Central & Eastern Europe / Satellite Review / Film

Stalker at Forty

Shown at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1980, Tarkovsky’s meditative masterpiece continues to cast its spell

“Wherever there is an abandoned space, there is a stalker waiting to explore it“

I like to think that I recognized the location straight away. Although there was a small plaque at the base of the chimney, just in case anyone was ignorant of the place’s significance. The buildings on either side of the alleyway had the rugged beauty of semi-derelict industrial sites the world over; grizzled red bricks, weeds between the cobbles, and a wire fence behind which heavy machinery of the restoration team was parked.

It was here, outside a derelict power station in the Estonian capital Tallinn, that Andrey Tarkovsky shot one of the most memorable scenes of his film Stalker. It was the tense action sequence (indeed the only action sequence) in which the three protagonists crash their jeep through a barbed-wire border, pursued by torchlight beams and a hail of bullets.

Stalker made its international debut at a special screening at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1980. It was a film that was eagerly anticipated, coming from a director who already commanded a towering international reputation thanks to a trio of critical successes, Ivan Rublev (1966), Solaris (1972) and Mirror (1975). Stalker was immediately hailed as a major addition to the Tarkovsky canon, although critics were initially reticent to declare what it might be about. Slow-paced, visually stark, and sufficiently ambiguous to invite constant reinterpretation, it has retained its hold over the imagination ever since. 

A “Western of the Mind”

Most of the film’s action takes place in the Zone, an abandoned area created in the wake of a falling meteorite, or perhaps an alien visitation. It is a vast out-of-bounds territory guarded by UN troops; attempts to regain control of it have been repulsed by unseen powers, inexplicable phenomena, and a bending of time and space. Sneaking in and out of the Zone are ‘Stalkers’, who make a precarious living illegally guiding curious visitors over the border. Deep inside the Zone is said to be a room where the deepest desires of those reach it will be fulfilled. It is the tantalizing, just-one-wish promise of this room that the Stalker and two companions (known simply as “the Writer” and “the Scientist”) set out to test. The mission is slow, inconclusive; the Stalker himself is a man of few words, and even fewer answers. As so often in Tarkovsky’s films, narrative takes a back seat to symbolism, and the film’s ending is more like the last line of a poem than the resolution of a movie plot. 

When I was growing up people used to boast about how many times they had seen Star Wars. Nowadays people of the same generation talk about Tarkovsky with a similar degree of fan-boy commitment. British scribe Geoff Dyer even wrote a 220-word book about Stalker called Zona (Canongate 2012), a gloriously hybrid memoir-cum cultural history that speaks volumes about the film’s ability to fuel endless rumination.

Although billed as a sci-fi film set in the near future, Stalker seems more like a journey into a decayed version of the present. Apart from some UN guards clad in menacing black uniforms, the film lacks the hardware of the sci-fi genre, and most of the action takes place in derelict buildings or in dank green countryside. Tarkovsky himself, quoted by Italian film critic Sauro Borelli, called the film “a Western of the mind”, as if he’d been aiming at a modern-day cowboy story all along.

Rugged beauty: the alleyway behind Tallinn power station where the border-crossing scene was filmed. (Photo taken in March 2013)

The film is loosely based on the novel Roadside Picnic by the brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, science-fiction writers who enjoyed best-selling careers in the Soviet Union. It was they who borrowed the word “stalker” from English in order to describe their clandestine wanderer and, via Tarkovsky, their usage of the term has stuck. Nowadays we’re all looking for haunted landscapes to stalk. I was stalking Stalker when I set off looking for that pre-World War I power station back in 2013. (Now fully restored, the power station in question is currently an arts venue evocatively entitled Kultuurikatel or “Culture-Boiler”. Maybe the ultimate fate of all dystopian space is to be converted into a cultural hub, or a loft development). The title of Tarkovsky’s film has been appropriated by everyone from Chernobyl tourists to derelict-hotel junkies; wherever there is an abandoned space, you might say, there is a stalker waiting to explore it. Even in the early days of the Covid-19 lockdowns, there was something inherently Stalker-esque about going outside and taking a picture of an empty street. The world outside the front door had become the Zone. 

Tarkovsky brought in the Strugatskys to help write his script, although the resulting film bore scant relation to their original story. Early rushes were damaged during processing, and when Tarkovsky went back to re-shoot them he and the brothers changed the script yet again, producing a film that was more mysterious and poetic than the one initially envisaged. Maybe it’s the confused gestation period that made the end result such a compelling work of art. Tarkovsky himself never felt in total control, noting in his diaries that the changing role of the central character - who becomes more of a slave to the Zone, almost an extension of the Zone’s personality, rather than just a cynical people-smuggler - had a lot to do with the endless rewrites supplied by the Strugatskys.

Real Mystic

The Cannes screening of Stalker was a special out-of-competition event (the Palme d’Or was that year shared by Kurosawa’s Kagemusha and Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz). The projection was unexpectedly interrupted by an electrician’s strike, which increased the film’s 2hr 45min running time into what must have seemed an eternity. Stalker went on general release in most Western European countries in early 1981, and it must have been around this time that I saw it at The Phoenix Picture House in Oxford. To say I enjoyed it would be going too far; however it was certainly the most instantly memorable film I have ever seen, and many of its scenes were fixed firmly in my memory on the basis of that first viewing. The main thing that bothered me about the film was its length; I was acutely aware that the pubs would be shut by the time the damn thing finished.

Stalker was seen by far more cinemagoers in the West than in its country of origin, where it received isolated screenings in 1979, and a delayed official premiere in May 1980. Tarkovsky wasn’t even there, having gone to Italy to discuss future projects with writer-producer Tonino Guerra. Stalker went on to have a very limited release in the Soviet Union. The director’s diaries refer to the film being a great success in Tallinn; a pointedly appropriate reference to the fact that the Estonian intelligentsia was among the least Sovietized in the whole Soviet Union. Tarkovsky opted to stay in Italy after 1980, suspecting that the Moscow authorities would no longer allow him to make the kind of films he wanted. Tarkovsky’s next feature, Nostalgia (co-written with Tonino Guerra), was a highly personal film about exile, and the difficulty of living and working in a culture other than your own.   

“He was a real mystic, the kind that wasn’t understood in the West” said Jerzy Illig, the Polish writer and publisher who interviewed Tarkovsky in Stockholm in the mid-Eighties. “You could see quite clearly that whenever he started talking about spirituality, his interviewers got lost, or simply didn’t understand what he was talking about”.

Illig’s home country of Poland was one of the few communist countries outside the USSR where Stalker was actually shown. (In non-aligned Yugoslavia, the film was broadcast on TV). Polish weekly Przekrój described Stalker as a film about “a society which has lost all faith, and which has even lost the desire to change its fate.” The film did at least offer a glimmer of optimism by arguing that “you shouldn’t believe in miracles, but adjust yourself to your fate”.

An Ill-Designed World

One of the things that made Stalker so intriguing to Western audiences was that it was a Soviet film made by a maverick director at a time of superpower tension. It was inevitable that viewers would interpret the film as a dystopian vision of the USSR or, more broadly, of an increasingly insecure world. The film hit Cannes at a time when East-West relations were at their lowest point for a decade. The Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, superpower mistrust was at its height, and a renewed nuclear arms race seemed to have put paid to the era of détente. 

Stalker did seem like a Cold-War film in one respect at least.  The dramatic sequence in which the protagonists break through into the Zone under machine-gun fire seemed like a direct reference to the popular spy fiction of the post-war epoch. There’s something of a Len Deighton or le Carré novel about the way in which the Stalker negotiates his own particular iron curtain. However the film’s sense of apocalyptic dread went beyond the politics of a divided Europe. Writing on the back of the Cannes screening, Der Spiegel’s reviewer Peter Hamm noted that the film’s landscape of “ruined semi-flooded factories” was “almost like the aftermath of a nuclear catastrophe.” By the time of the Chernobyl disaster six years later, Stalker did indeed seem to have been uncannily prophetic, a warning sign posted by a director uniquely attuned to present dangers. 

The June 1987 edition of Polish magazine Res Publica, leading with a long interview with Tarkowsky by Jerzy Illig.

Offering insights into Tarkovsky’s own intentions is his diary entry for December 23 1978, just after he’d finished shooting the film. “[It’s] a film about the existence of God in man” he wrote, “and the destruction of spirituality through the promotion of fake knowledge… I am afraid for the future: cataclysms, apocalyptic accidents. I am afraid for my children, for [my wife] Larissa. God, give me strength and faith in the future, so that in the future we may celebrate Your name. “

The deeply spiritual aspects of the film were certainly obvious to Peter Hamm in Der Spiegel, who saw the Stalker’s world as a “prison from which there was no political, social, philosophical or aesthetic way out.” It was as grim as a Dostoyevsky novel, but it did at least offer redemption through the recognition that life really was that bitter.   

One thing many contemporary reviewers missed about Stalker was the way it celebrated nature, with the camera lingering on the lush trees and grasses that seemed to have taken over in the Zone once human civilization had retreated. His depiction of this damp and untamable kingdom, with dripping water and stagnant pools serving to rot away the structures that humans had built, goes some way to explain why Tarkovsky is seen by many as an environmentalist artist before his time. Stalker was the perfect “apocalyptic opus for the climate change era” wrote Josephine Livingstone in The New Republic in June 2017, highlighting once again the way in which the film has consistently been called upon to testify to crisis-ridden times, even four decades after it was made.

Talking to the Polish-language edition of Esquire magazine in 2018, Jerzy Illig commented that Stalker was “a metaphor for enslavement through totalitarian apocalypse, false leaders… and illusory truths. It is still exceedingly relevant, and corresponds perfectly to our contemporary sensibilities.”

As Tarkovsky’s oft-repeated quote has it: “art is born out of an ill-designed world.”  In which case Stalker will remain essential viewing for many decades to come.

© Jonathan Bousfield