We watched Stalker again tonight (a small step away from The West Wing!), inspired by reading this piece in The Guardian by Geoff Dyer. It’s a visually-stunning but puzzling film that resonates with associations that Tarkovsky may not have intended (we now think of Chernobyl and other forms of ecological disaster).

In some kind of  totalitarian society, the shaven-headed guide known as Stalker (Nikolai Grinko) leads the Writer (Aleksandr Kaidanovsky) and the Scientist (Anatoli Solonitsyn) to a forbidden wasteland area known as the Zone, where in the Room all one’s wishes can be granted. Though the Writer asks, “How do I know I want what I want?” The film switches between sepia for the opening and closing scenes in a polluted, crumbling and heavily-policed town and colour for those in the Zone.

It’s a challenging film, slow-moving like all of Tarkovsky’s work. But there are some fine performances, haunting cinematography and astonishing images:

This is Dennis Schwarz on the film:

Like all Tarkovsky films it is grounded in finding one’s roots and knowing that one is possessed of an inner freedom-a supposed worldly weakness born out of a moral conviction that provides one’s faith to overcome the seemingly stronger forces in the world. The plot line weaves its way through a necessary spiritual crisis so that healing can begin. For the filmmaker, a spiritual crisis is an attempt to find redemption and acquire a stronger or new faith through the means of discovering the kind of love located in a zone no one can ever take away from mankind…The Writer and the Scientists are foils to the Stalker, as they lack the faith (which is viewed as something so difficult to maintain that it leaves even some of mankind’s best minds in a spiritual dilemma and at a crossroad where they lose the way. The Scientist will view the Room as a danger to mankind: fearing it can be exploited at any time by tyrants and it’s up to him to rid the world of this false ideal now. The Scientist doesn’t have the art to grasp the metaphysical and private nature of the Room…The Writer is better prepared to grasp it, but when push comes to shove he can’t trust his soul to the Room’s test of his beliefs.

Nick Schager concludes his review in Slant Magazine:

“The world is ruled by cast-iron laws, and it’s insufferably boring,” says the Writer during his introductory scene, but Stalker, exuding a sense of the unknown and intangible, refutes this assertion at nearly every turn. What does the awe-inspiring abundance of import-laden details-including Writer donning a crown of thorns, an unrecognizable gold object seen shimmering underwater, a wandering dog, birds flying across a sand dune-covered room, and the supernatural final image-all ultimately mean? As tempting as it is to try to definitively interpret the film’s myriad symbols, such an analysis ultimately seems both pointless (since their intriguing appeal is directly proportional to their inscrutability) and, given the director’s refusal to posit any easily comprehendible explanations, somewhat futile. In aggregate, however, what these various artifacts, objects, and narrative events do ultimately capture is something akin to the essence of what man is made of: a tangled knot of memories, fears, fantasies, nightmares, paradoxical impulses, and a yearning for something that’s simultaneously beyond our reach and yet intrinsic to every one of us. Is that thing hope? Faith? Or, as implied by the masterful climactic monologue from Stalker’s wife, is it simply devotion? Perhaps Tarkovsky summed it up best when he wrote about Stalker, “In the end, everything can be reduced to the one simple element which is all a person can count upon in his existence: the capacity to love.”

Stalker room

Above: a scene from Stalker. Below: photo taken in Pripyat, Ukraine, an abandoned town adjacent to Chernobyl. Tarkovsky’s film came out in 1979; the Chernobyl disaster took place in 1986. Many see Tarkovsky’s film as prophetic. Not only is the area where much of the action in Stalker takes place referred to as “the zone” (just like the zone surrounding Chernobyl), but both zones are littered with the decaying remnants of abandoned towns.

Compilation of clips from Stalker

Stalker with the dog

The pool tracking shot

The final scene

There has to be more: poem by Arseny Tarkovsky

In the film, the Stalker recites a poem by Tarkovsky’s father, Arseny Tarkovsky:

Now summer is gone.
And might never have been.
In the sunshine it’s warm.
But there has to be more.

It all came to pass,
All fell into my hands
Like a five-petalled leaf,
But there has to be more.

Nothing evil was lost,
Nothing good was in vain,
All ablaze with clear light
But there has to be more.

Life gathered me up
Safe under its wing,
My luck always held,
But there has to be more.

Not a leaf was burnt up
Not a twig ever snapped …
Clean as glass is the day,
But there has to be more.


Coincidentally, photos of St Peter’s Seminary at Cardross, near Glasgow. Designed by the architects Isi Metzstein and Andrew MacMillan of Gillespie, Kidd and Coia. A listed building influenced by Le Corbusier, it’s been disused since the 1980s and allowed to fall into a state of ruin.

See also:

  • Risky Buildings
  • The spaceship: Brian Dillon visits the vast complex of futuristic rot that was once the seminary of St Peter’s, and finds hope amid the decay (Guardian)

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