Monday, March 21, 2011

Stalker -- dignity, hope faith and loss of belief in the Zone

Director: Andrey Tarkovsky, 1979. (NR)

While many consider Stalker Tarkovsky's magnum opus, this low-tech science fiction movie is certainly seminal in the genre. A Russian film, it is a monumental movie, full of mesmerizing images and sounds, but demanding of its viewers. It is long and slow, deep and dense, complex and contemplative, even cryptic and contradictory. It eschews easy interpretation, and warrants repeat viewing, if you can appreciate allegorical art of this form, for its richness of spiritual and philosophical exploration. Abounding in biblical references and allusions, there is enough material here for a dozen blogs, so this review will merely scratch the surface.

The plot is simple and sparse, the cast is few. A gray and unnamed city exists beside the Zone. Ten years earlier an asteroid crashed here, and alien contact may have been made. Now, this Zone is cordoned off, guarded by soldiers to prevent anyone from entering. Somewhere inside this Zone is a room that confers upon a person his or her secret hopes, their innermost dreams. Being illegal to enter, it takes guides, stalkers, to help people discern a path to this room. Stalker (Aleksandr Kaidanovsky) will help two men, Writer (Anatoli Solonitsyn) and Scientist (Nikolai Grinko) to come to this room. He leaves his wife (Alisha Frejndlikh) behind in their barren apartment, with their daughter Monkey (Natashe Abramova), despite her pleadings. The story is linear in flow, though with illogical twists and turns.

As Stalker meets his two fellow travellers in a cafe-bar, their early interaction gives insight into their motivations, and perhaps through the use of appellations rather than names we see Tarkovsky's intention. Stalker is a man who guides, not one who furtively hunts. Scientist is a professor who is searching for truth wanting to make the discovery that will win him a Nobel Prize. He is the rational member of the trio. Writer is the artist, the non-logical, imaginative and emotional one. Being nameless they are everyman, representatives of all of us. With faith (or the loss of it) in a secular and rational world as a central theme, Tarkovsky is asking if science or art can lead us to faith, especially with a guide to turn to, and particularly in a modern era of materialism.

All three are looking for truth and meaning, even faith, but are caught between desire and despair. Scientist denies miracles, belittling Stalker's claims of supernatural intelligence in the Zone. Scientist cannot believe what he cannot see. He is a materialist and rationalist. Many are like this today. They will not accept the unseen by faith. They cannot trust a God they cannot see. But the writer of the book of Hebrews defined faith well: "Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see" (Heb. 11:1). Faith in God is beyond the material, since "God is Spirit" (Jn. 4:24).

Scientist's denial of miracles is simply a refusal to see beyond the laws of physics. Miracles have occurred, and still do. We cannot explain them away. Neither can we predict them. But God has made it clear that he is above this world and all things were made by him (Jn. 1:3) and hold together in him (Rom. 11:36). He himself is not contained within the natural laws and so can operate outside of them -- miracles, like the floating of the metal ax (2 Kings 6:6), the healing of the blind (Jn. 9:7), the raising of Lazarus (Jn. 11:43), and the resurrection and ascension of Jesus (Jn. 20:17, Acts 1:9).

Writer, on the other hand, should be more accepting of faith. Yet he is looking for a muse, a way to regain his genius. He tells Stalker, "A man writes because he's tormented, because he doubts." Like the tin man in The Wizard of Oz, he wants heart, inspiration, even real faith. But he is burned out and cynical. He has no faith. He is not willing to believe in something outside himself; he is too selfish. He simply wants to be renewed for his own glory. In contrast, biblical faith is first and foremost centered on someone outside of ourselves -- Jesus Christ, the God-man who offers us salvation (1 Thess. 5:9).

When they enter the Zone, Stalker makes it clear that it is a place where the laws of physics no longer apply. The Zone has a mystery and a menace, being almost sentient and filled with deadly traps. Stalker fears its capricious nature, saying its paths change moment by moment, so earlier knowledge may no longer be relevant. He guides them irrationally by tossing a metal nut tied to a long piece of cloth. The easy, direct path is avoided. They must walk the narrow and twisted path to get to their destination, even when the room is within sight! And a path that is dry one minute may be underwater the next.

Stalker, unlike the other two, is a man of faith. He believes in the power of the room to offer hope. During their journey his interactions with them is often preachy. Then we see him dreaming a biblical dream, with direct references to the Emmaus Road interaction between Jesus and his two disciples (Lk. 24:13-35) as well as some indirect references to the book of Revelation.

In one of the static dialog sections, Stalker tells the story of Porcupine: "He was my teacher. He opened my eyes." Later, Porcupine caused the death of his brother, then became rich from the room. The Zone fulfilled his deepest desire and showed him his true nature. And a week later he hanged himself from grief, or perhaps as a form of atonement. Porcupine, though not appearing in the film, is a type of Jesus, leading others to hope (1 Tim. 1:1), yet ultimately being a type of Judas (Matt. 27:5), who sold his Savior for a sum of money (Matt. 26:15).

Like The Wizard of Oz, Tarkovsky opens his film in a sepia-toned monochrome, gritty and descriptive of life outside the Zone. When the men arrive in the Zone, the film switches to color, the lush greens of organic vegetation, the hues of life. The message is clear. Life only occurs in its fullest form inside the Zone, where hopes and dreams may be fulfilled. However, the Zone is also full of burnt out husks of cars and tanks, a witness to the dark and ugly desires that often reside in the depraved hearts of men (Jer. 17:9)

Ironically and tragically, the "Zone" itself was actually the source of Tarkovsky's demise. The areas in Estonia where the Zone was filmed were laid waste and polluted with heavy toxins. Some of the crew, including Tarkovsky, became victims to these poisons. The director developed cancer from the exposure and died in 1986.

Tarkovsky chooses to shoot the film to preserve the three unities of place, time and action. He divides the film into three clear acts, the first and third occurring in Stalker's apartment, with the middle taking place in the Zone. He also avoids editing as a selector and organizer of time. He shoots long, slow takes, with minimal zoom and slow subtle camera movement; many shots last more than four minutes, an eternity by modern fast-cut standards!

There is even more symmetry in the simple form of the film. The opening scene has Stalker in bed while we hear a train pass by outside. After he gets up and creeps into the kitchen, his wife emerges from the bedroom to dissuade him from going into the Zone. When she fails, she falls onto the floor, lying on her back crying in despair. At the end when he returns, he falls onto the floor, crying out in despair. She, now, comforts him and leads him back to the bedroom, putting him back in bed. As the film ends, we hear a train passing by outside. But it is in the ending that we find the hope and grace that he has been searching for.

Early on Stalker comments on who can enter the Zone: "I think it lets those pass who have lost all hope. Not good or bad, but wretched people." This is a parallel, in a sense, to Jesus' comments about those who can enter the Kingdom of heaven, in the Beatitudes. "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth" (Matt. 5:3, 5). When we are wretched, meek, poor in spirit, we come looking for hope. And when we look with real motivation we will find it. Our deepest desire, our innermost hope, is for reconciliation and relationship with God (2 Cor. 5:19), forgivenss from our sins (Acts 10:43). We find that in the room in our Zone, in the person of Jesus Christ.

Each of the men face a crisis of faith. Writer and Scientist have theirs in the Zone, in the shadow of the room. Stalker has his when he returns, on the floor of his apartment. "Haven't you seen them? They've got empty eyes. The only thing they can think about is how to sell themselves not too cheap! How to get as much as possible for their every emotional movement! They know they were 'born for a purpose', 'called upon'! After all, they live 'only once'! Can people like that believe in anything?" His faith was in the hope he could bring to the ones he brought to the Zone. But they have lost faith, they are hopeless. And he is losing faith as a result.

These themes continue to resonate in today's world. Full of single-mindedness, people sell themselves too cheap. Sensing there is meaning in their lives, as they should since God has placed eternity in their hearts (Ecc. 3:11), yet they live for the present. They look not for the life after this life, the life born of God in Christ (Jn. 1:12-13). It is easy to fall prey to Stalker's despair seeing the unbelieving hordes around us, especially in the unchurched Pacific Northwest. Yet, this is to lose faith in an all-powerful God, who is the sovereign ruler over all things (Col. 1:16), master of life and death. To give up on unbelievers is to become an unbeliever oneself.

Tarkovsky's film is not devoid of grace and hope, but they arrive in the final moments, and not in the Zone or in the men. Rather, they appear in the wife and the daughter. Tarkovosky has commented on the film's themes: "it's the theme of human dignity and the theme of suffering through the lack of his own dignity". We find this in Stalker's wife. As she comforts him, after leading him to his bed, she looks directly into the camera and gives an extended monologue, speaking of her love for him, even in the midst of sufferings. She says, pointedly, "it's better to have a bitter happiness than a gray, dull life." She found happiness without having to go to the Zone, even if it was bittersweet. She still loves Stalker with the same devotion she felt from her youth. This is the surprising grace-filled "miracle of faith"; it evidences her dignity and love in a world lacking in hope. With the closing scene, we hear Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" playing in the background, underscoring implicitly the joy that Stalker's wife and daughter have discovered to go with this dignity.
Love is fundamental to humanity. It is the key nature of God (1 Jn. 4:16), and we can rarely find true happiness apart from love. Indeed, if we experience the love God has for us in Jesus we will find deep joy (Neh. 8:10, Gal. 5:22), a close cousin of happiness.

In the closing scenes of the third act we finally see Monkey, Stalker's young daughter. She is disabled and unable to walk, apparently a result of the effects of Stalker's time in the Zone. She is a "mutant" of sorts. In this third act the film has reverted to monochrome. Yet, when we see Monkey she is in color, referring implicitly to her inherent life, like the life in the Zone. She is a child yet she has real life. Indeed, the very last scene gives an indication that she may even have some form of super-ordinary, or supernatural life.

Stalker points toward this during a monologue to himself about Writer and Scientist, while creeping through the Zone:
And most important, let them believe in themselves. Let them be helpless like children, because weakness is a great thing, and strength is nothing. When a man is just born, he is weak and flexible. When he dies, he is hard and insensitive. When a tree is growing, it's tender and pliant. But when it's dry and hard, it dies. Hardness and strength are death's companions. Pliancy and weakness are expressions of the freshness of being. Because what has hardened will never win.
Life is centered in youth. Jesus reiterated this, also: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 18:3-4). Even as an old man, we can be born again, as Nicodemus was (Jn. 3:4). Our literal age is secondary to our spiritual age. If we maintain a child-like faith, spiritually young at heart, with a wonder at who God is and what he is doing, we will remain tender and pliant, and growing in our faith and Christ-likeness. When we start to think we know it all, we harden our hearts and stop growing, and become Pharisee-like.

In an interview about the film, Tarkovsky commented, "Art embodies yearning for the ideal. It ought to awaken hope and faith in man." About the symbolism of the film, he added, "I am more interested in revealing life itself than in playing games with primitive symbolism." At the end of the day, we must ask ourselves if Stalker has realized Tarkovsky's goal and awakened in us faith? Has the film moved us somehow toward Jesus, the one who can reveal life itself (Jn. 10:10)?

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

1 comment:

  1. As a great admirer of Andrei Tarkovsky himself, and all of his films, especially Stalker, I am always interested in thoughts and interpretations of his films. Stalker can mean something different to each person who views it and that is why it's my favorite. I just wanted to let you know that I thoroughly enjoyed your thoughts on Stalker! Sincerely, Dan Marquart