Ludo’s review published on Letterboxd:
Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker is unlike anything else I have ever seen. It is beautiful, deep, interesting and full of so much breathtaking imagery. There is not much I can say about this film that is new or original but I’m going to say it all anyway. I love this film for the amazing world it creates, its characters and its ideas. Not many experiences can match the fascination I feel when watching this film.
The film has an incredibly unique setting and premise, creating a world that is developed yet still full of intrigue and mystery. We know so little about this city and the Zone but the small details we get through the dialogue, visuals and sound design show the audience enough to infer a lot. So much of the film is down to inference and interpretation - the characters are unnamed, the setting is vague and the ending isn’t clear. Unlike most films, it does not have a clear message or underlying metaphor throughout, placed by the writer and director. This is the same as most of Tarkovsky’s work as he believed art shouldn’t have a clear meaning and that it should be down to the interpretation and perception of the audience. The dialogue in the film is cryptic and confusing at points and through the three central characters of the Writer, the Professor and the Stalker, it has a lot to say about the value of art, science and religion. Much of this is through monologues which the characters deliver to each other and at points, directly to the audience. These long stretches of only a single character talking explain the characters’ inner thoughts about the world and its people. It is one of the best written films ever. The writer’s monologues are some of the most interesting in film; they reveal so much about the character and how art and artists are perceived.
All three perspectives are flawed which means there is no direct voice of the filmmaker, as with some films. The film defies many conventions - although technically a science fiction film, it has elements of other genres. Tarkovsky was against the idea of genre and viewed his film Solaris as a failure because it didn’t transcend genre - it was more conventionally science fiction (although by no means conventional). It relies almost entirely on long takes, all perfectly choreographed, with only 142 shots within its 163 minute running time, the longest shot lasting 6 minutes and 50 seconds. So many ideas are explored in this time, leaving the viewer tired and out of breath by the end. The audience goes on the journey with the characters and they feel the same.
The film makes use of sepia monochrome and colour to juxtapose between the monotony of the city and the vibrant mystery of the zone. All the performances are phenomenal and memorable. Stalker doesn’t have typical narrative structure in any way. It is, as previously mentioned, very long but is still utterly captivating for the whole duration. Some people may say it is boring, which is understandable to a point because of its distinct style. The executives at Mosfilm initially wanted to cut the film to make it appeal more to mass audiences but in reply to this, Andrei Tarkovsky said 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’. This is Tarkovsky’s main philosophy with making the film. He is communicating his ideas in a unique way and doesn’t care if people do not want to see it. It is the film he wanted to make. It is a long and hard journey that ultimately has no satisfying conclusion.
The film is remarkably quiet but the sound design and use of music is great. For example, while still in the city, strange announcements can be heard from trains. This adds to the world building and creates a clear idea about the city in the minds of the audience. Eduard Artemyev’s score is understated and easy to miss for much of the film but it adds to the amazing atmosphere that the film creates. The cinematography by Alexander Knyazhinsky is probably the best I have seen in any film. Every single shot is beautiful and thoughtful, giving the film a unique personality. The camera acts as an observer, slowly watching (stalking?) the characters and tracking their every move from afar. The shots are slow moving, precise and fluid. They move through the sets and locations elegantly. The 1.33:1 aspect ratio is expertly used to film some of the most amazing sets ever constructed. The rooms towards the end of the film are so visually interesting and interactive. Every location in the film is full of texture - it is one of the dirtiest films ever. The 'Godforsaken city’ at the beginning and end of the film is intriguing, only giving slight hints to the society the film takes place in. It is worn down, abandoned and heavily controlled by the mysterious guards on motorcycles. It has not a clear time period in which the film takes place. It is intentionally all left vague and to inference because those details are not important to the story. It is about people in a place detached from civilisation so it doesn’t matter who rules the city and how. The sound, cinematography and locations work flawlessly together to create a distinctive atmosphere and style that have never been replicated by another film since.
The ending of this film is particularly interesting as no real closure is given as to what happened in the room. To some this ending is unsatisfying and feels self-defeating, but that is the point - it reflects the feelings of a characters. They travelled far to get what they wanted but it was not what they hoped. The room is built up as the solution to all problems but as with much of life, it is not what they expected. Andrei Tarkovsky once said that 'The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as an example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.’. This film is perhaps the closest we have to deciphering the meaning of that quote. This film is to prepare the viewer for the disappointment of life. The film is not an obvious metaphor, but it still talks about important themes in life. It could be interpreted that the journey to the room represents life - a quest for something better that will never be satisfied. Nothing is really how it seems.
All three main characters are described well by an (unrelated) quote from Tarkovsky - ‘the most interesting characters are outwardly static, but inwardly charged by an overriding passion.’. This is true for all of them; they all have a purpose and a reason to go to the room, however devious or selfish. The stalker is the most religious of the three characters and his viewpoint on the zone and the world reflects this. In a monologue towards the end of the film, he talks about his role as a stalker, guiding people. He says: ’ Nobody else can help them, but I am able to! I am ready to shed tears of happiness that I am able to help them. That’s all! And I want nothing else.’. The character of the stalker takes people to the room, but cannot himself enter for selfish reasons. He is selfless and wants to help others because he believes that it is the right thing to do. The professor and the writer are there for their own selfish reasons and can only be disappointed. The stalker has nothing at all so nothing to lose by going to the zone. This shows his faith. He is not angry at the world and other people like the writer. As Andrei Tarkovsky said: ’The Stalker seems to be weak, but essentially it is he who is invincible because of his faith and his will to serve others.’. This is an important theme of Stalker. Many of Tarkovsky’s films touch on religious themes and although it is not the most obvious example, it is still present and important to the film.
The character of the writer is probably the most interesting in the film. He is the character with the most monologues in the film, giving him a lot of depth. There are a lot of comments on art and the people who produce it. He refers to writing as a ’shameful occupation, like removing hemorrhoids’ and says ’a man writes because he is suffering, has doubts. He needs to prove all the time for himself and for the people surrounding him that he is worth something. And suppose I will know for sure that I’m a genius? Why should I write then?’.This monologue is talking about why art is produced and how it can’t be manufactured from nothing. People need doubt to create meaningful things. The professor is the least obvious of the three central characters. Most of his opinions aren’t as clear, apart from his hatred of the writer. He frequently argues with the writer and clearly looks down on art as pointless and inferior to science. He insults him saying ‘You’re a poor little bedraggled writer, a home-grown psychologist. You should better write on the walls of the lavatories, you ungifted sham.’. Until the very end of the film, his motivation for going to the room is unclear. He is against the idea of the room and is worried for how it could be used for evil so has decided to destroy it with a bomb. He says ‘And not in tens, but in thousands! All those emperors, great inquisitors, fuhrers of all kinds will come but not after the money, not after the inspiration, but to remake the world!’. He is the opposition to the ideas of art and religion of the other two characters. He also has the appearance of selflessness but he is against the room, unlike the stalker. He is the most logical of the three, fitting with his occupation as a physicist.
Stalker is a film that creates a world and an atmosphere unlike any other. It is entirely flawless and I have yet to find anything that I don’t like about it. This film is completely fascinating to me, from its premise to its execution. No film I have ever seen has topped this and I don’t know how long it will take until something else will.
(This review is a bit of a mess because I have too much to say and can’t structure anything)