Gregory Halvorsen Schreck
Editor's Note: For Professor Schreck's previous article on "Andrei Tarkovsky: The Redemptive Vision of a Soviet Filmmaker" and two additional articles on spiritual insights in film as a witness to post-Soviet intellectuals, see East-West Church & Ministry Report 9 (Winter 2001), 8-13.
Andrei Tarkovsky's last film made in the Soviet Union, The Stalker (1977), illustrates the difficulty of properly interpreting his work, and rightly understood, underscores his Christian perception of life and struggle. It is a strange movie, starkly conceived with spare images and a slow pace that can make the viewing experience excruciating. Based on the science-fiction novella A Roadside Picnic, the script approved by censors included a clear indictment of the United States and, seemingly, of capitalism. Yet the finished film, with obvious religious overtones, and with a protagonist who looks like a political prisoner right out of the Gulag, infuriated Soviet authorities. The Stalker turned out to be a condemnation of materialism, both East and West, and ultimately caused Tarkovsky to leave the Soviet Union to finish his career in exile.
A Filmmaker Working Out His Faith
Tarkovsky said his films were "about one thing: the extreme manifestation of faith." The Stalker seems to be especially close to the artist's own life of faith. A close reading of Tarkovsky's diary during its production makes it obvious that the filmmaker was working out his own faith in fear and trembling. He wrote, "The artist seeks to destroy the stability by which society lives, for the sake of drawing closer to the ideal. Society seeks stability, the artist, infinity."
Near the center of the film, the Stalker recites the story from Luke's Gospel in which two disciples meet Jesus on the road to Emmaus. This occurs in Luke's narrative three days after Jesus died, on the day he rose from the dead. In the story, neither of the disciples recognizes Jesus when they see him, even though they had been intimate friends for years. In the film, when the Stalker finishes telling the Emmaus story, he asks, "Are you awake?" The question invites the characters and the viewer to reflect on the story. The viewer wonders why Jesus was unrecognized for so long by his disciples. Viewers may also wonder why they too miss Jesus repeatedly.
The Emmaus story suggests the limits of rational reasoning. The process of Christian faith may be aided to a point by patient searching and careful analysis. But ultimately, passion and true recognition are stirred by poetic ritual. The story demonstrates two ways of knowing, from the head and from the heart. Jesus chose to be known by his spiritual substance, rather than by his physical appearance. Like Jesus, Tarkovsky uses the temporal journey of The Stalker to guide the viewer toward sacred symbolism that speaks beyond the spectacle and purely intellectual recognition.
The Stalker was made in Estonia in a ruined, dreary, uninhabited landscape littered with dilapidated military machinery and hauntingly overgrown structures leaking water at every turn. This setting is referred to as "The Zone." The characters, Writer (representing culture, the arts, emotions) and Professor (representing science, technology, rationalism) come here on a search from an unnamed city in a military industrial wasteland. It is said that in The Zone is a Room where all the desires of those who reach it are satisfied. It is carefully guarded by fences, watchtowers, and military police. Since The Zone is illegal, tricky, and unpredictable, travelers hire guides, called stalkers, to show them the way in and out. The Zone seems to be a region suffering from a nuclear accident, either military or industrial.
The Stalker is not a suspenseful adventure thriller. Packaged as science fiction, the film lacks the slick futuristic appearance one expects from that genre. In fact, it seems to be, rather, a contemporary allegory. This is undoubtedly one of the ambiguities in the film that infuriated Soviet film authorities. As the railroad car stops in The Zone, the film shifts from black and white to color. Three cruciform telephone poles fill the frame, symbolically marking the passage. The characters in The Stalker are approaching God with reverence and humility. To make this understood, the issue remains hidden. The timing of revelation is up to God. In this way God makes the most of the process. In the Emmaus story Jesus conceals his identity to make the most of his presence. The astonishment experienced by the disciples upon recognition deepens the meaning of their encounter. Tarkovsky mimics Jesus' method here. Instead of quick, efficient movement, the approach is poetic and ritualized. The process in the film, like the process in the Emmaus story, becomes as important as the result. The danger of Writer's direct approach is that discovery would be merely obvious. The outcome would be trite, even spectacular, but not vital. By contrast, the Stalker's humble approach allows God to transform characters (and viewers) through the journey.
Near the center of the film the camera focuses on a dark pool of water at the bottom of a well where the Stalker says a prayer:
May everything come true. May they believe. May they laugh at their passions. For that which they call passion is not really the energy of the soul, but merely friction between the soul and the outer world. But mostly may they have hope and may they become as helpless as children. For weakness is great and strength is worthless.Faith Couched in Symbols
The soundtrack that overlays the water sequence provides more substance to its meaning. Spare electronic music plays as the voice of Monkey, the Stalker's daughter, recites a text from Revelation 8:7-11:
The first angel blew his trumpet; and there came hail and fire mingled with blood, and this was hurled upon the earth. A third of the earth was burnt, a third of the trees were burnt, all the green grass was burnt.The Zone is, at best, the result of an environmental disaster no longer fit for human habitation. Its effects reach deep into the character of the future, mutating imminent possibilities for basic survival. This mutation is symbolized by the Stalker's daughter, who was born without the capacity to walk as a result of her father's exposure to The Zone. The text from Revelation, as used by Tarkovsky, hints at the possibility of nuclear disaster. Its coupling with the images of water and Wormwood suggests an unprecedented human perversion of divine metaphors: water has the possibility of losing its ability to nourish and cleanse because of human carelessness. The environmental disaster of The Zone reflects the shadow of an arrogant, blind faith in technology. For the first time the possibility exists for humanity to initiate an apocalypse preempting the natural, divine order.
The second angel blew his trumpet; and what looked like a great blazing mountain was hurled into the sea. A third of the sea was turned to blood, a third of the living creatures in it died, a third of the ships on it floundered.
The third angel blew his trumpet; and a great star shot from the sky, flaming like a torch; and it fell on a third of the rivers and springs. The name of the star was Wormwood; and a third of the water turned to wormwood, people in great numbers died of the water because it had been poisoned.
The scene ends looking down at the water where a fish swims among three pieces of a bomb. Blood covers the surface and fills the frame. The blood and the fish, traditional symbols of Christ, define the room as a Christian space. The water of baptism covers the pieces of a nuclear bomb, offering redemption, even from the hopelessness that the weapon of destruction symbolizes. The Stalker's wife comes to greet him, comfort him, and finally take him home. Her unconditional love in spite of numerous disappointments takes on a divine character by the end of the film. Like the father in the Prodigal Son narrative, she comes to accept her husband back, forgiving his many failures. This ultimately reflects the character of a loving God and becomes the ultimate divine metaphor in the film.
Gregory Halvorsen Schreck is associate professor of art, Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL.
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© 2001 East-West Church and Ministry Report