Analyzing Tarkovsky’s Stalker
By Rhea Cinna
Art, in its varied history, has been used as a means of manipulation as well as a target for censorship for as long as humanity has existed. Paintings have been painted and statues have been erected to praise dictators and heroes alike. Books have been burned and banned to keep information away from the public. No aspect of art has remained untouched in humanity’s quest for power. One of the earliest examples in film, Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) is not only an example of textbook editing and scene construction as we know it but is also a perfect display of how the medium can be used for propaganda. But what happens when art breaks away from the limitations of its time and when its creators break away from the limitations of their environment? Andrei Tarkovsky addresses this in his book, ‘Sculpting in Time’ (University of Texas Press, 1986, tr. from the Russian by Kitty Hunter-Blair): “If we look at the greatest works of art we see that they exist as part of nature, part of truth, and independent of author or audience” and “have a dignity which raises them far above the trivial, everyday interests of the times in which they were written.”
The world presented in Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), is drab and seemingly hopeless, depicted in a black-and-white colour scheme that accentuates its damp decay—an atmosphere matching that of most oppressive political regimes. The central character, the Stalker, is preparing to leave on another tour as a guide within the Zone—the forbidden area. Nobody knows what the Zone is or how it came to be, and while theories abound, fear of it surpasses curiosity. When the Zone had first appeared, the government called in the army, but after many tragic losses, the entrance to the Zone was sealed off with barbed fences and armed guards around its perimeter. And yet, the Zone with its vibrant colours and the room at its center, said to reveal (and fulfill) a person’s innermost desires, still calls to a select few.
Many of Tarkovsky’s characters quest for something seemingly hard to define. It isn’t because they can’t recognize it themselves until they find it, but also because the outer quest often doesn’t match the inner one. The longing, whether it is for a return to the past, the finding of something lost, a reunion, or for a definitive separation from ghosts of various origins, is almost ubiquitous. One of the characters in Stalker (the artist) says it best: “Everything I told you before… is a lie. I don’t give a damn about inspiration. How would I know the right word for what I want?”
The quest, however, is in itself a form of freedom – not a denial of one’s surroundings but an acceptance of self. What happens, however, when the guide falters? Is the whole journey compromised or do the questions only solidify its purpose? As Tarkovsky put it: “The Stalker seems to be weak, but essentially it is he who is invincible because of his faith and his will to serve others. Ultimately artists work at their professions not for the sake of telling someone about something, but as an assertion of their will to serve people.“ (‘Sculpting in Time’, p.181),
If The Mirror (1975) was an expression of Tarkovsky’s affection towards his family and Solaris (1972) an ode to another great mind he wholeheartedly admired, Stalker might be the embodiment of Tarkovsky’s personal quest, with the three characters emerging as facets of his own personality: the curious, the lost and the enraptured. The one who seeks a reason behind things, the one who looks for a flash of inspiration as something to cling to, and the one who is drunk on the unknown only he and a select few seem to have access to.
Many critics have perceived Christian resonances in Stalker, but at the same time, one could view much of the film as an artist’s periplus: the doubting and learning, seeking and yearning for inspiration, the act of creation as genesis of self as well as of the artwork and the unrepeatable high of the artist that keeps beckoning them to a “zone” as destructive as anything it gives in return. If we see the Zone as the realm of inspiration and the artist as the one inherently called upon again and again to take the treacherous journey there, perhaps we can conclude that to Tarkovsky religion and art are not so different from one another, but come from the same selflessness he deemed the utmost form of freedom; an art that overcomes the artistic ego and the political climate, and instead rests solely on what it can bequeath its public – on its ability to move the heart and mind not towards any allegiance, but transcendentally, in a manner that surpasses the barriers of the quotidian.
It is likely that in Tarkovsky’s vision, if the world were to reinvent itself centuries from now, art would point to its new direction, immortalize the change, and shape the challenge for the future both as a result of its time and as its greatest inspiration. Perhaps one day we will return to cave paintings and call them avant-garde. Perhaps one day we will forget our art even existed and adorn our lives with unimaginable things. As incomprehensibly bound as we are by the idea of beauty, this same beauty binds itself to us. And in the quintessential search that agitates our existence, art is the only quelling find. But that too might be the artist’s perspective. The engineer will see permanence in intricate frameworks, the mathematician, in a string of numbers. After all, we are each, in our own way, sending signals out into the unknown, hoping they become beacons waiting on the other side.