I watched Andrei Tarkovsky's epic 1979 film Stalker last night prompted by the fact that Geoff Dyer has written a response to the film in his critically acclaimed book Zona.
With a screenplay written by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, Stalker is loosely based on their novel Roadside Picnic. It depicts an expedition led by the Stalker to bring his two clients to a site known as the Zone, which has the supposed potential to fulfill a person's innermost desires.
Tarkovsky spent a year shooting a version of the outdoor scenes of Stalker. However, when the crew got back to Moscow, they found that all of the film had been improperly developed and their footage was unusable. The film had been shot on experimental Kodak stock with which Soviet laboratories were unfamiliar. Even before the film stock problem was discovered, relations between Tarkovsky and Stalker's first cinematographer, Georgy Rerberg, had deteriorated. After seeing the poorly developed material, Rerberg left the first screening session and never came back. By the time the film stock defect was discovered, Tarkovsky had shot all the outdoor scenes and had to burn them.
After the loss of the film stock, the Soviet film boards wanted to shut the film down, officially writing it off. But Tarkovsky came up with a solution: he asked to make a two-part film, which meant additional deadlines and more funds. Tarkovsky ended up reshooting almost all of the film with a new cinematographer, Aleksandr Knyazhinsky.
The film mixes sepia and color footage; within the Zone, in the countryside, all is colorful, while the outside, urban world is tinted sepia.
Stalker relies on long takes with slow, subtle camera movement, rejecting the use of rapid montage. Indeed, the film contains 142 shots in 163 minutes, with an average shot length of more than one minute and many shots lasting for more than four minutes. Stalker is remarkable for its haunting vision and existential meditation on time, place and memory, questioning notions of truth and reality. A journey into the meaning of things.
Knyazhinsky's spare photography is compellingly black. Every single shot counts with subtle action evolving, almost floating past in the often locked-off frame. There are recurring images of water, rain and reflections. Here are some of the images:
In his book Zona, Geoff Dyer attempts to unlock the mysteries of Stalker, a film that has haunted him ever since he first saw it thirty years ago. As Dyer guides us into the zone of Tarkovsky’s imagination, we realize that the film is only the entry point for a radically original investigation of the enduring questions of life, faith, and how to live.