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STALKER (director/writer: Andrei Tarkovsky; screenwriter: from the book Picnic on the Roadside by the Strugatsky brothers’ Arkady & Boris; cinematographer: Alexander Knyazhinsky; editor: Lyudmila Feiginova; music: Eduard Artemyev; cast: Aleksandr Kajdanovsky (Stalker), Alisa Frejndlikh (Stalker’s Wife), Anatoli Solonitsyn (Writer), Nikolai Grinko (Scientist), Natasha Abramova (Martha, Stalker’s daughter); Runtime: 160; MPAA Rating: PG; producer: Alexandra Demidova; Media Transactions; 1979-USSR, in Russian with English subtitles)
“The film is only as good as what the individual brings to it.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky (“Solaris”/”The Mirror”/”Nostalghia”/”Andrei Rublev”) has created yet another masterpiece in this very difficult to fully absorb high art film played as a fascinating philosophical metaphorical tract, which offers an account of a mystical journey into an unspecified zone full of unforeseen hazardous traps (which may be true or only based on a superstition). The men known only as the Writer (Anatoli Solonitsyn) and the Scientist (Nikolai Grinko) are led by a guide called only by the nickname of the Stalker (Aleksandr Kajdanovsky) on this mind-bending trek. The men of reason are led by the married man with a crippled daughter, with the power of performing psychokinesis, named Monkey; he is someone who is a failure in the eyes of the world and is humbled by being a poor provider for his family but though downtrodden is pure of heart and has a loving relationship with his faithful wife who married him despite knowing he was a marked man.

It’s based on the 1975 novel Picnic on the Roadside by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky, who are brothers. Like all Tarkovsky films it is grounded in finding one’s roots and knowing that one is possessed of an inner freedom-a supposed worldly weakness born out of a moral conviction that provides one’s faith to overcome the seemingly stronger forces in the world. The plot line weaves its way through a necessary spiritual crisis so that healing can begin. For the filmmaker, a spiritual crisis is an attempt to find redemption and acquire a stronger or new faith through the means of discovering the kind of love located in a zone no one can ever take away from mankind. The hero of the film is the Stalker, perhaps not unlike Joseph Conrad’s protagonist in “The Heart of Darkness.” The filmmaking style it most emulates is from Jean Cocteau’ 1950 Orpheus. Though awkward at times, the sheer beauty of the pure cinematic images and the fixing of the journey in a timeless state of the here and now, calls for the whole film to be viewed as a single continuous shot. It’s an interactive film, which calls for both the filmmaker and the viewer to bring to the table their experiences to observe the poetic truths. The film is only as good as what the individual brings to it. Intellect alone will not be enough to get at what Tarkovsky is aiming for. The filmmaker has said “Anyone who wants can look at my films as into a mirror, in which he will see himself.” He further states “My function is to make whoever sees my films aware of his need to love and to give his love, and aware that beauty is summoning him.”

The three characters, all with shaved heads and looks of refugees from the Gulag, set out on their journey to the Zone (According to Tarkovsky: “The Zone doesn’t symbolize anything, any more than anything else does in my films; the zone is a zone, it’s life, and as he makes his way across it a man may break down or he may come through. Whether he comes through or not depends on his own self-respect, and his capacity to distinguish between what matters and what is merely passing”). Their destination is the Room–which passes as some kind of bunker where everybody’s innermost wish will be granted. In the narrative the Zone was created some thirty years ago when either a meteorite or aliens from outer space landed–leaving a trail of radio-active destruction, a string of useless telephone poles jutting out of the ground like crosses, religious icons, hypodermic needles, a technology of decay and references to a possible nuclear war called the Great Patriotic War. The area, which has a time-warp, has since been barb wired off to the public after some troops went on a mission and never returned. It was filmed in Tallinn, Estonia, which gives it a naturalistic bombed-out look. The only ones taking scientists there, who despite the dangers view the area as a must see for their research, are guides such as the Stalker and his mentor friend Porcupine. Stalker’s friend took his brother into the Zone but returned alone as a very wealthy man, only to hang himself a week later–evidently he wished for something else but, nevertheless, his most secret innermost wish was recognized and the Porcupine couldn’t go on any longer knowing his life has been futile.

The Writer and the Scientists are foils to the Stalker, as they lack the faith (which is viewed as something so difficult to maintain that it leaves even some of mankind’s best minds in a spiritual dilemma and at a crossroad where they lose the way. The Scientist will view the Room as a danger to mankind: fearing it can be exploited at any time by tyrants and it’s up to him to rid the world of this false ideal now. The Scientist doesn’t have the art to grok the metaphysical and private nature of the Room, but is thwarted in his attempt to blow it up with a nuclear device. The Writer is better prepared to grok it, but when push comes to shove he can’t trust his soul to the Room’s test of his beliefs. It’s purposely left hazy as to the psychological difficulties that leave the Writer unable to be a believer, as there is so much human baggage that goes into someone making their ultimate stand. It turns out that the best one suited to survive the Zone is the Stalker because his only hope is in love and he’s prepared to give up his life on the remote chance he can find love through enlightenment and sacrifice.

Andrei Tarkovsky’s father Arseny was a poet. The filmmaker uses his poem “But There Has to be More” to shed more light on what he was driving at.

Now summer is gone. And might never have been. In the sunshine it’s warm. But there has to be more.

It all came to pass,All fell into my handslike a five-petalled leaf,But there has to be more.

Nothing evil was lost,Nothing good was in vain,All ablaze with clear lightBut there has to be more.

Life gathered me up Safe under its wing,My luck always held,But there has to be more.

Not a leaf was burnt upNot a twig ever snapped …Clean as glass is the day,But there has to be more.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”