One look and you can tell how well a society functions. It’s all about order. Are the streets clear of rubbish? Are the walls fresh with paint? People only tend to care how something looks once they’re happy with how it works. In Stalker there is very little worth looking after, and so it isn’t.
Detritus lines the paths, themselves growing ragged with overgrown vegetation. Peeled paint litters bedroom floors, and dirt crusts the windows. The cracks have been exposed and no one is in much of a mood to paper over them again.
It’s never explained what has caused this domestic apocalypse, this corrosive decay that blights the village that Andrei Tarkovsky visits with his camera. We understand its decline through absence: of shops, schools, neighbourhoods, or any kind of happiness. All we are told is that it’s adjacent to The Zone, a space that defies category and reason. Maybe it was formed when a meteor struck, but no one who mentions that theory in the film seems very convinced of it.
The geography of Stalker is crucial to understanding how its world works, and what Tarkovsky is trying to say in the film. It is split into two worlds, opposed in many ways: the village and The Zone. The most crucial difference between them is what they stand for. The village is a land of apathy and misery, where it feels like every inhabitant has been struck down with depression. Ruins of an industrial society are everywhere in the form of shipping containers, boats, and cars. Against this bleak vision, Tarkovsky presents The Zone, a place of hope.
It’s a space where dreams come true, if you manage to reach The Room at its centre. According to The Stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky), who guides The Writer (Anatoli Solonitysyn) and The Professor (Nikolai Grinko) in search of that treasure, “It lets through those who’ve lost all hope. Not the good or the bad, but the unhappy.” The landscapes of Stalker are mental as much as they are physical, with each prompting a specific mood.
Director of Photography Alexsandr Knyazhinskiy differentiates the village and The Zone further through his film choices. Footage of the village feels distressed, playing in high-contrast sepia that looks radioactive. It feels like a long-lost relic from the early days of cinema, dredged up from the rubble of some abandoned theatre. In opposition, The Zone is shot in crisper, more natural colours that capture the dynamics of the light and the abundant fog. These alternate images tally with what The Stalker tells us about each place, but as the narrative progresses, we (like The Writer and The Professor) begin to doubt if The Zone is that much better than the village.
Both are ruined in their own way: the village more industrialised and The Zone a rural wilderness. Both are apocalyptic, but seen through the subjective colouring of the camera, the village feels more alien and The Zone more familiar and safe. How true is that, though? Once the trio arrive they find a land that’s verdant and peaceful compared to the village – but it’s a disconcerting kind of peace. The blooming flowers may suggest life and prosperity, but then why are there no other living animals or humans to be found?
The Stalker’s subjectivity skews everything as we take this journey with him as our guide. Most vital are his warnings of the dangers within The Zone. He leads The Writer and The Professor along a strict, but nonsensical path, telling them that there are traps everywhere and that the geography of The Zone is always shifting. As he explains: “At each moment it’s as if we construct it according to our state of mind. Everything that happens depends on us.” His threats turn every innocent blade of grass or cobbled stone into a potential landmine; with every step you expect a trap to snap shut. But… it never comes.
So how much can we trust The Stalker? He warns The Professor that he can’t go back for his forgotten rucksack, as the route will change and he’ll be lost forever. But minutes later they find him again, further ahead on their route, even though he went back for his rucksack. The landscape is playing tricks on the trio, but it’s not as lethal as The Stalker warned.
What it comes down to is belief. As befitting a location that promises to fulfil your dreams, The Room represents a kind of church, or quite literally, a place of faith. The Stalker is its guardian, and his faith in The Room’s power determines everything about him. He believes in it so much that he has never been inside himself. It is a more potent symbol of hope if it remains unfulfilled. Besides, what would happen if he entered and found his beliefs disproven?
As The Stalker’s stories show, The Room’s power to fulfil dreams operates a little like the fabled monkey’s paw, which grants wishes in a more bleak and twisted manner than the recipient intended. In The Stalker’s story one visitor wished for his brother to be brought back to life, but he was given riches instead, as that’s what The Room knew he really wanted deep down. In the face of this fickle mistress, The Writer and The Professor reject the room and The Stalker’s promise of hope.
They return to the village, with The Stalker heartbroken by the rejection of his offer. He has no friends, no quality of life, no beautiful home, and now no hope. In this apocalyptic world, if people don’t even have that, what do they have? His faith is all that helps him fight his depression. Without it he is broken.
In the final scene, his daughter recites a poem about the “dull call of desire”, while flecks of dust float about her. She turns to look at the three glasses sitting on the table. Suddenly, they begin to move.
The Criterion Collection Blu-ray of Stalker is available now. It looks mind-blowingly good. Thanks to the Criterion Collection, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment and Emfoundation for providing a copy.