“Let everything that’s been planned come true. Let them believe. And let them have a laugh at their passions.”
I feel that I’m ready to start tackling some heavier works from this 1001 List, beginning with Stalker, Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 sci-fi art film adapted from the 1977 novel Roadside Picnic. I had been familiar with Tarkovsky before, as many great directors cite him as an inspiration. His reputation places him as one of the Soviet Union’s greatest filmmakers, and his body of work touches on philosophical issues in a powerful way. I decided to jump into his most celebrated work, Stalker, a piece of existential film that enthralled and delighted me for its captivating plot, entrancing cinematography, and thought-provoking insights into existential philosophy. This is one of the few films with a longer run time that I don’t have a problem with, as Tarkovsky plays out every second in a slow but magical way that feels entirely justified for the scale of what he accomplishes.
The film follows three men, the Professor, the Writer, and the Stalker as they make their way through the ruins of society into “the Zone,” a mysterious triangular site in which many have ventured and disappeared in search of its secrets. The Stalker works as a guide for common people to find their way through the Zone and into “the Room,” where their innermost desires will be fulfilled. We come to find that the Zone is a sentient being, constantly changing with traps and shifting paths on the way to its center. As they travel, the men argue and philosophize about the Zone and what they hope to accomplish when they reach their destination. With science fiction elements and a hint of dystopia, Stalker feels like a warped Wizard of Oz with a heavy dose of philosophy.
As the three men make their way through the Zone, their journey seems to symbolize the existential human condition. Just as humans seek meaning and fulfillment in an indifferent, godless world, the three men each hope to find literal fulfillment in the Room. When asked what most men hope to find in the Room, the Stalker shrugs and suggests that happiness is the answer. However, the film poses a deeper issue with the existential search for meaning: does man seek his conscious or unconscious desires? How does one reconcile the complex nature of human desires, and how can one expect to have their desires fulfilled if they can’t be pinned down so simply? It leaves both the characters and the audience anxious and frustrated, suggesting that some “Room” where your desires are magically fulfilled is really just worthless in the end.
One could also look at each man symbolically, representing some ideology or path to fulfillment. The Professor claims that he wishes to investigate the science behind the Room, perhaps even winning a Nobel prize for his work. He is far more careful than the Writer and follows the Stalker’s guidance far more closely in order to achieve his goal. However, we come to find that the Professor has ulterior motives for reaching the Room, revealed in a climactic confrontation towards the end. Tarkovsky also seems to reject the Professor’s ideology towards fulfillment. The Zone is sentient and unable to be explained, the product of something extraordinary, contrary to the Professor’s more empirical life philosophy.
The Writer, a more outspoken and independent character, claims that he’s looking for inspiration for his work. As we come to understand him more clearly, we find that he is looking for greatness along the lines of the Professor, but in a more abstract way. He wants to solidify his genius. However, this also leads to a complex in which fulfillment is impossible for the Writer. He eventually claims that “a man writes because he is tormented, because he doubts. He needs to constantly prove to himself and the others that he’s worth something. And if I know for sure that I’m a genius? Why write then? What the hell for?” In true existential fashion, Tarkovsky is suggesting that fulfillment isn’t so simple. It begs the question: is materialism perhaps the answer, acquiring more stuff, or do humans need recognition to be fulfilled? Maybe it’s all just a distraction? This leads us to the Stalker, the most difficult of the men to pin down.
It seems the Stalker finds fulfillment in guiding people through the Zone. He never enters the Room himself, choosing to live as an observer, a mentor to those seeking guidance. He respects the Zone, showing admiration for its greatness and dangers. The Stalker laments that he has been unable to show more people the way to fulfillment, and he prides himself on only taking worthy candidates into the Zone. In an emotional breakdown towards the end, he reveals that feels he has no other purpose. Perhaps finding purpose for others is the only way the Stalker can achieve purpose of his own. It’s an altruistic approach to the existential question of which Tarkovsky also seems skeptical. Through the ridicule of the Stalker by the Writer towards the end, Tarkovsky seems to ask: how can one be an altruist if their motives for doing so are selfish? We are also given a look into the Stalker’s family life, where his wife seems accepting of the dreadful position her husband’s line of work puts her in. She claims that she has no regrets, even the deformity of her own daughter that comes along with being the child of a Stalker. It’s a complex ending which isn’t outright with answers, but by ending the film in such a personal way, Tarkovsky seems to suggest that the best answer we have may rest in each other.
While the meat of the film rests in this existential exploration, Tarkovsky demonstrates masterful cinematic techniques as well. The camera moves slowly in a creepy, sentient way, only adding to the mystery and suspense of the Zone. He also films scenes from far away, furthering this notion of a “distant observer.” Tarkovsky also makes interesting decisions with color, book-ending the film with a brownish filter. Only the middle section of the movie, scenes which take place in The Zone, are shot with a full range of colors. This decision complements the “search for fulfillment” approach to the film, with the characters’ lives literally more colorful as they near the Room, losing the color again as their ambitions are crushed on the threshold of the Room itself.
Stalker is a film with more philosophical exploration than most films are able to accomplish. However, it’s still a wonderful visual spectacle and an intriguing story should you choose to stray from such an analysis. The captivating visual techniques and the creative, thought-provoking script make it one of my favorite new discoveries. It’s a stunning piece of film, and I look forward to exploring more from Tarkovsky in the near future.
Films Left to Watch: 931