Apocalypse November: Guest Blogger Richard Crouse On Stalker

Once again, we’re hugely honoured to have Canadian film critic, television and radio personality and author Richard Crouse join us, this time as part of Apocalypse November. Richard, whose great new book Raising Hell: Ken Russell and the Unmaking of The Devils is available from our good friends at ECW Press, chose to highlight the Andrei Tartovsky film Stalker. In a sad coincidence, just a few days after writing this piece we found out that, Boris Strugatsky, co-writer of the original story which became Stalker, had passed away at the age of 79. We post this in his memory.

“The Zone wants to be respected. Otherwise it will punish.” — Stalker (Alexandr Kajdanovsky) in Stalker: A Film by Andrei Tartovsky.

Patience, we were all told as a child, is a virtue. It’s a virtue that will stand you in good stead while watching the sprawling 163 minutes of Stalker (Russian title: Сталкер), a punishing but fascinating Russian art sci-fi film.

Phrases like “mind-bending” and “head-trip” are often used to describe the plot of Stalker, Andrei Tartovsky’s last film in his native Soviet Union before he defected to the West. Basing his movie on the short story Roadside Picnic and clearly drawing on The Wizard of Oz and the 1957 catastrophe in the Mayak nuclear plant, which resulted in a several thousand square kilometer deserted “zone” surrounding the reactor for inspiration, Tartovsky weaves an intriguing tale set in a post-apocalyptic totalitarian society. The title character, the bald Stalker (Aleksandr Kajdanovsky), illegally leads two men known simply as The Writer (Anatoli Solonitsyn) and The Scientist (Nikolai Grinko) into a shadowy wasteland called The Zone. Created by a meteorite and thought to be under alien control, The Zone is a lush landscape littered with the waste of modern society — burned-out shells of automobiles and military vehicles sit alongside flaccid telephone poles. They pass pools of water contaminated with waste — syringes and even a painting of John the Baptist. At the end of their journey, in the middle of The Zone is a room where all one’s wishes can be fulfilled.

Stalker isn’t a science fiction film in the traditional sense, it doesn’t have the usual bells and whistles — there are no special effects or ETs — just smartly wrought ideas about fundamental questions of existence and the human condition. Not much happens. It’s extremely slow-paced, uncompromisingly uneventful and pensive and therein lies its beauty. It’s about beliefs and ideas, not action.

As the trio venture toward the starkly beautiful Zone it becomes clear they are on a religious pilgrimage as the film ripens into an allegorical depiction of nuclear fallout, government secrecy, the need for faith and the existence of God. By extension it becomes a harsh comment on Tartovsky’s native communist Russia of the 1970s.

One of the film’s fans, Eastern Promises director David Cronenberg, called Stalker “a difficult but rewarding pseudo-sci-fi movie which manages to be more revealing of Russia in 1979 than any documentary.” The viewer doesn’t have to work too hard to see The Zone, a government controlled oasis of hope in a bleak world, as a metaphor for life under the oppressive communist regime.

Tartovsky was an extremely cerebral filmmaker, but the feel of Stalker may have had as much to do with a film stock problem than with the director’s brainy point of view. Tartovsky had shot all the movie’s outdoor scenes before it was discovered that the film stock was defective. Rather than abandon the project the director convinced the Soviet film board to give him more money and he re-shot the material that had been lost. During the second kick at the can he rewrote much of the script toning down the expensive science fiction elements and giving it a more philosophical slant.

Although Stalker was an award winner at the Cannes Film Festival, and is revered by fans of intellectual speculative fiction, its legacy for those involved in the production is rather dark. Several of the cast and crew died of related illnesses after shooting the film on-location near power plants.

“We were shooting near Tallinn in the area around the small river Pirita with a half-functioning hydroelectric station,” said soundman Vladimir Sharun. “Up the river was a chemical plant and it poured out poisonous liquids downstream. There is even this shot in Stalker: snow falling in the summer and white foam floating down the river. In fact it was some horrible poison. Many women in our crew got allergic reactions on their faces. Tarkovsky died from cancer of the right bronchial tube. And Tolya Solonitsyn too. That it was all connected to the location shooting for Stalker became clear to me when [Assistant Director] Larissa Tarkovskaya died from the same illness in Paris.”

On the nuclear front life imitated art seven years after Stalker first hit the big screen following another nuclear meltdown, the Chernobyl disaster. The workers hired to take care of the radioactive nuclear power plant took to calling themselves “stalkers,” and the area around the wrecked reactor was known as The Zone.

The film’s history only deepens one’s appreciation of it, and while Stalker isn’t for everyone, adventurous viewers will find beauty in the film’s thought-provoking depiction of man’s effect on the planet.

Thanks to Richard Crouse for contributing to Biff Bam Pop. You can find him online at RichardCrouse.ca and on Twitter at @richardcrouse. His new book, Raising Hell: Ken Russell and the Unmaking of The Devils is available now at Amazon.ca, ECWPress.com and Indigo.ca.

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