Stalking the Stalker

By James Norton

andrei-tarkovsky.jpgAndrei Tarkovsky

Andrei Tarkovsky died twenty years ago, in December 1986, leaving a body of work richer in its understanding of the soul and the mysteries of creation than any recent artist, a cinema of elemental beauty and the fierce struggles of belief. The religious specificity of Tarkovsky’s work still intimidates and perplexes us. However, it is from such theological depths that he mined an original poetic of cinematic space, unsurpassed in its potential for imagining worlds unique to the medium. Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space, explains the need for a species of faith when asking a work of art to fully work for us: “The word “soul” can, in fact, be spoken with such conviction that it constitutes a commitment to the entire poem.” It is this commitment, regardless of religious inclination, that Tarkovsky’s films demand. The protagonist of his 1979 film Stalker announces: “What they call passion is not some spiritual energy, but just a friction between the soul and the outer world.” The inner world that this implies is the one that the film inhabits. It is the same category of object as a poem or dream, and it is also pertinent to remember that film, despite being inscribed on the physical support of celluloid or tape is an entirely immaterial medium, perceived in the mind between intervals of light.

In Stalker, the earth has been struck by a meteorite leaving a contaminated ‘Zone’ which contains a room reputedly endowed with the power to grant one’s innermost wish –  the film’s original title was The Wish Machine. The Stalker, a marginal figure, takes a writer and a scientist into the prohibited Zone to find this room. The film is inconclusive, meditative and oneiric, although its setting would appear to be the worst and most characteristic of Soviet environments, polluted, dilapidated industrial wastelands and waterways, relieved only by emerald pastures which are minefields where discarded artillery leaks its toxins and telegraph poles rot.

stalker-andrei-tarkovsky.jpgStalker, 1979

It is easy to forget when visiting former film locations that one is conducting a kind of dream archaeology. These are sites not where something really happened but which were decorated and where a fiction was enacted, memory of fiction transposed onto reality. Stalker was filmed in a number of locations near the Estonian capital Tallinn, which can still be visited today, and because the film has such a powerful sense of place, and was shot in a location that has historically been transitional and is very much so today, to do so is a highly evocative experience.

Stalker had a repeatedly traumatic production history which began with the search for locations. Evgeny Tsymbal, assistant director on the film, remembers: “Tarkovsky filmed Stalker in Estonia because the original locations, near Isfara and Kanibadam in Tajikistan, became impossible as the result of a powerful earthquake with many victims. People lost their homes and were quartered in hotels, schools and sports-halls. We searched for new locations for almost three months in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine, the Crimea and around Moscow. But the location was found when Tarkovsky flew to Tallinn, where he had connections with Estonian students from the Advanced Scriptwriting and Directing courses which he had taught there, and because of his script Hoffmanniana, which had written been for the Tallinnfilm studio. The main location was found unexpectedly near the Jägala river, 25km from Tallinn. They went to see the Jägala waterfall, which they didn’t like, but nearby they found an abandoned electrical generating station which had been blown up in 1941 by the Red Army retreating through Estonia. The building belonged to no-one and was the ideal place for the shoot. We later found a second electrical station downstream, an overflow weir. These two ruined constructions became the main locations, providing the style and texture of the whole film, and helped to create the atmosphere of the strange and mystical events of the film. We also shot near the railway bridge over the Pirita river near the road to Leningrad, at a ship repair yard, an abandoned oil processing plant, at an empty mill, and also near an electrical station in the centre of Tallinn. The closing episodes of the film were shot in Moscow.”

james-norton.jpgPhoto by James Norton

The shoot began in spring 1977 and was completed by midsummer. However, during processing the film was ruined due to a technical error or, it has been suggested, sabotage. Resisting calls to shelve the film, Tarkovsky rewrote the script, making the Stalker less of a petty criminal and more of a holy fool, and extending its length. He had to replace his cameraman after a falling-out, nearly ran out of funds and suffered a heart attack. Finally, the film was entirely reshot from June to November 1978.

Tallinn has a jewel of a medieval old town, thronged with tourists, shops selling Soviet kitsch, and a main square dominated by the Pizzeria Fellini. Beside it is a large Indian restaurant called the Maharajah, which by rights should have been named the Tarkovsky Tandoori. A fringe theatre in the city recently staged an adaptation of Stalker, played out in a box onto which were projected images from onstage video cameras. It was reportedly dreadful. This exquisite World Heritage Site is nowhere to be seen in the film, although much of its opening section was shot very close by, on the other side of the tracks.

At the beginning of the film, in black and white, the Stalker and his passengers convene in a dingy bar beside a shipyard. They drive to an area of dilapidated warehouses and workshops, a disorienting warren of filthy brickwork. These are now abandoned, fenced off and marked for demolition and redevelopment in an area bounded by the walls of old Tallinn and the mirrored high-rises of its new business centre. The location, poignantly, is now hidden behind the Coca-Cola Plaza, an eleven-screen multiplex in whose stairwell, in ghostly reflection, Tarkovsky’s ruined city is mapped onto the Twin Towers in a monolithic poster for Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center.

The film continues with the passengers scrambling through a labyrinth of overgrown passages, murky sheds and railway sidings, fired on by police, swept by searchlights, escaping from a monochrome prison. Jumping onto a handcar, they head out along the rails to the Zone. The railway tracks, now disused, run through a transitional, boundary area of empty shacks and car parks in the shadow of a hulking and empty power station and its towering chimney between the old town, the docks and the vast, bunker-like City Hall which commands a view of the Baltic. The sheds that line the tracks are now galleries of vivid graffiti, a metal door sprayed with the image of a cartoon doll, pockmarked by airgun pellets, syringes lying in the grass.

stalker-andrei-tarkovsky-2.jpgStalker, 1979

Tarkovsky’s initial idea was to give at least the impression that the entire film was one continuous take, something like an almighty tracking shot into the Zone. Such a shot accompanies the characters along the rails, and when the camera angle finally widens it reveals the landscape of the Zone, now in colour.

The Jägala waterfall is celebrated locally and sincerely as the ‘The Niagara of Estonia’. It is little wonder that Tarkovsky was so underwhelmed by this merely seven metre drop in the river, but much of the rest of the film was shot very close by. The Zone location is an area of gently rolling pastures and woodland, and that it looks much as it does in the film, military props having been removed just as the Soviets have subsequently withdrawn from the country, is a sign of the invisible threat with which Tarkovsky was able to imbue it. The river itself transports the visitor back to the idylls of the films, its lazy tributaries moving at the same pace as a gliding film dolly, photogenic aquatic plants drifting in the limpid current.

Beyond the vestiges of one of the hydroelectric stations lies a basin where the river widens out and which in the film is covered in a thick layer of scum, whipped up into toxic flakes by the wind. This pool acts as a memorial to the catastrophic legacy of industrial pollution left by the Soviet Union. The film was thought to have prefigured the Chernobyl disaster, which occurred a few months before Tarkovsky’s death, the contaminated area known ever since as the Zone, which was also the term by which the Gulag was known, as the Russian audience would have recognised.

The choice of location and this deadly foam tuned out to be fatal, if sound recordist Vladimir Sharun’s explanation is correct: “Up the river was a chemical plant and it poured poisonous liquids downstream.” To this he attributes not only allergic reactions from the crew, but the eventual deaths from bronchial cancer of Tarkovsky himself, his wife Larissa and the director’s favourite actor Anatoly Solonitsyn. Although Estonia, now a member of the EU, has counteracted much of this environmental damage, there are pockets of enduring contamination, such as the town of Sillamäe near the Russian border, which in Soviet times was a secret uranium extraction centre.

The approaches to the room, and the dreaming heart of the film, were located in a system of canals built to channel water to the two nearby power stations. It is here that the Stalker lies down at the water’s edge, initiating the mystical reverie in which the camera discovers weapons, silverware, fragments of religious art suspended in the sepia liquid. These channels have now dried out, and where not overgrown with a tangle of weeds, the parched mud is strewn with a collection of symptomatic debris: a vodka bottle, a scrap of American pornography.

The film’s principal location, the disused hydro station, about the size of a large house, lies hidden at the foot of the system of massive conduits in a hollow of the riverbank by the side of a ruined aqueduct. The setting is fairy-tale, the building’s shattered interior, distressed concrete columns, coils of wire, garlands of asbestos, is not. In the film, Tarkovsky sculpts the setting with mist, and the characters clamber around torrents of water reduced today to a muddy trickle staining the cavernous pipes which run beneath the building. The main room of the hydro station is still recognisable as the chamber filled with sand dunes where the writer delivers an anguished soliloquy.

The wishing room is not shown in the film. The writer dares not enter for fear of confronting his true desires, the scientist has to be restrained from blowing it up. Stalker, ultimately, is about a threshold, the forces that guard the threshold, the irreconcilable spaces it separates, the fears and desires that inhibit its crossing. The threshold cannot be crossed, although it is open, because the expedition, the film itself, like Borges’ story The Circular Ruins, whose title could describe the setting, is a dream within a dream. The space and narrative of Stalker is a circle that deceptively appears to be a straight line, curvature of space-time.

Stalker and Tarkovsky’s last two films, Nostalgia, filmed in Italy, and The Sacrifice, in Sweden, are sometimes seen as a hermetic trilogy on the themes of faith and cataclysm. As Estonia sheds its association with Russia and definitively consolidates its independent identity, perhaps film historians of the future will consider this to be a trilogy of films made outside Tarkovsky’s native Russia, and that its most poignant legacy could be the realisation that he had already left home and begun his exile without knowing it. Film locations vanish as the imaginary is overgrown by the real, they do not sustain the marks of history. It is to the films themselves that we must look to reveal what only film can capture: spectral voices, the passage of time, traces of psychic wounds, relics of a lost future.

The sequence of the dream in the film is accompanied by the voice of the Stalker’s wife reciting part of the Book of Revelation. But in Tarkovsky’s original script, the Stalker utters a prayer, itself then effaced, for the preservation of place: “Grant that it may be thus forever: that walls remain walls, dead-ends remain dead-ends, roads remain roads, and nobody remains cheated…”


James Norton is a researcher and producer working in arts television in London.

Thanks to Evgeny Tsymbal, Pille Rünk and Tom Lasica.