“The Zone wants to be respected. Otherwise it will punish.”
As much of a dream as it is a film, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker finds its way to the Criterion Collection this week. Unclassifiable and occasionally impenetrable, it is a film loaded with stunning imagery that sears itself onto the viewer’s brain, lingering there like something glimpsed in in fantasy.
Three characters — Stalker, Writer and Professor — journey from the sepia-toned edges of their world into the Zone, a place in living color where the laws of reality don’t apply. Stalker is the guide, leading the two other men into the Zone with the goal of bringing them to a room in the zone where your innermost desires and dreams can come true. But when they get to the room, entering it isn’t so easy for the three characters.
“Stalker doesn’t enter because it wouldn’t be right for him to enter,” Tarkovsky said to Aldo Tassone in 1980. “He doesn’t have to. It goes against his beliefs. Furthermore, if it’s all in his imagination, then he doesn’t go in because he knows his desires won’t be fulfilled there. For him, the important thing is that the two others believe the Room can fulfill their desires, and that they enter. Even if in fact nothing happens. The Stalker needs to find people who believe in something, in a world that no longer believes in anything. Now, why doesn’t the Writer enter? We don’t know, and neither does he. He knows neither where he’s going nor what he’s looking for. We know he’s a talented person, but already used up, and what he’s writing now is what he’s expected to write by critics, publishers, and the public. He’s simply a popular author. And he no longer wants to continue down that road. At first, it seems to him that if he enters the Room, he’ll be able to write better. He’ll become the person he was when he first started writing, and he’ll be able to rid himself of whatever has been weighing him down. But afterwards, his thinking changes and he asks himself: if I change, if my inspiration is restored, why would I continue to write since I would already know that whatever I would write would be automatically genius? The point of writing is to surpass oneself, to show others what one can do, that one can do even better. If someone already knows himself to be a genius, why write at all? What remains to be proven? Creation is a manifestation of one’s will.”
“If the artist is a genius from the outset, his art loses all meaning,” Tarkovsk continues. “Furthermore, the Writer considers the story of “Porcupine,” who was the Stalker’s teacher, and who hung himself. He concludes that in that Room it isn’t one’s desires that are fulfilled but rather a hidden vision lying deep within the heart of each person. These are true desires, which correspond to one’s interior world. For instance, if it’s wealth that I crave, that probably won’t be what I receive, but rather something closer to the truth of my heart-poverty, for example, which is what my soul truly clamors for. These are hidden desires. The Writer is afraid of entering the Room because he has a pretty low opinion of himself. As for the Scientist, he doesn’t want to enter at all. From the beginning. In fact, he is carrying a bomb to blow it up. That’s because for him, the Room is a place that disturbed people could visit and thereby endanger all of life on earth. But he abandons his plan because it’s not reasonable to fear that people motivated by a desire for total power would come to the Room. Also because in general people are motivated by things that are extremely basic like money, status, sex … That’s why he doesn’t destroy the Room. The other reason is that the Stalker convinces him not to do it, by telling him that such a place needs to be saved. Where people can come and still hope, people who want something, who need an ideal.”
The Criterion release includes an interview with Geoff Dyer, author of Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room. It’s an enlightening half-hour trip through the film, with Dyer revealing intricacies and mysteries. Dyer highlights a sequence in which a POV shot indicates that Tarkovsky is presenting a scene from the vantage point of one of the film’s three characters, only to have all three characters step into frame. This is revealing the presence of an “other” — the Zone itself, perhaps. Always watching.
Stalker will hypnotize you. From its deliberately slow opening scene onward, the film lives and breathes like few other movies. “Stalker is not a desperate film,” Tarkovsky said. “I don’t think a work of art can be inspired by this sort of feeling. Its meaning must be spiritual, positive, it should bring hope and belief. I don’t think my film lacks hope. If this is true – it is not a work of art. Even if Stalker has moments of despair, he masters them. It is a kind of catharsis. It’s a tragedy but tragedy is not hopeless. This history of destruction still gives the viewer a glimmer of hope. It has to do with the feeling of catharsis. Tragedy cleanses man.”
- New 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
- New interview with Geoff Dyer, author of Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room
- Interviews from 2002 with cinematographer Alexander Knyazhinsky, set designer Rashit Safiullin, and composer Eduard Artemyev
- PLUS: An essay by critic Mark Le Fanu