I love the ambiguity of Stalker (Tarkovsky,1979). Tarkovsky takes the uncertainty about what lies in the room at the heart of the zone, how it grants people’s deepest desires, and uses it to fill the whole film with questions that he never really answers.Everything in Stalker works together to make a perfectly confusing film, which is created uniquely in the mind of each person who watches it.
The ambiguous story is matched by Tarkovsky visual style of long take cinema. Instead of directing the audience through cutting and point of view shots, his cinematography is subtler. He presents the audience with vistas, making them choose what they think is important. Each person interprets them differently.
Tarkovsky’s use of colour is also a key element in his style. The monochrome city contrasts with the colour of the zone. The initial switch from monochrome to colour seems to be an allegory for the stalker’s release from his harsh, oppressive city life into a sanctuary of freedom and tranquility. Tarkovsky takes this further by having the colour shift at unexpected moments. After the stalker argues with his companions, the film shifts back to monochrome; a reflection of his serenity being shattered, and him being pulled back to a more controlled, constricted life? And at the end of the film, when the stalker has returned to the city, we see him leave the bar with his wife and daughter. The monochrome city is newly filled with colour, perhaps reflecting the stalker’s realisation that he can find peace outside of the zone.
It’s notable that the final shot of the film, of the stalker’s daughter at the table is also in colour. Earlier in the film the stalker’s wife hints that her daughter’s disability is a direct result of her father’s trips into the zone. Is she imbued with its magic, its colour? It doesn’t necessarily matter exactly what Tarkovsky intended to convey with each of these colour changes. What is important is how he uses them to make the audience question their meaning. By setting up the initial style of city = monochrome, zone = colour, each of the subsequent, unexpected colour shifts makes the audience search for their meaning.
Each person will (and should) interpret Stalker differently, but for me it was about the human imperative to search for meaning in our lives. The belief that we must somehow be special, because the alternative is that we are meaningless, momentary blips in history. And the belief that something, special, magical exists even if we can’t see it. The mundane existence of each character is highlighted by their names: Writer, Professor, Stalker. They are not unique individuals, they are only marked by their function. The only character with a name that seems to be more than purely functional is Porcupine, the stalker’s mentor who knew the zone better than anyone else, but committed suicide after finally entering the room himself. His individuality seems linked to his rebellion; only by rejecting the state and repeatedly entering the zone did he become more than a functionary cog in the machine.
In this oppressive, claustrophobic world all of Tarkovsky’s characters wants something; to be a better writer, to win a Nobel prize. Each searches for something that will make their life better, that will give it meaning beyond their mundane existence. The stalker searches for peace in the zone, but also wants to feel the special-ness of being one of the few who can access it. Even his wife, the most pragmatic character in the story, asks in the end to be taken to the room. She is searching for something just as much as anyone else. They all want to prove that humans are more than just hairless apes (note that the child is called Monkey) in the brief time that they have.
Tarkovsky hints at this theme at the beginning of his film, in a scene in which the stalker and his wife argue and she screams that he stole her watch; he stole her watch, he stole her time, he stole her chance to be special. Another way Tarkovsky references the fleetingness of time is by filling his scenes with water, whether it’s rain, rivers, stagnant pools or in glasses on a table. The water is often running, rushing past, eroding and washing away debris just as time eventually washes away all of our endeavours, no matter how hard we try to preserve them. Tarkovsky also uses water to create an in-camera montage as a single take pans along a stream showing us objects representing money, religion, drugs and medicine, weapons, mirrors and energy. All of these objects could represent the deepest desire of someone visiting the zone, but could also be the reason that they might seek solace in the zone in the first place. And the journey into the wasteland between the city and the zone also seems to be an allegory for the philosophical journey of personal understanding.
Tarkovsky never explains too much too soon, the audience is left to question why the writer and professor want to go into the zone, what the stalker had been imprisoned for, and what the dog that followed them means; is it the devil, the state, a representation of mental illness? And he never explains what the zone actually is, or what created it. The eastern European setting immediately connotes images of nuclear disasters, and in the final shot of Monkey at the table Tarkovsky surrounds her with dust that looks like falling ash. The broken tanks lying abandoned in the zone also hint at some military exercise gone wrong. But the room seems to be more than that, more magical; or at least the characters believe that it is.
This is what I take from Tarkovsky’s masterpiece; that people will believe something to be special or magical beyond what seems reasonable, because it gives them hope that they too are special. And I wonder, did Tarkovsky make Stalker so ambiguous to prove this point? 30 years’ of film students, critics and theorists have watched and studied his film, trying to understand it and discover its hidden meaning; a perfect mirror for the film itself.
Tarkovsky, A. (1979) Stalker, Kinostudiya ”Mosfilm”