Andrei Tarkovsky’s crew found a grim place to shoot the scenes inside the film’s mystical Zone – two deserted hydro power plants just outside Tallinn. There had also been a chemical factory on this site and, according to sound designer Vladimir Sharun, there was still poisonous liquids pouring out from the factory into a river. The whole area was toxic and several people would years later die from cancer, including Tarkovsky and co-star Anatoly Solonitsyn. Many in the crew harbored no doubts what had happened.
This knowledge contributes to an eerie, foreboding feeling whenever we revisit this movie. For me, it was an intriguing journey back to film school two decades ago.
Taking clients into the Zone
Stalker takes place sometime in the future, in a society where the regime has sealed off a huge area called the Zone. A man (Alexander Kaidanovsky) works as a stalker, taking clients clandestinely into the Zone. Against his wife’s wishes he’s enlisted by two men, referred to as the Writer and the Professor (Solonitsyn, Nikolai Grinko), as their guide into the Zone. There’s a military blockade, but the three men successfully enter the area, riding on a railway work car. The Stalker tells his clients to be careful and do as he says; there are dangers and traps that may not be visible to them, but the Stalker knows how to avoid them. He constantly tests the ground ahead by throwing balls of metal and cloth; if nothing happens, they’re safe. The goal is to reach the Room, a place said to grant the wishes of anyone who steps inside.
Few similarities with the novel
Tarkovsky’s initial interest in the novel was to adapt it as an academical exercise, an example of the three unities, a theory of dramatic tragedy dating back to the 1500s. There are few similarities with the novel, which had more obvious sci-fi elements. Much like Last Year at Marienbad (1961) and the director’s own Solaris (1972), the film has a haunting effect, presenting a dreamlike scenario. Stalker has two worlds, a sepia-toned reality and the forbidden Zone where the colors suddenly come out, like in The Wizard of Oz (1939). What is hidden inside the Zone is a mystery and we never learn what lies behind it, even if there are plenty of human traces around. The Stalker brought two kinds of intellectuals with him, symbols of science and the imaginary, which is constantly reflected in their conversations throughout the film. The discussions emphasize their different approaches, but the true nature of the Room also becomes challenging; a symbol of human hope, it is inevitably a danger to our psyche.
As the three men wander around the Zone, and cinematographer Aleksandr Knyazhinskiy captures them in slow takes, it’s easy to look at the beautiful landscape and its rusting, poisoned objects as a symbol of Russian tragedy; a magnificent country, always ruined by its masters, the tsars, the communists, the oligarchs and the Putin-era nationalists. Sound plays a key role in the film, water and trains lending the film a rhythm and special atmosphere.
The last scene is unforgettable as the Stalker’s daughter seems to make glasses move on a table through telekinesis, Beethoven’s ”Ode to Joy” playing softly in the background. The meaning of it? You figure it out… but maybe it’s possible to preserve the hope of the Room?
Stalker 1979-Soviet Union. 160 min. Color-B/W. Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. Screenplay, Novel: Arkadiy Strugatskiy, Boris Strugatskiy (”Roadside Picnic”). Cinematography: Aleksandr Knyazhinskiy. Cast: Alexander Kaidanovsky (The Stalker), Anatoly Solonitsyn (The Writer), Nikolai Grinko (The Professor), Alice Freindlich.
Trivia: The novel also inspired a Finnish film, Zone (2012).
Last word: “There was a scene where characters drive a Land Rover and rush into Zone through the gate of UN to follow a locomotive that carries a platform with electro-ceramic insulators. It was quite comic. Tarkovsky (who was overcoming the noise of the locomotive) explained through the megaphone to a driver that he should move when he waves his hand. At the same time he was showing how he would do it. But the driver didn’t hear all the words and drove off. Tarkovsky shouted: ‘No, no, not now, during filming!’ The locomotive was stopped and, panting heavily, returned. Tarkovsky started to explain it again, but that time without showing. Suddenly the locomotive began to move again. Confused, Tarkovsky turned to his colleagues: ‘I did not wave!’ It turned out that, behind him, his assistant Eugene Tsymbal was showing the driver the gesture.” (Sergei Bessmertniy, a mechanic on set, Cinephilia & Beyond)