I‘ve hoped for this day for years! Everyone, today The Criterion Collection’s edition of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, one of my favorite films of all time, is hitting the shelves! Until last fall, when the film showed up as a Criterion film on the new streaming service FilmStruck, this release was just a dream that taunted, taunting made worse since it didn’t look like the home video rights holder had the ability or desire to present the film as it should be. I’ve had the old DVD for years, and it has never looked good. But here we are. We can shrug off those past years of disappointment and watch the film, beautifully restored. I know this is gushy and cliche, but, though I’ve seen the film several times, watching it on this new Blu-ray was like watching it for the first time. I’m going to toss screenshots here liberally, because I’m still amazed at how much better the film looks.
The presentation of the film is, to me, vital for Stalker. The movie is slow-paced, quiet, the textures so rich and important to the viewer’s sense of the pervasive atmosphere — filth, beauty, danger — that a shoddy transfer can, I believe, make or break one’s estimation of the film. From its opening scenes of grime and dreariness to the beautiful wonders of the Zone, Stalker invites us to see the world around the characters, the better to understand what’s going on in their heads . . . their heads also being explored with careful scrutiny by Tarkovsky’s camera. If a viewer cannot feel these textures, part of the film is lost.
But what is this film? Without answering that question directly — I’m not sure I’ll ever be capable — I’ll try to orient newcomers to the world of Stalker. The film begins with a quote from a mythical Nobel Prize-winning scientist, telling us a little bit about a mysterious region that has formed in his country:
Was it a meteorite or a visitation from outer space? Whatever it was, in our small country, there appeared a miracle — the Zone. We sent in troops. Not one returned. Then we surrounded the Zone with a security cordon. We did right . . . Although I’m not sure. I’m not sure.
Despite the threat the Zone presents, it is also alluring. The region seems to change, presenting a series of deathtraps, yet within it is a building, and within that building is the Room. Who knows how the superstition started, but they say that anyone who enters the Room has his or her deepest desires granted.
It is illegal to enter the Zone. For one thing, it’s proven dangerous. People have died. For another, if someone manages to have their deepest desires unlocked in the room that could spell disaster for civilization. Naturally, this makes it all the more alluring. People wishing to enter hire guides, called stalkers, to take them through the perilous landscape. And our story begins in the home of one such guide, our Stalker.
In the screencaps immediately below, we are introduced to the world of Stalker. It’s a grim home that manages to feel claustrophobic despite the open spaces. All shots of the world outside the Zone are in sepia, color only entering the frame when we first enter the Zone. The camera looks through the bedroom door and then proceeds in. There we move to an overhead shot that shows a table with a syringe and some pills. The shot pans over the bed — there’s a woman (Stalker’s wife); their daughter, Monkey; and Stalker himself, looking over at his family. We wonder what he’s thinking.
Stalker is a fascinating character. He’s been in the Zone several times, and was recently released from prison, presumably incarcerated for his forays into the Zone. He’s finally back with his wife and daughter, yet still the world outside the Zone seems cursed to him. He desperately wants to return, yearning for the mysteries. He’s about to get out of bed and leave his family again.
Two men have hired him to take them through the Zone. We don’t learn their names. In fact, Stalker stops one of them from introducing himself, so we know them simply by their trade: the Writer and the Professor. They’ve made their plans and listen for the whistle from the train they’ll follow through the armed barricades.
Once they’re passed the armed guards, who won’t enter the Zone behind them, there’s a lovely long panning shot that shows the men on a little train engine, crossing the last barren ground that serves as the border between the Zone and the world. It’s similar to the one that opens the film over the bed, showing us characters in the process of thinking, or perhaps simply staring into a void.
Soon, they have crossed over the border, and if the carnage of a dead civilization remains, the color swoops in, with vegetation taking over again.
Tarkovsky then takes us on our trek to the Room. Interestingly, the Room looks to be right there, just a few steps away.
But, Stalker says, one does not take the shortest pathway to the Room. The Writer, a bit on edge from the first time we meet him, doesn’t want to trust Stalker. How is it possible he cannot simply trek across the grass and get to the Room? And why does he have to put up with Stalker’s strange rules? There is nothing visibly threatening here, so he has to accept a lot of what Stalker says on faith, and faith is not an attribute he’s used to exercising. The Professor, for his part, is quietly following Stalker.
As they continue their own pathway to the Room, each man has their own struggles. For one, how does one know what one’s deepest desire is? The word “deep” suggests that it might be buried, maybe even from the man’s own consciousness. Fear starts to creep in because, after all, who wants to gain that kind of knowledge about one’s self?
It’s a beautiful, mysterious, psychological journey with many fascinating conversations and twists and turns amidst the beautiful but dangerous scenery.
The film doesn’t end before taking us back to Stalker’s wife and daughter, leaving us to wonder how all of this affects this little family. Not that we can quite comprehend what “all of this” is, which is, to me, perfect.
Sadly, though I consider Stalker to be an incredibly important film, it didn’t otherwise get the deluxe treatment from The Criterion Collection with nice things like booklets, multiple in-depth supplements, deluxe packaging, etc. What we get as supplemental material is fine. There are three few old interviews with Alexander Knyazhinsky (cinematographer), Rashit Safiullin (set designer), and Eduard Artemyev (composer), but these were all available on previous editions. The sole new supplement, other than the strong essay by Mark Le Fanu, is a new interview with personal favorite Geoff Dyer, who wrote Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room. I like Dyer a lot, and he certainly knows this film, but this isn’t quite the kind of trek through the film I’d like and had hoped for. But again, these supplements — and maybe any supplements they could have managed to put together — pale in comparison to the value we get from this beautiful new transfer. For that alone, this disc is one of my favorites of the year. I love this film, and I love seeing it with this kind of vibrancy.