The Rulebook of Tarkovsky’s Stalker
Most articles on this 1979 film consists of either Tarkovsky’s state of mind at the time, courtesy of his diaries or the burnt footages saga, which led to the reshooting of almost the entire film.
Unable to find a single article on the film, its philosophy and the emotions it evokes, frustrated as i was, I thought I might aswell try my hand at it.
Let’s dive straight into this. The opening credits are shown over the shots of a room soaked with dim yellow lighting. The color palette of the movie is established. There is something about dull colors that amuses filmmakers, right from the fascination of Kubrick for orange to the unabridged love of Fincher for green.
Next we see a table, shuddering due to a train passing by. This train will be our companion throughout the movie. It has introduced us to our protagonist, it will help the stalker go inside the zone and it will be a mute spectator in the much talked about ending scene. This train works as a medium to make us see the surroundings that the characters are interacting with, as if it is giving the camera a reason to move. This technique is not new to cinema, infact it has been used by directors for films which are made to look one take, ever since Hitchcock’s Rope(1948). Although, stalker is not one such movie, Tarkovsky used this technique, defying all prewritten rules and making a new rulebook. This new set of rules will be presented in front of us as we progress through the movie, for now, it has atleast justified the title of this article.
Our stalker has left his grieving wife and on the way, he meets the writer. The writer’s conversation with his female friend is the first time after the prelude that we get a sense of what the zone is. It is a mystery, or a myth?
Anyways, we are reintroduced with the room(abandoned bar?)we saw in the opening credits. This is where we get to see our third lead character, the professor.
After a fearful trip, they reach the zone and this is where the rules are set.
- The writer looks disgruntled. As if he has no regards for the world. He doesn’t believe in the power of zone neither does he believe in himself nor his writings. Does he believe in anything at all?
- The professor looks calm and level headed. He does whatever he is instructed to do.
- The stalker makes rules for his other companions aswell. They must respect the zone, must follow each other and must use his techniques to survive in the zone. As for himself, he looks like a leader, someone who is born to command.
- The biggest set of everchanging rules though, is presented by the zone. It has its traps, it has paths you must never set foot on and once you’ve walked on a path, you must never retrace it.
And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal, and, lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood
After a long and exhausting journey through the “dry" tunnel the stalker and the writer are reunited with the professor. This is the first time that a rule has been broken. The professor retraced a path he followed, hence breaking a rule of the zone. The stalker looks worried,it is evident that a rule of the zone has never been broken before. He tells everyone to rest for some time as confusion and self doubt dawns upon him. At this very moment we hear it. We hear the zone. To guide it’s stalker, the zone whispers in his ears. This is also the first time that the zone is linked with faith. The zone recites exracts from the “blood moon prophesy" from the book of revelation, the last book of the new testament. The stalker wakes up and starts murmuring about the resurrection of christ in the town of emmaus, from the gospel of luke in the new testament. The stalker, the son of god(zone), in all his might, is accompanying these two strangers for the fulfillment of their wishes. Once the wishes are fulfilled, he will disappear and they will never see him again… ..
This is also the first time that we see the dog. It will reappear everytime the stalker is in trouble, as if it is the gift of the zone to the stalker. As if the zone knows that this isn’t like any other ordinary journey for the stalker. All three of them continue their quest to reach to the room.
Let’s take a moment to appreciate Tarkovsky for the way he shoots his actors in close angled shots. They look haunting while being haunted, victorious while being defeated, astonishing while being astonished. Almost as if Tarkovsky knew something that no other filmmaker knows, not before not after.
Now summer is gone
And might never have been.
In the sunshine it's warm.
But there has to be more.
It all came to pass,
All fell into my hands
Like a five-petalled leaf,
But there has to be more.
Nothing evil was lost,
Nothing good was in vain,
All ablaze with clear light
But there has to be more.
Life gathered me up
Safe under its wing,
My luck always held,
But there has to be more.
Not a leaf was burnt up
Not a twig ever snapped...
Clean as glass is the day,
But there has to be more
The three men find themselves at the opening of a tunnel, none ready to volunteer. This is where our white knight, the stalker, delivers a shocker and breaks his own rule. The guy whom we trusted to lead, cheats to send the writer before him. Not only that, all of his bravery disappears inside the underground tunnel. Even when he stays 20 feet away from the writer he still uses the professor almost as a shield. It is apparent that our stalker is as scared of the zone as his companions. Afterall, the zone didn’t even spare Porcupine(his teacher), then who is he?
Later, the writer who seemed like he couldn’t be argued into believing into things, when convinced by stalker, drops his gun. The zone also breaks a rule here when it lets the writer walk in the sand room.
Stalker finally realizes that there is something inordinate about this trip, for the zone has never broken so many rules before. As he enters the telephone room, he recites "But there has to be more" by Arseny Tarkovsky, implying that all of this hasn’t happened without a reason and that the zone still has more to offer them.
The zone guides the professor to give his colleague a call, which in turn sets the stage for a big final reveal.
Events that happen next are prolific examples of tampering of rules in a speedy succession. The professor who used to detest writer for being sorrowful is himself drowned in pain and agony, so much so that he could blow the whole place up for seeking revenge. The writer who devoured the room as "someone’s stupid experiment", becomes the first person to understand what the room fulfills. And the stalker, who was the toughest of the lot, breaks down feeling helpless at the only place he felt somewhat in control.This marks the end of their journey in the forbidden zone.
It now becomes clear that the zone let them break, and itself broke so many rules because they were never there for what the zone had to offer. None of them set foot in the room, none wished anything to come true. All three of them part ways, a defeated professor, an unpleasant writer and a terrified stalker. Oh and a gift of the zone to comfort its own, a dog.
The stalker is as tired as he is sad. For the first time he returned from the zone without feeling in control. For the first time he doesn’t feel the happiness of being a part of someone else’s happiness.
When his wife asks him to take her to the zone he says “what if you fail?". He is frightened by what his wife’s wish would be, because he has just found out that his teacher wasn’t as perfect from the inside as he thought he was. Afterall, he himself said “people don’t share their innermost thoughts with anyone”
After this, is a monologue of stalker’s wife, and i could say without a doubt that this scene has the best acting performance of the film.
The sheer brilliance of Alisa Freindlich is impeccable. She says while lighting her cigarette “ I’d rather know bittersweet happiness than a grey uneventful life”. She also talks about the broader theme of the movie when she says “ Our lives wouldn’t be better without sorrows, it’d be worse. Because then there wouldn’t be happiness either. And there’d be no hope". We will talk about hope in just a moment.
I love your eyes, my darling friend, Their play so passionate and bright’ning, When a sudden stare up you send, And like a heaven-blown lightning, It’d take in all from end to end But there’s more that I admire: Your eyes when they’re downcast In bursts of love-inspired fire And through the eyelash goes fast A somber, dull call of desire..
At last we see stalker’s daughter, Marta. She is gazing into the unknown as it talks to her. The zone talks to her! It recites Arnesy Tarkovsky’s poem “I love your eyes, my darling friend, Their play so passionate and bright’ning…”. We see the glass shuddering once again, but this time there is no train passing by, it is marta, stalker’s marta….., zone’s marta…..
The stalker’s believe was always true, he never was a “God’s Fool" as his wife said, the zone was always magical. Because the zone took marta’s legs from her, it gave her hope in return.
I don’t know what happens after the end credits roll, but I hope the stalker never stops believing, I hope they live happily ever after, I hope Marta becomes that ray of light that stalker needs, I hope the stalker finds himself in control again. I hope..,for hope is a good thing. I hope..,for it shall never be destroyed.