In Andrei Tarkovsky’s earlier, and more famous Solyaris (1972), a science-fiction setting allowed the director to explore philosophical and exisitential themes via its artificially created environment: a vast ocean mysteriously created lifelike clones based on certain individuals from the characters’ pasts, forcing them to confront their deepest innermost regrets. Stalker offers a different artifice, a mysterious ‘Zone’ where, by contrast, people’s deepest wishes are made to come true; through this setup, Tarkovsky again is able to meditate on the nature of the human condition, exploring ideas and emotions like few other directors have been able to.
The Zone is a mystery: it has been cordoned off by the military, with security checkpoints guarding the entrances. The film opens with the Stalker of the title about to embark on a journey into the Zone, and we soon discover that he is a kind of hired people smuggler, ferrying in those who wish to enter for a mercenary fee. On this occasion, two such individuals are undertaking the journey, intellectuals named Writer and Professor.
Tarkovsky himself was famously an unashamedly intellectual director, and the setup of these three characters is a Beckett-like device to explore different aspects and facets of the human condition. The two intellectuals have differing backgrounds, as evidenced by their pseudonyms; Writer believes in artistic expression, in the unselfishness of his craft, while Professor is a scientist who is more rational, and more believing in cast-iron rules governing life. Stalker is a more passive character; acting as their escort into the Zone, he seems not to ask their motivations for wanting to go there, but becomes increasingly haughty as they disobey his safety instructions.
The Zone is a dangerous place, almost a sentient living organism which plays games and tricks on those who enter, constantly setting traps for those who do not take sufficient care in their traversal. But the facts of the Zone are not important; as the journey continues, it is the Writer’s and Professor’s attitudes and reactions towards it that become of greater significance, and in turn what the construct of the Zone appears to reveal to them about themselves. We become increasingly aware that the Zone is in effect a metaphor for spirituality, religion, hope, in essence a Kierkegaardian leap of faith. Stalker, then, is the spiritual guide, a combination of preacher, priest and theological ferryman for Writer and Professor, and the others who wish to enter the Zone.
Writer is a man who appears to believe in artistic expression, its selflessness in providing enjoyment for others. He claims to have many followers, and countless women throwing themselves at him. He appears not to want for anything, but he is unhappy; for all of his triumphs in the material world, he is spiritually devoid, even the love of his admirers leaving him empty of feeling. In one moment as they near the Room, the centre of the Zone, he dons a crown of thorns – does he wish to become a Jesus-like figure, and does this imply some form of martyrdom?
As for Professor, he seems to represent the rational perspective on faith: one driven by fear and scepticism. Whilst seemingly interested by the nature of the Zone, and motivated by a desire to study and measure it in order to gain professional recognition, he seems also to be afraid of its potential if it fell into the wrong hands. This fear indeed prompts Professor to plan its destruction – perhaps in order to give meaning to his otherwise unremarkable academic life. Like Writer, he is unsatisfied with his lot in life, and the Zone appears to offer some sort of reason for his existence.
This theme is later turned on Stalker himself, for the most part a benign influence on proceedings. When confronted with the others’ existential doubts, and challenged himself, he admits that he has become defined by his relationship to the Zone, and those venturing into it; his family, who we glimpse at the beginning and end of the film, despair at his constant travelling there, so fraught with danger it is that they are never sure whether he will return. His daughter is crippled, yet he never seems to consider that entering the Room may cure her – does he realise that his deepest wish is not to see her finally walk? Stalker appears to me to represent Kierkegaard’s model of the true Christian believer – filled with fear and trembling, despising others’ lack of true faith.
It is truly remarkable that Stalker, through its conceits of construction, manages to touch on such deep and varied philosophical issues; while the three characters may seem to be archetypes, they rarely seem predictable or overly stereotypical. One’s reation to the film, and one’s sympathy with the various characters, is highly dependent on one’s individual point of view and philosophy. As our three protagonists descend on their projected destination, we ourselves are able to discover the Writer, Professor and Stalker within ourselves.