FIVE STAR FILMS #87: Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky - 1979)

There are few ways to describe the extraordinary visuals legendary Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky manages to conjure in Stalker, and the feeling of suffocating suspense and anticipation that keeps you glued to the screen. It is high-art, literary filmmaking, sure to reward a thoughtful viewer. Boris and Arkady Strugatsky loosely based the screenplay on their novel, Roadside Picnic. At 163 minutes it can be an incredibly exhausting sit, but Tarkovsky has so many provocative ideas spinning at once - disaster sci-fi, philosophical drama and psychological journey of existential self-discovery - that it is overwhelmingly dense. There are an abundance of theories as to what this film is about. The gulags and Chernobyl are also thrown about. The backbone of the film is made up of lengthy ruminations about the nature of art and the essence of the human soul, with masterfully realised character portraits.

Here are five reasons why Stalker is a five-star film.

1. Tarkovsky

One of the great master auteurs in cinema history, this was Andrei Tarkovsky’s second-to-last film, and ultimately the film that killed him.

He passed away shortly after the completion of The Sacrifice, succumbing to cancer he contracted while making Stalker. Having seen most of his films (Nostalghia still alludes me) Stalker is my personal favourite but I also highly recommend:

Andrei Rublev, a near four-hour chronicle of humanity in the face of war, faith and love, an examination of artistic freedom and the possibility and necessity of making art for, and in the face of, a repressive authority and its hypocrisy, technology and empiricism. It is, simply, about everything. Astonishing.

The Mirror, Tarkovsky’s most autobiographical film, a haunting and extraordinarily dense work that functions as a stream of consciousness rhythmically combining elements from three mirrored time periods; pre-World War II, the wartime itself and the post-war 1960's.

Solaris, perhaps Tarkovsky’s most accessible film, the space location and aesthetic complements deep, dark questions about humanity and existentialism. It is a puzzling and frequently disturbing experience, with an unforgettable final shot.


2. The idea

Stalkeris set amidst the decrepit ruins of an unnamed town, situated on the outskirts of a quarantined and heavily guarded sector known as 'The Zone'. Inside there is believed to be a “Room” with the power to grant any entering believer their innermost desires and deepest, darkest wishes. The story depicts an expedition led by a 'Stalker' (Alexander Kainanovsky), a guide who has chosen to dedicate his life escorting curious travellers past the armed barricades, through the danger-riddled sector to this Room. Following the events of an undefined occurrence (but potentially an asteroid), which led to the depopulation of the area, it has been transformed into a government-cordoned region fraught with otherworldly forces and dangers, sensed but rarely seen.

Despite his distraught wife urging him not to go Stalker leaves into the middle of the night for a local bar, where he meets his clients, known only as The Writer (Anatoli Solonitsyn) and The Professor (Nikolai Grinko). The former is a self-loathing, bitter individual seeking inspiration, the latter is determined to make a groundbreaking discovery, while Stalker uses this mission as a way to escape a nagging wife, deformed child and a life seemingly without happiness or hope. Although he refuses to enter the Room himself, he has conviction that his job is a righteous one and that others can derive something worthwhile from the expedition.


3. The Zone

In a thrilling chase sequence that pre-empts the delineated, arbitrarily governed journey through the zone, Stalker drives a Range Rover in circles to evade detection. There is nothing straightforward about this mission; these men will have to suppress frustration – and take a circuitous route to their destination.

Attracting gunfire, they manage to follow a train in through a set of briefly opened gates and then ride a railway work car into the heart of the Zone. During this final journey the camera lingers for minutes on the faces of the three men, as they emerge from the darkness of the night into daylight and the image transforms from sepia into full colour. Stalker, looking frequently distressed throughout the course of their expedition, instructs his clients to follow his orders exactly to avoid and survive the dangers, though invisible, that surround them. He plots their course through the lush greenery by throwing a nut tied to string to ensure there are no gravitational anomalies. Frustrated bickering and disbelief begins to emerge amongst the other two men about whether these elaborate precautions are necessary and the reasoning behind taking an extended and seemingly more perilous journey to The Room.

As a viewer you are also constantly questioning whether or not what Stalker believes (he relays the account of his mentor and his previous experiences within the Zone) is genuinely acceptable. It is stipulated early that an army platoon had entered the Zone shortly after the event and never returned. The men come across a number of rusted tanks and skeletons, implying that previous insurgents had resulted in deaths. The land is actually lushly covered by thick green grass, and though scarred with wreckage and riddled with rain-drenched bogs, seems peaceful and deserted. But there is every possibility, based on what Stalker informs us and what Tarkovsky reveals with his camera that the calm and quiet expanse masks sinister unnatural elements within. It is this atmosphere of heightened tension that makes the film so engaging.


4. Philosophy

The laborious forward (and often backwards) motion is accompanied by several deep philosophical discussions where the characters share their reasons for wanting to visit The Room. Stalker has come to realise, after countless expeditions, that only the most flawed and troubled men are willing to risk their lives for their innermost desires. Have they lost all hope in being able to live happily and content with their lives? Faced with fear of the possibility of having the darkest of human desires come to fruition within the Room, he has never entered himself, nor had any desire too. In the latter half of the film, though, he begins to face his own crisis. The film reveals man to be a complex entanglement of memories, fantasises, impulses and fears, yearning for something out of reach. But what? No one is the same.

If you have seen it you may remember the monologue-driven final act of Bong Joon Ho’s Snowpiercer. These sequences reminded me of Stalker. It details an exploration of one man’s mission to change the way of the world, only to reflect on his life and question everything that motivated him to get there, and what he will say and do, on the doorstep.


5. Cinematography and Sound Design

Stalker is renowned for its cinematography and features hundreds of unforgettable images from its setting. The images here are haunting, and Tarkovsky using long unbroken takes and using subtle movements of the camera to encroach upon and track the characters. Utilising a high volume of close-ups he reveals the inner turmoils, and psychological crises plaguing them on this journey. The contrasting use of sepia during the sequences on the outskirts and vivid colour (the green is incredible) within the Zone serves as an effective parable.

The accompanying score by Eduard Artemyev also adds to the film’s abundant textures. But I found the absence of music to be just as memorable. Every minor sound affect, be it the footsteps of the characters as they ascend or descend stairs or splash in puddles, is magnified. Often the boundaries between music and sound are blurred, as natural sounds and music interact to the point of being indistinguishable.

Final note:

When I first watched this film, it must have been about six years ago now; I was struck by the feeling that I was likely watching one of the greatest films ever made. I have since watched the film only once again – and this theory was confirmed.

Andrew Buckle-follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22

Andy Buckle is a passionate Sydney-based film enthusiast and reviewer who has built a respected online voice at his personal blog, The Film Emporium. Andy will contribute reviews, features and be our resident film festival, and awards expert.