When you hear the name Andrei Tarkovsky, it is likely you think about his most well known film, Solaris. Matthew Floratis recently wrote his first anniversary piece on the original Solaris film, and concluded that if anything, the film has gotten better with age. I re-watched the lesser-known Tarkovsky film Stalker recently and found the same thing to be true. Stalker can be best described as an art film that explores meta-physical and philosophical questions about humanity, philosophy and the journey humans go on to find themselves. However, it is the way in which Tarkovsky uses camera movements and sound design that make it a true masterpiece that should not be forgotten.
I first saw Stalker while in film school and ever since it has become a moment of bonding when I encounter someone that has the same love for it that I do. That is a rare encounter, and this is likely explained by the fact that in many ways, it is a difficult film to watch. With a running time of two hours and forty minutes, the actual viewing experience is very drawn out and some might even say, slow. With the use of incredibly long takes with not a lot of action, the plot takes time to reveal itself and isn't even really a linear story. On the other hand, after it ends, it is a film that can become etched in your mind and soul. The film has English subtitles and thus, I highly recommend watching it more than once. The first time focus on the words and the story. The second, you can sit back and study the stunning visuals and sound that will take over.
Stalker is based around an expedition to a Russian area called "The Zone", which is a forbidden area that is protected by the government, but in theory holds mystical powers. The legend is told that there is a room in the Zone that when entered will eventually make a physical manifestation of a person's innermost desire. The story follows the journey of a professional guide, aka the Stalker, who is taking two clients to the Zone for the first time. He treats the Zone as if it is a force with which to be reckoned that has the power to hurt and possibly even kill intruders. For that reason, he carefully leads the Writer and the Professor on a non-linear and mystical path through the wasteland on their quest to find the Room. Throughout the film it is unclear if his fear of danger in the Zone is warranted or not. However, the way that Tarkovsky plays up this tension through long takes and intense sound design makes it such that the answer to this question doesn't necessarily matter. More importantly is the metaphysical and philosophical journey the characters go through while on their way to the Room, and these become just as important as their physical expedition. I fear to reveal more about the plot or sequence of events because it would take away some of the joy of watching the film for the first time. I want to leave the rest for you to discover.
I've contemplated for days how to best write about the experience of watching Stalker, as it is a challenge to watch, but an even bigger challenge to explain in words rather than visual images. While there are many things that can be said about it, one of the most incredible is the way in which Tarkovsky's camera doesn't just function as a device used to capture images but rather becomes a character in and of itself. As there are only four characters that actually speak in the film, this is a very important and notable choice by Tarkovsky. One of the most fascinating approaches is the way the camera pushes in on certain scenes in such small, incremental movements that it isn't until several minutes into the shot that you realize the characters are now framed in a close-up rather than a long shot. Often in today's cinema we are used to quick pushes, montages and edits, so watching a film that is diametrically opposed with long takes and subtle movements is a surprising experience. However, because Tarkovsky is able to so brilliantly pull off using these techniques to add to the story and experience of the film, watching becomes a lesson in visual style and effective ways to use camera movement.
It is not only the visual techniques that make Stalker so effective, but also the way in which he uses sound to convey certain themes and create tension within the story. While most filmmakers use the movement of the camera to indicate transitions and events, in this film Tarkovsky just as effectively uses sound as a way to affect the viewer. In fact, there are events that occur simply in the sound design and are never actually seen on film, as heard in the first scene with an oncoming train that passes by the house of the Stalker. Also, Tarkovsky frequently plays with general human perception of the sounds and visuals seen on screen as the two are not necessarily connected to create very disconcerting and sudden changes in the scene and emotion of the viewer and character. It is an incredible experience to go through because it makes you question how much we are simply affected by sound or vision and what happens when the crossover of both is blurred.
I must say, that I am not sure that the experience of watching Stalker is necessarily a pleasurable one, but it is an important one. It is not a film that you put on when you want a throwaway "fun experience". It is what some may call a true thinker’s film. As I mentioned before, much of this is attributed to the stunning camera work and movement that is used throughout. When watching, it is easy to see how many other filmmakers after Tarkovsky have been influenced by his use of the camera and sound design used in the film. In fact, I would suggest that anyone that has any aspirations to be a filmmaker, photographer or work in any sort of visual storytelling medium watch it as soon as possible. It is much like living in a dream for 3 hours where you aren't exactly sure where you are or what you are seeing, but when you wake up, those sounds, images and feelings will be etched in your mind for days, weeks and even years. It is a true adventure in awareness of visual and philosophical style and in my opinion is Tarkovsky's true masterpiece.