referred to as “a child of the Zone”, which suggests to me that some Chernobyl event may have occurred, launching the area into pre-history. The landscape outside the Stalker’s cottage is terrifying and industrial, but the people live in abject squalor suggesting something medieval. Huge nuclear power plants loom in the distance, and it appears that the entire world is an abandoned construction site.
At the beginning of the film, the Stalker meets up with two men in a dingy bar who want to go to the Zone. Money changes hands.
The two men who enlist the Stalker’s hope are known as “Writer” and “Professor”. Everyone has their own reasons to want to go to the Zone. It is only what YOU think of it that matters. The Writer is cynical, and he feels he has lost his inspiration. When we first see him, he is having a conversation with a woman in a fur coat (who also wants to go to the Zone, but the Stalker sends her packing), and she is wondering about the mystery of it all. She references the Bermuda Triangle. The Writer scoffs. There is no mystery in the Zone. There are no UFOs, no invisible forces: he is a realist. And yet nevertheless, here he stands, about to embark on a journey into the unknown. The Professor teaches physics at a university, and because of his life’s work examining things like atoms and protons he is more willing to accept that the invisible and mysterious may also be real, but his desire to go to the Zone comes from his yearning to make tangible the intangible. He needs proof.
The Stalker, a visibly weary tormented man, has his doubts about both of these men, but they start on their journey.
The opening sequence, with the three men in a massive roofless jeep, driving around through decaying warehouses, is a masterpiece of style. The setting is extraordinary, and you wonder where the hell they were filming. These do not look like sets. The sound of dripping water is paramount (a very Tarkovskyian sound – it appears in most of his films), and the three men drive around in circles, hiding from the guards patrolling the main gate. It becomes clear that a train comes to the outpost, and this will be their way in. The gates open for the train, momentarily, and they will drive in behind it on the tracks. The Stalker explains to the other two that while it is dangerous, the guards do not want to go further into the Zone, so the possibility of them being chased is negligible.
Tarkovsky drives his point home by filming the early sections of the film in a saturated black-and-white. It looks like a daguerrotype, as though we are gazing at a world long gone away. Tarkovsky preferred to film in black and white, he felt it was a more realistic cinematic language (he said in one interview that he felt like he invented black and white), but here he chose to film the scenes in the Zone itself in vibrant color, to perhaps suggest that the Zone really is what everyone thinks it is: a magical place where dreams can come true.
The journey through the Zone is filmed methodically. I think Tarkovsky’s point about Aristotelian unities is one of the strengths of this film which could, if you think about it, have seemed rather silly. A magical land where dreams come true? But the journey is shown, step by step, it is all quite practical and seems completely believable. As they travel, they talk. The philosophical differences of the men become clear. Arguments break out. Both the Writer and the Professor have a hard time obeying the Stalker’s commands even though he begs them to follow his instructions exactly because the Zone is dangerous, it is like a predator, it will eat you up if you don’t follow the rules. That is why they hired him.
Stalker is a dialogue-heavy script, unlike Andrei Rublev which is told mainly through images. The dialogue in Stalker really wrestles with the issues, as opposed to presenting them clearly in an oppositional clearcut fasion. It is obvious that these three men have different contexts and concerns, but above all else, you worry for them. The Zone, as filmed by Tarkovsky, calls to mind Planet of the Apes, an eerily familiar landscape, nothing too fantastical, but it is a place where a civilization has died. Enormous telephone poles stand tipped over to the side. Buildings lie in ruin. In the earlier scenes, nature is almost nonexistent. There is no grass. The only water in the film appears in a glass on the bedside table, or dripping from the various ceilings, a sure sign of decay. But in the Zone, there is a rushing river. The sound of the water, roaring by, is a tumultuous sound of life, but it’s also somewhat ominous, as the entire Zone is. Beneath the water (in a stunning tracking shot, my favorite shot of the film), you can see debris from the world gone by. Fragments of newspaper, syringes, old coins, a religious postcard … Tarkovsky slowly trains the camera to pan over these objects, seen through the distorted waviness of water.
It is difficult not to see in all of this a criticism of the Soviet Union’s rapacious attitude towards the environment. The world is one of the means of production in Marxist terms, and the world is there to be used as such (The fate of the once-vibrant Aral Sea as one of the most obvious and tragic examples of the Soviet policies towards nature). Tarkovsky and his crew were exposed to toxic chemicals during the shooting of the film, and Tarkovsky probably already had the cancer that would eventually kill him. His evocation of the environment (all environments) in Stalker has to be seen to be believed. The Stalker, the Writer, and the Professor, walk cautiously through an overgrown field, towards some unknown destination, having to trust in fate, having to let their innermost wishes come to the surface, because that is the only reason they are there, and the only way they will survive.
As the three men get closer and closer to the mythical “Room” at the center of the Zone, they all start to grapple more openly with what it is they are seeking. What would it be like to have your dreams come true? Again, I go back to the anecdote I started this essay with: Lee Strasberg’s conception of what was dramatic, and why Chekhov was the primary example of that for him. What is dramatic about a man losing his money and killing himself? Isn’t that what we expect? But how about a man becoming rich and then killing himself?
Why I thought of this anecdote when I sat down to write this essay was not just that it seemed to have something to say about Russian artists, but also that the Stalker’s predecessor, the one who trained him and taught him to be a Stalker, was known as the Porcupine. The Porcupine came back from the Zone one time and found himself fabulously rich. The next week he hung himself. The specter of this tragedy hangs over our current-day Stalker because there is something terrible about dreams, and wishes. There is something terrible and still-unknown about the prospect of having your dreams come true. One of the things he tries to make clear about the Room, repeatedly, is that your wish must be something from your deepest heart – not a selfish or worldly short-term wish.
This is a true Tarkovskyian warning. Man has been made corrupt by money. Tarkovsky made no bones about his feelings about the West, and while he enjoyed time in Italy and England, etc., he felt that the West had abandoned spirituality in pursuit of worldly goods, and the toll of this could not even be measured. By abandoning God, Man has abandoned himself. Tarkovsky worried about this (meaning, worked on it) in film after film. Man must look to God, to deeper and higher truths, for what he wants out of life. The Stalker warns the Writer and the Professor about this, but it’s one of the trials of the human condition. How many of us really can “let go” of the world like that? Tarkovsky insists that it is the only way.
An eerie frightening film, Stalker makes use of spectacular natural locations: empty dark tunnels, mossy overgrown buildings, a quiet reflective river – but there is also one fantastical sequence when they find themselves in a giant inner room in the Zone, with mounds of cylindrical sand on the floor, and two flying cawing birds, the only sign of life so far (except for an ominous black dog who stalks the periphery of the three men’s journey). This eerie interior space is not the Room, but the threshold to the Room, and everything starts to break down there. The men, so close to the truth (the yearning of all mankind when looking up at the stars and wondering what the hell is up there?), begin to resist, begin to fight against what is to come.
The last scene of the film (which I wouldn’t dream of revealing) packs such an enormous punch (visually, thematically: it is different from all that came before) that it acts as a catalyst in the viewer. It tells us something we have not yet learned. It suggests that things really ARE not what they seem, that they are far more mysterious than anyone had ever dreamed.
Not even the Stalker knows the real truth.
To quote Tarkovsky’s favorite play:
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
Stalker is a stunning accomplishment.