Few directors command as much respect from their peers as the late Andrei Tarkovsky. Ingmar Bergman famously called him “the greatest [director] of them all.” Three of his films appear in the Sight & Sound Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time poll, a feat surpassed only by Jean-Luc Godard.
One of those films, his 1979 feature Stalker, is out in a gorgeous new 2K restoration by Mosfilm.
A surreal and sprawling sci-fi meditation, Stalker is set in a dystopian future society whose fabric is forever altered by the appearance of “The Zone,” a mysterious geographic space of seemingly otherworldly origins.
Despite government efforts to prevent human entry via a militarized perimeter, a class of people known as “stalkers” have learned to navigate “The Zone,” which is governed not by the laws of physics but by the thoughts and emotions of those who enter it.
For a fee, stalkers will escort visitors into “The Zone” and help them navigate its terrain of existential booby traps to find the supernatural rewards it’s purported to contain. The film follows one such stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky) as he leads a writer (Tarkovsky regular Anatoli Solonitsyn) and a professor (Nikolai Grinko) through the sentient landscape.
Like Tarkovsky’s Solaris, Stalker is a loose and abstract adaptation of a much more cerebral sci-fi novel.
While the original authors examine the political and metaphysical ramifications of sci-fi scenarios, Tarkovsky is interested in the spiritual ramifications of these phenomena. His source material tells us about “The Zone,” while Tarkovsky asks what “The Zone” can tell us about ourselves.
Few filmmakers ask such questions better than Tarkovsky. More than presenting a sci-fi setting or scenario, “The Zone” places the viewer in an unsettling headspace that necessitates a radical change in perspective. Needing to interpret a world purely through emotion, discarding reality’s iron-clad laws, forces the viewer to reconsider the prism through which they view their own life in addition to the fiction.
When the writer and the professor give their reasons for wanting to visit “The Zone,” both answers feel incomplete or deceptive. Whether they’re trying to deceive each other, themselves or the viewer is a complex knot that the film only partially untangles. Only by examining their own attitudes can the viewer begin to answer those questions, and like these characters, they might not like what they see when looking inward.
Tarkovsky and cinematographer Alexander Knyazhinsky present these quandaries with a quiet that masks the film’s visual gusto. The film begins outside “The Zone” in sepia tones, transitioning to colour as the characters leave their dystopia behind.
The parallel to The Wizard of Oz is obvious, but that’s less a statement than a further question to the audience. What did that colour scheme say about Depression-era America in Oz, and what does it say about Tarkovsky’s contemporary Soviet Union?
Whatever it said wasn’t liked by Soviet authorities, who made it impossible for Tarkovsky to work in the USSR after this film. In the 1990s, former KGB agents who purported to have had a role in Tarkovsky’s death claimed that the poison which caused his fatal cancer was administered on the set of Stalker.
Stalker plays at Cinematheque Sept. 23-29.