In many ways, Stalker was Andrei Tarkovsky’s most arduous film to create. It is believed that he and a number of his crew ultimately gave their lives in creating the film by shooting in chemical plants and other various toxic locations. Tarkovsky, his wife, and lead actor Anatoli Solonitsyn succumbed to lung cancer.
Within production, a year’s worth of shooting had to be redone following improper development of the film stock. Tarkovsky had enlisted The Mirror cinematographer Georgy Rerberg to return to shoot Stalker, but fired him (and a number of other crew members) during production and enlisted Alexander Knyazhinsky to replace him. Tarkovsky reshot almost the entirety of Stalker with Knyazhinsky.
The film revolves around a man known as “the Stalker” (Alexander Kaidanovsky). A stalker is a guide to a mysterious area called “the Zone” where there exists a room, “the Room”, where one can have their innermost desire fulfilled. The Zone is fortified with military protection to prevent stalkers and their followers from travelling to the Zone. The Stalker’s two clients, a writer (Anatoli Solonitsyn) known simply as “the Writer” and a professor (Nikolai Grinko) named in the same manner, seek to enter the room to find inspiration and scientific discovery, respectively. As they journey into the Zone, their desires become questioned and the Professor admits his ulterior motive for visiting the Room.
The average length of a shot in Stalker is almost a minute and a half, Tarkovsky using this time to personify the Zone with a dreamlike quality. There is a shot where the trio rests beside a river where the camera pans over the water and numerous objects- a syringe, a gun, paper, coins, etc- are shown, a reflection of mankind’s development: medicine, warfare, communication, and economy, respectively. The world that the characters inhabit outside of the Zone is gloomy and industrial, similar to the world that David Lynch depicted in Eraserhead. The Criterion Collection’s restoration retains the gritty look of Stalker yet substantially improves the visual quality of the film. Beautiful as the film is, Tarkovsky’s depictions of wilderness and landscapes in ruin are not as striking as other images captured in his filmography.
Train tracks run near the Stalker’s house and a train is presumably heard (we don’t see it) passing both at the start and close of the film. Tarkovsky paid particular attention to sound design within Stalker, his intention to blur the distinction between natural sound and music. Many sounds ‘within nature’ were created by synthesizers rather than created as a byproduct of shooting on location. Numerous scenes in the Zone disconnect the sound that is heard and the image that is on-screen, creating the Zone’s enigmatic ability to alter the perception of time and space.
Stalker is laden with Tarkovskian symbolism and motifs, in particular those that relate to water. It rains indoors within The Room and reflections seen in water are ever-present. A mysterious dog follows the trio through the Zone and it is thought by many that the dog represents a mythological creature that protects the men during their underworld-esque journey. Relating to absurdism however, a guide brings two men into the Zone to obtain their innermost desire and they return home with a dog.
The film culminates in the Stalker’s existential plea. He laments that men believe that they are in control of their own destiny and that they are destined to achieve certain things and may act with authority on the behalf of mankind. He had thought intellectuals- the Writer and the Professor- would recognize this as incorrect, but they disappoint. He feels guilt that he is not able to bring others happiness and fulfillment in their lives by taking them to the Room despite the Room’s immense potential. His tours of the Zone result in disillusionment as they bring to the surface the inadequacy and flaws of human nature. He laments man’s stubborn desire to find profound self-importance in life and the continual disappointment this desire brings.
Tarkovsky’s venture into desire and free will depicted in Stalker resonates more so on an intellectual rather than emotional level. For this reason, Stalker is arguably the weightiest of his films to view. The plights of characters in Tarkovsky’s following films Nostalghia and The Sacrifice and their resolutions to save the world from destruction resonate on an emotional level in a way that Stalker is never quite able to parallel. The Stalker’s quest to help individual men is a more humble one, however his suffering becomes less personal when the failure of his journey is taken as a metaphor for the ill-fated desires of humanity as a whole.