Tarkovsky’s ‘Stalker’: Deep as a Mirror
Seemingly more often than any other of his seven feature films, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) is chosen as a filmic accompaniment to artistic exhibitions. So often has this been the case at my local cinema-gallery that when experimental filmmaker Hiraki Sawa requested to screen the film during the run of his exhibition of Lenticular, he was asked to choose another of Tarkovsky’s films instead.
The second of two science fiction films which bookend his loosely autiobiographical Mirror (1975), Tarkovsky’s Stalker is often discussed in terms of how ‘deep’ it is, how rich with existential meaning. But the director is notorious for insisting that his films hold no coded messages, that his art is a visual poetry which strives to convey emotion rather than meaning:
If it is to last, art has to draw deep on its own essence; only in this way will it fulfil that unique potential for affecting people which is surely its determining virtue and which has nothing to do with propaganda, journalism, philosophy or any other branch of knowledge or social organization. (Sculpting in Time, 184)
Somewhat problematically however, Stalker, like Solaris (1972) before it, is based on a seminal science fiction novel. Where Solaris retained its title and is thus easily identifiable as an adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 novel, Stalker is a pared down adaptation of Boris and Arkady Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic (1971). Strangely enough for a sci-fi film, Stalker contains virtually no visual elements which are indicative of a parallel world, future time, or alien presence; the only real suggestion that there may be a dystopian society within the film is the security which surrounds the Zone.
Traditionally, sci-fi novels, especially Russian ones, were critiques of society; totalitarian governments, dystopias, lack of free will, and critiques of capitalism could all be wrapped up in fantastical elements to bypass censors. So why, one might ask, if his aim was to divorce art from ‘knowledge of social organization’, did Tarkovsky choose the science fiction genre for two of his films?
The answer, it would seem, lies in the personal journeys made by the protagonists of the source texts. As Tarkovsky explained when Naum Abramov posed this question to him as part of an interview about Solaris in 1970:
I’m interested in a hero that goes on to the end despite everything. Because only such a person can claim victory. The dramatic form of my film is a token of my desire to express the struggle and the greatness of the human spirit. I think you can easily connect this concept with my earlier films. Both Ivan and Andrei do everything against their own safety. The first physically, the second in a spiritual sense. Both of them in a search for an ideal, moral way of living. (Interviews, 33)
Indeed, the director’s focus in Solaris is not on the technological aspects of the setting, but on the isolation and nostalgia felt by Andrei in his separation from his home. The institutions of science and religion are compared, merged even in the sentient entity that occupies the planet’s surface.
Similarly, there is a myth in Roadside Picnic, of a ‘golden sphere’ deep in the Zone which grants wishes to those who can reach it. Only certain wishes, however, are granted – subconscious desires, rather than requests, and the results are rarely those which were sought . This is what Tarkovsky translates into the Room. He focuses on this almost religious component of the Stalker’s story, sidelining the mercenary aspect of the protagonist’s – Red’s – nature in favour an exploration of faith.
The trio’s journey is both a pilgrimage of faith and a search for knowledge; in the novel, the object of Red’s quest was to reach the Golden Sphere, a large golden orb (a sun icon, an apple of Eden) which grants the innermost desire of those who stand before it. Tarkovsky cut this overt symbol along with the majority of the other sci-fi elements of the source text, paring down the fantastical in order to leave a ‘minimum of external effects’:
The ‘ascetic’ plot of Stalker was a central part of a conscious strategy to focus attention almost wholly on the image itself and avoid ‘entertaining or surprising the spectator’. (Elements of Cinema, 152)
By stripping down the original story in this fashion, Tarkovsky lays emphasis on time, space, and emotion rather than the alien aspects of the Stalker’s world. The quest for the ‘apple of knowledge’ becomes a quest of self discovery and the Other shifts from a physical presence, overtly extraterrestrial, to an unseen presence, an atmosphere rather than a scattering of artefacts.
As with Solaris, Tarkovsky translates the extraterrestrial Other into the Divine Other, a simple enough transformation as both are considered beyond human comprehension. Whereas the novel identifies the Zone as overtly alien, littered with the evidence of visitation, the film shows only terrestrial nature and human relics; the debris discarded by the visitors in the Strugatsky’s novel becomes the leavings of humanity. Where the characters of the novel conjecture over the use of a number of alien devices discovered in the Zone, those of the film find only human objects reclaimed by nature, the Divine Other.
The idea of nature as a representation of the Divine is one central to English Romanticism, and its presence in Stalker is further identifiable in the linking of the Edenic Zone with miracles; nature becomes both a physical manifestation of the Divine will and a mirror of the human soul, a conduit between man and God. The internal bleeds into the external as artistic spirit reaches out to the Divine. Indeed, where Stalker initially chooses Professor to lead their expedition, Writer is given lead position when the Zone spares him after wandering from the path. As an artist, he is arguably the most spiritual of the three; Stalker is a devout apostle, his faith being the strongest, but it is Writer who shares in the creative powers of the Divine.
This Romantic sensibility is further echoed in the party’s departure from the town where the film begins; Wordsworth and his contemporaries, attributing the countryside and Nature to the Divine and creativity, advocated a departure from the oppressiveness of city life during the Enlightenment. As Stalker tells his wife, ‘everywhere is a prison for me’, but the Zone is virtually free of human influence, aside from that which the Stalkers, its faithful servants, invite in. There, Stalker feels alive and free, and at his most spiritual; the evidence of human life within its bounds – rusted tanks, collapsing telephone pylons, a decaying house – is all being slowly absorbed by the terrain.
The house around which the three pilgrims circle is the location of the mysterious Room, and thus takes on the role of the Romantic ruin, the home becoming a shrine. The locus of the Stalker’s faith is thus rooted in nature, home, and the past the divine becoming humanised, anchored to the earth and the Stalker. It can only be approached by navigating the perils of the feral Zone, a pilgrimage into a memorial garden. Indeed, Stalker’s remark upon entering the Zone, ‘home at last’, and his consternation upon returning to his family home, embody the term ‘nostalgia’, ‘the pain of the return home’ so central to Tarkovsky’s films.
The Zone can be seen as an Eden, and is thus representative of the original home of humanity. If, then, as Tarkovsky claims:
The Zone doesn’t symbolise anything, any more than anything else does in my films: the zone is a zone, it’s life, and as he makes his way across it a man may break down or he may come through. (Sculpting in Time, 200)
Then Stalker’s journey through it is representative of his struggle to maintain faith in the face of life, the building of human relationships and the discovery of the self. The reality of the Zone is questionable, all the more so for Tarkovsky’s transitions between monochrome and colour. The initial switch takes place during the trolley journey into the Zone, cutting from the close ups of the pilgrims on their trolley ride of indeterminate duration to the resplendent greenery of the Zone. But what is the significance of this change? Did Tarkovsky withhold colour for the same reasons that he did with Andrei Rublev (1971)? To increase the impact of that sudden burst of colour?
In their 1946 film A Matter of Life and Death, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger used colour to differentiate between the two realities of the narrative, and it is possible to apply a similar logic to Stalker; the urban areas, the Stalker’s home and the military perimeter are shot in a rich sepia monochrome (achieved by filming in colour, but printing in monochrome), and sequences in the Zone or which involve its Otherness are in colour. Perhaps, then, it might be posited that the crossing of the border into the Zone signifies a transition from external reality to an internal, subjective one.
Indeed, this argument can be supported by the scene in which the three men rest next to the river, when Stalker slips into a monochromatic sleep, shifting from the coloured external world to a monochromatic dream one. His dream, however, appears to take place within the Zone, without colour. The assignation of a colour scheme with a specific geography or reality thus becomes problematic, unaided by the director’s insistence that the Zone is simple an allegorical platform for man’s journey through life. But, if the film’s element of Romanticism is considered, the vibrancy of the Zone, like that of the icons revealed in the final minutes of Rublev, can be seen as an indication of the Zone’s Divinity as it is perceived by Stalker.
Rublev’s icons were the only instances of colour in the film, serving to create a sharp contrast between the way he saw his world and the bleak way in which Tarkovsky represented it to his audience, and the Zone can be seen in a similar manner. The spirituality of the film is all rooted in the Zone, of which the Stalker is a disciple and extension. This theory might explain why the Stalker’s dream is in monochrome – because in sleep he is detached from the Zone – and the end sequence with his daughter Monkey is in colour.
Born with abnormalities caused by her father’s trips into the Zone, Monkey appears to have telekinetic powers; the colour of this sequence then is due to her ties to the Zone, an argument supported by Tarkovsky’s assertion that:
From a symbolic point of view, [the little girl’s powers] represent new perspectives, new spiritual powers that are as yet unknown to us, as well as new physical forces. Furthermore, they could represent something else. People have always looked forward to the end of time as we know it, probably because their lives didn’t satisfy them. Despite this, life goes on. It’s true that today we have a nuclear bomb and this contributes to the apocalyptic dimension. (Interviews, 59)
The important point to be taken from the director’s views on this final scene is that the girl’s powers are both ‘spiritual’ and ‘physical’, a blending of science and spiritualism within a single, arguably natural organism. Again, the miraculous, the fantastical, is linked with the natural, a theme which Tarkovsky’s penchant for depicting the natural elements only serves to strengthen.
Earth, wind and fire are all given ample screentime in Stalker, but it is water which seems to have the greatest presence. It acts as a dampener, a neutralising force within the film; Stalker drops Writer’s gun into the water where it becomes just another artefact of humanity, harmlessly catalogued and deprived of its function, like the other objects seen in the river sequence: a slow tracking shot reveals coins, a painted icon, a gun, to name but a few. Similarly, Professor throws the components of his bomb into the water on the threshold of the Room, rendering it harmless, just as the bullets fired at him as he wades toward the trolley at the beginning of their endeavour drop harmlessly into the water.
Water, too, permeates the climactic scene of the trio’s trip in the Zone; Writer and Stalker’s quarrel sees them splashing around in the pool outside the Room, the same pool into which Professor throws his dismantled bomb. The faith that Writer and Professor held for the Room was derived largely from Stalker’s own, and when confronted with the truth about Porcupine’s suicide and the nature of the wishes granted by the Room, Stalker reaches a breaking point. His charges, seeing their guide’s faith waver, decide they would rather not complete their expedition, rather not discover their own innermost desires, fearing what it may reveal about their true natures, and as the three men sit dejectedly before the Room, the goal that they sought, it begins to rain. Again, water acts as a neutralising force, in this instance dampening the men’s tempers and washing away the ruins of their original intentions.
Bodies of water within the film might also be seen to represent the mind; if we consider the Zone to be a non-literal, psychical journey, the artefact laden river can be read, literally, as a stream of consciousness. This shot, in monochrome – and so Stalker’s subjective/subconscious viewpoint – tracks up the river bed, showing the numerous objects abandoned there. If the river is considered as symbolic of the subconscious, the objects on its bed become elements of culture and human life, embodiments of values and information gained from a specific cultural background.
Alternatively, the stream might be compared to the river Lethe of the Greek underworld, the waters of which had the power of forgetfulness. The items in the river are discarded, forgotten, and perhaps by dropping the gun and the bomb into the water, Stalker and Professor are not just relinquishing them but forgetting the intentions attached to them, the intentions of violence towards the Zone. The image of the stone being dropped into a well is linked to Writer’s speech in the cathedral like sand-room, the rock disturbing the still water perhaps representing the way in which his journey into the Zone has shaken his beliefs, the very core of his being.
The dropping of the stone, like Stalker’s upending of Writer’s liquor, and the various incidences of objects being dropped into water, are also suggestive of a sort of tributary system. It is as though these items the visitors give up are offerings to placate the intelligence of the Zone and buy them safe passage; it is after Stalker pours out Writer’s drink that the latter apparently narrowly avoids danger due to a mysterious warning. Likewise, Stalker’s dropping of the gun into the waters of the tunnel seems to be connected to Writer’s survival in the sand-room, or the ‘meat-grinder’.
This shedding of possessions is reminiscent of what Joseph Campbell terms ‘the passage through the gates of metamorphosis’ (The Hero With a Thousand Faces, 87), using the Sumerian myth of the Goddess Inanna’s passage into the underworld as an example: she must pass through seven gates to reach her destination – an audience with her sister, Queen of the underworld – and remove an article of clothing at each gate, ultimately leaving her naked and defenceless before her twin, the mirror aspect of herself. Similarly, it is once the three men have reached the threshold of the room, paying passage and navigating danger, that they must, in the film’s climax, face themselves: dare Writer and Professor enter the room and discover their true natures in the attainment of their innermost desire? It seems not.
The trio’s pilgrimage has not been in vain, however; although they do not enter the Room and discover the truth of its ability to grant wishes, indeed the truth about themselves, their very reluctance to enter shows that they maintain faith in the reality of the Zone’s miracles. As Robert Bird writes:
It seems that the reward for their travails has been the very acquisition of faith in the act of overcoming material resistance. (Elements of Cinema, 150)
The ending of the film does not offer much in the way of clues as to whether or not the trip to the Zone was a success, whether the Room and its powers are real or whether the tale is all just a myth maintained by Stalker’s personal beliefs. It appears that the men did not enter the room, and yet the journey has left them all changed: Writer realises that it is not the commercial aspect of his work that is important, not critical acclaim, but artistic merit, the soul and message behind his writing, a sentiment echoing the director’s own. Professor came to realise that he could not, did not have the right, to destroy the Room just because he fears and does not understand its power, and Stalker seems to come to the realisation that his ‘miracles’ do not really help people, that it is not the destination which affected his clients, but the journey.
Indeed, Tarkovsky himself argued that:
‘The existence in the Zone of a room where dreams come true serves solely as a pretext to revealing the personalities of the three protagonists’. (Interviews, 50)
His interest, certainly, appears to be in using external spaces to examine his characters, to reveal and confront their flaws in order to bring them closer together and illustrate his belief that:
In Stalker [he] made some sort of complete statement: namely that human love alone is – miraculously – proof against the blunt assertion that there is no hope for the world. (Sculpting in Time, 199)
This would seem to be the essence of the speech made by Stalker’s wife in the penultimate scene of the film as she tells us how she stuck by her love of Stalker against the advice of her mother, knowing the trouble it would cause her. But despite any misgivings or hardships, their marriage yielded Monkey who, although apparently a mutant of the Zone, is presented as a positive result, an embodiment of new spirituality and hope.
These readings, however, are just that: readings, inferences influenced by the opinions of an individual perspective. With Stalker, Tarkovsky sought to create a visual, temporal poetry which connected with his audience on an emotional level; entertainment and meaning were sidelined, if not dispensed with entirely, and likely it is the film’s obliqueness that invites so many who see it to consider it deep or profound. Such images as Writer’s crown of thorns naturally suggest that there is some Biblical metaphor at work, but despite adopting (and indeed adapting) a genre so often used as a cipher, Tarkovsky does not appear to have attached any meaningful message to Stalker beyond that of the importance of faith and love.
The film is, it would seem, exactly what you make of it.
Andrei Tarkovsky: Interviews, ed. by John Gianvito (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2006).
Bird, Robert, Andrei Tarkovsky: Elements of Cinema (London: Reaktion Books Ltd., 2010).
Campbell, Joseph, The Hero With a Thousand Faces (California: New World Library, 2008).
Tarkovsky, Andrei, Sculpting in Time: The Great Russian Filmmaker Discusses His Art, trans. by Kitty Hunter-Blair (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1987).
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