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Stalker: Meaning and Making

To judge from his published diaries, the 1970s were a difficult period for Andrei Tarkovsky, full of anguish, heartache, and uncertainty. His great autobiographical film The Mirror had been granted only a limited domestic release in 1975 and was not allowed to be shown abroad. New screen projects that he contemplated, such as an adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot and a script based on the life of the German romantic poet E. T. A. Hoffmann, were met with obfuscation if not hostility by the bureaucrats in charge of Soviet film policy. At a certain moment in the middle of the decade, Tarkovsky contemplated giving up cinema altogether in order to concentrate on making a career in the theater. And indeed, he did succeed in putting on an important production of Hamlet at Moscow’s Lenkom Theatre in 1977.

In the end, though, one last great Russian film was to emerge from those anguishing years of doubt and unrest: Stalker (1979), Tarkovsky’s fifth feature and the last he made in the Soviet Union before throwing in his lot with the West. Only two more fiction works were to follow his vol­untary exile: Nostalghia, made in Italy and released in 1983, and his Swedish-made swan song, The Sacrifice (1986). The director died of cancer outside Paris at the end of 1986, at the age of fifty-four.

Stalker was his second attempt at grappling with science-fiction sub­ject matter, after the space adventure Solaris (1972), though it is different in almost every way from that earlier film, as well as from The Mirror. The movie is an adaptation of a novel called Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky brothers, Arkady (1925–91) and Boris (1933–2012); Tarkovsky read it soon after it came out in the literary magazine Avrora in 1972. The outside observer may wonder why he was attracted by this specific tale. Unlike high-art source material such as Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky, it belongs very much to the hard-boiled edge of the literary spectrum; it is full of slang and violence, with characterization and sentiment to match these attributes. Yet hovering beneath the surface, and attached specifically to the psychology of the character who would become the film’s eponymous protagonist (in connection with his wife and their mysteriously damaged daughter, Monkey), one can discern a difficult-to-define tenderness of outlook more in line with the director’s usual preoccupations: a humanistic belief (if one can put it so strongly) in the sacredness of the family unit, even if nothing much else in society can be defined in such terms. The book’s essential vision is dystopian, but that may have been part of its attraction. Certainly, there were many things in the Soviet Union at that time to be dystopian about.

That said, the film is a rather free adaptation of the novel. The basic idea of the Zone—brought into being years in the past by an incursion of aliens, and full of mysterious dangers that have been explored, illegally, over the years by freelance agents called stalkers (offering themselves, some­times, as guides to doughty tourists)—is common to book and movie. But the book has many more incidents, char­acters, and digressions, and unlike the film it unfolds over a period of years. Tarkovsky’s work involved, as adapta­tions almost invariably must, a rigorous simplifi­cation of the story line. For example, the several journeyings into the Zone recounted in the book are reduced to a single incursion, while the Stalker’s companions, the Writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn) and the Professor (Nikolai Grinko), are inventions on the director’s part (though one can recog­nize in them composite ele­ments from different characters in the original). At the center of the Zone, and accessible only to travelers who have survived the invisible terrors of the “Grinder” (a seemingly never-ending tunnel full of jagged stalagmites and stalactites), lies the legendary Room, entry into which, it is rumored, will grant the wayfarer the fruition of his innermost desires. (In the book, the magic is connected to an object—a “Golden Sphere”—rather than to a destination, yet otherwise the two notions are identical.) Viewers of the movie, as readers of the book, may have different opinions as to how “deep” a concept we are confronted with here, judged from the lofty viewpoint of philosophy or religion. Yet, as a terminus ad quem, “innermost desire” is saved from glibness by the sheer complexity of its distribution across the movie: what those deepest desires are (whether altruistic or cynically selfish) is never finally pinned down to any of the three characters in a manner that can be summed up coherently.

The dialogue, then, is throughout magnificently ambivalent: witty and fantastical beyond measure. The vivid verbal disagreements of the trio of travelers, along with their mercurial shifts of mood, are undoubtedly among the chief treasures of this movie. Naturally, there is very much else here too, equally wondrous and Tarkovskian—among which must be counted, supremely, marvelous moments of peacefulness, silence, and sleep. (We should note too the exceptionally beautiful musical score, composed by Eduard Artemyev.) It might seem rather a cliché to insist that film is a visual medium, but surely what is not spoken is just as important, in the total effect of this movie, as the articulation of its earnest ethical strivings. Tarkovsky seems to have found a way of photographing the human head—animated and in repose—as it had never been photographed before. He makes it monumental: sculptural and philosophical. Granted the chaotic interruptions to the pro­duction process (of which more shortly), the concentration of effort he achieved here strikes me as nothing short of miraculous. Naturally, these human heads had to be extraordinary in the first place: not just that of the Stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky) but the Writer’s and the Professor’s as well. How hypnotically the camera inves­tigates them!

In a diary entry dated July 3, 1975, four years before Stalker was completed and while he was still struggling to get The Mirror a decent showing, Tarkovsky asks himself, “How does a project mature? It is obviously a most mysterious, imperceptible process. It carries on independently of ourselves, in the sub­conscious, crystallizing on the walls of the soul. It is the form of the soul that makes it unique; indeed, only the soul decides the hidden ‘gestation period’ of that image which cannot be per­ceived by the conscious gaze.” The first men­tion of the project that would turn into the film called Stalker can be found in a diary entry of Christmas Day 1974, where the thinking is equally abstract: “At the moment, I can see a film version of something by the Strugatsky brothers as being totally harmonious in form: unbroken, detailed action, but balanced by a religious action, entirely on the plane of ideas, almost transcendental, absurd, absolute.”

In the same entry, it is clear that Tarkovsky has also been reading The Idiot, along with Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych—in each case thinking, How would it be to adapt them? This was the way that he worked: many, many projects going on at the same time, all of them imperceptibly feeding ideas into one another. One can surely see certain similarities, on the spiritual if not on the social scale, between Dostoyevsky’s hero, the gentle Prince Myshkin, and the mysterious figure who turned into the Stalker (alsogentle, questioning, not quite of this world). In the alembic of ideas that were stirring around at the beginning of Stalker’s life, there would be other elements too: Hamlet, as mentioned above—another gentle prince (very different from Myshkin!)—and Hoffmann. Meanwhile, Tarkovsky strikes up in the pages of his diary a retrospective connection with Solaris: using the form of science fiction in his new film, he says, will allow him to broach the topic of religion legally. He hadn’t been able to tackle this subject in The Mirror, for all the freedoms that great film undoubtedly displays. There are indeed hints of religion in the original Strugatsky text (prayer, for example, being very much part of the protagonist’s mental world) that are taken up and ornamented in the finished movie, without quite making the work, I think, a Christian allegory.

Intimate as they are, even diaries don’t tell us everything, however. We have to try to imagine the thoughts that aren’t put on paper. As we are talking about the “secret progress” of creativity, dreams are surely an interesting input. Almost all the dreams recorded by Tarkovsky in the period 1974–77 seem to have been about being in prison—in one case, being in prison, escaping, and wanting to get back into jail again. “At last, to my joy, I saw the entrance to the prison, which I recognized by the bas-relief emblem of the USSR. I was worried about how I was going to be received, but that was as nothing compared with the horror of being out of prison.” Stalker at some level (pos­sibly even at the level of “deepest desire”) is about the wish to leave Russia for good: the first twenty min­utes enact a very recognizable Cold War fantasy of breaking through bar­riers. At the same time, there is the corresponding feeling that it would be impossible, and actually wrong, to do this. Thus, all the time that Tarkovsky was fretting against the “unbearable restraints” of the socialist bureaucracy he was fated to serve (and thinking that, perhaps, there might be a way out—for example, by accepting the invitation to come to Italy that had been sent by his friend Tonino Guerra), he was also “digging in,” preparing to stay. It was in 1976 that he bought a little dacha in a place called Myasnoy, about two hundred miles southeast of Moscow, furnishing it with care for his wife, Larissa, six-year-old son, Andryusha, and beloved pet Alsatian, named Dakus.

The “mysterious gestation” of Stalker continued right through the course of its troubled production. Indeed, the circumstances of the making of the film might be said to constitute a secondary layer of its legend. A 2009 documen­tary by Igor Maiboroda goes into this backstory in detail, and it is an intriguing question whether the rev­elations that emerge can be said to demystify the movie or, in some strange, perverse way, to fortify its glamour. (Parallel instances arise with films like Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, both of which were famously shad­­owed by in-depth documentaries that exposed the extraor­dinary difficulties, on both the phys­ical and spiritual planes, of their making.) Maiboroda’s film is called Rerberg and Tarkovsky: The Reverse Side of “Stalker.” As the title implies, the main investigation concerns the circumstances surround­ing the dis­missal during the shoot of Tarkovsky’s distinguished cameraman Georgy Rerberg, respons­ible for the deeply beautiful color photography of The Mirror. Rerberg, in this docu­mentary, is the center of attention: the film tells the story from his point of view, and in the process manages to paint a scathing portrait of Stalker’s director as a vain, arrogant, impatient human being.

Nevertheless, sweet and compelling art may and often does come out of unlikely circumstances. Tarkovsky’s bad behavior on set (and Rerberg’s also, if we read between the lines: a vast amount of drinking evidently went on, on all sides) is naturally irrelevant to the film’s final significance. Yet among the many revelations that emerge from Maiboroda’s film, two more seem especially interesting when we come to assess Stalker historically. The first of these concerns the loca­tion, and hence the “look” of the film, in all its idiosyncratic particularity. Tarkovsky’s original idea was that Stalker should be shot near the city of Isfara, in the desert region of Soviet central Asia. Prep­arations had arrived at an advanced stage in February 1977 when a severe earthquake in the region made it necessary to search for an alternate locale—a quest that ended with shoot­ing the film in Estonia (Tarkovsky knew the area well: over the previous few years, he had been traveling back and forth to Tallinn in pursuit of his Hoffmann project). Such last-minute switches of terrain are probably fairly common in filmmaking, and wouldn’t be worth dwelling on if it weren’t for the fact that the lush, watery, and highly specific landscape of Stalker plays such a vital part in its aesthetic impact. And not only the film but also the legend, for it is surely part of Stalker’s mystique and reputation that, in some strange way, Tarkovsky’s explorations in it were to “prophesy” the destruction, half a decade later, of the nuclear power plant at Chernobyl.

When we are watching the film, we are thinking only of the strange beauty of the waterlogged landscape across which the Stalker, the Writer, and the Professor carry out their weird, experimental pilgrimage. And yet it was not beautiful at all, in fact it was horrific, for the people who were working there. In one of the locations—a disused refinery—the crew had to stand for hours on end up to their knees in stinking puddles of oil, while the effluent discharged, upriver, from a paper processing plant enveloped the set in a fetid miasma. This went on for months on end. To the wit­­­nesses who have written about it—among published testimonies, one can consult those of Yelena Fomina (costume designer), Vladimir Sharun (sound­man), Evgeny Tsymbal (prop supervisor), and Sergei Naugolnykh (first assistant cameraman)—the production must have seemed interminable. When the shooting in Estonia first broke down after three months, in the summer of 1977, Tarkovsky replaced Rerberg with another director of photography, Leonid Kalashnikov. All that autumn, the crew labored to reproduce the magical lost footage—yet with only minimal success, by all accounts. The film was entirely reshot the following year under yet another cameraman (Alexander Knyazhinsky): this is the version that has come down to us. Yet I suspect the viewer would not be aware of any of this torment if he or she didn’t know about it from outside sources: the film, as we look at it, seems so beautifully of a piece, so seamlessly unfurling, so calculated down to the last millimeter.

And that is where we should leave the matter. Rerberg’s original foot­age, stored with the film’s editor, Lyudmila Feyginova, went up in a blaze in 1988. There are witnesses alive today to claim that this version was, despite the laboratory damage that caused the dispute, extraordi­narily beautiful. Only one sequence survives, and we can see it, since it is incorporated into Stalker’s final edit. Most people would agree, I think, that it carries a dramatic visual punch. (As with a lot of sequences in this movie, you can spend time won­dering how it was done.) The episode in question is the one that shows a kind of hurricane or dust storm blow­­­ing up on the heaving surface of the marshes. Maiboroda’s film tells us that this sequence and several others were shot in the vicin­ity of physi­cally dangerous mate­­rials, without much thought given to protecting the crew or the actors. Subsequently, a num­ber of people associated with Stalker—includ­­ing Rerberg, the actor Solonitsyn, Tarkovsky’s wife, Larissa, and the director himself—passed on . . . one shouldn’t say “mysteriously,” but at any event, before their natural term. To be a bit more specific: there are people close to Tarkovsky’s legacy who swear that the cancer that killed him, and possibly others, had its origins in the terrible months of Stalker’s multiple shootings.

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