Monday, 22 March 2010

Stalker (1979)


The films of Russian auteur Andrei Tarkovsky are challenging and often inscrutable. The images presented in his films are enigmatic and the layers of meaning unfathomable but at the same time stimulating. The narratives of his films regularly play out in a linear fashion, but details of plot are often obscured by his meditative and dignified use of the camera. The editing strategy employed in his cinema often creates a sense of temporal confusion, a blurred netherworld in which memory and reality do battle in a war of representation. A world in which cinematic space is manipulated to become strange and otherworldly. His films walk a thin tight rope between commercial generic material (two of his most famous works have been positioned as science fiction) and an avant-garde style that is peculiarly his own. His films often betray a yearning for escape. The harsh realities of Soviet communism and the national trauma of World War Two dispersing into the realm of the visionary, into a sphere of dreams and half constructed recollections. Tarkovsky’s films are subjective ruminations and they reflect the confusion and fallibility of the human mind.

With Stalker Tarkovsky and his collaborators created a film that is only nominally science-fiction. Like the best of Tarkovsky’s cinema Stalker is impossible to categorise. Like his earlier ’science-fiction’ film Solaris (1972) he self consciously eliminates the spectacle and special effects one associates with the genre, preferring instead to celebrate the spectacle of natural landscapes and too allow dialogue exchanges to propel the action of the narrative forward. This is a film with an unusual amount of philosophical discourse. This is not uncommon for the science-fiction genre, but because Stalker develops its arguments and themes with the spoken word, the film can appear extremely slow and uneventful. The value in the film lies in Tarkovsky’s strategy to extend the philosophical musings of the principal characters to the form and style of the film. The contemplative and spiritual tone is reflected in certain shot choices (static pools of water, the lush vegetation of a windswept forest, the inverted majesty of an industrial wasteland). The immobile camera holds single shots for a duration that goes long beyond its narrative justification and into the realm of the poetic. It makes us aware of the infinitesimal status of mankind, of the smallness of human endeavour and of the frightening impenetrability of the mysteries of the universe.

The enigmas of the film revolve around a flourishing quadrant of land which the authorities have christened The Zone. The Zone is an Eden offering a gift which causes great concern for the shadowy military presence that guard it from those intending illegal entry. Its sudden appearance in the middle of a harsh industrial landscape is thought to be due to aliens, because the gift it offers is to grant any individual who traverses its challenges any wish. It is clear that The Zone functions both metaphorically and the film as a whole allegorically. Although it initially promises a liberating and democratic space, it turns out to be no such thing. Those who enter The Zone must rely on and take orders from Stalkers (psychic visionaries) who somehow know all the routes and pathways to the end room. So despite the promise at the end of the journey, this is still a realm controlled by authoritarian figures. By contrast the real world is presented as a living nightmare. A sepia tinted industrial eyesore choking beneath the pollution of control and conformity. The shift from sepia to colour when the narrative moves into The Zone offers promise of a better world, but Stalker frustrates these dreams. The simple shift in colour is invested with powerful symbolism, indicating Tarkovsky’s non-conformism by offering a visual critique of a dehumanising socialist state. But as noted earlier The Zone raises more questions than it answers - most of them obscure and philosophical. It ultimately fails to provide the democratic and progressive intellectual space that the journeymen so desperately crave. The otherworldly and divine tone reaches an apex with a final scene that is both beautiful and highly disturbing.

© Shaun Anderson 2010


  1. My first blog post ever was a review for Stalker. Like you say, watching a Tarkovsky film can be very challenging, often times I have to leave the movie and come back to it the next day. But its ultimately a rewarding experience. Stalker is defenetly a heavy film, very philosophical and symbolic.

    I love how he focuses on images and landscapes, giving nature importance over everything else, searching for beauty where it is at its best, in the wild. Herzog does this as well, both are unashamed to simply let the scene linger on...letting you absorb the atmosphere and beauty.

    I picked up a lot of religious references and meanings which you can check out on my review for it if you are interested.

    Great review!

  2. Thats a great honour for the film to be an inaugral blog post - shows that you think very highly of it indeed. I first encountered this and other Tarkovsky films during my degree. I found most of his films hard work - especially Mirror, but there is a truth and poetry in his films that leads to repeat viewing. Thanks for the comment, I shall definately check out your review.

  3. // The harsh realities of Soviet communism and the national trauma of World War Two dispersing into the realm of the visionary, into a sphere of dreams and half constructed recollections. //

    hmm... As well as the harsh nighmare of capitalism for Stanley Kubrick? Say, "A Clockwork Orange"? ;)


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