GFF20 #15: Stalker (USSR 1979)

The journey through the Zone begins on a petrol-driven trolley

Glasgow’s retrospective this year was ‘Are We There Yet? A Retrospective of the Future’ and amongst the many Hollywood films selected for this strand, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker stood out as something different. I don’t think I saw Stalker when it arrived in the UK, but I knew something about the film. I was therefore surprised that a 162 minute film which has baffled audiences for 40 years should attract a nearly full house in GFT1 (260 seats taken according to Festival co-director Allan Hunter). Admittedly this was a free show, like all the morning shows in the retrospective, but even so the turnout was impressive.

The starting point for Stalker was a novel, originally titled Roadside Picnic, by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky. There are numerous stories about the production of the film but most point towards Tarkovsky’s decision to use the novel only as ‘inspiration’ rather than to adapt it ‘faithfully’, although I think some have argued it is quite close to the novel (which I haven’t read). In addition, reported problems with the filmstock used and a dispute with the original cinematographer meant that Tarkovsky re-shot much of the film and there is a credit part-way through the Curzon DCP which announces ‘Part 2’ and therefore, I think, the new material.

If you haven’t seen the film, the narrative starts from the premise that after some kind of major incident (which in the novel is an alien visitation which the aliens treat ‘like a picnic’) an area of land is cordoned off and access is denied to the public. This is ‘the Zone’. A group of individuals have spent time trying to find ways into the Zone and these people are known as ‘Stalkers’. The narrative opens with a Stalker (Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy) leaving his wife and child at home and meeting two men, the ‘Professor’ (Nikolay Grinko) and a ‘Writer’ (Anatoliy Solonitsyn) who will pay him to lead them into the Zone. Why do they want to go there? The local legend is that at the centre of the Zone is a building with a room in which anyone who enters successfully is able to have any wish granted. The Stalker tells them that the Zone is very difficult to navigate and that only he and his few fellows know the pathways and how to find them. He refers to the most famous Stalker who was known as ‘Porcupine’.

The Writer

The film is divided into sections marked by the use of colour filters or distinctive palettes. The opening in the house of the Stalker and the bar where he meets his two customers is presented in a yellowish sepia, many of the scenes indoors/underground in the ‘Zone’ have a palette primarily of greys, contrasting with outdoor sequences in full colour dominated by the greens of vegetation. The final sequences set back near the Stalker’s home are perhaps again yellowish sepia. (I’m confused here since the many stills online don’t always match what I think I saw in Glasgow.) The film is presented in Academy ratio and there are two types of colour stock used as well as black and white according to IMdB.

Stalker has been described in many ways but like all films labelled as ‘science fiction’ it is about ‘now’ rather than anything futuristic. The film seemed to me to be primarily concerned with living in the USSR. This in turn requires entering a number of philosophical debates about how to survive in the society and what it is that keeps people going. We do find out what the Professor and the Writer are seeking but several questions are unanswered by the narrative. The most obvious is why the Stalker hasn’t entered the room and obtained his own wish – which might be for money to support his family or for a cure for the affliction which means his daughter has difficulty walking.

The Writer and the Professor

I should point out that I found the film very heavy going. Partly that might be because I was feeling under the weather anyway with a heavy cold but I think I stayed alert throughout the running time. However, I am now finding it difficult to remember some parts of the narrative. I saw my first three Tarkovsky films on release in UK cinemas, Solaris (1972), Andrei Rublev (1973) and Mirror (1980) and not only did I enjoy them but I found myself moved by them in different ways. When I watched Tarkovsky’s début film Ivan’s Childhood (1962) some years later on video, I was similarly knocked out. Why then did I not respond to Stalker? I don’t know. I was impressed by the camerawork and some of the ‘action sequences’ such as the initial breaking into the Zone, the walk across it and some of the sequences inside the buildings, but for some reason I wasn’t engaged. I wasn’t sure what to make of the opening and closing sequences with the Stalker and his wife and daughter. It may be that I just couldn’t tune into the religious and and more broadly philosophical questions – though these are also present in various ways in some of the earlier films. More likely, is that the narrative itself is much more abstract and though it isn’t difficult to see some of the links to a critique of Soviet society, I tend to enjoy narratives that are more materially, more sociologically grounded (or in the case of Solaris, couched in more specific generic structures).

There are many, many pieces written about Stalker from eminent film critics and scholars to auteur fans. There are also many attempts to explain the narrative. Stalker has become one of those films that are endlessly argued over. You can easily find many of these on YouTube and through simple searches. Perhaps I need to watch it again – or perhaps I should seek out his last two films? I’m pleased Glasgow screened it and I’m glad I saw it in what is now considered a large cinema. Here’s the trailer for a recent restoration of Stalker:

2 comments

  1. keith1942

    Interesting. Did the Festival provide any information as to whether this was the original version or some variation? My recollection is that there were versions with different soundtracks.
    I sympathise with ‘baffled audiences’. The second time I saw it was in Bradford in the 1990s; a special screening for University students. They looked pretty baffled by the end.
    My take on Tarkovsky is that the longer his career went on the more alienating his work became; and, like some Soviet writers, he appeared to become more religious.
    I think ‘Ivan’s Childhood’, and ‘Andrei Rublev’ are great. ‘Solaris’ I find impressive. But ‘Mirror’ seems to me to have more of his vices and less of his virtues. And I find ‘Stalker’ a transitional work; very much about pollution in the Soviet Union as i recall. It was released in two parts originally.

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    • Roy Stafford

      Having checked the BBFC website, I’m fairly sure we watched the Curzon/Artificial Eye re-release print classified in March 2016. This is 22 seconds longer than the cinema release from Contemporary films classified in December 1980 and reviewed in the January 1981 issue of Monthly Film Bulletin. I can’t find any evidence of any release actually in two parts in the UK, only the ‘Part two’ intertitle in the print we watched. The Richard Combs review seems quite sensible and so does Gilbert Adair’s in the Winter 1980/1 issue of Sight and Sound. Both reviewers hint at the possibility that Tarkovsky’s stance re critiquing the Soviet state has changed and that he might not be able to make future films in the same way. He then travelled to Italy to make Nostalgia (as a co-production in 1983) and ultimately to Sweden to make The Sacrifice (1986).

      Incidentally, my records show that I saw Mirror in June 1980 at the Camden Plaza. I can’t say I remember the screening, but when I saw it on DVD a few years ago I found it very interesting.

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