This week here in Cambridge the Brattle Theatre has been showing a new restoration of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), which I had the good fortune to see Wednesday night. Stalker is to my mind one of the great feats of cinema, one of the purest examples of how a film can create an entire world from the ground up—in this case a vaguely dystopian/post-nuclear police state made up of grimy, leaking bedsits and decrepit pubs, beyond the border of which lies the Zone, a lush and verdant green space where the properties of time and space have a tendency to bend. The fields of the Zone are littered with industrial waste and rotting machines, and a series of underground tunnels leads to a Room that is a kind of wishing well in which one’s deepest desire may be granted. It is to this secret place that the film’s titular character guides two intellectual seekers, a writer and a scientist, apparently in the hopes that one of them will be inspired to use the power of the Room to some great end. But the mission proves abortive, and the men succumb to self-doubt and despair. The best, it seems, lack all conviction, while the worst are full of a passionate intensity. (For a film that is strewn with poetry—another one of its many forms of detritus—it’s perhaps surprising that these lines from Yeats aren’t ever quoted.)
It’s a grand, ballsy conceit for a story, credit for which must go to Arkady and Boris Stugatsky, the authors of the 1971 novel on which the film is based. But it is Tarkovsky who must be credited with creating the many extraordinary spaces in which it unfolds: its dripping sewers, moldy buildings, mist-shrouded fields. The tunnels underneath the Zone are overgrown with moss and cobwebs and littered with human bones. Under the water of the marshes outside we glimpse rusted machine guns, metal hardware, fragments of religious icons and torn pieces of old books. For Tarkovsky there is always an eerie beauty within such images of decay, because even in this industrial wasteland (shot on the grounds of abandoned hydropower plant) life finds a way. Stalker is a film that teems with animals and plants, from the reeds that sway under the surface of the water to the black dog that prowls the marsh, oblivious to the remnants of a lost civilization that are everywhere around them. The film itself behaves like a living organism, which is perhaps what Geoff Dyer means when he writes that it often seems to be “breathing.”
Jonathan Romney rightly notes that Tarkovsky “privileges the labyrinth of imaginative space over the straight line of narrative,” which is to say that Stalker is not so much about what happens in the Zone as it is about the mesmerizing experience of being there. Tarkovsky’s expert command of every aspect of this film’s production (its superbly realized art direction, its haunting and evocative locations, its elegant camerawork, its dense physicality, its use of water and objects and animals) transports us to the Zone along with the characters, so that we find ourselves just as enmeshed within its bounds, and just as baffled by its mysterious logic, as they are. Stalker is as good an example as any of a film that shows off the unique properties of cinema as a medium: its cutting together a combination of spaces and materials in order to create something akin to an alternate reality that we inhabit for two and a half hours as if via time travel.