I watched Andrei Tarkovsky‘s 1979 sci-fi Stalker for the very first time over the weekend. Set in an undated future, the film, in the simplest of terms, follows a guide (referred to as Stalker, played by Alexander Kaidanovsky) who leads The Writer (Anatoli Solonitsyn) and The Professor (Nikolai Grinko) into a forbidden area called The Zone, a cordoned off area protected by men with guns. At the heart of The Zone is The Room, where your innermost desires will come true.
Like most any Tarkovsky feature, it plays slowly, focusing on imagery we’re unlikely to (and possible never) fully comprehend, yet oddly important to our overall understanding nevertheless. After the three men evade the bullets and guards protecting The Zone the film moves from dark and oily toned sepia imagery to bright color as they settle down near a small stream and The Stalker says a prayer:
Let everything that’s been planned come true. Let them believe. And let them have a laugh at their passions. Because what they call passion actually is not some emotional energy, but just the friction between their souls and the outside world. And most important, let them believe in themselves. Let them be helpless like children, because weakness is a great thing, and strength is nothing. When a man is just born, he is weak and flexible. When he dies, he is hard and insensitive. When a tree is growing, it’s tender and pliant. But when it’s dry and hard, it dies. Hardness and strength are death’s companions. Pliancy and weakness are expressions of the freshness of being. Because what has hardened will never win.
We’re never told what The Zone actually is, Tarkovsky leaves us to our own devices to sort things out and even in his book “Sculpting with Time”, is of no immediate help writing, “People have often asked me what The Zone is, and what it symbolizes… The Zone doesn’t symbolize anything, any more than anything else does in my films: the zone is a zone, it’s life.”
The zone is a zone? In an attempt to understand what he’s getting at here, I saw “The Zone” in something of a similar way, though instead of describing it as “life” I’d describe it as a “passageway”. The question is: A passageway to what?
The Stalker is a man of faith. Faith in “what” is, again, a question mark of its own, but based on that above prayer I’d say a faith not only in God, but a faith The Zone and the path to The Room can lead people to some form of enlightenment and an understanding that what they think they desire is not as important as much as a belief in themselves.
Watch the pub scene to the right as The Writer and Professor discuss their motivations, the Professor wondering what the Writer could possibly hope to find in The Zone considering women are probably throwing themselves at him due to his popularity. This is what the Stalker is praying they will realize is unimportant.
As for my understanding of the film, I interpreted it as deeply religious. Beyond Tarkovksy’s known belief in God, the Stalker’s prayer, the constant focus on faith and devotion and such instances as The Writer putting on a crown of thorns he finds in the tunnels of The Zone, I found the themes were brought out in the characters themselves. Why a Professor and a Writer? Why are they defined by their professions and not their names?
At one point the Stalker mentions his predecessor, a man he calls Porcupine who took his brother into The Room.
Porcupine’s brother desired great wealth and he received it only to later hang himself. Subsequently, Porcupine also hangs himself, placing his brother’s death on his own shoulders after subconsciously wishing for his brother’s downfall. It is here we learn The Room doesn’t grant you a wish like a genie, but instead probes your mind for that one thing you want deep down inside. It reveals that hidden corner of your mind, be it good or bad, and brings it to the surface.
As for the Writer and Professor, initially skeptical of what The Zone may offer and if the Room even exists, they soon change their tone once they reach their destination.
The Writer refuses to enter, afraid of what dark desire may be pulled from his mind, while The Professor pulls out a bomb, planning on blowing The Room to pieces. My immediate interpretation is to view their actions as the cynical Writer afraid of being revealed for who he is and the doubting scientist who’s come to quite literally destroy God, though he says he’s doing it to prevent The Room being used by evil men.
This is to interpret The Zone as some sort of Holy pathway to judgment. A pathway to a just, loving and cruel God where you don’t necessarily get what you desire, but what you deserve. The fact the Writer never enters and the Professor never blows it up says something, but what? Did they learn anything? Have their beliefs changed? Or did they further reinforce their ignorance by never going into the Room, unwilling to change who they are and preferring to remain polluted by the “truth” of man?
On the other hand, where my headline relating it to Christopher Nolan‘s Inception comes into play, The Zone could represent a passageway of the mind. The video to the right was described on YouTube as a “dream sequence”, but if that’s the case is it possible to ever watch the film and decide what is a dream and what’s reality? I’d be more inclined to say the moments in color are more dream sequences than the dark, desaturated moments, which serve as more of a harsh and cruel reality.
However, when it comes to comparisons between the two films, I think it works better in reverse, almost looking at Inception as something of an homage to Stalker more than anything else with a few ideas culled plucked from here and there.
Like Stalker, Nolan’s characters were defined by their profession — The Forger, The Chemist (which The Professor is actually referred to as at one point), The Shade, etc. — and both films play heavily on our subconscious.
It’s arguable as to whether viewing the film through this prism diminishes or enhances the possible religious elements. Looking at it in comparison to Inception I’d say the old catchphrase from the 1930s pulp novels “The Shadow” would be most applicable: Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?
There is much, much more left to explore and decipher such as the final scene of The Stalker’s daughter manipulating glasses across a table with her mind (Is the empty glass that falls, but remains unbroken a metaphor for her father?) and the constant references to pollution from the dark and spoiled water you see throughout to the shot above of The Stalker, his daughter and wife with nuclear reactors rising from the ground in the distance… imagery that has given the film resonance for years beyond its initial release.
Like all of Tarkovsky’s work, Stalker is intellectually and visually stunning, but what stood out just as much was Eduard Artemev‘s score, which is haunting from the very first frame and something I’m surprised Nicolas Winding Refn hasn’t yet recycled for one of his films as it would perfectly apply.
Finally, while I’ve compared the movie to Inception, considering the religious themes and the bomb, I couldn’t help but see the following image of the Professor’s bomb and not think of Prometheus. So often people are against exploring older films, but their ability to open up new paths to understanding and appreciating the film’s of today it amazes me so many self-described film fans would ignore them altogether.