I did it. I watched Tarkovsky’s Stalker, it took me four consecutive late nights, and only after the Andrei Rublev disc I was watching refused to work anymore. I don’t what I saw exactly, or if what I thought I saw was in reality what I really saw. It was one of those films like 2001, Eraserhead or Donnie Darko, where you’re not exactly sure what you’re watching or what it all means.
Three scraggy, bald middle-aged men, one is a mysterious mercenary called a ‘Stalker’, one who says he’s a physicist, ‘The Scientist’, and a third chatty man who claims to be an intellectual, ‘The Writer’ meet together in a bar before embarking dangerous journey into forbidden area called ‘The Zone’. Except for this, and the Stalker’s angry wife critising her husband for his selfish decision to abandon her and their daughter in order to take these men into the Zone, there is basically nothing that explains what is actually going.
The remaining three hours is mostly long, long uninterrupted takes of these characters wandering aimlessly around derelict warehouses, surveying the landscape, philosophizing, and arguing who should take the first step whenever they change course. The film starts in beautiful B&W cinematography and Tarkovsky uses a track to slowly, slowly creep over the various empty rooms and backalleys, until entering the Zone when it mysteriously switches to colour film, and the characters can see vivid greenery consuming the remains of this abandoned city.
The Stalker reminds the two men, who remain incredulous, to watch their step and that they could be killed at any moment. It’s here that the men succumb to sleep and gradually that they might just going around in circles, trapped in a labyrinth that exists partly in their own consciousness and partly in the real world which all appears to look the same. Their destination remains unclear, but the Stalker eventually leads them to a rusty metal doorway, underground, which looks the same as all the other doorways they’ve been passing.
It’s difficult to know if this is all meant to be dream, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, which no doubt Tarkovsk must’ve thought of, or if the characters have simply become poisoned by somekind of hallucinogenic radiation, as if this film somehow prophesied the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.Or, if the men have just gone insane, and their own delusions have warped each other’s experience of these surrounding. It remains an enigma, with the characters pontificating about the meaning of life, their dark past and regrets, and contemplating whether this Zone is even real.
In certain scenes, a dog appears and leads to them the skeletal remains of couple sheltering in a corner. The men pass a huddle of derelict tanks, allegedly destroyed by the Zone, but clearly the aftermath of the second world war. A muddy farmer’s field appears to vibrate and move as if it just material laid ontop of river. In another scene, the writer loses a pistol, tries to run and ends up lost among a room filled with dunes of sand. A large eagle flies into the room and vanishes in shot, and the reappears like Keanue Reeves spotting the reappearing cat in The Matrix, or DiCaprio realising that he’s trapped in a dream in Inception.
What does all this mean? No idea. This was the Tarkovsky film I’d ever seen, and I’d gone in cold, not knowing if this was meant to symbolize or represent an allegory of Russia’s dark political history or their current philosophical or spiritual anxieties. It could represent all of these, or none of these, and seems entirely up to the viewer to make their own judgements. I don’t know if this makes it a masterpiece, but I was glad when it was over. If it really is over or just in my mind.
Here’s an interesting link to a script analysis I couldn’t be bothered to read: http://www.shorescripts.com/shore-scripts-prizes/