By Eugene Izraylit
Of all great poets of cinema, few are regarded higher than Andrei Tarkovsky. His poetic interpretation of reality is as far away from social realist filmmaking as anyone ever dared to go in the former Soviet Union. His payment for this freedom was the fact that very few of his ideas were allowed to be produced, and even when produced many of them were not shown for many years. Stalker's story is even more peculiar. An accident at the lab ruined all of the footage and the entire film had to be re-shot for less than a third of the original budget. The film's very existence is a miracle - in my opinion in more ways than one. The Stalker has been the subject of countless articles that equate it to a metaphor a modern day Jesus in a post-apocalyptic society. One cannot ignore the fact that the story by the Strugatsky brothers was inspired by the accident at a nuclear plant near Chelyabinsk. I, however, believe that the film is a lot more pointed than that. More than fifteen years after the fall of the Soviet Union it may be both irrelevant and irreverent, but upon watching the film I cannot help but seeing it as an allegory for the Soviet Union itself. Maybe that explains why it was the last time Tarkovsky was allowed to make a film in his home country. Maybe I am allowing myself this leap of faith for the simple reason that history repeats itself and that the question of art imitating life or vice-versa has not yet been fully settled. Either way, the story, its characters and their thoughts are too difficult to ignore. The plot is simple. Three men The Stalker, The Professor, and The Writer go into the mysterious "Zone" where there is a chamber that can grant their most precious wish. The Stalker is the leader and a believer. His followers are reluctant cynics, whose faith in what is ahead of them wavers at the slightest hint of "another way." The rules of the game are harsh and clear they are the rules of the "Zone" and breaking them means death. The goal may be just one step away, but one has to go in circles in order to get there safely. And only the Stalker, the leader knows the way. And there is no going back. And only the chosen will survive. While the last phrase undoubtedly brings thoughts of Darwinism, to me, it strikes a different note Stalinism, and the Great Terror. The history of the Soviet Union is soaked in blood, and while the cult of Stalin was significantly shattered after his death, one still could not openly talk about the tyrant as such. He was still the great leader who emancipated Russia from capitalism, defeated Hitler, and led the country to a place where all dreams come true. Only they don't and he didn't. Stalin, a silky politician with great understanding of the human psyche lead the Soviet Union by being the "Father" of the land, or, as it is presented in The Stalker, the "Zone." He alone knew and chose which way to go. He also chose who deserves to go and who doesn't. He claims that he suffers for people who need to believe, but who never do in the end. He is the only one who is emancipated from desires therefore he can navigate the "Zone." He also had a teacher who went a step too far Teacher/Lenin. Or perhaps the Teacher is also Stalin? It is no accident that the two people that follow the Stalker into the "Zone" are a writer and a scientist two representatives of the intelligentsia so needed and oppressed under the Stalinist regime. They represent the disbelievers who have become cynical from seeing people. They would like to believe in the possibility of an absolute good, of doing something for people, but they no longer have the illusion of it being possible. They are Mayakovsky, Sakharov, Pasternak the impetuous children of the Great Leader who on one had followed because they wanted to believe, while privately (privately only to a certain point) doubted every step of the way. In the end the masses as such are only discussed, but never seen, because the Stalker knows that one must first control the "great minds" and the "masses" will follow. In the end, the intelligentsia rebels against the leader, but never has the courage to destroy the possibility of a greater future. They are afraid of the power falling into the wrong hands, but as intelligentsia they know that it's not their right to decide the fate of humanity/the Zone/the Soviet Union. In the end they don't want the responsibility that comes with making that kind of decision. They would rather doubt. The Stalker's own agony is an extension of the reason for Soviet Union's fallibility too many doubt and not enough act. And, in the words of The Stalker's unhappy wife it's better to have sadness, because that means that we'll also experience happiness. Tarkovsky went on to make two more films outside of the Soviet Union, but he never felt happy outside the "Zone." No matter how bad, it was still theirs. The Stalker is perhaps his greatest act of defiance, a mystisized revision of history and reality in a society that desperately needed a change. He never lived to see the change come but he took its coming on faith. Can we?