Those readers who have borne with me through the last 18 years of B-movie reviews might be surprised by my admiration for Andrey Tarkovsky. Tarkovsky was, after all, one of the finest religious artists of the twentieth century — a man who represented the antithesis of the commercial movie director. His films might seem a bit off-topic for someone like me, someone who has spent so much time exploring the darkest corners of commercial horror cinema... someone whose world-view is so very remote from Tarkovsky's.
There's an easy, superficial answer to this: Tarkovsky himself had a hidden fascination for the genre-based commercial cinema he claimed to despise. One of my favorite entries in his diary, published in English after his death as Time Within Time, is his brief note after going to see Lucio Fulci's Zombi 2, while he was in Italy preparing to film Nostalgia. Naturally, he dismissed it as "science-fiction trash"... but the fact is, he went to see it, and wrote about it afterwards. Towards the end of his life, he even wrote approvingly of James Cameron's The Terminator, claiming to find in it valuable ideas about the relationship between man and his technology... but you get the feeling he was looking for words with which to dignify the fact he'd enjoyed a moment of pure escapism.
In fact, I feel a much deeper connection with Tarkovsky's films than might be guessed from my usual interest in popcorn cinema. His sense of time is my sense of time — the slow, unhurried unfolding of his films, often unrelated to the needs of conventional narrative, seems to me perfectly natural. I am reminded of the same long-breathed, expansive sense of time that underlies my very favorite music, the symphonies of Anton Bruckner (one of the finest religious artists of the nineteenth century). Furthermore, Tarkovsky stated many times in his theoretical writings that the strength of cinema as an art form lay in its creation and manipulation of images, rather than in the use of symbols to convey specific meaning or messages; if we take him at his word (which is, to be honest, not always possible), then it's clear we don't need to agree with what we find Tarkovsky expressing on the surface of his films to find something beautiful and transformative in them when we experience them as a whole.
I find I'm lapsing into film-critic language, which I can't stand... so let me be more direct: what I'm talking about is love, purely and simply. Not "love" in the romantic or (least of all) Hollywood sense, but the sort of love with which Jesus commanded his followers to treat their neighbors — even their enemies. In today's America, it is not fashionable to regard those with whom you disagree (particularly in regard to religion) with respect and love; but this it what is required of us, and the necessity of this sort of love is one of the main threads running through all Tarkovsky's films. The fact that Tarkovsky sees Western rational, "materialist" thought as inimical to this kind of love is a major stumbling block for me, but not one so steep that I can't overcome it. Philosophically and politically, I may agree more with Luis Buñuel... but given the choice, it's Tarkovsky I actually watch.
In spite of the violence that pervades most of Tarkovsky's films, and in spite of the uncompromising Christian moralist stance that he so often adopts, particularly in his last films, there is still a kindness in Tarkovsky's cinema which is reflected and amplified by his public statements on his art in particular, and on cinema in general. Few other artists of the late twentieth century, and fewer of Tarkovsky's stature, spoke with such clarity and humility on their role as artists, and the role of their art in the broader context of civilization. He bristled at being labeled a difficult, or incomprehensible — or worse, as an "avant-garde" — film-maker. He had no patience with the idea of "experimental" art. He pointed out that experiments either succeed or fail... if they succeed, then the result is a work of art, without any further qualification; whereas if the experiment fails, there can be no possible reason to let the result see the light of day.
What he claimed to value most was the immediacy of communication in film; he insisted he wasn't trying to cram his films with obscure references and meanings, but was trying to use his own particular imagery to create what he referred to as a "second reality" for his audience — one consisting in large part of his vision, realized as completely and honestly as he could achieve it, and in part relying on the life-experience and expectation of the audience. He admitted the necessary role of commerce in the creation of something so large and complex as a film — one can write a poem for the desk drawer, but one cannot make a film without concern for it finding an audience. And unlike so many of his contemporaries in other artistic disciplines, he wrote movingly and convincingly of his need to reach an audience. He wrote that the concept of "artistic freedom" was essentially meaningless:
"The aristocratic nature of art, however, does not in any way absolve the artist of his responsibility to his public and even, if you like, more broadly, to people in general. On the contrary: because of his special awareness of his time and of the world in which he lives, the artist becomes the voice of those who cannot formulate or express their view of reality. In that sense the artist is indeed vox populi. That is why he is called to serve his own talent, which means serving his people."
Privately, however — as reflected in his diaries (which he called his "Martyrology"... not, in itself, the sign of a healthy and balanced personality), and in recollections of conversations he had with those around him — it's clear that Tarkovsky was really much more ambivalent about his audience, and about the commercial necessities of artistic creation, than he wished people to believe. He was also prone to violating his own ideas about the use of "literary" devices and symbolism in his films. There may have been less of the charlatan about Tarkovsky than in many (if not most) twentieth century artists of similar genius and importance, but this is not to say the man was completely free of self-contradiction or even hypocrisy. I don't bring this up because I want to disparage him. Perhaps it's my jaundiced, B-movie-adapted eyes that cause me to say this, but I think we have to face the contradictions in Tarkovsky's persona when we consider the conception, execution, and subsequent interpretation of one of his most important films: 1979's Stalker.
In 1972, the Soviet science fiction authors Boris and Arkady Strugatsky published a novel called Roadside Picnic. The novel took place after six places on planet Earth were left contaminated by unknown, unseen visitors. These six "Zones" are compared by scientists to the sites of casual roadside picnics, where people stop for a moment and move on, leaving behind the debris from their visit. Some of this garbage is beneficial to the local wildlife; some of it is lethal... but all of it is incomprehensible to the normal creatures who call that picnic spot their home. And so it is with the "Zones". Whatever stopped there left behind bits of itself, and those bits are so bizarre and inexplicable to humans that they might as well be supernatural.
The governments of the countries with the Zones in them immediately act to cordon them off from the rest of the world. However, a class of adventurers known as "Stalkers" forms around the Zones. These Stalkers brave the hazards of the Zones in order to steal alien artifacts to sell on the black market. Of course, the Zones are full of more than just artifacts: there are also traps, some visible, some invisible... none left intentionally; like the artifacts, they simply are, left with no regard for their impact on the planet's inhabitants. There's also a mysterious effect that the Zone tends to have on anyone who spends a significant amount of time there. It's nothing as simple as, say, radiation poisoning, for which there is a ready explanation (and there is no radiation in the Zones). It's far subtler than that. One Stalker finds that most of the people around him die, while he stays perfectly healthy; and the places he lives are more affected by natural disasters than statistics alone could explain. Others find their dead relatives suddenly come shambling mindlessly back into their lives and homes. Frequently the children of the Stalkers are born with some sort of genetic aberration.
The story proper concerns one particular Stalker, a "Blade Runner"-ish character who finds himself unable to stay out of the Zone for long. After an expedition ends in an unexpected tragedy, the Stalker finds himself on the run from the police. He escapes with his pregnant girlfriend, but keeps getting drawn back into his dangerous profession... with increasingly disastrous results. His daughter, called "Monkey" for the fine layer of hair covering her entire body, becomes less and less recognizably human as the story progresses. The Stalker ends up serving time in jail after retrieving some particularly lethal Zone detritus. On his release years later, he discovers that the other Stalkers have set up Roadside Picnics of their own... actually serving as tour guides to the Zones for adventuresome tourists. Eventually the Stalker takes an apprentice on one last trip into the zone, to find a mysterious artifact called the Golden Sphere which is supposed to be able to grant the wishes of those that find it. Only the Stalker knows that to get to the Golden Sphere, they must pass through an area known as the Meat Grinder, in which one traveler must die for the other to pass. The Stalker allows his companion to be sacrificed to the Meat Grinder... only to discover, in the boy's dying moments, that the wish he wanted the Sphere to fulfill was universal peace and happiness. The novel ends with the Stalker pacing numbly toward the Sphere, unable to ask it for anything... challenging it to decide for itself what it is he most desires:
"...But if you really are... all-powerful... all-knowing... then you figure it out! Look into my heart. I know everything you need is in there. It has to be. I never sold my soul to anyone! It's mine, it's human! You take from me what it is I want... it just can't be that I would want something bad! Damn it all, I can't think of anything, except those words of his... 'HAPPINESS FOR EVERYBODY, FREE, AND NO ONE WILL GO AWAY UNSATISFIED!' ""
Tarkovsky expressed an interest in adapting the novel for the screen, so the Strugatsky brothers worked up a screenplay that derived mostly from the final section of the novel. For the purposes of the film, there is only one Zone, as far as we know; the Stalker leads two men into the Zone to find the Golden Sphere. One of the Stalker's clients is a scientist, and the other a writer. According to Tarkovsky specialist Maya Turovskaya, the Writer and the Scientist may be meant to represent the "Lyricists" and the "Physicists", two opposing schools of thought concerning the role of Art in the Socialist Workers' Paradise of the USSR (though if that's the case, both camps are shown in their most negative light through these characters). The Stalker has reasons of his own for leading the men into the Zone. Abandoning the Writer, who is seduced by hallucinations to stay in the Zone (to his certain death), the Stalker brings the Scientist to the Meat Grinder, where he forces him at gunpoint to walk into the trap. With the Meat Grinder satisfied, the Stalker avails himself of the Golden Sphere, hoping to restore his mutant daughter to health and humanity. However, when he gets back from the Zone, it is revealed that the Golden Sphere has merely given him useless wealth. His innermost wish wasn't for his daughter after all, but for himself. But unknown to the Stalker, the Scientist had expected to die in the Zone, and had brought with him an atomic bomb... as the Stalker confronts his thirty pieces of silver, the bomb goes off and destroys the Golden Sphere forever.
Tarkovsky wasn't happy with this version. He insisted Arkady Strugatsky start over, but he didn't give the author any clue about what, exactly, he was dissatisfied with. Strugatsky polished the screenplay, changing the characters and their complicated interrelationships, and returned several times for Tarkovsky's opinion. Each time Tarkovsky expressed his disapproval, but continued to be elliptical about what it was he really wanted. Some might call this the Socratic method; others might uncharitably (but justifiably) call it, "being a dick".
Eventually Strugatsky came to the conclusion that the story could be told simply and meaningfully without any of the obvious science fiction elements at all. This turned out to be exactly what Tarkovsky was looking for.
(However, at some point Strugatsky must have grumbled a question about who was paying for all these speculative rewrites... for in an entry in his Martyrology for June 28, 1978, a year and a half into the troubled production of Stalker, Tarkovsky wrote: "Arkady Strugatsky has shown himself to be petty and calculating. To hell with him. I am going to owe him 1200 roubles for our shared expenses.")
Tarkovsky started filming in Estonia in February, 1977. For the Zone, he'd located an abandoned chemical facility that seemed to promise just the right combination of wilderness and ruin. In fact, it turned out to be a bit more like the Zone than anybody had realized... the area's chemical contamination may be the reason why so many of the people involved in Stalker, including Tarkovsky and his second wife, Larisa Tarkovskaya, died of cancer within a few years of the shoot.
But the filming had its immediate problems, too. By late May, Tarkovsky was at his wits' end, calling his crew "Lightweight, shallow people, with no self-respect. Childish degenerates. Cretins." Around the same time, his mother suffered a stroke, for which Tarkovsky blamed himself. Then, in late August, the already-difficult shoot became impossible: the film lab in Moscow, unused to dealing with the Western (Kodak) color film stock, mis-processed the negatives and ruined everything they'd shot. Tarkovsky blamed both the lab and his cinematographer, Georgy Rerberg, whom he called "a disreputable whore" and "a corpse". He fired Rerberg at once. When filming resumed, Tarkovsky found a new cinematographer, Alexander Knyazhinsky; those who have compared the finished film to the surviving prints of the original draft say Knyazhinsky's footage is almost indistinguishable from that of the "disreputable whore".
At the time of the disaster with the negative, the budget for Stalker was all but used up. It was impossible for Tarkovsky to begin again, even if he felt he had the strength to re-shoot the movie he felt had been his best work to date. Then, while Tarkovsky was struggling to save the project, he suffered a heart attack. He was only 46. It's at this hopeless stage that we leave the story of Stalker for a little while.
Tarkovsky made only seven mature films (not including his student diploma film, The Steamroller and the Violin). In order to discuss Stalker, it makes sense to review, however briefly, the other six films that make up his output. After all, his total output is small enough, yet tightly integrated enough, that it makes little sense to consider one without reflecting for a moment on the others.
The first of his mature films was Ivan's Childhood (1962; also known in translation as My Name is Ivan). This was a grim, unsentimental story of a young boy who is forced out of his childhood by the horrors of the Second World War. Based on a novella that told Ivan's story through the eyes of a soldier, Ivan's Childhood recast the story to view the soldiers, and the war, through Ivan's perspective, and in so doing subverted all the traditions of the Soviet war film. As had been the case with the earlier Steamroller and the Violin, Tarkovsky made Ivan's Childhood in collaboration with his close friend Andrey Konchalovsky (Tango and Cash), who shared many of Tarkovsky's views on cinema and was also struggling to find his voice as a film-maker.
Tarkovsky also collaborated with Konchalovsky on his next film, Andrey Rublev (1966), a movie which frequently appears in various "Greatest Films..." lists. Andrey Rublev is a series of tableaux that aren't so much about the 15th-century icon painter as they are through him. To summarize the plot would be beside the point of a movie like this; however, at its most basic level it's a film about Rublev coming to terms with his role as an artist in troubled, brutal times. He begins to question the need for a spiritual art in the midst of so much violence and despair, with the churches full of gold while the streets are running with blood; then, in coming to the aid of a mad girl during a Tartar raid, he winds up killing a man himself, and in penance renounces his art. The last tableau involves Rublev only peripherally: it's the story of a bell-maker's son, who insists that he alone knows the secret of bell-making that his dead father knew. He supervises the casting of an enormous copper bell for the Grand Prince, insisting on his exacting specifications in the face of the doubts of the Prince's experts. The price of failure is his death, and the deaths of his workmen, but the boy remains faithful to his instincts. It's only when the magnificent new bell rings its first perfect peal that the boy collapses from the strain: he confesses to Rublev that his father had died before revealing his secrets, and that he'd had no idea whether the bell would ever ring. Inspired by the boy's faith in himself and in the guidance of God, Rublev decides to resume his painting.
Andrei Rublev was greeted by the Soviet film-making authority with blank incomprehension. Where, in this turgid, episodic mess, was the optimistic Socialist message? Where was the triumphant battle-scene representing the rebellion of the Russian people against that Tartars? Where was the positive side of 15th-century Russia, of which the artwork of Andrey Rublev must surely be a part? The film was too violent, too disjointed, too mystical... too LONG. Tarkovsky came to believe that some of the criticism about the length and pacing of the film had merit, so he gradually pared the film down (years later, after he defected to the West, Tarkovsky stated unambiguously that the cut-down version of Andrey Rublev was his final statement; however, an uncut print outlasted both the director and the Soviet Union, and its subsequent release has had critics and admirers wondering what Tarkovsky could have been thinking). The recut version was not enough to placate the powers-that-were, though, and the movie sat on the shelf unreleased until 1971.
While the dispute over Andrey Rublev was heating up, Tarkovsky proposed a totally different subject for his third film: an adaptation of the Polish science fiction author Stanisław Lem's Solaris (1972). Lem's novel posited the existence of a distant planet covered by a sentient ocean. Attempts by Earth scientists to study this ocean have resulted in a total failure. Out of (thoroughly human) frustration at their inability to communicate with an alien intelligence, the scientists try bombarding the ocean with radiation, but the ocean apparently responds by intensifying its study of them. Soon the space station receives "visitors" — semi-human manifestations of the deepest, most painful memories of the researchers. Psychologist Chris Kelvin is "visited" by a neutrino-based replica of his wife Hari, who had killed herself when their marriage had fallen apart. Kelvin is at first horrified, and blasts the pseudo-Hari out into space; but the ocean reconstitutes her and sends her back. Gradually, though, the pseudo-Hari begins to rediscover what it is to be truly human — that is, she discovers what it is to be human at the time she comes to realize that she is not. Realizing, furthermore, that she is only a tool of the ocean to test the man she thinks she remembers she loves, she then tries to destroy herself. Eventually she succeeds in dissolving herself into her constituent neutrinos, with the help of one of the human scientists.
"'Any attempt to understand the motivation of these occurrences is blocked by our own anthropomorphism. Where there are no men, there cannot be motives accessible to men. Before we can proceed with our research, either our own thoughts or their materialized forms must be destroyed. It is not within our power to destroy our thoughts. As for destroying their material forms, that could be like committing murder.'"
Where Lem had concentrated on the futility of human attempts to communicate with a non-human, extraterrestrial intelligence, Tarkovsky wanted to change the focus of Lem's story to concentrate on the Earth people's examination of their own humanity in light of what the sentient ocean reveals to them. Tarkovsky's ultimate theme was redemption: Hari overcoming her nature as an artificial creature to achieve true humanity in death, and Kelvin's redemption from guilt over his wife's suicide. Lem was not happy with Tarkovsky's interpretation, and sent back his initial draft screenplay with the note that is "reduced the ethical and philosophical conflicts involved to nothing more than the melodrama of a family squabble." Tarkovsky modified the screenplay in response, but kept the focus on the human interactions... which simultaneously underscored Lem's point about the inability of human beings to overcome their anthropocentric view of the universe and their place in it, and undermined the philosophical thrust of the novel. Lem remained unsatisfied.
But that's neither unexpected nor particularly alarming. Tarkovsky's film is a different, thoroughly valid work, inspired by Lem's novel but independent from it; and Lem's novel survives unscathed, to be read on its own. Tarkovsky confessed that he was uninterested in the purely science fiction aspects of Lem's work, and reinforced his commitment to the human side of the story by de-emphasizing the spectacular and otherworldly aspects. He appended a prologue set on Earth, to introduce us to Chris Kelvin and to remind us of all that he is leaving behind on his momentous journey to a distant planet. We see the familiar beauty of the Russian countryside, where Kelvin's family lives; we meet his aging father, whom Chris will never see again, thanks to the vast distances of space he must cross to reach Solaris. Tarkovsky is so thoroughly uninterested in the spectacle of the typical science fiction film that he refuses to give his audience the satisfaction of seeing a rocket lift-off from the Earth... rather, as though to emphasize the dull routine of a long, long journey through space, Tarkovsky replaces Kelvin's journey with the commute of a Space Administration bureaucrat back to the city from Kelvin's family's dacha.
Tarkovsky was able to film several very effective sci-fi/horror sequences; for example, Kelvin's launching of the first Hari into space; or the scene in which the second Hari, filled with an unreasoning terror when she's separated from the man the ocean has told her she loves, uses her inhuman strength to tear through a wall in the space station; and most impressively of all, the second Hari's attempted suicide by drinking liquid oxygen, and her subsequent agonizing rebirth. But Tarkovsky's insistence on Solaris being as little of a science fiction film as possible allows him to concentrate on the human story he wanted to tell, in spite of Lem's intentions: mankind, contemplating the unknown and the unknowable, being forced top confront the "simple human mysteries" which have not been solved in the millennia of human history (this is Tarkovsky the religious artist asserting himself over Lem the speculative philosopher). However, Tarkovsky's lack of interest in the genre also leads to some absurdities: for example, lit candles on a space station; or a "poetic" zero-gravity scene in which a number of objects that should be floating aren't.
Though Tarkovsky changes the meaning of the story, the events of Lem's novel are still largely recognizable in the screenplay. The major changes involve the lengthy prologue on Earth (which was a wise addition, as it [if you'll pardon the expression] grounds Kelvin's character, and gives us an Earthly frame of reference through which to see the entire rest of the film), and the film's epilogue. After Hari's sacrifice, Kelvin transmits his encephalogram as a message to the ocean (this was suggested in the novel, but Kelvin rejected the idea; Kelvin's attempt is strangely reminiscent of the Stalker's desperate cry at the end of Roadside Picnic). The ocean seems to accept the transmission, leading the scientists to hope that perhaps contact with the alien intelligence is really possible (here's the point at which Lem reaches for his hat and exits the theater). This epilogue leads to a final image that has always seemed to me to be heartbreakingly tragic — even more so than the end of the original novel.
Andrey Rublev had just seen its long-delayed release the year before Solaris came out, and the simultaneous impact of these two very different films helped establish Tarkovsky's reputation as a major film-maker. His next project was one he had initially proposed back in 1968, under the title Confession — as originally conceived, it would have consisted of fluidly-realized images from Tarkovsky's memories of childhood, interspersed with actual newsreel footage of those troubled times, and all bound together with footage of interviews taken with Tarkovsky's mother — intimate, painfully-detailed interviews filmed without her knowledge. Fortunately, at some point Tarkovsky realized that this last component of the film was a terrible idea... either that, or someone pulled him aside and explained to him that such tactics were better left to the KGB, rather than Mosfilm.
The screenplay for the new film went through several other drafts, one entitled A Bright, Bright Day, before reaching its final form as Mirror (1974). This film showed Tarkovsky at his most poetic, fluid and elliptical. It takes the form of a succession of fleeting memories, passing through the mind of a man confronting his early death. We never see the protagonist, except through his childhood memories, and those memories are fragmentary and non-linear. No distinction is made in the filming style between the vividly realistic memories and the points at which memory yields to poetry and dream; the protagonist's reflections are sometimes broken into by the snippets of newsreel footage, making it very difficult to say where "reality" begins and ends in the context of the film.
If Andrey Rublev was greeted with incomprehension, Mirror left the Soviet film establishment furious. It was this film that gave Tarkovsky the reputation for being a "difficult", "avant-garde" director, in spite of Tarkovsky's protests that he was nothing of the kind. It had been his intention to make a film composed entirely of images, not to be read and interpreted, but simply experienced... there was nothing "difficult" or "elitist" about it. Audience reaction to Mirror was strongly divided: those who came in expecting a traditional film, with a clear, linear story and character development, hated the film, but Tarkovsky received dozens and dozens of letters of support from ordinary people who felt his images had captured something that resonated deeply with their own lives' experiences.
Mirror was something of an embarrassment to the Soviets, who withdrew it from circulation and forbade its release to the international festivals. It was in the middle of the controversy over Mirror that Tarkovsky experienced the disaster of the first Stalker shoot. It's really no wonder that the young director had a heart attack... but his subsequent medical expenses, not all of which were reimbursed by the Cinema Union, left him further in debt. Tarkovsky's difficulties with the authorities over the finished Mirror and the abortive first version of Stalker led to still more problems: Moscow began to curtail his international opportunities, and questioned the viability of his scheduled next project, a co-production with Italy.
After Stalker (1979) was finally completed, the Soviets allowed Tarkovsky to continue with his Italian project. While Tarkovsky was in Italy preparing the film, the Soviets abruptly changed their minds and withdrew their support... leaving Tarkovsky and his associate, Tonino Guerra, scrambling to find the support within Italy to finish the movie. The resulting movie, Nostalgia (1983), thus became an Italian film, and Tarkovsky's first non-Russian film.
The irony of this is that in Nostalgia, Tarkovsky makes sun-drenched Italy look as cold, damp and lonely as any stretch of Russian countryside.
The title "nostalgia" is used in its literal sense: "home-sickness". It follows an ailing Russian poet named Gorchakov as he travels through Italy, researching the life of a Russian baroque composer named Pavel Sosnovsky. Gorchakov is preparing an opera libretto on Sosnovsky's tragic life: a serf at home, Sosnovsky had been permitted by his lord — his "owner", in fact — to go to Italy to learn the latest compositional techniques. Once in Italy, Sosnovsky had to try to balance his newfound ability to explore & expand his artistic potential with his inescapable longing for home... even though home meant slavery. Eventually the tension within him became too great, and he returned to serfdom in Russia... where he committed suicide shortly afterwards (Sosnovsky is based on the real-life Ukrainian composer Maxim Berezovsky).
Gorchakov travels with a young Italian translator named Eugenia, and as is often the case when two people spend a long time trying to interpret one another's' thoughts, a certain attraction has arisen between them. Gorchakov, however, is married, and his memories of his wife and his home so consume him that Eugenia becomes furious with him. Gorchakov becomes acquainted with a man named Domenico (played by one of Ingmar Bergman's regular actors, Erland Josephson), who is reputed to be mad: he once locked up his family for seven years, trying to protect them from "the end of the world", until the police came and forcibly removed them. Now Domenico wanders the neighborhood, making cryptic statements to anyone he can find to listen to him. Gorchakov sees a resemblance between this simple, crazy man and the "holy fool" of Russian history. Domenico entrusts Gorchakov with a simple, useless task that he insists must be completed in order to save the world: he must cross the pool of St. Catherine, from end to end, carrying a lighted candle. Domenico later commits suicide in what was supposed to have been a dramatic and spectacularly public way, but which turns out merely to be pathetic and horrifying. On hearing of Domenico's awful end, Gorchakov becomes determined to carry out that futile task, which he does in one of cinema's longest and most excruciating takes... but the effort is too much for him, and he dies having placed the candle at the opposite end of the pool. The film's last image is of Gorchakov, lying in a Russian marsh with his dog and his house behind him... but all around him rise the walls of a ruined Italian cathedral. The incompatible parts of his world have united in his dying moments.
Nostalgia is an amazingly beautiful film whose every frame makes me want to curse and throw something at the screen. Tarkovsky always claimed he hated symbolism and "literary" devices in cinema; but in Nostalgia, he indulges in symbolism of the most obvious and puerile kind. Take, for example, the scene in Domenico's ruined house, when Domenico offers the Russian food and drink. The camera comes zooming in to the Bread and Wine the "holy fool" is proffering. And Eugenia! It's bad enough Eugenia is portrayed as a miserable, unhappy straw-woman of the Materialistic Western Female, forsaking her duties as a humble wife and mother for a career... for casual sex... for (gasp!) her own identity. It's bad enough that we see her obvious discomfort in a church, where a curiously-pagan peasant fertility ritual is going on; bad enough that her attempt to genuflect is spoiled not only by her lack of familiarity with the gesture, but by her fashionable footwear. But when she is subsequently accosted by the priest, who reads her a sermon about the superficiality of her life, the situation becomes intolerable.
As for the pivotal character of Domenico — of whom Tarkovsky wrote: "This frightened man, to whom society offers no protection, finds in himself the strength and nobility of spirit to oppose a reality he sees as degrading to man..." — there's no escaping the fact that his resistance initially takes the form of plain domestic abuse. No mention is ever made of the nobility of a woman's spirit, except in the context of wifedom, motherhood and submission.
Tarkovsky himself realized that the film's final image, the Russian house inside the Italian church, violated his own principles, but that's really the most easily forgivable of the blatant symbols he uses. Certainly the candle ceremony lends itself to all sorts of superficial readings that rob it of much of its power as a purely abstract image. Ultimately, Tarkovsky's first Western film seems like a strident diatribe against Western liberalism.
After the release of Nostalgia, Tarkovsky announced that he and his wife would not be returning to the Soviet Union. His next (and last) film, completed while he was dying of cancer, was shot in Sweden, the homeland of his revered fellow-director Ingmar Bergman. Erland Josephson returned, again playing a character who becomes a "holy fool"; a further connection to Bergman came in Tarkovsky's use of cinematographer Sven Nyquist. The resulting film, The Sacrifice (1986), continued in the overtly religious vein of Nostalgia. It concerns an aging agnostic actor named Alexander (Josephson), whose family has come to celebrate his birthday... on the eve of global thermonuclear war. As a gesture of faith, something which Alexander feels has gone missing from the world, he takes his young son (who is sick, and is temporarily rendered mute by a throat operation) to plant a dead tree. He tells the boy a story about a monk who planted a tree like this, and restored it to life through his faith.
Around him, his family pursues its shallow, materialistic pursuits, as the news of the international situation grows worse. Then Alexander has a sort of dream, or vision, or nightmare, in which he is offered the chance to redeem the world through seemingly-meaningless acts. In exchange for averting the end of the world, Alexander promises God he will give up everything — his home, his family, his worldly possessions, even his voice. Alexander wakes to find that there will be no war. True to his word — though there is no proof he has had anything other than a strange dream — he sends his family away with a note, then sets fire to his house and all his possessions. As the men in the white coats come to take him away, his little son goes on watering the dead tree, waiting for it to bloom...
The Sacrifice is a much more troubling and ambiguous film than Nostalgia. For someone who does not agree with Tarkovsky's specific religious and moral points of view, The Sacrifice still serves as a disturbing meditation on the burden of faith. Here he is using the relative freedom of expression he found in the West to explore a religious idea head-on... yet without lapsing into sermon, as he'd done in his previous film.
By the end of 1986, an excruciating year of illness and pain, Tarkovsky was dead.
From this overview, we can see that Stalker occupies a critical position in Tarkovsky's output. It was his last Russian film, and the last film he made before his defection to the West allowed him to explore his personal issues of faith in a straightforward way, free of the mandates of the aggressively-secular Soviet state. It was his most difficult film to create; and the ordeal of its creation played a part in his decision to leave his homeland, like the hero of his subsequent film... and like the hero of his subsequent film, to die after making his final, exculpatory act.
While he was recovering from the twin shocks of having his best film destroyed by the lab and suffering his first heart attack, Tarkovsky waited for permission from the State Committee for Cinematography to consider Stalker a film in two parts, and put up some additional funding for the second part. Somehow, eventually, he managed to convince them to do this, and fortified with the money for "Part 2" Tarkovsky went back to the drawing board.
For this, he required an entirely new take on the script. Yes... another one. Having come so far in his realization of the first version, there was no way he could go back and retrace his steps.
So Arkady Strugatsky changed the character of the Stalker from a devious tough guy to something more along the lines of the Russian "holy fool" — an innocent convinced that if he leads the right people into the mystical, incomprehensible Zone, the Zone will transfigure them and bring them happiness and fulfillment. Like Kelvin in Solaris, and like Gorchakov in Nostalgia, the Stalker has a patch of white hair that suggests he is "marked" — or possibly damaged — in some way.
Now, the tendency in criticism is to see the Stalker not as being related to Chris Kelvin or Gorchakov, but as more closely tied to the "holy fool" characters played by Erland Josephson in his last two films. I think there is a danger in relating the Stalker too closely to those later characters. That there is a strong kinship between them is undeniable. But there is still too much of the Brothers Strugatsky in the screenplay of Stalker to make the kinship unambiguous.
As in the novel, the Stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky) has recently finished his time in prison when he is called upon to take someone into the Zone. His wife begs him not to go, lest he either be killed or sent back to prison. The Stalker replies that everywhere is a prison to him. He leaves his wife practically convulsed with despair for herself and her mutant daughter, and goes off to meet his clients.
The first he meets is the Writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn, Tarkovsky's favorite actor), a popular author who has become wealthy on his books, but who is now burnt out. The Writer takes the Zone so lightly that he shows up partly inebriated... and he's even brought with him a girl he's just met, hoping he can bring her into the Zone as well, for fun. The Stalker sends the girl away and upbraids the Writer for being so foolish.
The Scientist (Nikolai Grinko, who had a major role in all five of Tarkovsky's Russian films) is already awaiting them inside the local dive bar. The Stalker insists they will refer to each other only by their professions. What they're doing is highly illegal, so the less they know about each other, the better it will be for all of them.
The Stalker warns the two men that getting into the Zone will be very dangerous. The dangers will be more prosaic than those they'll encounter within the Zone, but a bullet will suffice as well as an alien death-trap to bring the journey to an end. There are automated trains that still run through the edges of the Zone, carrying supplies on the shortest available path to the stations set up at different parts of the boundaries. The party will need to sneak into the Zone following one of those supply trains, in the brief moments while the gates are open.
The journey past the guards and into the edges of the Zone is as harrowing as anything in escapist commercial cinema. The three men soon find themselves under fire from the guards, who are dead-set on stopping them from entering the Zone, but who will not set foot past the fences under any circumstances. The Scientist runs on ahead, risking a hail of bullets, and prepares the motorized trolley the trio will ride into the Zone along abandoned railway tracks.
(Some critics in the West thought the flight into the Zone was some sort of comment on defecting from the Soviet Union. Tarkovsky was contemptuous of this interpretation, as he was with any overt symbolism people claimed to find in his films. But when we consider the number of times Tarkovsky himself resorted to symbolism, sometimes of the crudest sort, we have to acknowledge that the critics had at least the hint of a point. After all, the Zone represents a sort of freedom, especially to the Stalker, but it's a freedom that's beset with invisible traps. You have the opportunity to make your wishes come true there, but if you are not careful, you'll come away with something useless at the cost of your soul [see below, for the story of "Porcupine"]. As a metaphor, this harmonizes so well with Tarkovsky's impressions of the West after his defection that we're almost forced to accept it as a valid interpretation, in spite of the author's vehemently-expressed wishes.)
But when the three men arrive at the real starting point of their journey, the walk through the most dangerous part of the Zone to their destination, something interesting happens: the film changes from dreary sepia to full color.
And here I need to bring something up that I'm sure will get me in deep trouble with those who take the Art of Film very seriously... those who haven't come to look at all cinema from the point of view of the lowest common denominator, as I have. We've seen this gesture somewhere before.
There is a disadvantage to being the sworn foe of commercial film — to being an artist who decries the very existence of genre cinema. You run the risk of stepping into the occasional unseen trap... much like the men in the mysterious Zone. In this case, consider that we're watching a film in which an odd assortment of travelers (and later a dog) are journeying through a strange, dangerous landscape in search of a place where their wishes will be granted. Then consider the director's use of vivid color to mark the border between the mundane reality they're left behind and the beginning of the strange new world. Are you hearing the Harold Arlen soundtrack in the back of your mind? Are you looking around for missing Munchkins (hint: there is one, but he's in Solaris)? That's right: the most uncompromising of art-film directors has unconsciously echoed The Wizard of Oz.
(Oh — and while I'm on the subject, this might be the time to bring up what I think was another mis-step in the technical production of the film. Tarkovsky worked very carefully with the film's composer, Eduard Artemev (Bram Stoker's Burial of the Rats), to create a soundtrack that consisted mostly of unintrusive, ambient sound. For the most part, this seemingly-uncomposed soundtrack is very effective. But at several points, the movie intercuts the sound of passing trains with snatches of bombastic music: first the Marseillaise; later some Wagner... I seem to remember the last scene of the film bringing back this gesture with a snippet from Beethoven's "Ode to Joy", though this is missing from my copy of the film on video. This sort of thing seems much too redolent of avant-gardist gimmickry to ring true. From a director who claimed he wanted to eschew anything but the most essential means of expression, especially when it came to the use of music... the director who wrote, "Instrumental music is artistically so autonomous that it is harder for it to dissolve into the film to the point where it becomes an organic part of it"... to use bits of composed music so inorganically is perplexing, especially in a film whose other aspects are so carefully and perfectly harmonized.)
In spite of this sobering story, the Stalker still considers it his duty to try to bring people to the Room, in hopes of bringing them happiness. It's only in the Zone that this poor, beaten man feels he has a real purpose; only in the Zone that he feels truly alive and at home. Of course, it's true that a false step in the Zone is usually fatal. It's also true that he has no idea what becomes of the people who survive their encounter with the Room after they leave the Zone — do they achieve the fulfillment and happiness they came looking for? Are there terrible conditions attached? The Stalker doesn't know.
The Room is ridiculously close to their starting point, but the Stalker warns the others that one must never take the direct route in the Zone. The safe paths are always changing, and to go by the shortest path — or worse, to go back exactly as one had come, expecting it to be safe — is to go to near-certain death. He tests for traps by hurling bits of cloth-wrapped metal in the direction he wants to proceed; if nothing happens, he knows it's probably safe to go on.
After a few minutes of painfully slow progress, the Writer grows bored. So far they've seen little to worry them (apart from the graveyard of military vehicles, some with their drivers still in them, which shows what happened when mankind tried to storm the Zone by force...); why don't they just go straight to the Room and get it over with? He marches across an overgrown field, directly toward the building where the Room awaits them... but as he goes, the strain begins to tell on him. In spite of his initial bravado, he soon slows down, and comes to a dead halt not far from his destination. He hears the others calling urgently for him to come back, and he does, looking worried... but when he rejoins the others, he finds that neither of them had spoken.
If the trip into the Zone had been harrowing, the trip across the Zone is even worse... but it's harrowing in a quiet, steadily-building, unobtrusive sort of way. Ramsey Campbell once wrote that he found the second half of Stalker terrifying enough to be nearly unwatchable. Most viewers will probably not be as profoundly affected as that, but the trip to the Room is still deeply and subtly disturbing, in spite of (or perhaps because of) the fact that very little out-of-the-ordinary is ever really seen. It's true that the camera will occasionally zoom in on an unassuming heap of detritus, until the bones are clearly visible... but for the most part, it is the feel of the place — realized through the cinematography, the sets (many of them found), and the soundtrack — that seems so unnerving.
The polluted landscape contributes its own peculiar flavor to the film. The beauty of a woodland scene is marred by the stream full of foaming chemicals that runs through it. It's worse when we see the three men lie down to rest in that foaming muck. The pollution even contributes one of the only actual sci-fi special effects in the whole movie: that Douglas Adams-y moment when we glimpse a river standing still, while the shore appears to wash up and down. What looks like a grassy field rippling and undulating unnaturally is, in fact, a layer of river scum so thick that it resembles solid ground; the wind picks up pieces of it and blows it around like a cloud of dust.
Along the way, the Scientist momentarily gets separated from his knapsack, and the Stalker forbids him to go back for it. The Scientist decides not to listen, and goes his own way. The Stalker and the Writer proceed through the so-called "Dry Tunnel" (so-called because it is actually thoroughly flooded — the two men must walk straight through a filthy waterfall). Once through, they're amazed to find the scientist waiting for them with his sandwiches, and his thermos, and his beloved knapsack. The Stalker and the Writer have come full-circle, through a trap which has failed to spring. Confused and terrified, the Stalker insists they rest before going on.
The Writer, disconcerted at being so far out of his element, offers up a constant stream of cynical chatter. The stolid Scientist, who seems much more concerned with his knapsack, tells him to put a sock in it; but the Writer just keeps on with his pretentious yattering. The Stalker privately hopes that these two apparently hopeless men are hopeless enough... that they have been sufficiently beaten by life that they have learned to bend before it, rather than be broken by the pressure. Only those people, the "truly wretched", seem to be able to pass through the Zone... provided they know how to behave. Looking at the two men resting in the mud, the Stalker whispers a bit of the Gospel of Luke from the story of the Resurrection: "And it came to pass, that, while they communed together and reasoned, Jesus himself drew near, and went with them. But their eyes were holden that they should not know Him. And He said unto them, What manner of communications are these that ye have one to another, as ye walk, and are sad?"
At the door to the Meat Grinder, the Stalker discovers that the Writer has brought a gun into the Zone. As the graveyard of military equipment suggests, this is like waving a poker in a thunderstorm... the Stalker begs him to throw it away. After all: what could he possibly shoot? The Writer reluctantly parts with the weapon. But we get the impression it wouldn't have mattered much. The Writer is every bit as damaged as the Stalker, but where the Stalker has humbled himself to his thankless task of trying (and failing, over and over again) to bring people to fulfillment and happiness, the Writer's ego prevents him from bending his knee. If the Stalker's innocence and humility protects him in the Zone, the Writer's inner emptiness seems to make him not worth the Zone's attention.
After his inadvertent confession, the Writer becomes angry. He knows that the Stalker deliberately sent him first into the Meat Grinder. The Stalker admits it, but points out that the Writer had survived several traps before this: clearly he was the only one who could be sent through the Meat Grinder safely. In the midst of the argument, a telephone starts ringing. Distracted, the Writer answers it... naturally, it's a wrong number. The argument continues for a moment before everybody freezes, and looks back at the impossible telephone.
This is the point at which the heretofore-impassive Scientist suddenly springs into action. Taking advantage of the miraculous working phone in the middle of the wasteland, he calls his superior at the research lab... and reveals his ultimate plan. It seems that when the Zone first sprang into existence, its dangers were taken very seriously by the scientific community. Hearing of the fabulous Room, and considering its potential for misuse, the Scientists had come up with a plan to destroy the whole area with a small nuclear bomb. Ultimately the plan was abandoned: upon consideration it seemed a "vile thing" to destroy something they don't understand. But now the Scientist has come here, carrying something in his knapsack, with the express purpose of carrying out that terrible plan. The fact that his superior also slept with his wife years ago may also have something to do with it...
There are those who see the Scientist as representing the supposedly-blinkered rational worldview: that he's somehow reflective of the avowedly atheist Soviet state (which, in fact, merely substituted political and economic superstition for religious dogma... but that's a different argument). The Scientist, they claim, feels he must destroy what he is incapable of understanding. I can understand how some would come to that interpretation, particularly if you consider Stalker as the film before Nostalgia, rather than a film following Solaris. But the screenplay doesn't support that interpretation. The Scientist's actual reasons for bringing a bomb into the Zone are complicated, and may have as much to do with his personal betrayal by his superior in the lab as it does with ethical considerations. But his stated goal, whether you accept it or not, is very clear: if such a thing exists as a Room that can make wishes come true, then how long is it before the "frustrated emperors, Grand Inquisitors, Führers... self-appointed benefactors of the human race..." start flocking to the place? Even if you accept the Room as a metaphor for religious faith, it's hard to argue with the fact that religious faith can be a powerful weapon; it starts to seem almost reasonable that the Scientist would want to destroy something that fulfills wishes without regard for the consequences.
But though the question of faith is paramount to Tarkovsky, and the Christian component of Stalker is undeniable, it is too simplistic to consider the Room some sort of blatant symbol. A better symbolic interpretation would follow Maya Turovskaya's view of the Writer and the Scientist as representing the "Lyricists" and the "Physicists": the Physicists insisting the artistic expression was a useless luxury in the modern, forward-thinking Soviet Union, while the Lyricists insisted that Socialist Art was a vital part of the culture of the State. Thus we have two dogmatic approaches to the transformative and essential power of art, both of which approach the problem of the role of the artist, and find... only an empty Room. It is through this bare space that the possibility for transformation and redemption may come — the artist being essentially the selfless conduit for the greater ideas and images that are beyond the capability of his mere ego to express. And the dogmatists can't bring themselves even to cross the threshold of this empty Room, nor bear with them out of the Zone any vestige of the treasure that awaited them — as the Stalker puts it, "the most sincere wish, born of suffering!".
But that symbolism smells pretty strongly of bullshit, too.
Tarkovsky claimed that the Zone was just a zone; the Room, just a room. And it would be a prudent thing to take him at his word. In that light, the Scientist's action — facing a genuine miracle of incalculable power — stands on its own. So, too, does the Writer's realization that the Room grants not stated wishes, but inmost desires; and in his view, human beings — even the would-be dictators or messiahs — aren't sufficiently evolved to be able to come up with a truly transcendent desire for the Room to fulfill. For the most part, this statement reflects the Writer's own selfishness, but on consideration it has certain echoes of Lem's version of Solaris: our human concerns are as yet too petty to embrace the cosmic.
Are either of them right? Or is the Stalker right — with his faith that he can bring happiness to people, or people to happiness, through the power of the Room (It's worth noting that Tarkovsky once conceived a sequel to Stalker in which the Stalker became [in his words] a "fascist", and attempted to drag people to the Room...)? We are never going to find out, since none of the three men can bring himself to do what he came there to do. The Scientist ultimately dismantles his bomb; the Writer and the Stalker merely sit in silence as the rain falls through the ruined roof.
Tarkovsky had meant the bulk of Stalker to conform to the Aristotelian Unities of time, place and action — a necessary act of self-discipline after the allusive, structurally-free Mirror — but with the failure of the journey, the movie abruptly brings us back to the sepia-tinted normal world. The three men stand together awkwardly in that dismal bar, and no hint is ever given what might have befallen them on their way out of the Zone.
The Stalker is traumatized by what he's just witnessed: two men, beaten by the world but unable to find enough faith to believe in themselves, have been brought to the threshold of their desires... but they were unable to go any further. What stunted souls has the modern world created? His wife and lame daughter come to take him home, where his wife will tuck him trembling into bed.
The Stalker's wife then turns directly to the camera, and tries to tell the audience directly how it is, and why it is, she so loves this broken man. She tries to make explicit something the Writer and Scientist seem to glimpse for a moment in the bar: that "it's better to have a bitter happiness than a grey, dull life." A further irony: when his wife suggests he take her into the Zone, the Stalker is horrified: what if she, too, fails? For all his idealism, he seems unable to realize that she's leaped over the threshold years ago.
The coda of the movie is left to the Stalker's daughter Monkey, all by herself. This silent, crippled little girl (a character who was reduced to a state of total inhumanity by this point in the Strugatskys' novel) begins to recite to herself a searing love poem by Fyodor Tyuchev. She reads it with a clarity and comprehension that seem incredible in a girl so young — so removed from the world by the desolation of her surroundings, and by her disability. She lingers almost imperceptibly over the last word of the poem, zhelanya... "desire"; a word we've heard spoken several times by the travelers on their journey to the zone. If the Writer and the Scientist were unable to summon enough courage to confront who they were at heart, and what they most wanted, the Stalker's daughter seems to have no such trouble. The things that the Stalker most wanted to find in the people he's risked his life to take into the Zone have always been right in front of him, in the person of his wife — the embodiment of stubborn faith, of the pliancy that means resilience instead of mere weakness — and in his daughter, who it also turns out is so far advanced, so much stronger of mind and purpose than the adults around her, that she can move objects by thought alone.
Well, now: I think I've managed to offend the arthouse crowd with my lowbrow remarks on what's probably one of the greatest films of all time.
Let me conclude with one troubling reflection: Andrey Tarkovsky, like many great Russian artists, was haunted by the idea of his own death. He entitled his diary his "Martyrology", as though he expected his life to be short, and full of inspired suffering. He wrote at length and with great passion about his call to the service of his art... of his sacred duty to develop his talent at the expense of transient things, like public acclaim, financial success or the desires of his own ego. He stayed true to that philosophy, and forced himself through terrible tribulations over an extended — not just "extended"; ridiculously protracted — period of time to create what may be his finest work: Stalker. And the intense physical and emotional demands of the filming, coupled with the industrial pollution of the part of Estonia in which they filmed, may have hastened the director's death — may have helped earn him the martyrdom he seemed to yearn for. It's as though the Room literally granted him his darkest, most fervent desire.