Stalker - Andrei Tarkovsky - Professor - Writer - Nikolai Grinko - Anatoly Solonitsyn - Zone

1979, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky

Part of the appeal of Stalker is that it promises an encounter with the supernatural. So do plenty of other movies, but Tarkovsky’s viewers trust that he won’t resort to cheap effects. The movie will not promise or deliver anything that Tarkovsky doesn’t believe in. Therefore when we hear the Zone described as a “miracle of miracles”, and when the three men set off in search of a Room that grants its visitors’ innermost wishes, audiences tend to perk up – especially those who don’t relish living in the dull mathematical world the Writer believes in, where the Bermuda Triangle is nothing more than triangle ABC.

Anyone can sense Tarkovsky’s sincerity, but he’s not above using cinematic devices to embellish the photographic facsimile of reality. There are small hints and flashes of the supernatural in Stalker, and their artifice is not disguised, but they’re all ambiguous. A voice from nowhere warns the Writer not to come closer, but it’s muffled by an unearthly sound, and it’s gone right away – are we to believe that the men imagined it? A pigeon vanishes in mid-flight, but no one remarks on it – was it a flaw in the film print? The Writer drops a rock in a well, and it takes an age to splash at the bottom. The Writer and Stalker lose the Professor but find him waiting for them minutes later. There are rumors of deadly traps and legends of wishes granted, but no empirical proof. A glass in the early minutes moves by itself across a table, but we’re soon assured that it’s caused by the vibrations of a passing train. However at the end – when the Stalker’s daughter Monkey seems to push three glasses telekinetically – the passing train comes too late to explain their uneven motion. This last miracle, unlike the others, needs some kind of justification. How can we allow Tarkovsky to spring a trick like that?

Stalker - Andrei Tarkovsky - Natalya Abramova - Monkey - daughter - three glasses - table - ending - telekinesis - 3 glasses

There is a logic to Monkey’s strange power, but to see it we have to have watched the scene by the Room carefully. After the Stalker tries to wrestle the bomb away from the Professor – and the Writer, seething with pent-up irritation, pushes him to the ground five times – the Stalker says that stalkers are forbidden to enter the Room. The way he says this shows no sign of awareness that he was just pushed across the threshold, and yet, if we’ve paid attention to the layout and the camera placement, there’s no escaping from that conclusion. The fourth and fifth times the Writer pushes the Stalker, the off-screen splashes can only come from the water inside the Room. The Writer is standing too close to the portal to have pushed the Stalker sideways, and he looks into the Room while venting at his fallen guide. Having entered the Room, the Stalker is entitled to a wish – not of his mind’s choosing, but the innermost wish of his heart. What better validation of his selfless character than to find that the benefit goes to his reputedly handicapped daughter?

Stalker - Andrei Tarkovsky - Professor - Writer - Nikolai Grinko - Anatoly Solonitsyn - Alexander Kaidanovsky - Room - threshold - doorway

We must not think, however, that Monkey triumphs in her new power like some sort of heroine. Rather she takes after her father, as we see once we realize that Monkey and her three glasses recapitulate and confirm the events by the Room’s doorway. The three glasses are like the three men. One contains a broken eggshell and bits of refuse, like the Professor with his brittle hatred. One is filled halfway with murky fluid, like the Writer with his muddled philosophies. And one, like the simple Stalker who has spent his life nourishing others, is empty. Monkey pushes the empty glass over the edge, just as her father was pushed into the Room, and it falls unbroken as he does, only his dignity shattered. Like the Stalker splashing into the flooded Room, we don’t see the glass hit the floor; we only hear it, followed by the strains of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy announcing the fulfilment of the joy promised to her father in the Room.

The key point, for both the Stalker and Monkey, is that the gift must be received humbly. Instead of marching into the Room and basking in its power, the Stalker was pushed inside on his hands and knees, humiliated, on the verge of tears. This idea that the lowliest will be rewarded is rooted in the Beatitudes, and it forms a continuum with Tarkovsky’s other movies. Andrei Rublev is bracketed by two visions of artists: a hot-air balloon inventor who soars above the world but crashes to the ground; and the bellcaster’s son Boriska who slaves for months in a muddy pit, sweating and toiling with common people, and at the end creates something glorious that inspires the great icon painter. In Tarkovsky’s world rewards come to those who stay closest to the earth, humbling themselves and meeting life head-on. Likewise at the beginning of Nostalghia the sacristan tells Eugenia, inside another gift-giving room, that nothing will happen unless all the onlookers are supplicants.

Stalker - Andrei Tarkovsky - Professor - Writer - Nikolai Grinko - Anatoly Solonitsyn - Alexander Kaidanovsky - mounds - dust

Tarkovsky’s preference for the low and humble over the high and proud echoes throughout his films, and we hear it in the Tyutchev poem that accompanies Monkey in the last scene, in which a lover rhapsodizes his beloved’s eyes lit with passion but prefers them when they’re quiet and downcast. The same preference accounts for Tarkovsky’s idealization of domestic life. The Stalker comes closer to his family at the end, after neglecting them for his forays into the Zone. In his other films it’s the home itself that’s idealized – it’s the last image in Solaris; Mirror is set in his own childhood home; the title of Nostalghia refers to Gorchakov’s longing for home; and in The Sacrifice the home is the thing sacrificed. In Stalker the first words spoken in the Zone are “Here we are, home at last.” The Room is a transformation of the family’s bedroom, each with a forechamber, each with a central portal, each one a kind of sanctum. The Room itself may be a fantasy, but most of us have a place like the Stalker’s bedroom somewhere in our lives, and that is where we should look if we want to translate Tarkovsky’s fantasy into reality.

From this point of view Stalker is not so different from The Wizard of Oz, where the whole purpose of Dorothy’s fantasy is to lead her back home with a new appreciation for her humble and ordinary life. Tarkovsky must have been aware of this, because the whole movie is a transformation of the 1939 MGM musical. Each is a journey to a place where wishes are granted, the fantastic part in color bracketed by scenes at home in sepia. The Writer is a coward – hiding from the guards’ bullets, carrying a gun and liquor into the Zone, afraid to go first through the Meatgrinder; the Professor is heartless, coming to the Zone on a mission of revenge; and the Stalker is called a “holy fool” and an “idiot”. The name of the Zone transposes the letters of “Oz”. The travelers sleep on the ground halfway through their journey, and the only thing they bring home is a dog. The “Meatgrinder” is like the long passageway to the Wizard’s chamber. The Writer puts on a crown of thorns outside the Room, just as the Lion fashions a makeshift crown before his audience with the Wizard, and the Professor wears a pom-pom cap not unlike the oilcan on the Tin Man.

Stalker - Andrei Tarkovsky - Alexander Kaidanovsky - close-up - water
Stalker - Andrei Tarkovsky - Professor - Writer - Nikolai Grinko - Anatoly Solonitsyn

There’s no need for a Dorothy character in Stalker because Dorothy is redundant in The Wizard of Oz; she and her companions learn essentially the same lesson, each finding satisfaction in what they already possess, whether it’s home and family or one’s missing piece. The Wizard of Oz is filled with weak male characters and strong females, but Tarkovsky is more interested in the weak. It’s not clear that the Stalker learns a lesson or finds resolution at the end; he’s passed the reward instead to his daughter, but even that’s not the end of the story. Just as Monkey is more important to her father than his own happiness, the viewer is more important to Tarkovsky than his characters, and he wishes to pass us a gift. At the end of the journey, as the three men rest before the open portal, the movie puts us inside the Room for nearly five minutes, as if hoping that we too will derive its benefits.

This gift comes with a catch. As the sacristan cautions us in the early minutes of Nostalghia, “If there are any casual onlookers who aren’t supplicants, then nothing happens.” For Tarkovsky the act of watching a movie should be sacramental. We have to approach humbly, on our hands and knees. No benefit will come to casual onlookers or to proud viewers who like to feel superior to a movie. We must watch with active attention, pouring our souls into the movie, living the experience with intensity.

Stalker - Andrei Tarkovsky - bedroom - sepia - bed - window

There may seem to be a paradox in a movie that promises a miracle yet encourages us to seek nothing more lofty than ordinary domestic life. The Stalker embodies this paradox, torn between his love for the Zone and his love of family, and his wife tells us of the pain this causes her. However there need not be any contradiction. The Stalker asks nothing from the Room because he’s content with the wonder of its existence, and yet as the movie tells us, the Room is merely a transformation of his family’s own bedroom. Most of us do not experience miracles in our lives, and reality can start to look as boring as it does to the Writer or as ugly as it does to the Professor… but if we understand instead that everybody is granted one miracle – if we appreciate the miraculous nature of existence itself, however ordinary it may be – then we’ve had our promised encounter with the supernatural.


The Wizard of Oz – Three men lacking brain, heart, courage on journey to have wish granted; central fantasy framed by home filmed in sepia; Oz/Zone; lion’s crown/crown of thorns; oilcan/pom-pom hat; sleep in middle; dog follows character/s through fantasy; character pelted for tugging on a tree

A Letter to Three Wives – Passing train shaking a house; glass tipped over supernaturally at the end

A Man Escaped – Bracketed by two trains, one coinciding with a material event and the other with something immaterial

The Eighth Day of the Week – Movie places viewer in a position where dreams can come true

Andrei Rublev – Inspiration favors the low over the high (bellcaster & Stalker)

Cries and Whispers – Characters who parallel trio from The Wizard of Oz; Scarecrow’s counterpart rewarded at end

Solaris – Idea that thinking of the past makes us better; fantastic journey with parallels between home and the destination

Nostalghia – Room where wishes are granted; dog; bedroom; sepia & color; Arseniy Tarkovsky poems; excerpt from Beethoven’s Ninth; Porcupine/Sosnovsky; protagonist napping on a swampy island; patch of white hair; rewards given to a person who takes a low position

The Sacrifice – Sepia and color; Wizard of Oz allusions; vibrating glasses

Arrival – Protagonist’s home transformed at the heart of a more fantastic place

No Bears – Character who stands at the edge of a hopeful crossing and recoils from it