The year has begun with the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists — those rational soothsayers of the global landscape — moving their infamous Doomsday Clock closer to midnight by thirty seconds. As it stands according to the clock, we are but two minutes away from cataclysm. If we are to approach it in messianic terms, we are living two minutes away from apocalypse. Desolation now haunts our daydreams and nightmares, even if the Doomsday Clock adjustment goes unnoticed by the wider populace still marching to the rhythm of a modern world. But the sense of upcoming cataclysm seeps into our pop consciousness, as personified by the sudden rise of dystopian television, young adult and adult fiction, and the return to political discourse of words associated with futuristic struggle (#resistance).
But what would desolation truly look like? Would the collapse of civilization be a scream or a whimper? The Criterion Collection has recently released a beautifully remastered edition of 1979’s Stalker, one of the great cinematic meditations on decay of both nature and the soul, by the great Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky. It is set in a quietly apocalyptic future, where cloudy skies hover over landscapes of woods and entangled metal, muddy streams and darkened waters. Its power is unnerving but delivered like a whisper. A poet of the lens, Tarkovsky wishes to immerse the viewer in an environment, instead of appealing to the senses with violence or action. Stalker is about personalities inhabiting a destroyed world. How everything was obliterated is left to the viewer to ponder, but knowing our species we can easily imagine for ourselves countless scenarios.
Based on the novel Roadside Picnic, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, the film centers on a rugged man known as a “Stalker,” played by Aleksandr Kaidanovsky, who hires himself out to a Writer (Anatoli Solonitsyn) and a Professor (Nikolai Grinko) to trek into a forbidden area known as “the Zone.” In the tradition of classic science fiction, we are only given glimpses via narrative as to how this Zone came to be. It could have been a meteorite crash. Government forces have closed it off, but the Stalker is adept at smuggling the curious across. The aim of the journey is to find a mysterious space called “The Room,” which is said to grant anyone their deepest desires. It is almost a poetic allegory for our insistence on magical thinking even amid catastrophe, or the seeking of magic as deliverance from a world coming apart. If the original novel was more of a standard science fiction journey, Tarkovsky takes the material and transforms it into a serene experience where below the calm there is subdued chaos.
The 2018 trailer for the recently remastered Stalker (the original 1979 trailer is below)
Tarkovsky was one of the great cinematic poets to be produced by the film culture of the Soviet Union. Like Ingmar Bergman he was obsessed by the inner conflicts of humans, and the eternal questions of existence. As with Bergman you watch his films and get the sense of a director attempting to transcend the medium and somehow capture or encapsulate a specific psychological or spiritual struggle in the very frame itself. Of course, because he was an artist of fierce, even spiritual creativity, he was constantly harassed by the bureaucratic censors of the state. Yet he managed to produce films which today are treasured for their visual beauty, astounding sense of detail, and patient tempo. Key among these works is the science fiction epic Solaris, a psychological drama taking place abroad a space station which combines profound human insights with rich imagery. Other notable films include the autobiographical Mirrors and the astounding, searing Andrei Rublev about a 15th century Russian icon painter.
Stalker would be Tarkovsky’s final work to be shot in the USSR before permanently resettling in Western Europe. Fittingly, it has the tone of a lamentation as science fiction. Now remastered by the Criterion Collection, its rich sepias and baroque set ups can be better admired. The first scenes outside of the Zone are sepia-toned, but shot with a sense of light and shadow worthy of Caravaggio. The Stalker lives with his wife and daughter in a barren land, in a home stripped of all comforts. It is a world nearly Medieval in its ambiance. When the journey commences into the Zone, Tarkovsky and cinematographer Alexander Knyazhinsky switch to a palette of greyish color, subdued greens and prominent browns. But leaving the earlier world of the damned and entering a setting of color is not an immediate switch from desolation to utopia. It soon dawns on the viewer that even the Zone is a cold, bare landscape littered with postwar visions. At one point the trio come across a field of abandoned tanks and burned out sniper huts.
Since the Bush years dystopian culture has been prominent in modern cinema as a form of reckoning. In our current political predicament dystopia crystalizes fears and uncertainties, but this has been the mood for nearly 20 years now. It is fitting that Tarkovsky’s bleakest science fiction parable is undergoing a revival because many of its themes are emulated in contemporary films or are linked to the most essential of Sci-Fi themes — the journey in search of deliverance.
Alfonso Cuaron’s 2006 film Children of Men is a prominent recent example of dystopia as journey. Adapted from a P.D. James novel, it imagines a future where births have mysteriously stopped, humanity finds itself facing extinction and an unlikely hero played by Clive Owen becomes the guardian of what could be the first pregnant woman in decades. Their journey is an escape from lunatic cities, refugee camps and ghettos. The cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki is drained and dominated by grey greens. Like Stalker, but in a more mainstream, action heavy tone, Cuaron’s film is about a journey seeking solace and hope in the aftermath of apocalypse. An even closer film to the atmosphere of Stalker is The Road by John Hillcoat. Based on the award-winning novel by Cormac McCarthy, an author of Dantenean vision, it is a world of wetness, constant rain and unforgiving clouds. A father (Vigo Mortensen) journeys across vast, dead landscapes with his young son. The film and book are an allegory of fatherhood but also of living on after losing everything. It is in our darkest trials that we are confronted with our true selves.
“Tarkovsky’s camera pans over liquid pools or rivers inhabited by roving fish or plant life. Underneath the water we catch glimpses of a disappeared civilization … The daily objects of our existence will become artifacts after the cataclysm.” — A. Rengifo
What these films share aesthetically is a meditative take on the end of the world. The most beautiful passages in Stalker lack dialogue or fast motion. To approach this film properly the modern viewer must leave behind an attachment to the hyper editing of mainstream fare. Tarkovsky’s camera pans over liquid pools or rivers inhabited by roving fish or plant life. Underneath the water we catch glimpses of a disappeared civilization including Orthodox religious icons, a machine gun, cans, syringes. The elements have devoured culture after it has incinerated itself. The daily objects of our existence will become artifacts after the cataclysm, in the same fashion that today we examine the basic home items of the Ancient Romans or Egyptians. We can only hope that such artifacts will even be left if our doom will indeed come from the technology we stock so much faith into.
One of the most profound aspects of Tarkovsky as a storyteller is his obsession with faith. He understands that faith is most challenged and tested during crisis. He was a most defiant rebel in this sense, refusing to abide by the tenants of “socialist realism” which dominated Soviet art since at least the Stalinist period. But because he is an artist of his culture, nurtured by the Russian tradition of writers like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, Tarkovsky cannot help but frame his vision in the context of the inner struggle of the soul within nuclear winter. The revolution is long dead in this Soviet film, the proletarian struggle has been decimated because now everyone is wandering the wasteland. Nuclear war — if that is indeed what has left the world of the film as it is — spares no class. In one of the film’s first shots the Stalker lies in bed, awakening as a distant, off camera radio transmission momentarily emits a few notes of “La Marseillaise.” Its melody echoes like a distant memory, from a time when its rousing verses could be taken seriously.
During the journey to the Room the characters will sleep, step into liquid, find vast expanses of foliage, and debate with each other about death, meaning and the value of titles and education. Later, in one of Tarkovsky’s most naked pieces of dialogue, the Stalker will lie on the ground and condemn the intelligentsia for becoming soulless and faithless, unable to appeal to anyone for its shallowness. This is a striking statement by a filmmaker within a system officially devoted to the socialist transformation of society along Marxist terms. This is where the Room becomes an extension of our yearning for the beyond, for extreme possibilities in a world of commerce and possible war. Magical thinking becomes a conduit for our hopes in times of crisis. I find myself lately having the curious experience of having 9 out of 10 UCLA students ask me what my sign is. Not out of banter, but out of a serious application of astrology to their lives as a way of explaining their stressed, chaotic living. In a post-ideological world, many will turn to signs and wonders for solace. In Stalker the masses are left with nothing but poisoned waters and scorched earth, and so they yearn for deliverance from a supernatural if unexplainable force beyond their tattered borders. No one questions what the Room is, or who controls it, they simply know it is in that forbidden area of the Zone and that it can grant deliverance. Tarkovsky is making this film nearly a decade before the fall of the Berlin Wall, yet the artist senses that he is already living in a society lacking ideology, even if the leviathan of the system proclaims revolutionary slogans.
Tarkovsky filmed within the confines of a chemical plant, and there is an industrial, organic quality to the film’s look that predates the icy metallic tones of later films like Alien and Blade Runner. The Stalker leads his followers through tunnels draped in shadow, punctuated by spaces with deep pools one must traverse. In one striking moment, dark oil oozes across the water as a fish swims around an abandoned bomb. In the essay included in the new Criterion edition, film scholar Mark Le Fanu draws a link between the industrial decay in Stalker and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster a decade away. But because Tarkovsky is a filmmaker of universal power, we can view these images and behold the ghosts of Fukushima or the ongoing oil spill in the South China Sea. Regardless of nation or political party, humans as industrialized creatures have laid waste everywhere. In what might be the ultimate, tragic poetic gesture, some surviving members of the film’s crew are convinced the cancer that later killed Tarkovsky in 1986 was a result of the shooting conditions of the movie. In dramatizing decay, one wonders if Tarkovsky laid waste to himself as he made art defying the standards of a system decaying from within.
Russian cinema has lately taken on two distinct shades. Either the work reflects a revived nationalist ethos, or it reflects on the rise of the corrupt, oligarchic class. Aleksandr Sokurov, one of Russia’s most prominent working filmmakers, adheres to the Tarkovsky method of long but engaging films, but his focus is on national history, as in Russian Ark, or a reckoning with the forces that shaped Russia and the 20th century. His Taurus is an almost viciously iconoclastic take on Lenin while Moloch attempts a gothic portrait of Hitler scored to Wagner. Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan, a recent Oscar nominee in the Foreign Film category, is set in a barren coastal area where the death of the centralized Soviet system has now given way to mafia-like corruption. These are filmmakers who have come to prominence after the Cold War, and their visions are a reckoning as opposed to a speculation of coming cataclysms.
When Tarkovsky was filming Stalker, the Reagan era was just around the corner and the world lived under the shadow of the world’s super powers coming into direct, nuclear conflict. Today a new, ominous sense of historical inevitability hangs in the air, and in a world devoid of a central ideological struggle, what remains a kind of chaotic tension. Stalker stands as a timeless work because it does not frame its story as ideological, or as a clear consequence of an eventual U.S.-Soviet war; it is instead a poetic meditation on the wasteland left over from any conflict or disaster, at any time in any age. It has the wisdom of knowing that we will always seek deliverance amid despair, whether in the future or in the now.
The 1979 trailer for Stalker
Alci Rengifo is a Contributing Editor at Riot Material and a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Mr. Rengifo frequently contributes to the Los Angeles Review of Books, Entertainment Voice, and the East LA monthly Brooklyn & Boyle.