Andrei Tarkovsky's fifth film, Stalker, is, ostensibly, a science fiction film, but viewers who seek out the Terminator series and other action science fiction fantasies need not bother. For this long, sometimes ponderous work is a deep rumination, often using the genre of the dialogue, to discuss weighty issues such as doubt and faith, fulfillment and desire, art and science, and the individual and the collective. All of this is made palatable and, indeed, becomes emotionally engaging through the filmmaker's near-obsessive focus on images, the screen often transforming into an almost abstract collage of the detritus of manmade machines, constructions, and tools—aimed mostly at the rape of nature and human destruction—set against the rejuvenating forces of the natural world.
For a citizen of the defunct Soviet Union, the notion of a forbidden Zone gives rise to (at least) five associations: Zone is (1) Gulag, i.e. a separated prison territory; (2) a territory poisoned or otherwise rendered uninhabitable by some technological (biochemical, nuclear....) catastrophe, like Chernobyl; (3) the secluded domain in which the nomenklatura lives; (4) foreign territory to which access is prohibited
(like the enclosed West Berlin in the midst of the GDR); (5) a territory where a meteorite struck (like Tunguska in Siberia).
In short, Tarkovsy's "Zone" is any or all of these; it does not stand for one thing, and the essential fact is its prohibition, like so much else in Soviet life.
At one point, when the Professor disappears (against the rules he has returned for his forgotten rucksack), the remaining two proceed through a rainy drainpipe, only to find him safely on the other side. It is as if space itself circles back. So exhausted are the three, they fall into a grumbling sleep, the two outsiders fighting like a long married couple until they are collapse in a coma-like sleep, heaped each upon each, a stray dog hunkering down beside them.
Besides the simple beauty (and marked ugliness) of the landscape,* what helps the viewer to accept these somewhat academic dialogic encounters is the humor of it all, the Kafka-like ridiculousness of their positions, particularly given their improbable situation. What we gradually come to comprehend, moreover, is that despite their oppositional stances toward life, they now have to obey the rules of a different world, and can make no progress without them.
Their final long voyage through a dark and filthy tunnel, although dramatically eerie, hardly matters. We know that despite their bluff, these are both wretched men, unhappy even in their great successes. They will survive the trip, but will they survive the "gift" of the room, the realization of their "deepest, innermost" wishes?
As they reach the entry to the room, the Stalker once explains what is about to happen before encouraging them to enter, reiterating that, having learned from the example of Porcupine (a stalker who entered in order save his brother, but instead became fabulously wealthy, and, soon after, committed suicide), that stalkers are not permitted to set foot in this sacred space.
The Writer gets cold feet, realizing that the trap of the promised magic is that the innermost wish of any individual may not be what he consciously desires. It may be a destructive force, a petty wish that counteracts any human good within that being. No, he proclaims, he will not enter.
The Professor has already understood that such a force might be used by the truly evil men in the society to take over governments, to kill thousands, etc., and he has brought a bomb with him to destroy the spot.
Terrified that this one last abode of "hope," the remaining "treasure" of Pandora's box, will be forever destroyed, the Stalker lunges for the bomb, but both the Writer and Professor fight him off. Again and again he tries desperately to save his world, but these are not men of belief, representing as they do the elite, the select, yet totally disaffected Soviet upper class, whereas, in his blind faith, he is a muttering fool, a mere stalker, always on the search for something or someone.
Yet his fervor, his plea for the salvation of this sacred place gradually wins them over. The Writer apologizes ass the Professor disassembles the bomb, the camera focusing with intensity for several moments on the three men gathered at the future's gate, the floor of the room inexplicably flooding.
Returning home, exhausted, the Stalker and his "passengers" gather once more at the local bar before his wife comes to fetch him. At home, he reports that he realizes he can never take another person into his beloved "Zone," that he must give up the one thing he was able to offer others, because there is no longer anyone who believes strongly enough. When his wife proposes that he take her to the room so that may achieve her secret desires, the Stalker admits he cannot dare that. Even he, it appears, does not have enough faith.
Has the "Zone" been his own fantasy, as the Writer and Professor have hinted, being the one thing in his string of life failures that he has had to give, been able to create? We can never know.
His wife's monologue about both their sufferings and love which have allowed happiness and hope to coexist, however, seems to point to their survival, perhaps even to their prevailing over the difficulties they face. The rugged dreamer will ultimately the ordinariness of his life.
In the distance we hear the rumble of the train. Their deaf and crippled daughter sits alone at the table. First a glass, then a bottle, and finally a second glass slides across the table, the last falling to the floor. The train comes nearer, and with it, embedded deep within the rumble of the railway, a muted musical accompaniment from Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," which disappears as quickly as the engine passes. We now must ask ourselves, was it the train that moved the glass in the very first scene and now, these three objects, or was it an extraordinary telekinetic gift with which the child is possessed? There is no answer when it comes to such a question, only hope.
*Most of these scenes filled near Tallinn, Estonia, in an area around a small river with a half-functioning hydroelectric station. As sound-editor Victor Sharun has written:
Up the river was a chemical plant and it poured out poisonous liquids downstream. There was even this shot in Stalker: snow falling in the summer and white foam floating down the river. In fact it was some horrible poison. Many women in our crew got allergic reactions on their faces. Tarkovsky died from cancer of the right bronchial tube. And Tolya Solonitsyn too. that it was all connected to the location shooting for Stalker became clear to me when Larisa Tarkovskaya died from the same illness in Paris.
Los Angeles, January 24, 2010