Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky
Written by Arkady Strugatsky, Boris Strugatsky, based on their story “Roadside Picnic”
Starring Alexander Kaidanovsky, Anatoly Solonitsin, Nikolai Grinko, Alissa Freindlikh, Natasha Abramova, F. Yurna, E. Kostin, R. Rendi
For his innovative low-tech science fiction film Stalker (1979), Andrei Tarkovsky uses brilliant cinematic imagination to transform the ghostly-beautiful fields, streams and power plants of Tallinn, Estonia (in the then-Soviet Union) to the organic, industrial science fiction landscape of the Zone — a restricted, hazardous area rumored to contain paranormal power from the crash of a mysterious meteorite. The hard science fiction approach taken in Tarkovsky’s epic science fiction film Solaris (1972) is abandoned for a subtle, unaffected approach where fantastic elements are alluded to but rarely shown (much to the story’s benefit) and fused to a narrative framework of “the journey,” where protagonists travel to a predetermined destination in search of material or spiritual fulfillment (aka “the road trip”). Only in the hands of a genius like Tarkovsky can the simple narrative structure of three men on a journey be transformed to a complicated moral and spiritual examination of humanity, anchored to references of classical poetry, literature, music and art, filtered through the mesh of a personal life experience in a totalitarian society.
(Note: Spoilers follow in this paragraph.) Alexander Kaidanovsky is Stalker, a man charged with guiding two men, Writer (Anatoly Solonitsin) and Professor (Nikolai Grinko), within the heavily-guarded Zone to a Room that holds the power to grant one wish (prayer?) to anyone who enters. Stalker lives in a sparse hovel with his wife (Alissa Freindlikh) and young daughter Monkey, who is unable to walk, perhaps due to a birth defect from her father’s regular exposure to the Zone. Stalker’s wife is painfully upset and confronts Stalker about his journey as he leaves the family bed to meet Writer and Professor. Unfazed, Stalker departs to rendezvous with the men at a bar. They board a jeep, and after carefully dodging law officers, enter the Zone by following a train through a barbed-wire passageway. Armed guards fire at them. The men escape the guards and locate a small motorized railroad trolley, which they use to travel deep into the Zone until Stalker stops them to continue on foot. The landscape of the Zone is beautiful, with lush, green fields and trees. Amongst the beauty, industrial utility lines and rusted military relics are scattered about. Stalker explains that the Zone is in constant flux and dangerous to navigate, and one can never travel the same path twice. Although the building housing the Room is visible a short distance away, Stalker will not take the direct route; rather, he travels via unexplained, mysterious, and often subterranean routes that he navigates by throwing ahead bolts tied to gauze bandages. During the journey, Writer is talkative and openly introspective, often questioning society, his writing talent, and self-worth. Professor is more private, and when not arguing with Writer and Stalker, seems more concerned about the knapsack he’s carrying. Neither man discloses their motive for visiting the Room. Stalker often communicates with Writer and Professor on a philosophical plane, and frequently refers to Porcupine, a stalker who hanged himself after an experience involving his brother in the Zone. After navigating through several surreal underground rooms, tunnels and caverns, Stalker delivers the men the Room’s threshold, where he awaits their decisions about the Room.
Stalker is an accomplished, heady science fiction classic — one of the genre’s best — but a very demanding, and sometimes inaccessible, viewing experience. On most days that’s a compliment — cinema that continues to challenge the viewer and refuses to wholly disclose its mysteries is indeed a desirable but rare commodity. As science fiction veered towards pulp and tech in the late 1970s with films like the Star Wars trilogy and Alien, Stalker preserved science fiction as art, keeping alive the spirit of films like Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962), and influenced a new generation of filmmakers like Lars von Trier, who would begin his career soon thereafter with the Stalker-influenced The Element of Crime (1984). On the surface, Stalker recalls W.W. Jacobs’s familiar American short story “The Monkey’s Paw,” where earnest wishes have the potential of catastrophic consequence. But Tarkovsky’s approach doesn’t concern ironic twists of fate, but rather contemplates wishes as beacons of personal faith — not necessarily spiritual faith, although such an interpretation certainly has merit, but faith in whatever truth stirs within the individual soul. In many ways the Zone is a manifestation of Stalker’s faith, a place where logic, science, and even Stalker’s own rules — such as his edict that backtracking in the Zone is disastrous — have fleeting hold. The Zone’s mysterious nature mirrors faith’s elusiveness, and all three men undergo a crisis (test?) of faith in the Zone’s landscape. Writer and Professor, figurative men of the arts and institutionalized knowledge, are asked to have dual faith in both Stalker’s Zone and in the essence of their souls. Neither man is entirely successful — indeed, what man is when it comes to faith, even in faith in himself? — and ultimately it is Stalker’s wife who poignantly shares the most convincing demonstration of faith in a heartfelt monologue at the end of the film.
The Russian Cinema Council presents Stalker in a two-DVD set with a generous selection of interesting but sometimes brief extras. Disc 1, a single layer disc, presents Part One of the film; 10 behind-the-scenes production photographs, the best being a striking, overhead color photograph of the cast and crew at work when Stalker lays down before his dream; a brief Tarkovsky biography sans filmography, which is included on Disc 2; a 5m 43s short film Memory (although the DVD menu labels it “Tarkovsky’s House”), a Stalker-inspired documentary film that combs through the weathered, junk-filled ruins of Tarkovsky’s boyhood home, intercut with footage of Stalker’s dream sequence, and brief audio samples and music themes from Stalker; and a 4m 53s excerpt of Tarkovsky’s The Steamroller and the Violin (spelled “Violon” on the DVD menu) aka Katok I Skyrpka, a 46-minute short film Tarkovsky filmed in 1960 for his diploma at VGIK, the All-Union State Institute of Cinematography. The Steamroller and the Violin segment is particularly exciting to sample, and we can only hope that the full short film eventually receives the full Ruscico treatment on DVD. Disc 2, a double layer disc, presents Part Two of the film; a 5m 44s interview with cameraman Alexander Knyazhinsky, poignantly titled “Alexander Knyzahinsky’s last interview” as a weakened, terminally-ill Knyzahinksy is interviewed in his bathrobe at an assisted care facility; a 14m 21s interview with production designer Rashit Safiullan, who reminisces about Tarkovsky’s precise attention to detail, and the devastating loss of the film’s negative after it was halfway complete; and biographies/filmographies of 9 cast and crew members. Navigation menus on both discs may be accessed in Russian, English, or French text. Like Ruscico’s Solaris DVD, Stalker contains a few substantial extras not advertised on the disc’s packaging buried in the bios/filmographies section. In the bio for composer Eduard Artemyev, there is a fascinating 21m 7s interview that touches on a number of subjects, including Tarkovsky’s use of composers to sculpt the sound design of films as opposed to strict score composition. Further in Artemyev’s filmography, there is a brief teaser for the Solaris DVD, including a full 3m 20s English language trailer for the film. If you navigate to the same spot in the Russian or French menus, the trailer can be played in Russian or French, respectively.
Ruscico’s visual presentation of Stalker is striking. Stalker’s sepia sequences are a rich, deep brown, and quite distinctive from the film’s color sequences, which are comprised of pleasant, subdued earth tones that emphasize the Zone’s green vegetation. The source material, apparently from a PAL master given its compressed running time of 154m 44s (equivalent to 161m 21s NTSC; the DVD packaging cites a running time of 163m), is properly framed in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio and very clean, with no noticeable scratches, slugs, or other physical aberrations. The video compression is strong, with very light artifacting only briefly noted during scenes containing intense smoke or fog, such as the scene in the Zone where Stalker dispatches the trolley into thick fog. One audio choice is available for the film — a Russian language Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, which may be translated to 13 languages via subtitles (note that the subs can’t be changed or turned off while on the fly). It’s a solid, pleasing sound mix that features a very distinct separated right/left sound stage, but unfortunately it’s been altered with additional (and sometimes removed) music and sound not present in STALKER’s original mono mix. Most noticeable is the absence of the Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony cue that ends the film (although the other classical music cue, Ravel’s Bolero, is still present), and the addition of ambient music to supplement the previously solo rhythmic clanking of the railroad tracks during the trolley ride sequence into the Zone. Be aware that there may be other instances of tinkering, but it’s been many years since I’ve viewed Image Entertainment’s laserdisc or Fox Lorber’s two-tape VHS release (which is still in print), so my reference point isn’t fresh. Regardless, the Stalker DVD is yet another case of a company altering a soundtrack without giving the viewer the option of the original track.