By Anthony Uzarowski.
Whenever a film gets digitally restored and reissued after a considerable amount of time passes from its initial release, the first question that comes to mind is: is it still relevant? This is especially true of works by renowned filmmakers, auteurs whose artistic voices defined their own time and whose films contributed to the creation of the broader cultural landscape of the epoch they worked in. Andrei Tarkovsky belongs to the elite group of directors, along with the likes of Bergman and Fellini, whose genius is rarely questioned and whose cinematic legacy seems securely assured.
This summer, a digitally remastered Stalker (by Mosfilm from a 2K scan of the original negative), one of Tarkovsky’s most renowned masterpieces, is due to receive a limited theatrical release in a number of select locations throughout the United States. What a perfect excuse to revisit this bizarre, haunting art film, nearly forty years after its original release. The premise – a story about a guide (the titular Stalker) who takes a Writer and a Professor on a forbidden tour of the Zone, in order to find the Room, where man’s most secret desires come true – does little to prepare the viewer for the uneasy and often exhausting, but never less than entrancing journey of a film that is Stalker.
When it comes to Stalker the questions of relevance and timeliness aren’t the first or even the last things to consider. With a film as ambiguous and as overloaded with puzzling symbolism, it is possible to endlessly attach meaning to it, regardless of whether the messages we seek to uncover are actually intentionally woven into the fabric of the work by its creator or not. In the years that followed Stalker’s release in 1979, numerous interpretations appeared, and as times changed, so did the interpretations. The Zone has been variously thought to represent everything from the Soviet gulags to a figment of a deluded imagination, a site of an alien invasion and the prophecy of the Chernobyl disaster. And yet, it is hard to watch Stalker today without being struck by how much it seems to fit into the current climate.
Being the last film Tarkovsky made in the Soviet Union, and marred by incredible difficulties during its production, Stalker reflects the debilitation of an artist whose creativity and sensitivity have been stifled by a political regime, and who, seeing the grim reality which surrounds him, refuses to give in to hopelessness. This is especially expressed in one of the final scenes, where Stalker’s wife (Alisa Freindlich, in a tour de force performance) delivers a powerful monologue, in which she declares: “And if there were no sorrow in our lives, it wouldn’t be better. It would be worse. Because then there would be no happiness either. And there’d be no hope”.
It is this notion of hope against all odds, an artist’s hope, that shines through the film’s many self-indulgent and sometimes pretentious soliloquies. The search for meaning and redemption in the darkest corners of the post-apocalyptic dreamscape of the Zone may seem as relevant to the viewers of the Trump/Putin era as it did to those who watched the films in a similarly chilly climate of the latter half of the Cold War. The notion that it is art that will ultimately save us is like a rainbow flag of a message, flattering in the narrative wind of the film. When earlier this year Meryl Streep quoted the late Carrie Fisher during her Golden Globe acceptance speech, she returned to the same thought: “Take your broken heart, make it into art”. For the Stalker is really a metaphorized artist who risks his all by accessing the forbidden, approaching most closely the truth about the human heart.
But ultimately, it is the visual splendour, the breath-taking beauty of the cinematic images which unfold before us that make Stalker so unforgettable. From the very first frame, to the very last, the eye is assaulted by an array of carefully crafted dreamscapes. It is not a subtle assault; Tarkovsky never apologises for the fact that his camera movements are deliberate and showy, that the pace is hypnotisingly slow, the colour pallet meticulously crafted. Nor does he strive for total originality, for instance happily borrowing the switch between colour and brown mono-chrome to distinguish the transition between the Zone and the outside world, a clear nod to The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939).
Stalker’s affirmation of the arts, both through its visual and narrative structure, has assured that over the past four decades its reputation among critics and film scholars has grown. In 2015 the critics’ poll for the British Film Institute placed Stalker as the 29th best film of all time, and illustrious figures from David Thompson to Cate Blanchett continue to sing its praises.
Stalker is not an easy film to watch, and even harder to enjoy, but it is impossible to forget. It is a bold and unapologetic artistic statement, an enigmatic and convoluted hodgepodge of religion, politics, high-brow thoughts and coded messages, visual splendour and grim monotony, and yet, put together by Tarkovsky, it works. This is no doubt a testament to the restless genius of the man himself, and a lasting proof that his reputation as one of the most original and creative filmmakers of the twentieth century is well deserved.
Anthony Uzarowski is a Film Studies MA graduate from University College London, currently perusing his doctoral research at Queen Mary University of London. His first book (co-authored with Kendra Bean), Ava Gardner: A Life in Movies, is forthcoming from Running Press in July 2017. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Gay Times and Queerty, as well as in previous issues of Film International. His main research interests are classical Hollywood and star studies in relation to the representation of women in film and queer studies.