balboni films

Review: Stalker

Dissecting Stalker is something that could be (and often is) done in third or fourth year university film programs. There is a litany of ways to look at this film, from simply admiring the atmosphere it creates to character analysis to digging through its larger philosophical point, and this write-up is more a collection of thoughts I had during a recent viewing than any attempt at a thesis-level breakdown. So, with that in mind…

One of the aspects of Stalker that I latched onto immediately is the reverence for nature that’s baked into it, which is somewhat unexpected given American stereotypes about Soviet Russian culture and a film about an area that sounds more than a bit like the exclusion zone around Chernobyl. But Stalker very intentionally shows the everyday world as a dystopian muddy mess of wires, rubble, and smoke stacks drenched in monochromatic color. The dreariness of society extends to the characters as well: The Stalker’s home and relationship to his wife are oppressive, the Professor feels quietly resigned sitting in the bar, and the first words we hear from the Writer are ones of disillusionment. It’s a bleak, miserable place that the three of them are barely able to escape from.

However, once we enter the zone, the color palette of the film opens up entirely. Greens and blues, lush foliage, sunlight peaking through trees. The Stalker mentions that it’s too early to start so he wanders off… And promptly rolls around in the grass, in ecstasy over being reconnected with what he feels is home. I feel that moment in my bones. Likewise, when the Writer attempts to pull up a tree and the Stalker heaves a pipe at him and shouts that “the Zone requires respect, or it punishes you.” Oh, the times I’ve wanted to do that to people for how they treat the forest.

There’s a dream-like quality to the Zone that I find really engrossing, and so much of the mid-section of the film is comprised of long takes with little to no dialogue. The scene where the three stop to rest in a bog is trance-inducing with the sound of dripping water, rustling grass, and elements that may or may not be tangible like the black dog approaching the Stalker. There are a dozen other moments like this throughout the film and I can’t think of anything else like it; it’s maybe the closest representation in cinema to the “feel” of nature that I’ve seen.

On the other hand, I love the tension created by implying what the Zone can do without directly showing it. The Stalker throwing metal nuts with ribbon attached to them in order to find a safe path to the Room combined with his warnings about following exactly in his footsteps is really unnerving, as is the way that that people and objects seem to jump in time/space. The Professor somehow leapfrogs them after they leave him behind looking for his rucksack, and there’s a shot just outside the Room where a falcon seems to hit an invisible wall, vanish, and reappear. “Restrained” seems like an understatement, but those moments are wildly effective to me.

It’s tempting to reduce the Writer to someone who just wants material reward as he alludes to that a few times, but I think in reality he’s going to the Zone because he has nothing else. As the Stalker says, the people who go are ones who have lost all hope and the Writer embodies that. At one point, the Writer goes off on a diatribe about how critics, editors, et al want something more from him, and to satisfy them he should enter the zone to become a “genius.” But at the same time, he asks what would be the point of writing if he’s a genius? If there’s no room for improvement, no struggle, why bother continuing to do something? When he is finally confronted with the option of entering the Room, he stops and says, “I do not want to spill all the trash that has accumulated inside me, on anybody’s head. I’d rather drink myself to death quietly and peacefully in my stinky writer’s private residence.”

The tale of Porcupine wanting to bring back his dead brother but receiving only money made the Writer realize that what he intellectually wants and what he truly desires is not the same thing. The writer is filled with self-loathing and despite his cavalier attitude throughout their journey, he’s ultimately most afraid of himself. The Zone shows him this and, in a way, gives him that which he desires most: An unknown to struggle against, a thing to conquer. When we meet him at the beginning he’s reducing all of the world’s mysteries to laws and triangles, but when we leave him, he’s admitted to himself that “his essence” is the real mystery. It terrifies him, but it is nevertheless meaningful.

The Professor, as we learn at the threshold, wants to destroy the Room and the ability for “any scum” to come there and make a wish that could harm the world. But after hearing the Stalker’s pleas that the Room represents hope for the hopeless, the Professor rejects his own plan and says he “doesn’t understand anything at all”. I think in that moment he comes to realize that his fears of what *might* happen don’t outweigh his immediate cruelty to the Stalker and others that come to the place with hope. In a way, the Professor turning away is a shot at science itself: To remove all things from life that can’t be explained- to extinguish faith- would be anti-human and against his overall desire to make the world a better place.

Which leads me to one of the hardest parts of the film to dig into, which is the subtle(?) commentary on faith. I hadn’t really caught onto this until my most recent viewing, but both the Professor and the Writer point out that the Stalker is the one who told them both about Porcupine, the Room, the rules of the Zone, all of it. Obviously the Zone itself is very tangible given the defenses around it, but the Professor and the Writer are both taking leaps of faith in believing the Stalker about the Room. The Writer even seems to mock this at one point by fashioning a crown of thorns, telling the Stalker that he understands him but “I will not forgive you” as he puts it on and walks away.

At the end of the film, Stalker is distraught not so much by the fact that neither man entered the Room, but that “the organ with which they believe has atrophied”. He’s upset that the men didn’t need to enter, that his ability to give people what they need by leading them to the room wasn’t useful this time. I’d argue that this is ultimately kind of a reverse arc: The Writer and Professor leave the Zone with a better understanding of themselves, whereas the Stalker leaves broken by seeing two people have a total lack of faith in what the Room could offer them (that point of view maybe makes a bit more sense when you consider that, at the time Stalker was made, religion was being outlawed in Soviet Russia and Tarkovsky was a devout Christian).

The final shot on Monkey, the stalker’s daughter, is something that sticks with me for awhile after each viewing because I’m never sure how to take it. My gut reaction is always to believe that she has a telekinetic ability but, despite that ability, she’s already feeling the burden of life: Held down by poverty, crippled by the inability to walk, and living under the thumb of an all-controlling government. It reinforces the Stalker’s view that pain is necessary for hope, and for Monkey to have hope, she must have pain. It’s a bittersweet note to leave on.

That said, I’ve read at least a half dozen other interpretations of the ending, all of which are interesting and just as plausible. Some people interpret the train passing by as Monkey pushes the glass off the table as symbolic of how we make great leaps in the development of civilization before we really know how to utilize them for the betterment of humanity. The Zone gave Stalker a daughter with extraordinary power, but neither of them has any concept of what to do with those powers yet.

I think the first time I watched Stalker I felt it was more bleak than anything else. Over time though, and especially watching it now, I feel pretty strongly that it’s ultimately a positive film about the place of suffering in our lives and it resonates harder than ever given current events. We can’t rid our lives of struggle or suffering, but fighting against it is what allows us to appreciate peace and happiness, and we have to believe that we can find those things, or hope is lost.