Stalker is based on the science fiction novella Roadside Picnic (1971) by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky. It concerns a brief alien visit to Earth, and the aliens having left mysterious “zones” here and there, where the laws of physics don’t function normally. The focus of the movie is one such zone. It is closed to the public, but it is rumored that there is a room in one of the structures inside the zone where wishes can come true. A few so-called “stalkers” exist to illegally lead curious fortune-seekers into the zone to show them this miraculous room. The main character is such a stalker, and he is paid by an author and a science professor to lead them in there. The author is disillusioned about both humanity’s and his own spiritual and artistic deterioration, and the professor is driven by scientific desires both gross and subtle, and wants to understand what the zone really is. Very carefully, our stalker leads the two men deep into the zone, while they philosophize and quarrel among themselves.
The story takes place in a near future where eastern Europe looks just as post-apocalyptically worn-down, polluted and dilapidated as you might expect – a look which was also a significant influence on Lars von Trier’s first feature movie, The Element of Crime (1984). The characters enter the zone by a railway handcar, and the quiet and depopulated area is filled with both ruinous debris and natural beauty. There is the detritus of abandoned factories and housing projects, chaotically scattered railway tracks and an uneven terrain resembling a no man’s land, all overgrown with trees, bushes and weeds, as a slowly vanishing testament to a civilization that self-destructed. The concomitant atmosphere is strangely pure and tranquil – a melancholy mausoleum to unfulfillable human ambition.
The journey of the stalker and his two followers progresses as it has to, painstakingly carefully, and hence painfully slowly. The pacing is characterized by almost hypnotically slow-moving scenes, comprising a (successful) attempt to draw the viewer into, and share, the perspective of the author and the professor. The two represent, respectively, all humanity’s artistic and scientific ambitions, and the room where wishes come true is the ineffable end point of our existentialist quest for self-knowledge. Having survived various perils, our protagonists finally reach the room, but thorough soul-searching is required before they can make their wishes. Because, are they even sure what to wish for? The stalker tells them about some of the previous ones who have had their wishes fulfilled here. Apparently, it is not your stated wish that is fulfilled; rather, you receive what you deserve, depending on your general moral lifestyle. In other words, you will be judged, and the ultimate moral consequences of the kind of life you lead will be revealed to you. Are you going to like what you see? The author and the professor are both wracked with doubt.
The stalker himself, although the most laconic, is the most fascinating and well-characterized of the three. He understands, to a degree, how the almost self-aware zone is working, and so he is able to guide people through the enigmatic, ever-changing and potentially lethal landscape. Upon reaching the wishing room, the stalker never avails himself of it, for which the zone rewards him with protection, in the form of a black dog that senses his sympathetic soul. Back home, outside of the zone, the stalker has a wife and young daughter, with whom he has a troubled relationship. The wife keeps saying that she can’t wait for him when he goes into the zone, but she’s always still there where he comes back.
The first and last scene of the movie is of a freight-train speeding by, making everything in the stalker’s home shake and rattle. In the final scene the shaking turns on the record player, and we see the stalker’s daughter stare dreamingly into the camera while we faintly sense the words from the fourth movement of Beethoven’s 9th: “tochter aus Elysium”. A breathtakingly beautiful end scene.
My DVD from Scandinavian distributor Another World Entertainment contains the restored and remastered version of the movie, and the picture quality is surprisingly sharp and crisp. There is also trailers, a featurette about Tarkovsky and three interviews with a set decorator, cinematographer and soundtrack composer. Very good stuff.
director: andrei tarkovsky
cast: aleksandr kajdanovsky, alisa frejndlikh, anatoli solonitsyn, and others
runtime: 163 min.
country: soviet union/germany