The 1979 Russian film, Stalker, takes place in a world that might be our own.
In the middle of a wilderness that we assume, just because of the language that’s spoken in the film, to be in Russia, there is an area known as the Zone. The Zone is a place where the normal laws of physics don’t seem to apply. It’s not an easy place to enter and it’s almost impossible to exit but it’s rumored that there’s a very special room located in one of the Zone’s deserted buildings. If you can find the Room, you’re innermost desires will be granted. It’s said, for instance, that a semi-legendary man known as Porcupine found the Room and became wealthy as a result. Of course, Porcupine also hung himself just a few days later.
Legally, no one is allowed to enter the Zone. Soldiers patrol the perimeter and the gate that leads into the Zone is only opened to allow a train to make it’s way through. However, there are outlaws who specialize in leading expeditions through the Zone. They can get people in and, as long as everyone does as instructed, they can hopefully lead people out. One of these outlaws is known as The Stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky). The Stalker, a former student of Porcupine, lives in a drab village where everything is filmed in Sepia. (By contrast, the Zone is filmed in color.) The Stalker is married to a woman (Alisa Freindlich) who continually begs him to stop leading expeditions into the Zone but who also says that she married the Stalker because his illegal activities bring a little bit of life to an otherwise drab existence. They have a daughter (Natasha Abramova) who is described as being a “child of the zone.” She may have a physical disability, though we’re never quite sure what the exact details of it may be. The final enigmatic shot of the film belongs to her and it’s a shot that makes us wonder about everything that we’ve just previously seen.
The Stalker’s latest clients are the Writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn) and the Professor (Nikolai Grinko). Both the Writer and the Professor have their own reasons for wanting to see the Zone. The Writer is an alcoholic who has lost his inspiration and hopes to find it again. The Professor says that he’s interest in the Zone is a scientific one, though it turns out that his actual intentions are a bit more complex. The Stalker leads them into the Zone but it’s not an easy journey. The Stalker grows annoyed as he comes to realize that the Writer does not share his nearly spiritual reverence for the powers and the mysteries of the Zone. Meanwhile, the Professor obsesses over his backpack, even when the Stalker tells him to leave it behind. There’s something in that backpack that the Professor definitely doesn’t want to lose.
Stalker is a science fiction film but it’s one that has no elaborate special effects. There are hints that the Zone may have been visited by extraterrestrials but the film deliberately leave ambiguous the true origin of the Zone. Director Andrei Tarkovsky instead emphasizes the barren landscape and the discussions between the three men, each one of whom is desperate in his own way. Though the Zone may be filmed in vibrant color while the village is filmed in Sepia tones, both locations are equally desolate.
Watching this film today, it’s impossible not to compare the film’s Zone to the real-life forbidden zone surrounding Chernobyl. However, Stalker was made 7 years before the disaster at Chernobyl. The film’s Zone probably has more in common with the 1908 Tunguska event, which was when something (an asteroid, a comet, or maybe something else depending on how conspiracy-minded one is willing to be) either crashed into or exploded above Siberia. The explosion was the equivalent of 30 megatons of TNT and, needless to say, you can find all sorts of fanciful stories about strange things happening in the area in the years after the explosion. That said, it’s definitely not a coincidence that the modern-day guides who lead unauthorized tours of the Chernobyl area have taken to calling themselves stalkers.
The film itself is a fascinating one, though definitely not one for everyone. As a director, Tarkovsky’s trademark was the long take and the camera often lingers over each scene, inviting the viewer to look for a deeper meaning that may or may not be there. It’s a film that invites the viewer to think and to wonder who is right and who is wrong about the Zone. It’s a film that asks a lot of questions but never claims to have all the answers. The true meaning of it all is left the individual viewer to determine. It really is a film that probably could have only been made by an artist trying to subtly rebel against a totalitarian society. The Writer has lost his inspiration because society has become so drab and corrupt. The intellectual Professor is forced to be deceptive about his true intentions. And the Stalker looks for a deeper meaning that goes beyond what the State has to offer. For that, he’s willing to risk everything.
Tragically, it’s possible that filming Stalker may have contributed to Tarkovsky’s death in 1986. (Interestingly, he died just a few months after the Chernobyl disaster.) Much of Stalker was filmed near a chemical plant and it’s felt that filming in such a toxic condition may have eventually led to the illnesses that not only killed Tarkovsky but several other members of the film’s cast and crew. By the time of his death, Tarkovsky had escaped from Russia and was living in Paris. Today, incidentally, is his birthday. He would have been 88 years old.