The Stunning Images of Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Stalker”

A few days ago, a friend and I watched Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker for the first time.

As I’ve remarked in the past, I love Tarkovsky. I find him brutally, brutally difficult — almost hopelessly obscure, undeniably challenging, deeply metaphysical. And Stalker is certainly no exception. I have thousands of ideas about what it means, and exactly ZERO confidence that any of them are correct.

I’ll be mulling it over for days. Or forever. But my understanding (or lack ) of the film’s obvious allegorical and philosophical complexities wasn’t the first impression I took away from our viewing.

No, my most powerful response was far more visceral than intellectual: I was simply overwhelmed by the images.

And it wasn’t just their composition and content, though that was as amazing as I’ve come to expect from Tarkovsky. The film was shot on two very different film stocks (corresponding to the story’s two very different locations…maybe): on a then-experimental color stock (Kodak 5247, perhaps), and on an incredibly high-contrast, sepia monochromatic stock. The effect is stunning, both because Tarkovsky makes such wonderful use of the contrast (both within the individual stocks and between them), and because of the complexity of environments in which he places his characters. (The film also features some of the best “fog work” I can remember.)

The film “relies on long takes with slow, subtle camera movement, rejecting the use of rapid montage, and contains 142 shots in 163 minutes, with an average shot length of more than one minute and many shots lasting for more than four minutes.” So, a) some people will hate it, and b) if you don’t hate it, you’ll have a lot of time to look around in each shot. And what you’ll discover is that the details in each scene are astonishing. Look at these shots, and at the incredible richness and complexity of the backdrops. I’ve never seen anything like it.

OK, that last one doesn’t have amazing details in the background, and more properly belongs in a post entitled “The Stunning ImageRY of Tarkovky’s Stalker.” But I’m trying to get folks a little bit intrigued, at the same time. Hard to recommend it without knowing quite a bit more about the particular viewing tendencies and habits of y’all, and I’m very comfortable saying it …and all Tarkovsky are not for everyone. “Almost hopelessly obscure, undeniably challenging, and deeply metaphysical,” remember? But I found it amazingly rewarding, at the same time. If you can make it all the way through, fantastic!

It’s actually available in two parts through Mosfilm’s official YouTube channel, HERE and HERE. I’m not sure that would be my recommended viewing experience, but it’ll give you a flavor. (I’d post the trailer, but I can’t. Because it contains one of the most bone-headed, horrific spoilers I’ve even seen. STAY. AWAY!)

Attribution(s): All posters, publicity images, and movie stills are the property of Kino Lorber and other respective production studios and distributors, and are intended for editorial use only.

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About Joseph Susanka

Joseph has been doing development work for institutions of Catholic higher education since graduating from Thomas Aquinas College in 1999. A grateful resident of Wyoming, he spends his free time exploring the beautiful Wind River Mountains, keeping track of his (currently) seven sons, being amazed by his (currently) lone daughter, and thanking his lucky stars for Netflix.

  • Tim in Cleveland

    This was a really great movie. I think I read somewhere that the use of different film was (partly) because the initial footage turned out to be unusable (after a year of shooting, no less) and Tarkovsky had to reshoot everything using different film.

    The one shot toward the end with the three characters collapsed just before the mysterious room has always stuck with me. The fact that they were being filmed from inside the room recalled (to me at least) Nieztsche’s saying that if you stare long enough in the abyss, it stares back at you… and I suppose the viewer is the abyss staring back.

    But like you say, it’s a hard film to pin down and my interpretation could be way off.

    • Joseph Susanka

      The production was incredibly troubled, Tim. He lost all of initial Zone footage, if I remember correctly. Or at least everything in color. Some issues with the lab processing the experimental film stock. (Fired his cinematographer around the same time, and reshot everything. Just…amazing.)

      As for your interpretation, I like it. And I think the loneliness of the three characters — loneliness that persists despite the presence of all three men — is a huge, huge part of the story. (And can’t imagine calling it “way off.” There’s so much meat on those cinematic bones, we could pick at them for years. Not sure what’s meant to be the primary meaning, but there are many, many options.)

      The ending still has me mystified, though.

  • Tim in Cleveland

    I’d also just like to add that I’d love to read your commentary on other Tarkovsky films. Tarkovsky can be a tough director to watch and any discussion is helpful. Some of his films are more enjoyable “interpreting” than “watching”. What I mean by that is that some films it’s hard to just passively watch like any other movie and instead urge you to look deeper as you watch. One example, in my opinion, is “The Mirror”. I found it difficult following the plot, but enjoyed watching for all those instances of reflection spread throughout the film.

    But Tarkovsky also has some more “enjoyable” films too. If I had to recommend a Tarkovsky film to an average movie goer, I think I’d suggest either “The Life of Ivan” or “Solaris”.

    • Joseph Susanka

      “I’d love to read your commentary on other Tarkovsky films.”

      You’re too kind, Tim.

      No, really. You are. The thoughts I have on various Tarkovsky films are nowhere near organized/codified/coherent enough to be considered commentary. But man, I can’t stop thinking about his films. (And for me, that’s the most obvious sign of their greatness.)

      As I mention every time he comes up, I LOVE him. And think he’s BRUTALLY DIFFICULT. He the only director I can say those two things about simultaneously, while meaning them both as sincerely as possible.

      My habit — unique to Tarkovsky viewings — is to pause the film every 10-15 minutes and regroup. Try to figure out how what I’ve seen fits what I’ve been thinking before, and whether or not it changes any of my thoughts. Otherwise, I just find myself overwhelmed. Or maybe I should say “more overwhelmed.”

      I like the idea of suggesting “Solaris” or “Ivan’s Childhood” as a Tarkovsky Starter Film. “Ivan’s” far-and-away the easiest/most traditional, I feel. But it doesn’t have as much on its mind, either. (“Solaris,” on the other hand…)