by Allan Fish
(USSR 1979 161m) DVD1/2
Welcome to The Zone
d Andrei Tarkovsky w Arkady Strugatsky, Boris Strugatsky novel “Roadside Picnic” by Arkady Strugatsky, Boris Strugatsky ph Aleksandr Kynazhinsky ed Ludmila Feganova m Eduard Artemyev art Andrei Tarkovsky, R.Safiullin
Aleksandr Kaidanovsky (stalker), Anatoli Solonitsin (writer), Nikolai Grinko (professor), Alissa Freindlikh (stalker’s wife), Natasha Abramova (stalker’s daughter),
My first encounter with Tarkovsky’s existential sci-fi epic came when I was but nineteen. Having been fascinated by his Solaris I was eager to view this later work, but in the end, as one might expect, I was unprepared for it emotionally. To my immature teenage eyes there seemed something faintly laughable about it, its protagonists going on a journey in which, for long stretches, the danger is taken for granted and not actually demonstrated. It was almost like that ridiculous Monty Python sketch about climbing the North Face of the Uxbridge Road. I just wanted to cry out “get on with it!”
In the midst of an industrial wasteland called The Zone, turned to desolation following an apocalyptic event (possibly a meteorite landing), there exists a mysterious hidden room with the power to grant one’s deepest desires, but only for those with the physical and mental fortitude to make it there. Only specialist stalkers are up to the journey, and one of them agrees to take a scientist and a writer to the room.
From the very outset we realise we are in Tarkovsky’s world, a bleak, barren hell on earth in which even the simplest of philosophy now seems redundant. “One small country has seen the birth of a miracle” we are told, but it’s in the eyes of the viewer that the miracle takes place. Miracles don’t have to be unexplained paranormal phenomenon but can also be lucky accidents, tricks of the light that leave one awestruck. One such moment occurs near the end of the film where the three protagonists are huddled together in a bombed-out shell of a building and the lighting takes on a golden tinge. There, as if by magic, a hideously faded floor pattern flooded out by the inclement weather that rains down inside, suddenly appears like honeycomb. As if our travellers, in search of their own land of milk and honey, have to part their own Red Sea in their mind, by opening it to all possibilities. Ironically, as fate would have it, it is not those who sought the room who are most affected by it, but the stalker who takes them there. As if he’d undergone his own inner miracle, an epiphany for those so inclined, as the dog which he brought back laps up its symbolic milk from the land of our deepest desires.
Yet some of the other miracles are purely aesthetic, such as how the screen bursts into colour to show the greenery of the world into which they are escaping, overgrown grass hiding burnt out tanks, jeeps and guns. Mist hovers around both physically and psychologically over our central trio, with their eternal demeanour of failed asylum seekers awaiting deportation. They undertake the journey, but in reality, like in many great movies about journeys (think of Apocalypse Now, for instance, as Stalker does have nods to Conrad), it’s the audience who are taken on the greatest journey of them all, one which ends with the greatest miracle of them all, the daughter’s telekinetic display of glass shifting finally acknowledged by the ecstasy of Beethoven’s glorious ninth symphony. It’s a sublime, almost religious moment in a film so full of visual beauty, it’s almost enough to make you weep.
“A human being is not capable of such hatred or love that would extend over the whole of mankind” the writer exclaims in a fit of wishful thinking. Earlier on we are told that “our world is hopelessly boring”, a response that many viewers (including my aforementioned younger self) might agree with. In the end, however, to truly acknowledge Tarkovsky’s genius (and that of his cast, amongst whom Solinitsin is especially superb), one needs to be able to accept that some journeys in life are not to be understood so much as experienced. Every time I see it I recall Tacitus’ immortal words “ubi solitudinem taciunt pacem appellant”, or “they create desolation and call it peace.”