Criterion Prediction #50: Stalker, by Alexander Miller
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Cast: Aleksandr Kaydanoviskiy, Anatoliy Solonitsyn, Nikolay Grinko, Alisa Freyndlikh, Natasha Abramova
Synopsis: The titular Stalker guides a writer and a professor through a militarized, barren wasteland known as the “Zone.” The Stalker can sense his way through the various traps in this flooded, industrial wasteland. Their foggy, rain-soaked journey leads them to a place called the “Room”, a place that is rumored to answer the prayers of those who can brave the terrain.
Critique: There are artistic movies, arthouse movies, and many foreign films that are lazily shelved in one or the other aforementioned categories. But every once and awhile a film can be a work of art and Tarkovsky’s Stalker is visually rapturous for nearly every frame of the seemingly daunting 163-minute runtime. I am the first to say that Andrei Tarkovsky is an unrivaled screen artist, and his uncompromising, spiritual expressionism is dense but compelling nonetheless. The leap from Ivan’s Childhood to Solaris it’s evident that Tarkovsky’s methodical direction, structured framing devices, and long takes index his darkly lyrical compositions of philosophical miasma. Stalker is welded together by the juxtaposition of visual assembly, the detritus, crumbling structures and military equipment is dually menacing as it is hypnotically beautiful. The hostile and ruinous habitat in Stalker feels like a representation of the Soviet empire’s fallen industrial endeavors, as well as a premonition of the hellacious Chernobyl fallout that would follow in 1986.
While the compositions of abandoned machinery integrating with elemental facets of nature could be doctored, much of principal photography took place in Tallinn, Estonia near a dilapidated area believed to be contaminated by a neighboring chemical plant.
By this time, Tarkovsky had dispensed with conventions to the point that his characters solely exist by their titles (Writer, Professor) and central locations are bleakly equated with titles such as the” Zone” or the “Room.” This metaphysical withdrawal might seem like an artist’s detached sensibilities, preoccupied with visual technique than character development. However, characterization is central to the seemingly loose, hanging narrative. The titular guide is given a repellent title. However, he’s more of a tracker and, based on the source material (Roadside Picnic by the Brothers Strugatsky), the term “Tracker” would be a more fitting designation. In junction to the triangulation of characters, Stalker is ironically the most honorable among the three main characters. Despite serving prison sentences for guiding people into the heavily restricted Room/Zone, his motivations are simple as he is simply a providing a service, he merely escorts those who wish to seek out the promise of the Room. Stalker, a disciple of his passed mentor (curiously named Porcupine) who died once he inherited a fortune after a visit to the Room. Stalker knows the perils of the terrain but his desire seems like a compulsion whereas Writer and Professor’s motives are both superficial and potentially destructive. Faith and the nature of belief is a driving component to this densely layered journey; Stalker acts in an ethereal agreement with the Zone, he prays to the sentient landscape and his spiritual connection with this dangerous area seem to have sustained his survival throughout repeated passages. Tarkovsky’s compositions are breathtaking and the transporting quality of the film is awe-inspiring. Alexander Knyazhinsky’s cinematography yields some of the best looking moments in the director’s work; the story is bookended by brown monochrome (color only factors when we enter the Zone). Altering color schemes have factored in Tarkovsky’s films and this palette shift serves the narrative of Stalker quite well. Stalker is long, there’s no way to contest that, but the hypnotic merging of visual transcendence and existential quandaries will render curious (and patient) viewers into a somnambulant state, artistic and intelligent this experiential film will immeasurably outflank any contemporary “think piece”.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: While we eagerly await a Blu-ray upgrade of Andrei Rublev, Solaris and Ivan’s Childhood have never looked better and the very fact that these films received a digital upgrade must mean that Andrei Tarkovsky is a marketable presence in the collection. Right now, the most available version of Stalker in North America is a Kino Lorber DVD which is serviceable but at this point their 2006 release is beginning to show signs of age with flakey subtitles, bleeding colors and a disc menu that is all over the place.
There is a 1080p Blu-ray of Stalker from Artificial Eye but it’s restricted to region B. Not having seen the actual footage, the still images look great and, with a film that conveys so much visual power, it’s in our collective interest that Stalker is looking its best. Now that the movie is available in a restored form with official distribution from RUSCICO (the Russian Cinema Council), who have overlapping titles with Criterion such as The Cranes are Flying and Ballad of a Soldier, Stalker is a possible contender for a spine number.
If Criterion could helm a restoration of Stalker, it would assuredly get the best treatment as well as represent the later era of Tarkovsky’s career as Ivan’s Childhood does the early and Solaris the middle. Stalker, Tarkovsky’s last film before his exile, is one of strongest works. Seeing it in the collection would be amazing.