The DVD Journal | Reviews : Stalker

[box cover]


Russian Cinema Council

Starring Aleksandr Kaidanovsky, Alissa Freindlikh,
Anatoly Solonitsyn, and Nikolai Grinko

Written by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
(with Andrei Tarkovsky),
from the story "Roadside Picnic."

Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky

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Review by D.K. Holm                    

Ah, the Soviet Union. One can't imagine that many people are missing it now, but given current conditions in Russia, who knows? In its time, though, the Soviet Union was at once an ideological threat and a running joke to the West, while a horror to the masses living in it. What started out as an ideal, a dream of a utopian society run by The People, devolved into an elaborate Population Control system.

Yet horrific as it was, bureaucratic and corrupt as the system may have been — as bland and grim a culture as anything imagined by Orwell — paradoxically the Soviet empire revered artists. Thus were poets, painters, composers, and filmmakers able to make art, though not without difficulties. One of the beneficiaries of this indulgence was Andrei Tarkovsky, though he too had his difficulties. Now one of his greatest films, Stalker, is available on DVD in the west.

Tarkovsky is one of those severely serious filmmakers who are uncompromising in their vision, which few understand in their lifetime. If you think Bergman is severe, get a load of this guy. His films are slow-paced and deeply tax patience, but are brilliantly conceived and executed. Tarkovsky and the Moscow film bureaucrats had a love-hate relationship with each other, and the battles Tarkovsky fought (release of one of his films was delayed for six years) perhaps shortened his life (he died in 1986). His dedication to cinema and his austere attitude toward the medium is unmatched by any other filmmakers except perhaps Bela Tarr or Kieslowski, who at least leavened his pictures with occasional bits of humor.

In interviews and in his writings Tarkovsky was always saying that his big theme was love, but he always spoke of love in vague, cult-figure terms, and the coldness of his films often belied his real subject, which is human begins grappling with the past and the present within an oppressive culture. Which isn't to say that there weren't relationships, love, marriages, and women in his movies (one of Tarkovsky's signature images is of a frustrated woman writhing on the ground, found in at least this film, Solaris, and The Sacrifice). However, he did view the world as a place that put those human connections in peril.

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Stalker takes a somewhat different approach to that subject. Ostensibly a science fiction film, like Solaris it is mostly a movie of ideas, with even fewer of the trappings of the conventional sci-fi movie. In a nutshell it concerns the trip by a guide (Aleksandr Kaidanovsky, Tarkovsky's favorite actor) and his two clients, the Writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn) and the Professor (Nikolai Grinko) into The Zone, a mysterious, guarded area with a strange past. The Zone supposedly contains a room at its center in which the visitor's wishes are made reality. As in Solaris, The Zone plays tricks on the minds of its residents. The Zone is unpredictable. Like the alien "beings" in Crichton's Sphere it is beyond human ken. Born of a meteor crash in the past, The Zone has been closed off, but for the labors of stalkers, who guide in the curious for a fee. It's hazardous duty. If the guards don't shoot you, The Zone messes with your head.

The Zone evokes less a wondrous land than one of those vast forbidden areas in the Soviet Union decimated by some calamitous nuclear explosion or meteor crash. And the film is less about The Zone than the men's reaction to it. The Writer is the optimum Booboisie, a pretentious intellectual who is in it for the kicks. The Professor is a scientist looking for truth. The stalker is just trying to make a living, yet for all his hardships in private life and for all his in depth knowledge of the area, he has never used The Zone to advance his own station in life.

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Stalker had a very complicated production history. Shooting stopped, and then restarted, but between those times the script changed drastically (oddly, it got shorter, though it doesn't feel like it as one watches). There are divergent opinions about Tarkovsky's on-set behavior on this film. One person interviewed on this DVD set says he never heard Tarkovsky get angry. Another admirer admitted that the director was a stern taskmaster, demanding that things be just right. But it was all in service to his vision, which in this case in an investigation into human resistance to the temptations of happiness.

Tarkovsky was formed by, among other things, the tensions of the Soviet society. Like many European directors, Tarkovsky is viewed as probably more intellectual than he intends. In his book, Sculpting in Time, he notes "People have often asked me what the Zone is, and what it symbolizes, and have put forward wild conjectures on the subject. I'm reduced to a state of fury and despair by such questions. The Zone doesn't symbolize anything, any more than anything else does in my films; the zone is a zone, it's life, and as he makes his way across it a man may break down or he may come through. Whether he comes through or not deepens on his own self-respect, and his capacity to distinguish between what matters and what is merely passing."

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Stalker comes from Ruscico, the Russian Cinema Council, on two single-sided, dual-layered discs, with a 2000 copyright date, so it has taken the company a while to market the product in the west. The 160-minute picture is divided in half over the two discs, the first 70 minutes on Disc One, the final 90 minutes on Disc Two. The film comes in a very clean, full-frame image (1.33:1), though one can see "video lines" in several scenes. The Russian Dolby Digital 5.1 audio makes some effective use of the haunted world of The Zone. Disc Two has the option of playing the original mono track or the 5.1 version. Subtitles come in a wide array of languages.

Supplements are also divided between the two discs. Disc One has five minutes of excerpts from The Steamroller and the Violin, Tarkovsky's film-school thesis, as well as Memory, a "documentary of place" about Tarkovsky's home. There is a stills gallery with 10 super-sharp "on location" images. A three-screen bio of Tarkovsky in uncertain English rounds out the extras here.

Disc Two features a six-minute video interview with cinematographer Aleksandr Knyazhinsky, conducted some time shortly before his death in 1996. There's also a very poignant interview with production designer Rashid Safiullin, who, in a very Russian manner, is open in his bereavement in missing Tarkovsky. There also are extensive filmographies for nine cast and crew members, with a kind of Easter egg in the form of a 20-minute interview with composer Eduard Artemyev, accompanied by a trailer for Solaris.

Menus come in a choice of Russian, French, or English. These are animated, musical menus with six-chapter scene-selection for part one, and seven chapters for part two. However, scene selection didn't work on this reviewer's second disc.

— D.K. Holm

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