Gorgeous and impenetrable, Andrei Tarkovsky's science fiction epic is a can't-miss film on a so-so Criterion disc.
Stalker is my Ulysses. It is a totemic work in my understanding of its respective art form, but one that I "get" only in glimpses and echoes.
This will be my third time seeing the film, and I am heartily glad to find it on the Criterion Collection this month after a few teases in that direction in the past -- few films I've ever seen have seemed more specifically connected to Criterion's overall mission -- but I don't find myself any closer to professing any kind of unified understanding of Tarkovsky's greatest work. I got lost in it again. I'll get lost in it next time too, I'm sure. I'm beginning to think getting lost in Stalker is nearer and nearer the fulcrum of its point.
Part of my perplexity is surely self-manifested. When I was in film school there was a 12-student seminar class run by one of the senior professors called "Four Thinkers: Tarkovsky, Dryer, Ozu and Bresson." It was one of those things where you had to request permission to attend personally. I didn't have the courage to ask to be let in, and I've had it in my head ever since that Tarkovsky (among the others) is a heavy filmmaker to deal with and Stalker a difficult film. Per the manifestation of the Zone within the film itself, it's appropriate that I have put up my own blocks and traps around the piece -- and yet keep trying to reach its centre.
Stalker is hugely influential, of anything from the recent HBO version of Westworld to the first-person shooter S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow Of Chernobyl, to how we discuss and describe the Chernobyl disaster itself. (In one of Stalker's uncanny real-world echoes, of which more below, Chernobyl would seem to be one of the film's direct influences - except that the disaster occurred seven years after Tarkovsky completed the film.)
The film concerns three men -- Stalker, Professor, and Writer -- who undertake a journey into a restricted space within totalitarian Russia (actually filmed near Tallinn, Estonia), the centre of which purports to be able to grant its visitors their deepest wish. The eponymous Stalker, a criminal man of faith whose services can be procured as a guide to this unusual landscape, employs an understanding of unspoken and ill-defined rules by which one can safely navigate the Zone. Played by Alexander Kaidanovsky with a beseeching certainty in his understanding of the Zone and a kind of existential panic about rubbing the Zone the wrong way, Stalker leads Writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn) and Professor (Nikolai Grinko) through what is essentially an overgrown, swampy field, but which may or may not be a sentient being itself.
Time begins to become confusing. Tarkovsky, no slouch in the "slow cinema" realm -- the backmatter essay included with the Blu-ray notes that there are only 142 shots in this 161 minute film -- lays cinematic traps of his own, shifting through perspective and exegesis and into moments of pure, perfect stillness. Conversations run long. Space seems to warp around the characters, turning workaday environs like rivers and drainpipes into threatening trials.
We are invited to contemplate Stalker through a variety of lenses: the rules of the Zone (and their potential application to what we, or an artist living in Soviet Russia in the 1970s, might describe as one's human purpose); the faith of Stalker himself (and how, in the absence of any concrete extrapolation of meaning, faith can possibly exist); and the magnificent power of cinema itself, to beguile, transfix, transform and transcend.
Stalker is one of the most beautifully photographed films I've ever seen, an irony, given that it is one of a handful of productions (Apocalypse Now; Fitzcarraldo) whose off-camera dramas, particularly around cinematography, are inextricably connected to its myth, and provide another of Stalker's uncanny real-world echoes. Fully half of the film was shot by cinematographer Georgy Rerberg, but that footage was either damaged in processing, incompetently exposed, or intentionally destroyed (accounts differ), causing Tarkovsky to fire Rerberg and start over with Aleksandr Knyazhinsky. Most people connected with the film proclaim that Tarkovsky completely reconceived the movie during the downtime, and that the Knyazhinsky version (i.e. the final version of the film) differs wildly from whatever product Tarkovsky had shot with Rerberg.
Some, however, claim that the final version ended up being nearly identical to the original, and that Tarkovsky had ventured into the Zone -- twice -- to find that it was himself, not the work, that had transformed.
The Criterion disc, which I had hoped would illuminate many of these crosshatched narratives both within and outside of Stalker, is disappointingly light on insight. The most glaring omission is the absence of Igor Mayboroda's documentary, Rerberg and Tarkovsky: The Reverse Side of "Stalker," which detailed the Rerberg conflict from the cinematographer's side (a useful corrective, given that much of the film's history has been written by Tarkovsky-faithfuls).
Instead, we get only one newly-produced work: a thirty-minute conversation with film critic Geoff Dyer about his lifelong relationship with Stalker. Dyer, who has written a book about Stalker called A Book About A Film About A Journey To A Room, is a compelling and intelligent commentator (one wishes, in fact, that he had supplied a feature-length audio commentary for the disc, a practice that Criterion seems to be moving away from). He underlines one of the most disconcerting truths at the heart of Stalker -- that if the Room offers its visitors their deepest, most internal wish, it would be offering access to a level of one's identity that is deeper and more disturbing than anything we would ever want to know -- and otherwise gamely highlights some of the film's finest visuals.
Part of the film's visual strategy is its pivoting back and forth between deep-sepia monochrome and, upon arriving in the Zone, rich, natural colour of the sort that only Emmanuel "Chivo" Lubezki is achieving today. (Seriously, Tree of Life wishes it were Stalker.) The presentation on Criterion's Blu-ray is drawn from the 2017 2K remaster conducted by Mosfilm, and is so stunning to behold that it will become a reference disc in your collection immediately. Having only seen beaten-up prints of the film before now, the transition to full colour upon the trio's arrival in the Zone drew a full gasp from me, adding The Wizard of Oz to the list of films that wish they were Stalker -- but the fragile moments with Stalker's daughter Monkey, late in the film (and also in colour), are so lovely to watch in this presentation that you may find yourself holding your breath.
Rounding out the disc are a handful of archival extras. Composer Eduard Artemyev, interviewed in 2000, recalls his work with Tarkovsky on Solaris, The Mirror and Stalker. Production designer Rashit Safiullin, also interviewed in 2000, describes making Stalker a whole second time at half the budget.
And (second) director of photography Knyazhinsky, interviewed just before his death in 1996, offers a glimpse into yet another Stalker's eerie echoes into the real world: perhaps by dint of the toxic surroundings in which they filmed in Tallinn, several of the key members of the crew -- including Tarkovsky -- were dead within a decade of their trip to the Zone. Marvellous and dreadful, Stalker is an enthralling watch, and seems to reach beyond its own boundaries -- for good and ill -- as a mere piece of filmmaking.