If there was a magical room that could grant your deepest wish, would you seek it out? The answer, for the three main characters in Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” (1979), is a grim yes. Two of them, known only as the Professor and the Writer, have hired the titular Stalker as their guide through the mysterious Zone. This is a derelict area that nature has reclaimed, where unseen dangers lurk around every corner and reality is ever so slightly bent. The three navigate around fallen electrical poles and abandoned military tanks, through crumbling buildings and partially submerged tunnels, eventually arriving in the debris-riddled remains of what might once have been a factory. The Room lies at last before them. Their deepest desires could be realized in a single step.
But, to understand the significance of this journey, we must first look back in time. Before “Stalker”, there was the Strugatsky brothers’ novel “Roadside Picnic,” published in 1972. Here, the Zone is the by-product of an alien visitation, littered with artifacts and physics-defying traps that captivate and confound scientists. Stalkers fulfill black market demands for such artifacts by trespassing into the Zone to collect them. This is a hazardous occupation, with the traps claiming many lives and prison awaiting those who make it back. Those lucky enough to evade both the police and the Zone nevertheless face a different form of punishment: their children are born with strange, inhuman mutations.
These details provide a clearer sense of urgency than the film, where the Zone’s lush greenery presents idyllic scenes with only a hazy suggestion of risk. The Stalker insists on showing respect for the Zone and moving with extreme caution through it, but his clients do not always understand or adhere to those instructions. As they progress towards the Room, the Writer is shown to be jaded and hedonistic, though he also demonstrates an awareness of his own shortcomings. The Professor comes across as meek and uninspired but later reveals a radical plan to blow up the Room. This is conveyed largely through actions and facial expressions across endless long takes: the dialogue is sparse, if prone to monologuing, and the characters are often visibly lost in thought. The journey is as much an exploration of the human mind as it is of the Zone.
This journey also lasts for 161 minutes, which is the length of two consecutive Tuesday/Thursday classes plus the break in between. If you think that sounds like a good way to spend the Sunday evening after Valentine’s Day, you were probably at the screening of “Stalker” organized in conjunction with RUSS043: Chernobyl — Nuclear Narratives and the Environment.
Nothing evokes existential dread like sitting in Sci 199 with pizza and a fizzy drink, while what has been hailed as one of the greatest cinematic masterpieces of all times plays on the left screen. Not that the juxtaposition of broke college student and high art is necessary in that regard: Tarkovsky provides us with plenty of philosophical questions, as the characters question their own motivations for venturing into the Zone and whether or not they truly wish to step into the Room. The professor teaching RUSS043, who is both sick and missing time with family on Valentine’s weekend to be here, supplies us with the occasional mournful cough. Kanopy periodically bumps the resolution down, rendering the subtitles unreadable. It’s strangely poetic, the incomprehensibility of the Zone translated into linguistic incomprehensibility for the audience. We chew on our pizza crusts and try not to squeak in our swivel chairs.
Though the film is long, every shot is beautifully framed, and the languid pace of the camera conveys an almost voyeuristic indulgence. One sequence takes us ever so slowly across a submerged tiled floor, moving along the body of a syringe, across the barrel of a gun, over a religious icon, and, finally, away from the underwater detritus to caress the Stalker’s hand with our gaze. In any other film, this would be an indicator that these objects are somehow symbolic or significant to the plot. Tarkovsky himself rejected the need to interpret his work based on symbolism and indeed, it is simultaneously easy to ascribe meaning to the objects in the water and difficult to say that that is the message the film wishes to present. Instead, the slow pace is an invitation to wander, light reflecting off the surface of the water as if encouraging us to reflect on our own lives.
Watching this film within the context of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster provides additional interpretations to consider. Both “Stalker” and “Roadside Picnic” were produced before the nuclear disaster, but the precarious sociopolitical atmosphere that lent itself to their creation is the same one that gave rise to Chernobyl. The benign yet deadly nature of the Zone is analogous to the Chernobyl exclusion zone, and the mutations displayed by Stalkers’ children are a clear metaphor for radiation. In an eerie twist of luck, fate, or perhaps prophetic vision on Tarkovsky’s part, “Stalker” was filmed at two deserted hydro power plants in Estonia, and the Professor mentions finding his bomb in Reactor 4. This seems like a shoehorned-in reference to the fire in Chernobyl’s Reactor No. 4 — until you realize that the film predates the fire by seven years.
As the three men arrive at last at the Room, the Writer comes to a realization about its nature. The Room grants your deepest wish — not what you ask for, or what you think you want, but what is truly at the core of your being. He makes an example of an anecdote presented earlier by the Stalker: a man called Porcupine entered the Room and asked it to bring his dead brother back to life, but was instead given wealth. When Porcupine understood that that was his real deepest wish, he hanged himself. The grisly moral, then, is that you never know for sure what you will get until you enter the Room, and then you have to deal with the consequences of your own innermost desire. It’s a thought-provoking idea: humans don’t or can’t know what we really want and giving us what we truly want can be dangerous and destructive. At worst, we could argue that humans’ desire for power caused the Chernobyl disaster; at best, our hubris and greed affect ourselves and those around us to a similar degree as Porcupine’s suicide.
At the end of the film, the Stalker, in a feverish exhaustion, questions his own actions and purpose in life. He has led many people to the Room, but no one returns satisfied; he risks his life for a living and has little to show for it. “It isn’t enough,” he repeats again and again.
This sentiment, along with the image of the Stalker lying in blissful rest in the tall grass, provide as clear a message as I can confidently extract from the film. It will never be enough, as human nature can never be satisfied — but there is happiness to be found in the small moments, in losing oneself in wandering and reflection. In an increasingly connected, fast-paced world, there is power in taking time, as time is all we have. This, then, is the power Tarkovsky exerts over his viewers: we are confined to the unhurried meandering of the camera, forcing us to give him our time and receiving the technicolor splendor of the Zone in return.
Featured Image courtesy of wikipedia.org