A desperately poor and unhappy man, a Stalker, leads people through a mysterious and dangerous Zone which contains a room said to fulfil people's deepest desires. The Zone may have been created by a meteor strike in Russia twenty years earlier, or left behind by aliens, or created mistakenly by scientists. No one is safe inside, but surely the pay-off of total satisfaction is worth risking your neck? The Stalker knows the way through, knows best how to avoid the traps. In spite of his poverty and his hopeless life, the Stalker leads 'better' people to their salvation, or to their doom, and his life is given meaning.
Cordoned off from the rest of the world, most of whom don't believe in the Room or the Zone, the military have tried to investigate but none have returned, only their tanks remain as rusted hulks. And so, the Zone is deserted. Taking his latest paying customers, the Professor and the Writer, with him, the Stalker braves the guards and breaks in. After resting a while, the trio set off. Their destination is just two hundred metres away, but the journey will be a long one in every sense.
Stalker is not easily described. It's an elusive and complex film, and very much one to be experienced first hand since so much of it's essence is contained in the visual and auditory world Andrei Tarkovsky creates with such supreme skill. It's also not an easy film to watch since it's unrelenting in it's mission to create a sense of hopelessness, and offers neither humour nor action. However, it's certainly worth encouraging people to watch it, and there are many good reasons to do so.
Primarily, the cinematography is breathtaking and was evidently Tarkovsky's main concern. Starting in sepia, and with sets and locations that are depressing and haunting, we move through a dirty landscape of train yards and bombed-out buildings. The Zone itself is rendered in colour, and many of the lingering, static shots seem to serve no purpose in terms of plot.
Indeed, little of the film concerns itself with plot, but more with following the intrepid threesome through some truly ground-breaking scenery. Here is the Zone - a rock face that was once tiled and neat is now smeared with chemical stains and organic growth. A waterfall thunders past a seemingly pointless metal walkway. Telegraph poles form a tangled pile of rotten wood. All around us is decay and despair. Every doorway is ancient, cobwebbed and battered. It's a place that time forgot, yet here there is life. Water flows, a dog wanders aimlessly, fish nibble at rusted apparatus.
Why is the Zone so strange? And where the hell did Tarkovsky shoot this? This is no set. The puddles of chemical filled water are not fake, they are genuine and as scary as any monster one might think up. To call the location, a semi-functioning Hydro-electric plant in Talinn, decrepit would be a massive understatement. Stalker offers a vision of industrial hell. Incredibly, this vision was to become reality a few years after shooting completed, with the disaster at Chernobyl and the creation of a new and real Zone, albeit one without the Room to at least offer hope.
Despite it's focus on the world around the characters and their journey, the film also offers some fascinating debates centreing around the Scientist and the Professor. Why have they come here? What are their inner desires? What does the existence of the Zone mean, and what effect will it have on the future of mankind? The characters are defined purely by their rambling philosophical monologues, since so little else is known of them, not even their names.
This is not a film that gives up it’s secrets lightly. It has been said that towards the end the film becomes overtly literal in an attempt to explain itself, but this is only the case if you’ve already decided upon the film’s meaning. The only truths are that we have three characters approaching the zone from three different philosophical angles, and each is changed in some way by the Zone. It’s never clear exactly what has happened or why, and to presume otherwise would be foolish. It’s never even clear whether the dangers the Stalker speaks of are real, or whether the entire thing is a fantastic construction of his imagination or a lie to give his life purpose.
Stalker is best watched without over-analysing the meaning of every shot and scene. Tarkovsky is not as concerned with why things are happening, so much as how they will look and what he can create for the viewer. As they wend their way through half-submerged corridors and strange sand-filled rooms, the sense of dread that hangs over the characters is remarkable, and oppressive. This is no accident. What may seem a haphazard room full of junk was in fact artfully arranged, with every rock and drip of sludge in it's rightful place. A work of sheer technical brilliance, the spirit of Russia's great director is bound up in every frame. A genuine masterpiece.
After Stalker, many of the crew developed serious, and similar, health problems and died. The production itself was laborious and demanding, mainly due to Tarkovsky's attention to detail and obsessive shot construction. A huge blow was suffered when the entire first shoot was lost due to a mistake in film development, and much of the film had to be re-shot.
An excellent article about the making of Stalker can be found here, and it also offers some details about Tarkovsky himself and the way films were made in communist Russia at the time. The DVD version I watched was produced by “Artificial Eye” and also contains some interesting interviews with the Director of Photography and the Production Designer.
The film was based on the novel Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Sturgatsky. It was produced by the Communist-era board of film in the old USSR - Mosfilm.