ReFramed No.10

Andrei Tarkovsky’s 'Stalker'

by Jordan Cronk and Calum Marsh

21 September 2011

Perhaps best known for his sci-fi magnum opus, Solaris, the ReFramed team celebrate another brilliant genre effort from the Soviet movie master.
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Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Cast: Alexander Kaidanovsky, Anatoli Solonitsyn, Nikolai Grinko

US theatrical: 1979

Calum Marsh: Andrei Tarkovsky is certainly no stranger to critical acclaim, and, unlike many of the other filmmakers whose largely misunderstood works we’ve deigned to celebrate in these pages, his oeuvre’s place within the annals of cinema continues pretty much unquestioned. As far as reputations are concerned, Tarkovsky towers above even the most widely respected luminaries of the industry, and vocal detractors, if he could be said to even have them anymore, are few and far between. And so there’s a sense in which Stalker, Tarkovsky’s slow-burn sci-fi masterpiece and what I consider to be his supreme artistic achievement, is something of an unusual selection for us.

But I think you’ll agree with me, Jordan, when I say that our ReFramed series isn’t just about notably divisive films—it’s also about films which for one reason or another ought to be considered and approached in a new way. And Stalker is just such a film. Though it’s widely respected as an arthouse classic, and though it routinely appears on critics’ best-of lists and film school syllabi (and likely will for generations to come), I get the sense that for many viewers, Stalker has lost the freshness and vitality which makes its greatness so enduring.
Tarkovsky is, of course, the master of arty minimalism, and long takes are Stalker‘s bread and butter. But it’s what he invests in those lengthy silences, the energy and dynamism which come to fill the empty spaces, that makes this such an unforgettable experience. I worry that while students and cinephiles will be trained to “appreciate” Stalker in the abstract, we as viewers will forget to love Stalker for what it is: one of the purest distillations of the power of the cinema ever produced.

Jordan Cronk: It’s true that Tarkovsky needs little help from us to bolster his rep at this point, but yes, with such an slim catalogue (seven films in total) it sometimes feels as if there’s little to turn over at this point that hasn’t been discussed ad nauseum throughout decades of essays and critical readings of the great Russian auteur. I guess what I’d eventually like to see is Stalker stake its claim as Tarkovsky’s greatest work. Though its very well respected, I still get the feeling that Stalker is thought of as the imposing centerpiece of a career that many are content admiring from a distance in lieu of engaging with the carefully drawn humanism that Tarkovsky imbues in his characters.

The characters in Stalker have real gravitas whether Tarkovsky’s aesthetic takes precedent over his storytelling or not. To that end, I don’t think Stalker would be the devastating experience it is without this drawn-out sense of longing which Tarkovsky meditates on in a style that turns the cold and cerebral in on themselves until these vessels we see traversing a Russian future-shock landscape become both symbols and unique personalities unto themselves. Tarkovsky asks more of the viewer than most any canonized filmmaker, and though Stalker can look challenging on the surface, the personal contours beneath reveal a director sympathetic to character and audience alike.

Marsh: Absolutely. We discussed this idea a little when we were on the subject of Kubrick some weeks ago, but it applies just as well to Tarkovsky and Stalker in particular: there’s a pervading myth that his (admittedly overwhelming) stylistic prowess somehow precludes the possibility of humanism in his work, as though the formal scope of his films necessarily made them “cold” or overly cerebral. And of course Tarkovsky’s films are cerebral, in so far as they encourage you to think about what you’re watching—but, as you’ve noted, this is still very much a character-driven film, regardless of its intellectual heft or formal bravado.

That’s something many people fail to understand about Godard’s later work, too; often you’ll read about the political or intellectual depth of a film such as, say, In Praise Of Love, but then the critic will either neglect or outright deny the film’s emotional depth, as though it couldn’t possibly be both intellectual and emotional simultaneously. But for me that’s central to the appeal of a movie like Stalker, which I don’t find cold at all—in fact I find it very moving and very, very sad. It’s strange that this false dichotomy of “cerebral/emotional” has persisted for so long. And it’s strange that Tarkovsky’s work is almost exclusively relegated to the cerebral side.

Cronk: He wrestled with some ambitious themes and the ‘70s were certainly the decade where his canvases grew so vast that to the untrained eye character can become not simply secondary but non-existent. However, it’s the accumulation of thoughts, ideas, and performance which lend Stalker its lasting effect. Of course, from a strictly formal standpoint, the film is one of the most impressive ever constructed. The fact that Tarkovsky offers other layers for those willing to engage with his process and motives strikes me as generous, despite the fact that a nearly three hour film alternating between long silences and overwhelming streams of dialogue can pose problems for the uninitiated.

To me though, this is where everything came to together for Tarkovsky in the grandest sense: the epic narrative gait of Andrei Rublev, the enigmatic emotional pull of Solaris, and the personal touch of Ivan’s Childhood and Mirror all refracted and refined within the film’s hypnotic forward momentum. In a sense, Tarkovsky would simply continue to till similar thematic soil for the remainder of his career. And by that rationale Stalker really does feel like a centerpiece, both an arrival and jumping off point for a twilight run in the ‘80s which saw Tarkovsky continue to thrive within a solidified aesthetic. Do you have any thoughts on Tarkovsky’s career arc as it were, Calum?

Marsh: Well, I think perhaps because Tarkovsky left us with so few films, and also because each of those films feels so fully realized and singular, I don’t have a particularly strong impression of a defining arc to his career—at least not in the same way as I do with other, more prolific filmmakers from the period, with whom it might be easier to isolate periods or movements within a whole. But, having said that, Stalker does stand out to me as something of a centerpiece, at least in so far as it does, as you’ve pointed out, both summarize his earlier tendencies while suggesting the beginnings of later ones. Solaris is probably the Tarkovsky film closest to Stalker in conception, but I think Stalker emerges as the more sophisticated work because it marries its conventional genre-picture roots to its serious artistic ambitions more effectively.

Tarkovsky rather famously said that Solaris would have been greatly improved had he excised its science-fiction elements entirely, but I can’t imagine the same thing being said for Stalker—so much of its emotional and psychological impact comes from its subversion of convention, and most of its most effective dramatic moments arise when the film toys with our expectations for the genre in which its ostensibly based. And as far its influence on his later work is concerned, you can see some of its thematic conceits crop up in both Nostalghia and his final film, The Sacrifice—the latter of which, of course, takes the threat of nuclear war suggested in Stalker as its principal subject, though it does so without genre trimmings.

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