“The Zone wants to be respected. Otherwise it will punish.”
Andrei Tarkovsky’s ‘Stalker’, directed in 1979, is a post-apocalyptic, mystical quest movie that follows three men: a scientist, an author and a guide as they journey into an abandoned wasteland (the ‘Zone’) looking for a mythical ‘room’ that will grant them wishes. It’s essential Tarkovsky’s version of ‘The Wizard of Oz’: a group of characters (accompanied by a dog), each a cypher for a type of person and each with their own particular desires follow a path towards what eventually is revealed to be a place devoid of meaning and empty of mystical significance. This is admittedly a curious parallel to make, though it’s so clearly defined I’m certainly not the first to draw it. The first indication of this comparison comes when Tarkovsky decides to film in monochrome but switch to colour when the characters enter the zone, a delineating technique most famously used in the 1939 film to distinguish between fantasy and reality. In fact, this becomes a little distracting as you find yourself looking for parallels and references, but this is possibly to be expected. Tarkovsky’s movies are famously enigmatic and the directed rarely spoon-feeds the subtext of his films to the audience which means that they are incredibly open to interpretation. The ‘Oz’ parallel is a legitimate one, and certainly puts an interesting slant on both the characters and the nature of the quest in ‘Stalker’, but also on the relationship between Tarkovsky and the more commercial American movie industry, In many ways Tarkovsky is the antidote to the more superficial spectacle of Hollywood studio movies, but the dark, cynical undertow of the 1939 film is certainly riffed on in the later film. Beyond this, ‘Stalker’ is filled with suggestive, unexplained phenomena and, typically for Tarkovsky, rich cinematography. His favourite motifs: water, vapour, fog and, particularly in ‘Stalker’, the uncanny sight of rain falling indoors are all evident here and all create an atmosphere of mystery. Watching this movie is almost like undergoing a religious experience: it’s hard and, in a way, gruelling but at the same time transcendent. It’s one of those films that you’re not sure whether you’ve watched it or dreamt it.
Would I recommend it? I preferred the less clinical ‘Andrei Rublev’, but ‘Stalker’ is another side of Tarkovsky and I get the feeling it’s more typical of the director – so yes.