Before there was Pedro Costa, Bela Tarr, Jia Zhanke, Cristi Puiu, or Corneiiu Proumboiu, there was Andrei Tarkovsky. Some scholars have attempted to corral this diversity of styles under the banner of “slow cinema”, which serves a limited purpose in comparative analysis among films that stretch along a wide geographical scope and lengthy historical terrain. In many ways, however, each director’s style results from his distinct cultural moment. Furthermore, each film takes on different resonances with the changing present.
Tarkovksy’s cinema holds a unique position that dialogues with the current chaos that accompanies the rise of authoritarian regimes in the West and the brink of nuclear devastation as the saber rattling continues between the United State and North Korea. Tarkovsky was well positioned to speak to the present zeitgeist by making cinema within the dying authoritarian regime of the Soviet Union. Having to nimbly evade the censor’s scissors by omitting any direct reference to his homeland, Tarkovsky resulted in creating an allegorical cinema that can speak to the fear and desires of all those who live under the miasma of despotism.
Early on in the film, Stalker (Aleksandr Kaydanovsky) states matter of factly: “I’m imprisoned everywhere” — a statement that encapsulates all the characters’ overall attitude as well as many present-day viewers. The Zone, the mystical place that might or might not allow one’s deepest desire to come true, serves as both promise land and forbidden object. In many respects, Stalker is a science fiction update of the Western where Writer (Anatoliy Solonisyn) and Professor (Nikolay Grinko) are ushered from civilization and all their troubles into the wilderness of the Zone where the land itself proves sentient. As film scholar Geoff Dyer notes during one of the Blu-Ray’s extras, this sentience gets translated visually throughout the film, leading to such moments as when we think we are inhabiting a point-of-view shot of the professor who is looking through the open window of a rusting jeep. But as the shot gradually tracks forward, we suddenly see all three characters appear before the jeep, dislocating us visually. What we thought of as a character’s unique perspective has now transformed into the inquisitive eye of the Zone itself, surveilling the three men who invade its territory. Viewers are constantly kept at a disequilibrium as shots become unmoored and the space being traversed remains undefined with an absence of any establishing shots.
On a more straight forward level, Stalker serves as an allegory of the desire to escape the physical and mental gulags of the Soviet Union. The film’s first 40-minutes are haunted by a Cold War, Soviet-type minimalist architecture of concrete bunkers and dilapidated factories where military jeeps and tanks roam the landscape on the hunt for wayward inhabitants. The sequence’s sepia tone, chiaroscuro lighting further expresses an oppressive setting where human figures bleed into the landscape, a cement hell that takes into little or no account of its occupants other than to imprison them in a maze of confusion and fear. Not surprisingly, the film suddenly switches to color once they enter the Zone, suggesting both its hope and sheer strangeness to ordinary life.
But the film makes efforts to broaden its storytelling to become a universal tale. At one moment, Writer compares Stalker to Leatherstocking, the famous protagonist of James Fenimore Cooper’s Western series from the 19th century. By linking the film’s Western theme with that belonging to an older tale from the United States, Writer suggests how a desire for freedom into the wilderness transcends any particular historical moment. Therefore, the film resonates not only with the past but also the present and future.
In regards to the future, both Mark Le Fanu in his essay that accompanies the Criterion Blu-Ray and Geoff Dyer in his interview suggest that Stalker’s post-apocalyptic landscape anticipates the Chernobyl disaster. The Zone’s barbed wire perimeter and bleak abandoned landscape serve as a disturbing dress rehearsal for reality. The psychic landscape that Tarkovsky’s film translates through its setting mirrors the mentality of those actually in charge of the country where human life is cheap and the land is dissected with concrete and barbed wire as disaster prevails.
Yet Stalker also taps into the megalomania and delusions that punctuate all dictatorial regimes. Writing this review while nuclear Armageddon hovers disturbingly near as tensions between the United States and North Korea escalate, the strangeness of the world that Stalker inhabits takes on a brighter hue; it is both simultaneously disarmingly familiar and utterly foreign; it is a world that we both know and remains uncharted. Things morph before our very eyes.
One of the most riveting sequences of the film — among many — is that of “the Grinder”, a long snakelike tunnel that all three characters must traverse. Partial light illuminates a seemingly perpetually distant exit. Stalactites hang menacingly over the characters’ heads. Sounds of their feet stepping on broken glass and splashing through puddles echo along the tunnel’s narrow walls while the camera tracks forward and backward at different moments, hinting at a slow visual strangulation of the characters as their figures recede into the tunnel’s curves.
Yet nothing happens. They eventually reach “the Grinder’s” exit, an oil covered door that leads to an antechamber filled with chest-high water they must wade through. Stalker cryptically comments after their ordeal, “You must be a fine person. The pipe is the most terrible part of the Zone. They call it the meat grinder. How many people has it ground up?”
Yet it is hard to determine if the threat actually lurks in the tunnel they traversed or in the Stalker’s mind. The film never makes it clear if what the Stalker states is actually true or just some self-rationalization to justify his purpose. Writer begins to actively question the validity of the Stalker’s account of the Room being the place where one’s ultimate desire manifests itself. Other than the Stalker’s claim, there is no other proof of this being true. And, as Writer points out, Stalker has a distinct interest in perpetuating such rumors since it leads suckers like Writer and Professor to pay for Stalker’s services to navigate the Zone.
Yet the film also refuses to simply suggest that the Stalker is nothing more than a charlatan. If he is perpetuating a sham, it is one that he most wholeheartedly believes. By the film’s end, he complains to his wife how people like Writer and Professor who represent the elites of the country “don’t believe in anything”. Such statements chime with the film’s more religious intonations where Stalker serves as a Christ-like figure engaging in a journey into the unknown where the Zone transcends everyday reality into a mystical space accentuated by its haloed light and constantly morphing landscape. He leads a temporary exodus away from the mundane into the inner recesses of the imagination and fantasy.
Dangers become simultaneously real and imagined. Motives remain shady and utterly genuine. The film occupies a liminal zone where truth and fiction blur, leaving the viewer in complete vertigo as the world fails to take any absolute form. This is precisely the present geopolitical moment where war looms yet remains unimaginable; where the delusions of Donald Trump and Kim Jon-un molest their way into reality; where, just a few months ago, the possibility of a Trump presidency for most Americans — even for those who voted for him — seemed a fevered dream. Until it became an actuality.
Fantasy becomes both the promise and curse of Stalker as it does for the present moment. It both allows for an escape from the harsh realities of daily life as well as serves as the very mechanism that can plunge us into the delusional, where reality itself takes on the shapes of nightmares. At its most hopeful, the film has Stalker philosophize about the unselfishness of art — particularly music. He reflects, “It is connected least of all with reality. Or, if connected, then it’s without ideas. It’s merely empty sounds without associations. Nevertheless, music miraculously penetrates your very soul. What chord in us responds to its harmonies, transforming it into a source of delight uniting us and shattering us?”
As he speaks, the camera slowly tracks closely over the landscape and out onto a placid lake. The water’s calm blackness suggests a moment of possibility, an empty image where things have not solidified and delight might temporarily reign. It is a Romantic vision where art provides the impetus for transformation and hope, where petty desires cannot constrain art’s impulses into the known and quantifiable. Clearly, this is how Stalker operates, too: like a symphony that sketches the horrors of the present but also opens up space to potentially challenge it as well.
Additionally, one can read the film’s glacial speed as a form of resistance, a refusal to accede to the rhythms and demands of the Soviet functionalism of where it originated as well as to the rapid pace of the global capitalist cinematic culture of where it would be predominantly exhibited. Stalker forces the viewer to pause and reflect, to get entangled into a different rhythm than he/she is accustomed to in order to open up the world to us anew.
Fredric Jameson once reflected that in a society of fragmentation where it becomes increasingly difficult to map the contours of our lives, alternative aesthetic forms might assist in “the reinvention of possibilities of cognition and perception that allow social phenomena once again to become transparent …” (Aesthetics and Politics 212). Stalker might in part serve this very purpose as its slow deliberative rhythm dramatically contrasts against the montage-based quick cutting of most present day cinema.
Although Jameson spoke specifically in terms of art making class relations transparent, Stalker does this in a more nebulous sense: it suggests the ensuing confusion and promise that results when navigating the terrain of an oppressive present woven by those of an elite who remain off screen. It warns of a world where escape can easily lead into new forms of imprisonment, but it also identifies how imaginative moments that pause from the rhythms of daily life can provide possibilities that not only allow us to survive the present horrors but also transcend them.