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Thursday, 11 November 2010

Stalker (1979)

After seeing Solaris and being rather disappointed, I didn't look into Tarkovsky's filmography much until recently when I decided to watch Stalker.
I was very impressed...

As it says on the poster, Stalker is a visually unforgettable film. But it also has a very deep story that held my interest throughout the runtime of 163 minutes, that is quite a hard task and the film accomplishes it admirably, the acting was also very good even though for most of the film there are only three actors.


The film takes place in Russia, in a small industrial town. Several years before some unknown phenomenon took place, transforming an area close to the town into a strange place where physics don't seem to apply, it's called The Zone. In this Zone is a room, if you enter the room your wishes will become reality. But the only ones capable of passing through the Zone safely are the Stalker's who undertakes these journey's against the law to bring people to the Room.
The film shows us the last journey of a Stalker, he takes with him two men, Writer and Professor.

From a technical point of view this film is one of the most amazing ever made, I'm sure all of you have read something like "each shot is so beautiful it could be hung on the wall" or something along those lines, well with this film that is 100% true.

The cinematography is some of the finest I've ever seen, the lighting was also particularly great. All this combined with the fact that this film is one of the slowest I've seen, for there are only about 140 shots in the entire film which means that the average length of a shot is around 1 minute, many last longer ( 4-5 minutes). 
Althouhg these shots are maintained for impressive amounts of time, it doesn't mean that this is a "static" feeling film, there is a lot of camera movement thought sometimes it is almost imperceptible, like it doesn't won't to break the viewer's concentration.

The film starts in a small industrial town in Russia, it is filmed in a highly contrasting sepia tone which is quite stunning. Then as the film continues and they arrive in the Zone, it switches suddenly to colour, the choice to film the Zone (which is in the countryside) in colour and the town(which is industrial and ugly) in sepia was a very interesting one and certainly surprised me. 

Just to give you an idea of how beautiful this film is here are a few of the amazing shots contained within:
Here's a fine example of the sepia tone used,although here it is used during a dream instead of it's usual use of non-Zone locations.

Here is an example of the colour used, notice the water, that is a prominent feature throughout the film, but I'll get to that later.

One of my favourite shots and currently my desktop image!

Now in the previous stills, you might have noticed the presence of water, this is something that occurs throughout the film, I thought it was very interesting how there was water in a very large amount of the shots. I thought it meant something, but apparently it was only because it rains a lot in Russia... Anyway, it's probably one of the "wettest" films I've seen.

The scenery was just fantastic, I really felt transported into Soviet Russia while watching this, all the rusty metal, ruined buildings, wrecked tanks, inside the Zone are just incredible. Outside the Zone is equally well set up, the industrial areas and the insides of the building wee all very realistic, in fact all the scenery and production design impressed me.

The soundtrack:  
The soundtrack and sound design was very interesting, the visual image and the sound seem almost detached from each other and that plays a large part in setting up the atmosphere of the Zone, for after all it is a place where the laws of physics no longer apply.
Sounds endure longer than they should or evolve ,such as a small dripping sound that grows into the sound of a torrent as the camera slowly pans towards a waterfall. 
All of these things are very subtly done, the atmosphere of The Zone, the general uneasiness, emptiness, and almost otherworldliness are mainly created by the excellent sound design. 
Often I found it hard to distinguish some sounds from others, or I was even uncertain as to whether I actually heard them, very dreamlike and expertly done, but very subtle. The film doesn't create an overwhelmingly weird Zone, an in some other "trippy" films, it does it subtly so that on the surface nothing seems that different yet as the characters progress through the Zone, you come to realise all the strange little differences. 
Very well done.

"I would like most of the noise and sound to be composed by a composer. In the film, for example, the three people undertake a long journey in a railway car. I'd like that the noise of the wheels on the rails not be the natural sound but elaborated upon by the composer with electronic music. At the same time, one mustn't be aware of music, nor natural sounds."
Andrei Tarkovsky in an interview in 1979.
That is exactly the impression I got, after watching it, I thought "wow, that was a very quiet film" but now the more I think about it, I've come to realise that there is in fact a lot of different often conflicting sounds, that I wasn't aware of when I watched it, so in that sense Tarkovsky succeeded.

The music itself is good, a mix between synthesised sounds and strange traditional instruments such as "a tar". Overall it is very calm and pleasant to listen to, perfect for the film.

The Acting:
No problems in the acting department, everyone does their jobs admirably. The cast is very small, it's basically the three main characters, Stalker, Writer and Professor, who are all very good although the actor who plays the Stalker gave the finest performance in my opinion. Apart from them there are only the Stalker's wife and child, who are both very convincing in their roles. The wife gives a strong performance particularly in the end when she "breaks the fourth wall" by speaking to the camera and telling her story, a rather moving scene.

The Script:
This film is a very special one, it's quite unlike anything that's I've ever seen before.
The script is an extremely intelligent one, it leaves the viewer to draw there own conclusions and although it leaves much unexplained it does not feel incomplete.
The characters are very well developed throughout the film, as the viewer one discovers more about who they are and what their motives and thoughts are, that is something I admire in a film, steady character development without relying on sudden cheap twists.
Stalker is a very human film, sure it has elements of Science Fiction, but ultimately it's a film about human nature, about art, and raises such interesting yet hard to answer questions as Is Art really unselfish? Is it possible to truly know ones innermost wishes?

Rashit Safiullin ,a production designer for this film, describes the Zone as "a space in which humans can live without the trappings of society and can speak about the most important things freely". Now that is a very interesting concept and I was fascinated to listen (or rather read, seeing as it was subtitled) to their conversations. 

But several aspects of the film are still a mystery to me, such as the dog that appears out of nowhere in the Zone and reoccurs throughout, and the scenes involving the telephone. These things I didn't fully understand but they still didn't seem out of place within the film. Maybe I just have to see it again a few times, for I feel that it is a film that improves with time.

Films such as these, that really make the viewer think and ask questions without being to complex or pretentious, are few and far between. Which is why I would recommend this film, even if you don't like foreign films or Russian films in particular, or SciFi films, or slow films or long films, I would still recommend this film as it is unique and it would be a shame to miss it due to any prejudices you might have.

This is one of those film where each viewer will experience something different, so I can't really tell you what to expect, apart from a slow paced, beautifully shot, well acted film. But you may find it incredibly boring and pretentious, you never know until you see it.

Andrei Tarkovsky
But I'm afraid I'm going to have to end this review on a rather tragic note.
As well as having many other problems with the production of the film (he ended up shooting it three separate times) Tarkovsky had to film near a radioactive station that caused many of his crew to become ill and later die of cancer. He suffered the same fate, dying of lung cancer in 1986 at the age of 54, having only directed 8 feature films. 
So in a way, this film killed him.


  1. Very sad. I didn't know that is how he got cancer. Great analysis and review.

  2. Thanks Sparky

    Yeah, it's a rather tragic story, I'm sure he would have made many more great films if he hadn't of died so prematurely.

  3. Thanks for the great review, Jack. It couldn't have come at a better time. It is next up on my list to watch..this weekend!

    What an irony it is that his best film killed him!

  4. thanks for reading and commenting Aditya, I really appreciate it.

    I hope you like the film and I really look forward to your review.

    I'm not sure if this is his best film though, I'm going to watch Andrei Rublev soon so then I might decide which is his best...

  5. Just saw "Stalker"!!

    One word: Hypnotic!

    It is magical how Tarkovsky strikes the balance between the humanistic aspect of the story and the supposed sci-fi element!

    Absolutely loved the ambiguous nature of the film!


  6. Glad you saw it and enjoyed it!!

    One aspect I liked was that it was only supposed SciFi, I think each person could interpret it differently, some might see it as something religious for example.

    It's a truly great film that doesn't get near enough credit.

  7. Really good review dude. I've been hearing so much about this.

  8. You should watch it Rohit, and write an excellent review about it, of course ;)