The Winding Road to the Interior

Stalker (1979)

Stalker (Tarkovsky, 1979) | artwork by Tom Ralston
illustration by Tom Ralston

Behind a fortified government barricade, there lies a mysterious ruin known only as “the Zone,” a dangerous stretch of abandoned residential land that a fallen meteor has transformed into a minefield of inscrutable alien technology and traps. At the heart of the Zone is said to reside “the Room,” a chamber rumored to grant the deepest desire of whomever enters it. Those who would brave the Zone for a chance at the Room enlist the help of Stalkers, criminal outcasts who can navigate its pitfalls, to guide them as far as fortune and courage will allow. Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) concerns the adventures of a small party assembled for this purpose. Anonymous save for their professions (Stalker, Writer, Professor), they assume allegorical importance—or Samuel Beckett dismissal. It’s hard to tell at times; they certainly bicker and moan and monologue like Beckett creations. Yet they, like the rest of Stalker, have become indelible images of global cinema—such that, even if you hadn’t seen the film before, you’d probably recognize it by its look: the Zone’s sweeping greens and aquatic stretches. The iconic bed of dunes (which also furnished the best photograph of Tarkovsky ever taken). The title character’s troubled face.

Even so, the scene I find most emblematic of Stalker features in few stills or promotional materials. It unfolds like this: about 45 minutes in, the camera studies a tangle of rusted metal, its oxidized exterior scarcely distinguishable from the cobwebbed tree behind it. The view pans. A ruined building looms far afield in a sea of grass, while a solitary utility pole, lonely as a calvary cross, punctuates the landscape for scale. Here, the Stalker falls to his knees in a crowd of tall weeds, his supplicant posture suggestive of prayer. Soon, he sinks to the ground, clutching at leafy stalks, hugging the earth as if begging it to reclaim him. He lies there a while, as peaceful as the dead, before rolling onto his back. Then—wonder of wonders—his poster-worthy face, heretofore creased with stress or terror, smooths into tranquility for the first and only time.

This is the Stalker in his native element, finally restored to the place—the one place—he considers home.

What’s witnessed here is a love so fulfilling as to anchor one to this world, in spite of everything; to serve as the bedrock upon which one builds an entire outlook, an entire self, an entire life. A love that begs to be shared, because there are people who have not known such love; who have not loved, or been loved, enough. A love so profound as to resist articulation, because it comes from a place too deep for language to reach. Accordingly, the Stalker has no words in this scene. Here, he does not need them; the immediacy of the experience is enough. But elsewhere, the feeling itself proves inexpressible. Before visiting this sacred space, he can only tell his traveling companions, “I need…,” trailing off as he realizes he cannot explain what he’s after, or why anyone might want the same for themselves, or why it matters. And therein lies the Stalker’s struggle. It’s not simply that he’s clumsy with words (most English subtitles neglect the paucity of his Russian vocabulary), nor that he lacks suitable intellectual frameworks for conceptualizing what he knows (his cramped bookshelves, revealed like the payoff to a long joke toward the end of the film, indicate that he’s phenomenally well-read). His issue is that he possesses a vital truth that would improve the lives of others, but, because of how that truth came to him, is unable to transmit it. “I’ll explain everything later,” he says at the journey’s outset, knowing full well that he can’t.

The sequence renders the central concerns of Stalker in exacting, wordless detail. For all its discussions of morals and metaphysics, Stalker is ultimately a film about criticism—not in the sense of simply pronouncing something wasteful or worthwhile, but in the explicative sense, wherein interpreting an object or experience imparts a particular way of seeing. (In other words, the Bright Wall/Dark Room species of criticism: taking readers on trips through films and giving them new eyes in the process—for the works and for the world.) In this light, Stalker’s dramatic engine is that of a worldview repeatedly encountering what it cannot explain (the Zone, the Room, the nature of humanity, the purpose behind it all), and responding as best it can. And the treasure at its center—the wish-granting Room—exemplifies the dream of all criticism: to bring out what one most deeply feels, and reshape the world in its image. The film thus represents the journey of criticism, in which one acquires their most fundamental and ineffable views, and encounters the difficulty—and urgency—of communicating them. After all, in order for a worldview to justify itself, it must provide a satisfactory account of reality; to accomplish that, it must establish the foundational truths upon which it is based. The question Stalker poses, however, is how—or whether—truths learned via lived experience can be adequately conveyed.

I run headlong into this same difficulty whenever I attempt to introduce ambivalent or unwilling audiences to Tarkovsky’s corpus. (Chief among them, my patient but skeptical wife, for whom Andrei Arsenyevich has yet to click. I suspect she hasn’t forgiven his contributions to my graduate school agonies.) Like most who have voluntarily watched his films more than once, I’m a Tarkovsky evangelist. But the challenge of evangelism is the actual spreading of the word—made harder when Parks and Recreation punchlines regarding Tarkovsky’s opacity and inaccessibility have already salted the earth. I can tell people that Solaris and Stalker are among the most beautiful sci-fi movies ever filmed, or that Andrei Rublev will convince them that great art is a miracle, or that Nostalghia will restore even the most atrophied faculty of wonder. But as soon as they spot the two- to three-hour runtime on the back of the Blu-ray case, or tire of the aggressively slow opening scenes, or remember the goddamn Parks and Rec joke, their interest wavers. From there, it’s all water and horses (incidentally, two of Tarkovsky’s favorite visuals). It doesn’t matter how persuasive my speech or stalwart my convictions. Others must decide for themselves whether to embrace Tarkovsky; the best I can do is present them the choice.

The effort has granted me an intense sympathy for the Stalker. Admittedly, he’s designed to move viewers; his bedraggled appearance and meek demeanor tend to stir fellow-feeling. Case in point: Geoff Dyer, in his book-length study Zona (2012), repeatedly describes the Stalker as a “zek”—an obscure and impossibly specific loanword for a Soviet labor camp prisoner. It’s a telling association. How could you not feel for someone who connotes disproportionate authoritarian punishment? The Stalker himself solidifies the impression early on, muttering “I’m a prisoner everywhere” to dismiss his wife’s warnings of the jail sentence his illegal profession risks.

All this being said, it’s the Stalker’s frustrating vocation that I find most compelling. He’s cursed with an impossible mission. It’s evident in his tearful monologues about trying to deliver hope to those who have lost it, and his fears that nobody needs the Room, rendering all his efforts vain. He’s accessed a truth beyond his powers to articulate, but even if he could voice it, the skeptics wouldn’t listen. His companions’ constant doubting, verbal and physical, makes this plain: stopping at the threshold of the all-important Room, criticizing and belittling him at every opportunity. (“Cat got your tongue?” the acerbic Writer taunts him during an inarticulate moment of deadly seriousness regarding the Zone’s penchant for punishing disrespect.) In this regard, the Stalker is the critic par excellence, a person driven to reveal the truths he’s glimpsed, since they would improve the lives of others. His task is burdensome precisely because it’s a moral imperative. He must do what he can, but to fail is worse than not to try.

Yet the Stalker is not the film’s sole critic. Stalker’s other main characters are critics in their own right—and not in the sense of “everyone’s a critic,” the eternal adage of exasperated artists. The three travelers are convinced that their account of the world is the most accurate, fixating on the aspects of existence that their account emphasizes, irrespective of the misery it engenders. (It must be said, however, that for all their individual pettiness, each character’s despair does suggest an admirable degree of intellectual honesty. They’d sooner abandon their happiness than disregard truth—or what passes for it.) 

The Stalker, dabbling in poetry and mysticism, focuses on the spiritual and moral. “For everything in the final reckoning has a meaning,” he insists at one point. “A meaning and a reason.” Everything is important by his estimations, because everything is ultimately judged. The weary, cynical Writer insists that “the world is ruled by cast-iron laws. These laws are not broken. They just can’t be broken.” He emphasizes the worldly metrics one associates with Enlightenment thinking: the humanistic, the aesthetic, the scientific and measurable. The alternately cautious and curious Professor cares about that which maintains order, be it through understanding nature’s mysteries or eliminating the wherewithal to realize harmful ambitions (hence his secret plot to destroy the Room). Yet they all share the same root problem. Each character’s philosophy privileges its individual findings to the exclusion of all others, leaving their portrait of reality incomplete—and the possibility of a better life foreclosed. Their plight recalls the parable of the blind men and the elephant: committed to their precise but narrow accounts of things, they mistrust other perspectives, and quarrel bitterly over who must be right.

Still, even that limited shred of knowledge must come from somewhere. Stalker’s meandering trip through the Zone externalizes that inward journey of discovery, staging the circuitous process by which experience and persuasion make one come to believe something. (Dyer captures something of its ponderously tortuous execution in Zona’s cheeky, self-deprecating subtitle: “A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room.”) The Zone’s shifting, intractable topography allegorizes the gulf between what is known and what is communicated—or even communicable. As soon as one thinks one has a handle on its geography, or tries to map it for other travelers, the space changes. Similarly, per the Writer’s lament, truth dissolves into inaccuracy or outright falsehood once it’s voiced, numbering among those “intangibles where, the moment you name them, their meaning evaporates like jellyfish in the sun.” What seems close to hand seldom is, for what is simplest to experience is often the most complex to explain. As a consequence, Stalker suggests that truth must be approached indirectly; a great distance must be traveled in order to cover even a small space. We see it when the Writer attempts a shortcut to the Room, and is halted by a ghostly voice commanding him to retreat. As the Stalker notes, “the straight path isn’t the shortest” in such territory. The Room and all it connotes cannot be rushed. Therefore, Stalker takes us wandering until we’re ready for admission.

But what does readiness look like? In Stalker, it’s halfway between a softening and an outright breakdown. The Zone’s ruinous aesthetic telegraphs this: its crumbling structures, waterlogged pathways, and submerged household items read like preconditions for the Room’s powers. The troubled characters and their dysfunctional dynamics also reflect the path ahead. The entire traveling party seems to verge on breaking down, frequently pausing to denigrate and antagonize one another—or mock with crushing sarcasm whoever dares come apart at the seams and bare their souls. (It’s pretty funny to consider that Stalker basically amounts to three dudes arguing in weird places, as my dear wife so dispiritingly observes.) A germ of method dwells within their constant friction; after all, it’s no coincidence that our word “analysis” comes from the Greek term for “loosening,” “undoing,” or “breaking up.” Chipping away at arguments either pulverizes the untenable ones, or excavates their unassailable parts. The Writer, like a vulgar Hegel, puts it most succinctly: “Truth is born in arguments, damn it.”

Yet breaking something else is not the same as withstanding breakage—or building from the rubble. As a result, these destructive forms of investigation, and whatever ideas emerge therefrom, are insufficient on their own. It’s hinted at in another of Stalker’s visual jokes: there seem to be no functioning lightbulbs in the film. That universal symbol of the idea is always busted, or shorting out, or already trashed. An overhead light sputters into lifelessness in the bar in the opening scene. The lights in the Stalker’s house aren’t working. Long-defunct light fixtures dangle like mushrooms in reverse outside the ironically-named Dry Tunnel’s waterfall entrance. An activated lamp scorches itself dark like a small supernova in the telephone chamber, while discarded bulbs float among the castoff glassware in the Room’s watery threshold. It’s Stalker’s way of insisting why ideas are not enough. Even the best of them are fragile—and easily discarded.

The Stalker hints at what else is necessary in a prayer-like monologue, resembling verse 76 of the Tao Te Ching, while the Writer and Professor sleep off yet another mean-spirited argument:

Let them be helpless like children, because weakness is a great thing, and strength is nothing. When a man is just born, he is weak and flexible. When he dies, he is hard and insensitive. When a tree is growing, it’s tender and pliant. But when it’s dry and hard, it dies. Hardness and strength are death’s companions. Pliancy and weakness are expressions of the freshness of being. Because what has hardened will never win.

Here, the Stalker advocates for a paradoxical brand of resilience in which weakness is a strength, and strength a liability. In his view, the willingness of the weak to bend and adapt spares them the worst effects of resisting forces too great to subdue. The Zone’s recurring imagery embodies these principles. Sunken objects in irreparable breakdown caution against mimicking the solidity of their materials, whereas flexible, thriving greenery flowers everywhere (including out of the dead bodies, hardened in lifelessness, that are scattered throughout the landscape). Together, it all suggests that the journey through the Zone is meant to weaken—to wear down until kneeling before the new comes more naturally than standing against it, or until closed-mindedness gives way to receptivity and wonderment.

Does the process work? If the Professor is any indication, yes. Like his two companions, he proves unwilling to enter the Room in the end—but he nonetheless undergoes a tangible change in attitude after following the Stalker’s route. The transformation is not simply his admission of perplexity and powerlessness upon confessing, “I don’t understand anything at all.” We see it in how he decides against bombing the Room into oblivion, suggesting that he has come to recognize its value as a source of hope. Or he at least agrees with the Writer’s assessment that ideologies are not desires, and therefore the Room cannot be put in service of zealots or ideologues. As he sits with the others on its threshold, staring into the placid pool inches beyond their reach, he can’t resist throwing rocks into it. He’s a true scientist here: even at the end of everything, his instinct is to screw around and see what happens. Yet the gesture is fundamentally childish (what kid can resist tossing things into water?), hearkening back to the Stalker’s wish that the others become young at heart again. The Professor has at last internalized what the Stalker has said—or failed to say—all along. In this moment that hovers precariously close to looking like defeat, the once-intimidating Professor ends up seeming rather sweet and innocent.

Of course, Tarkovsky won’t let matters wrap in such a tidy package. Stalker doesn’t end with the three travelers slumped outside the Room, nor even with the Stalker lamenting another unsuccessful Zone incursion. Instead, the concluding scene follows the Stalker’s daughter, Monkey—who, until these waning frames, has been more or less a prop. Occupying the background of the Stalker’s domestic scenes like unused furniture, she’s been silent, sullen, spoken of but not to. For her to be the focus of the closing shots makes for an unusual choice. Her enigmatic final scene (involving a book, a train, and some curiously mobile vitrics) poses more questions than it resolves. Monkey’s scene begs for explanation, inviting you—or daring you—to interpret it. Stalker did not subject you to its hours-long journey for nothing. Even you must undertake the task of criticism before the film will let you go.

Here, roughly, is what occurs. Monkey, in profile, studies a book of poetry. Something steams nearby, while stray dandelion tufts drift like snow around her. Setting down the book, she recites a few lines in voiceover—perhaps from what she has read—as the camera retreats to reveal a table by her side. On it sit three pieces of glassware, lined up one behind the other between Monkey and the camera. Monkey finishes her recitation, glancing briefly out the window. Then she turns toward the glassware, focusing on the piece nearest her. Suddenly, the glass she’s watching begins to slide across the table, her eyes following it all the while. An unseen dog whimpers. It quiets at her glance; the glass inches forward despite her broken stare. She resumes watching the glass, her gaze holding it until it creeps to the table’s edge. Then a different piece receives her focus, and soon it, too, travels down the table. A train’s whistle hoots. Monkey rests her head on the table as the third glass reaches the edge and clatters to the floor. The fluid in one of the remaining glasses trembles. The approaching train shakes the house with growing intensity, making a racket as it passes. Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” begins to play, building in volume until it competes with the train’s clamor, and all the while, a slow zoom encroaches on Monkey’s stoic expression. Eventually, the music stops. The train’s noisy passage continues, and the camera studies Monkey’s face in close-up as the film fades to black. Конец фильма.

So what’s going on? Does Monkey have telekinetic powers? Frankly, I think not—and not simply because I’m disinclined to accept hand-waving mysticism in my sci-fi.

Truth be told, I not only dismiss the “magical” explanations of Monkey’s send-off. I resent them. They strike me as the easy way out, the exact kind of smug, pat, dismissive account that oversimplifies matters and suppresses their true wonder. In other words, the mindset that Stalker spends almost three hours combating. Yet to engage with the scene in terms of what is physically possible strikes me as more in keeping with the spirit of the film, mining one of those pockets of richness that are hidden all throughout our world if you know where—and how—to find them. And hasn’t Stalker been teaching you to do precisely that?

Here’s the thing. The preternatural is the domain of the Zone; Stalker is, in part, about how to come to terms with such phenomena in a world that has not previously allowed for them. Monkey, being a product of that world, does not have powers. At least, not the kind that the magicians would have you believe in. The train moves the glasses down the table—like it does the first time in the Stalker’s residence, stirring vibrations in a bedside glass long before its engine and whistle become audible (similar to the T-Rex’s footfalls in that memorable Jurassic Park scene); like Monkey must have seen it do a hundred times or more. This last part is key. Children come to know their surroundings as intimately as their first language; in the absence of freedom to explore the world at large, their attentions are forced to go deep rather than wide. Accordingly, they learn every last detail about where they live—all the more so when, like Monkey, they have nowhere else to go. (This principle is more or less what powers Kevin McCallister’s guerrilla operations in Home Alone.) Therefore, a routine occurrence like the passing train is something Monkey knows in and out: when it will come, what parts of the house will rattle, which objects will clatter about, what trajectories they’ll follow. It’s unfamiliar only to the off-camera dog who followed the Stalker out of the Zone, whimpering because he’s never experienced the train’s earth-shaking passage. Surely, then, she understands exactly where and when to situate objects around the house in order to coax out their most dramatic, entertaining movements.

That’s right. The final scene depicts a bored child’s game. But that’s far from all we’re seeing.

Much has been made of the selective use of color in Stalker—how the Zone’s sudden chromatic surge ties us to the Stalker’s perspective, illuminating the sole place where hope still survives; how, like in The Wizard of Oz, it signifies an escape from drab reality into the extraordinary. In this regard, it’s noteworthy that there are only two scenes outside of the Zone, including the aforementioned train and water sequence, where color shows itself—and both star Monkey.

In the first, she’s sitting on her father’s shoulders as the family returns home after his latest outing. But her perch isn’t initially apparent. The sequence begins with her profile in close-up (prefiguring the final scene), bobbing up and down in ambulatory rhythms. It seems as if she’s walking on her own—remarkable given the crutches that always loom in her vicinity, and the hushed discussions of the mysterious disabilities that attend the children of stalkers. Then the movement of the camera gives away the game, showing her father beneath her. It seems like the reveal should be melancholy, yet the colorful frame signals it’s a joyful occasion. If we consider it as being from Monkey’s perspective, as the initial staging suggests, then it becomes apparent that we’re seeing her imagination happily at work: look at me. I’m walking. Isn’t this fun? Monkey’s color scenes are thus indicative of her rich inner life. If color marks that the Stalker is content only in the Zone, it also signals that Monkey is happy wherever she can find a playground for her imagination—which is to say, anywhere. All that reading has clearly been good for her.

Back, then, to the passing train. It’s another instance of Monkey’s imagination enlivening her surroundings. She watches the glassware trace its expected path, craning her neck or resting her head on the table for a better vantage. She daydreams that she is moving them with her mind —though, in a way, she is, given that the whole setup is a product of her intellect. The thunderous train threatens to break the illusion with its dissonant clanking. But this is no good, she thinks. No more these sounds; let us sing more cheerful songs, more full of joy. Therefore, she conjures a few measures of Beethoven, resuming her game among those more harmonious notes. Eventually, she tires of the make-believe, and the music stops; the last sound heard as the film fades to black is not the triumphant bars of “Ode to Joy,” but the train’s rattle. The mechanical asserts itself over the miraculous; in the end, we remain bound by the Writer’s cast-iron laws. Nonetheless, here we have witnessed a mundane miracle: a creativity so vivid and engrossing as to briefly make magic seem tangible.

And to think, some people would minimize this as “telekinesis!” Monkey’s powers far exceed that. For she hasn’t merely shuffled a few playthings in her vicinity—she’s remade her surroundings entirely, introducing surprise and wonder to an otherwise gray world. You could even say that, by reshaping the outer in accordance with the inner, she has delivered on the promise of the Room and of criticism.

Thus, the film ends on a slow close-up of Monkey’s face, the physical embodiment of her miraculous perspective. Her Rorschach stare, inscrutable yet full of meaning, compels you to decipher it. What do you see there? Yet, if Stalker has taught us anything, it’s that the object of the interpretive gaze is less important than correctly calibrating the act of looking—of thinking, of searching, of wondering, of becoming receptive to wonder. Therefore, Monkey, like Rilke’s archaic torso, is less consolation than commandment. We are condemned to look, her dark eyes seem to say; there is no place, however appalling, that is not seen. If you are to endure, you must change your life.