It’s been 36 years since renowned Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker was released, and it is as relevant today as it has ever been before. The film’s screenplay was heavily influenced by Roadside Picnic, written by science fiction authors and brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky.
In true Tarkovsky style, Stalker is made up of a few shots (proportional to the film’s length), with many lasting easily more than four minutes. Upon its release, the film was criticised for being too slow and static; there are only 142 shots in the space of over two and a half hours. Tarkovsky explained that ‘the film needs to be slower and duller at the start so that the viewers who walked into the wrong theatre have time to leave before the main action starts’. It seems this response was deliberately intended to cast away those who did not care to explore his directorial decisions, for Tarkovsky must have known that it was the length of these shots that made them so powerful.
A filmic shot longer than a couple of minutes begins to feel as though it is capturing real time. This, coupled with the philosophical dialogue that makes up the bulk of the film’s screenplay, alludes to time passing. But it is a peaceful passing, whereby the viewer has no urge to check for how long the film has been running. Each shot is a moment in time, like an aged and faded painting whose colours crawl to life the longer it is gazed upon.
Stalker also compares to paintings in the sense that it is quiet; there is a haunting theme tune which is led by the gentle sounds of a tar (a traditional Iranian instrument), minimal sound effects, and words. The rest is silence. Few directors possess the ability to establish silence as the loudest sound of them all, and in the case of Stalker, silence carries existential echoes: those of the need yet ultimate futility of human hope, the burdens of the past as weights on the mind, and the constant yearning for the ideal.
Yet, arguably Tarkovsky’s most striking aspect of Stalker is the relationship between light and dark. The three protagonists – so named The Stalker, The Writer, and The Professor – journey through the fictional Zone in order to reach The Room, which, The Stalker tells his companions, is where one’s deepest desires are realised. According to The Stalker the Zone is a dangerous place because very few have left alive. However, the film is interspersed with subtle indications, much like Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, that question the actual objective danger of the Zone against a subjectively perceived danger by the character.
Darkness, an atmosphere that obscures and hides, at times provides a source of great comfort to the three psychologically broken men. Light reveals the protagonists’ identities – something they cannot accept, yet is also their greatest embodiment of hope. Trying to glean sense by separating the juxtaposed opposites is in itself futile, as one cannot exist without the other. Without light there would be no notion of dark, vice versa. Therefore the only way to comprehend the symbolism of light and its absence in the film is to experience them simultaneously. This in-between, this ambiguity of being, is what Stalker translates so successfully.
Granted that light and dark are present in almost every shot, the condition of human experience framed by the in-between space thus solidifies into a thread that weaves itself into and around the film. If every shot harbours a moment in time, as well as part of this thread, all the shots taken together become about the relationship between moments of existence. The more Tarkovsky makes use of externally arresting visuals and sound, the more attention he sheds onto the personal, inner experience of the individual. The resulting beauty is why Tarkovsky should be regarded not simply as a director, but a poet of film.