Since his untimely death in 1986, Andrei Tarkovsky has come to be seen as one of the most respected and influential of art house filmmakers. However, while the world cinema community are well within their rights to adopt Tarkovsky as the patron saint of all that is both beautiful and difficult, it is important to remember that Andrei Tarkovsky was a filmmaker who learned his craft in Soviet Russia.
As one might expect of a culture that prided itself on both its revolutionary and its proletarian roots, Soviet cinema was one of the first cultural traditions to realise the radical potential of the cinematic medium. Indeed, while French and English filmmakers were still drawing inspiration from their respective theatrical traditions, Soviet filmmakers like Lev Kuleshov and Sergei Eisenstein were breaking with existing artistic practice and trying to find all new ways to communicate ideas to a mass audience. One of the ideas they hit upon was that images selected and assembled to produce so-called montages conveyed information in a manner that was totally unique to the cinematic medium. For example, if you present the audience with an image of a smiling old man followed by an image of a small child, the audience will link the two images together and interpret the connection as a sign that the old man is some sort of kindly patriarch. Conversely, if the smiling man is followed by an image of a young woman in a bikini, chances are that the audience will interpret the old man’s smile as a perverted leer. Alfred Hitchcock famously referred to this odd quirk of human psychology as ‘pure cinema’ but most film theorists know it as the Kuleshov effect, a phenomenon that demonstrates not only how audiences make sense of montage sequences but also quite how much of a film’s meaning is forged in the minds of its audience.
While two generations separate Tarkovsky from the pioneers of Soviet Montage Theory, it is rewarding to think of his films in terms of their relationship to those post-revolutionary cinematic pioneers. For example, the striking but disconnected imagery of Tarkovsky’s Mirror may look like memories torn from the mind of a dying man but they invite us to forge connections in the same way as those audiences who leapt to their own conclusions about the old men smiling at women and babies. Similarly, Tarkovsky’s third film Solaris may be concerned with the intersection of memory and guilt but the phantoms created by that film’s living ocean are nothing more than products of aliens trying to reconstruct people using only the fragmented memories that survived in the minds of those who loved, lusted, hated, and yearned for them.
Both of these films engage with Soviet Montage Theory by expressing real doubts about the authenticity of the meanings generated by the Kuleshov effect. For example, Mirror subjects its audience to one beautifully evocative image after another and yet we never come close to understanding the person from whose mind they were extracted. Solaris explores a similar idea by suggesting that while the creatures assembled by the vast alien ocean do become more sophisticated and ‘realistic’ with the passage of time, they never quite manage to achieve the critical density at which disconnected thoughts cohere into real personhood.
Tarkovsky may have been a genius but he was also the product of a very specific cultural moment. His films are littered with religious symbolism and articulate a profound yearning after spiritual truth but his stories inevitably seem to deposit their characters in states of complete existential crisis. The tension between the content of Tarkovsky’s stories and the style in which he chose to tell them speaks not only to the absence of religion in Soviet lives but also to the brutal materialism implied by Soviet Montage Theory. Indeed, if people can extract meaning from the juxtaposition of two completely unrelated images, how can we imbue this meaning with any form of value? If ‘meaning’ is just a product of the way human brains process information, what are we to make of our desire to find meaning in the chaos of our lives. If the Kuleshov effect tells us that the mind naturally creates connections between unconnected things then surely God is nothing more than a network of imaginary connections projected onto the countless images that make up human lives.
Tarkovsky’s Stalker can be read as part of the same frustrated reaction to the philosophical underpinnings of Soviet cinema. Overflowing with religious imagery and yet littered with the corpses of failed pilgrims, the film considers not only humanity’s search for meaning but also the role of the artist in providing meanings for a lay audience.
When Stalker was first released, many Western critics assumed it was a heavily-concealed critique of a collapsing Soviet regime. Undoubtedly on the brink of collapse, the world of Stalker is said to have been scarred by what might have been either a meteor strike or an aborted alien invasion. This event is said to have lit up the skies and resulted in the unexplained disappearance of hundreds of people but the world’s incompetent and near-invisible government chose not to investigate. Terrified and incapable of explaining what appeared to have happened, the government limited itself to evacuating the area and establishing a military cordon around what has come to be known only as the Zone.
Decades later and the Zone is now abandoned. Forsaken by science and ignored by government, its only human visitors are a cadre of men who have devoted themselves to learning the secrets of the Zone. According to these so-called ‘Stalkers’, the event twisted the fabric of reality and littered the landscape with a series of invisible traps that require expert navigation. However, aside from killing human visitors in a variety of disturbing ways, the Zone also serves a moral function in so far as it contains a room that grants wishes to only the most deserving of visitors. This myth alone ensures a steady stream of illegal visitors who pay the Stalkers to serve as their guides.
The film begins with a series of objects sat on a bedside table. Caught on the edge of sleep, the three inhabitants of the bed stare into space through bleary eyes as vibrations move a glass back and forth across the metal table. Initially unexplained, these movements only start to make sense when we hear a train roar past the small apartment. We see the glass move, we hear the passage of the train, and we choose to perceive a connection between these two ostensibly unconnected events.
As time crawls forward, a man (Alexander Kaidanovsky) pulls himself out of bed and begins to ready himself for the day ahead. After ten full minutes, the man’s wife (Alissa Freindlich) speaks and provides the film with its first line of dialogue: She is outraged that he has decided to break his promise and ‘go back’. While the man remains stony-faced, the woman begins to sob and scream, rolling around the floor in a moment of such oppressive melodrama that it not only anchors the scene in a form of prosaic realism, it also explains why the man would want to ‘go back’ wherever it was he promised not to go.
Though unnamed, the man turns out to be a stalker who has recently been released from prison after being caught sneaking into the Zone. While he promised to remain in the ‘real’ world and help support his disabled daughter, the Stalker has apparently been lured out of retirement by the promise of one last paycheque.
This paycheque is to be provided by two professional and respectable men. Referred to only by their job titles in a move that shrinks their identities down to the horizons of particular jobs, the Writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn) and the Professor (Nikolai Grinko) have been forced into the Zone by what would appear to be professional crises. For example, the Writer speaks about his failure to find any kind of inspiration while the Professor looks somewhat shifty and allows the Writer to accuse him of sneaking into the Zone in order to gather useful scientific data.
As the three men sneak past patrols and force their way through police roadblocks, they settle into a dynamic whereby the Stalker functions as both a guide and interpreter who tells stories in order to help them make sense of what it is they happen to be seeing. At first, the two men are completely uncritical about the wisdom of the Stalker and the film’s shift from sepia-toned monochrome to gorgeous colour film recalls a similar shift in The Wizard of Oz. Unfortunately, doubt begins to creep into the dynamic when the Stalker insists upon taking an extraordinarily circuitous route towards a set of buildings that are scarcely more than ten minutes away when approached in a direct line. Happy to defer to the Stalker’s expert opinion, the Professor does as he is told and steps where he is told to step but the Writer demands to know why they can’t just walk straight across the field.
It is here that the Stalker explains how the event that created the Zone littered the landscape with a series of traps that are as deadly and devious as they are inconsistent. What was once a safe haven may turn out to be deadly just as the places that were once murderous may turn out to be welcoming. Stalker paints a picture of the Zone as a place of murderous chaos and yet no evidence of this chaos is ever forthcoming. Having grown bored of the existing power dynamic, the Writer decides to walk straight across the field until a shouted warning brings him scurrying back to the rest of the group. Did the Stalker shout that warning? Did the Professor? Both deny it and Tarkovsky seems content to preserve the ambiguity of the moment.
Some critics view Stalker as an elaborate religious allegory and it is easy to see why: The world inhabited by the Writer and the Professor contains no evidence of a supernatural presence and yet they are encouraged to make a leap of faith by a man who fulfils the role of priest. As a priest, the Stalker provides his charges not only with a sacred history of the world but also with the – apparently pointless – rituals that are said to protect them from supernatural forces. These forces are also said to have a moral character in so far as they punish the undeserving and reward the righteous but while the Stalker knows the rules of the world and obeys them unquestioningly, he deliberately denies himself any rewards that the Zone might be willing to hand out.
Having introduced us to a set of characters who are struggling to believe the meaning that has been projected onto the world by a religious figure, Tarkovsky slows things down and has the characters fall asleep beside a river littered with evocative objects. Though heart-stopping in its extraordinary beauty, this sequence relies quite specifically on the psychological quirk described by the Kuleshov Effect: As a disembodied voice recites poetry, the camera slides over the surface of a river containing a series of objects including a syringe, a silver platter, coins, a religious icon and a gun. The shot is set up so that the camera glides upwards from the Stalker’s head and many people choose to interpret these images not only as a dream sequence but as a dream sequence that contains a hidden meaning. Tarkovsky chooses his images so carefully and shoots them with such grace that the temptation to search for meaning is almost overwhelming: Wasn’t there a syringe on the table beside the bed at the beginning of the film? Isn’t that a German gun? What would a religious icon be doing in a river near an abandoned Estonian hydro-electrical plant? In truth, the river is a microcosm not only for the rest of the film but for the religious experience in general: We see random images, our brain forges links between them, and we assume these linkages have a substance in the world.
The scene by the river also marks the point at which the relationship between the Stalker and his two charges begins to break down as the Writer comes to realise that he is being used as a mine-sweeper because the Stalker feels closer to the Professor. This obvious favouritism enrages the Writer who accuses the Stalker of being completely arbitrary in his choice of rituals and observances. As the Professor comes clean about the mission that brought him into the Zone, the Writer realises the failure of the entire project. Though cloaked as an attempt to gain access to a room that grants wishes, the journey into the Zone was actually about the search for meaning and the desire to have one’s personal problems dissolved by an act of submission to a larger set of signs and portents. However, far from re-enchanting the world, the Stalker managed only to reveal the arbitrary and self-serving nature of his worldview, thereby ensuring that the only meanings found in the Zone were those brought into it by the pilgrims: The Professor entered the Zone as a vindictive and professionally-frustrated man just as the Writer entered as a man disgusted with himself for allowing his success to change the way he viewed the world. Like all priests, the Stalker put on a good show and drowned his potential converts in a river of evocative imagery but none of those meanings stuck because none of those meanings were ever anything more than hope and the very human tendency to see order in chaos even when that order is nothing more than a figment of our imaginations.
To drive home his point, Tarkovsky concludes the film with an echo of its opening scene. Back in the real world, the Stalker has a daughter known as Monkey who has no legs because of the taint left on the Stalker by the Zone. As Monkey sits by a table, glasses begin to move back and forth across its surface. Given that we have been told that Monkey’s disabilities are the product of the Stalker’s relationship with the Zone, we naturally draw on our knowledge of science fiction tropes and leap to the conclusion that Monkey is some sort of X-Men style mutant with the power of telekinesis. However, just as the film ends, we hear the passage of the same train as in that opening scene and the differences between the beginning and ending of the film force us to ask a question: What made us conclude that while the train was responsible for moving the glass in the opening scene, Monkey was responsible for moving the glasses at the end of the film? The film provides no answers and both scenes can be seen either as proof of Monkey’s telekinesis or the vibrations caused by the arrival of the train. Despite this complete ambiguity, we cannot help but leap to certain conclusions and this places us in the same position as the characters in the film. All we want is meaning and yet all we see is images. Unable to find meaning in the chaos of the world, we believe what we want to believe and see what we want to see.
Stalker is not just a great work of science fiction and a magnificent piece of cinematic art; it is the single greatest achievement in the entire history of cinema. Many films are great, many films are loved, but none of them come close to achieving the beauty and complexity of Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Like the world itself, this film is vast, difficult, virtually incomprehensible and yet somehow worthy of continued study and understanding. You will never see a better film.