A trio identified simply as the Stalker (Aleksandr Kajdanovsky), the Scientist (Nikolai Grinko) and the Writer (Anatoli Solonitsyn), enter the Zone in search of a place where, it is rumored, any wish will be granted. Though the territory is surrounded by barbed wire and heavily guarded by the military, the men manage to penetrate the Zone, thanks to the experience of the Stalker, who has led other expeditions into the area, but at great personal cost, including a daughter permanently deformed by his exposure to the Zone's menacing forces.
Perhaps the most remarkable feature of Stalker as a work of science fiction is how Tarkovsky is able to convey the terror and suspense the Zone inspires with a minimum of special effects. Most often his signature vocabulary of the natural world and water are used to create a kind of living, spiritual presence in this empty, de-populated world. Some of the settings for the Zone have a postindustrial eeriness, of decaying factories, destroyed tanks and the detritus of a lost civilization which give the place a sense of post-apocalyptic foreboding, as if the Zone is some remnant of our own failed science and industry. As the men move deeper and deeper into the Zone, aspects of their personalities are revealed, and a kind of psychological truth serum causes the men to reveal their true selves.
The existential ruminations of these men of intellect and reason as they confront the failings of their own knowledge have been compared to Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. The intellectual ambiguities of all of Tarkovsky's films, including Stalker, also led to clashes with the Soviet authorities who disliked the abstraction of his images and meaning, and who claimed the director was "narratively obscure."
The director countered, "It's not that I don't want to be understood, but I can't, like Spielberg, make a film for the general public - I'd be mortified if I discovered I could."
But unlike other Tarkovsky productions, specifically Andrei Rublev (1969) and The Mirror (1975) the Soviet government requested no significant cuts in the film. Since its release, and the Chernobyl disaster, the ominous tone of Stalker seems like a harbinger of a potential nuclear holocaust to come. While Western critics were intent, upon the film's release, to read it as a political allegory, and "decode" its message about the Soviet government, such a reading denies the potent, universal implications of Stalker, about humankind's spiritual struggles, our loss of contact with nature, the privileging of the material over the spiritual and our quest for meaning, which make Tarkovsky's film an enduring masterwork.
Always an innovator in his use of stark, expressive cinematography, Tarkovsky created an additional, moody effect with his use of film stock in Stalker. For scenes shot outside of the Zone, Tarkovsky used a noirish black and white film endowed with a deep sepia tint. But once inside the Zone, Tarkovsky changed to color stock which the director felt gave a more otherworldly effect compared to monochromatic realism.
Like Tarkovsky's other films, Stalker is more about the emotional effects created by Aleksandr Knyazhinsky's somber, meditative camerawork than concrete, easily explained meanings. Stalker is first and foremost a profoundly ambiguous, but deeply felt film whose operations are often as mysterious as the Zone of its storyline.
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Producer: Alexandra Demidova
Screenplay: Boris Strugatsky and Arkadi Strugatsky based on their novel Roadside Picnic
Cinematography: Aleksandr Knyazhinsky
Production Design: Andrei Tarkovsky
Music: Eduard Artemyev
Cast: Aleksandr Kajdanovsky (Stalker), Nikolai Grinko (Scientist), Anatoli Solonitsyn (Writer), Alisa Frejndlikh (Stalker's Wife).
BW & C-163m.
by Felicia Feaster