“Tarkovsky’s religious cinema doesn’t depict Christ or God, but does reveal a world in which the unknown is not in the next country or the next town but right here, in this building, in this room.” – Jeremy Mark Robinson, The Sacred Cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky
Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker has received a new restoration that will allow audiences to see it like never before. The film, released in 1979, is frequently cited as the Russian director’s masterpiece, featuring three gentlemen whom travel through an otherworldly location in the hopes of achieving their dreams. I should clarify that only two of the men are looking for their innermost desires — the third man is known as a “Stalker.” This man has been trained to navigate through “The Zone” and deliver intrepid journeymen through the inherent dangers of another world. Tarkovsky plays with color and shadows to depict The Zone and its many differences from our own reality. He also asks broad philosophical questions about the existence of Eden and whether or not existing faith is enough to give hope to those in need.
The natural world is cast in a sepia tone. Perhaps Tarkovsky uses this lack of color to show a general disinterest in modern society. The Stalker himself, played by Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy, lives in poverty with his wife and disabled daughter. Theirs is a home with little amenities, and The Stalker’s greatest ambition is guiding visitors through The Zone to capture their own dreams and ambitions. He has given up his life to the cloth, if you will. One does not simply travel into The Zone without a Stalker.
Have I mentioned that Stalker is a challenging film? During the sequences drained of color, Tarkovsky aims his camera at the human experience. There is little need for word as the three men bypass the military that has been deployed to keep intruders out of The Zone. Tarkovsky aims the camera at faces, capturing subtle emotions. In fact, audiences struggled with the film quite a bit when it was released. According to New Republic, The USSR’s State Committee for Cinematography thought the movie was too slow, too grinding. Tarkovsky simply responded that, rather, it needed “to be slower and duller at the start so that the viewers who walked into the wrong theater have time to leave before the main action starts.”
Once the men complete their journey on an old railway car, a new world opens up to them. The Zone offers a whole new realm of imagination and promise, depicted in full color. While the introduction of color is a simple way of showcasing a new location, Tarkovsky presents a location full of life with waterfalls and a lush landscape. It is also a world where humans have barely left a footprint, allowing The Zone to be untouched. The only way to navigate through the The Zone’s trials is to throw metal nuts tied to cloth. The catch is that every journey through is different and ever changing. One of the men even tries to go off on his own, only to be haunted by a strange warning. If was as simple as getting from A to B, what need would there be for a Stalker?
The two men journeying to this promised land are simply known as Writer and Professor. They grow incredibly weary of the circling path and promises of glory. In fact, the Professor is there for his own selfish goal. He believes that the world would be a better place if this Room, this Eden, would actually disappear. The fact that it could be used for great evil scares the intellectual inside him. What if a place could bring about your greatest desires? Shouldn’t that place be destroyed so it doesn’t end up in the wrong hands?
Tarkovsky was a deeply religious man. Raised in the Russian Orthodox tradition, this influence can be found throughout his entire filmography, but especially in Stalker. The Stalker’s character can easily be associated with that of the holy fool — a frequent character throughout the history of Russian literature, written by authors such as Nikolai Leskov. Leskov wrote of a “Deathless Golovan,” a simple and self-sacrificing man who cares for victims of a plague regardless of his own safety. When the Stalker decides to lead others to a possible dream, he does so without a need to better his own life. His earthly existence is filled with poverty and misfortune. It is said that Stalkers cannot use The Room for their own personal gain, so he does this deed for the sake of altruism alone.
If the Stalker does not use The Room for his own benefit, then why should such a place be destroyed? Perhaps the promise of an Eden, somewhere in existence, is of greater good than using such a place. The blind faith that an otherworldly destination can grant your greatest dreams and desires would be a stronger power than any a single human would have privy to decide. Of course, this goes into Tarkovsky’s religious background of God and his heaven. Daily, people have faith that some other plain of existence is out there, and that concept makes them stronger. Economically, religion has proven to have a positive effect on cultures. According to Boston.com, “In the Middle Ages, studies show, monk-run estates outperformed those that used serfs, thanks to religiously inspired cooperation and frugality. The Quakers of 18th-century Britain, renowned for their scrupulous honesty, came to dominate British finance. Ultra-orthodox Jews similarly dominate New York’s diamond trade because of levels of trust based on religion.” There’s no question that the existence of this Room holds more than what it might contain.
Stalker is less concerned about the actual plight of these men and more about the philosophical questions their journey brings to the forefront. Using color, shadows and few words, Stalker depicts a religious journey in the guise of a science-fiction story. The Zone experience allows the men to look beyond their pitiful lives and see that a greater existence is out there. That alone is worth preserving and keeping pure at whatever the cost.
Max Covill (@mhcovill) is a freelance journalist, columnist for Film School Rejects and co-host of It’s the Pictures. Max has bylines at Playboy, Paste, ZAM and more.