Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. 1979
Starring Aleksandr Kajdanovsky, Anatoli Solonitsyn, Nikolay Grinko and Alisa Freindlikh. 163 mins. Russian with subtitles. Released on Blu-ray and DVD by Curzon Artificial Eye.
There is a point midway through Stalker that is surely the quintessential Tarkovsky moment. The Zone is a guarded, forbidden area, filled with dangers where years earlier an extra terrestrial visitation occurred. Three men, led by a stalker, have entered the Zone in order to visit The Room, a place where your deepest, innermost wishes will be granted. Eventually they make it to the building that encloses The Room, it's a few hundred metres away, over a tame looking stretch of grass. So, do they go straight there? No, of course they bloody don't. The Stalker tells them the only safe way is a lengthy path that takes them well out of their way, through running water and a tunnel of terror. This is Tarkovsky: nothing is simple, nothing is easy and nothing is straightforward and the roundabout route is always the route to be taken.
Stalker is a maddening film and a maddeningly slow film, drawing things out gratuitously and then abruptly skipping ahead. That the damn thing is still mesmerising and intriguing is both a wonder and an irritation. I think I've locked horns with it five or six times now and have yet to really embrace it, but still can't escape from it; I am still drawn towards it. It may be the best example of Tarkovsky's with-one-hand-tied-behind-my-back showboating – he'll put every obstacle in the way of viewer's enjoyment, yet will still generate enough wonders to keep a select audience enthralled.
Stalker was Tarkovsky's last Russian film before moving to the west, and it is also his most thoroughly Russian. Gloomy men move despairingly through bleak, blasted, derelict landscapes and talk gloomily about God and life and the purpose of it all, have a slug of liquor and then talk gloomily about God and life and the purpose of it all again. It's almost parodic, though in this case the production was troubled enough to justify it. A year's worth of footage had to be abandoned when the new Kodak stock it was shot on couldn't be developed. The film was nearly abandoned, but eventually it was decided to press on with it, but on a much reduced budget. A pity really: the location in Tallinn, Estonia, on ground near a chemical plant was highly toxic and a number of the cast and crew would die in the following years, including the director himself who succumbed to lung cancer in the middle of the eighties. Thus it is the Soviet equivalent of The Conqueror, the Genghis Khan biopic with John Wayne that was shot near the atomic bomb testing grounds in Utah, and whose cast and crew had an abnormally high incidence of cancer.
At the beginning it is decreed that there will be no names and the three men will be known only by their roles: Stalker (Kajdanovsky), Writer (Solonitsyn) and Professor (Grinko.) Perhaps they might also have been dubbed Compo, Foggy and Clegg because as these three old codgers* wander around in the countryside arguing, throwing stones, refelcting on life and trying to fill in time it does often resemble the bleakest, least energetic, episode of Last Of the Summer Wine ever. The lark in this episode though is to address the relationship between man and God.
The film is so low energy that halfway through the cast decide to take a nap. I think Stalker, (alongside Cronenberg's Naked Lunch) is the film I have most consistently failed to stay awake through. (This time it took me the three and half hours to get through its 163 minutes because I had to stop and go back a number of times because I’d nodded off.) It's not just the long takes where nothing happens, I think there is something in his shooting style that induces you to tune out. A lot of the film is made up of panning shots, passing from the back of one bald head to another and back again, or across debris lying a few inches under the surface of the water. The film will spend minutes exploring one image and then will abruptly jump cut to something that feels like we missed out a scene. It feels like however hard you try to concentrate on the plot, the film is trying to lead you away, to stop you thinking rationally about the film's meaning.
This maybe because, however impenetrable it seems, it is a basic shaggy god story, a story about the importance of belief to a degree that is quite simplistic and possibly a touch fanatical. For the Stalker a trip to the Room is a test of your belief and so is the film, where there is a wild discrepancy between what you see with your eyes, and what you are told you are seeing through the dialogue. We are told that the Zone is a place of great danger, a place where the landscape is constantly changing, and where potential traps lurk in every corner; we see three men walking around some fields and some dilapidated buildings talking about life.
I think Stalker is Tarkovsky's most absurd achievement; an anti-science fiction with a fantastically bleak view of the human condition that may, at heart, be as banal as any Hollywood film where blind belief is seem as a great virtue.
* Actually none of the cast are even sixty but their weariness ages them terribly – it's hard to look at Solonitsyn and believe that just over a decade before he was able to play a fresh faced young Rublev.
Even the extras are gloom laden. There is an a short interview with cameraman Aleksandr Knyazhinsky, conducted shortly before he died, and a longer one and even more despairing one with set decorator Rashit Safiullin, who touches on the problems of having to re-start the film.