Stalker: DVD Review

by Donato Totaro Volume 6, Issue 9 / September 2002 9 minutes (2012 words)

I would not have believed that a short two years since purchasing a DVD player I would own all but one of Andrei Tarkovsky’s films on DVD (the remaining holdout being Ivan’s Childhood). The one Tarkovsky Holy Grail, however, was Stalker, partly because it was never available in any format other than VHS, and it represents a personal favorite. I see Stalker as Tarkovsky’s masterpiece, although according to who you ask there are three other genuine contenders for that honor (Andrei Rublev, Mirror, and Nostalghia). Which is what makes the recent Ruscico ( release of Stalker so exciting. Rather than attempt an analysis of the film, something I could not do in less than several thousand soul wrenching words, I’ll provide a synopsis (for those who know nothing of the film) and discuss the enticing morsels of supplementary material featured on the DVD.

Stalker can be best described as a science-fiction film structured as a metaphysical journey – and arguably just that, a meta – rather than physical journey- for three men in search of inner truth and self-worth. Their search takes them from a drab, post-industrial city to a restricted area outside the city limits called the Zone, where it is believed aliens once visited. The Zone is a minefield of perceptual illusions, booby traps, and shifting geography, making each step a potentially life-threatening danger. The Zone has been officially recognized as a forbidden area by the government ever since an investigative group went missing (eerily foreshadowing Chernobyl, where the chemical spill area was also referred to as ‘the Zone’). Legend has it, however, that nestled within the danger-ridden Zone is a room where one’s deep inner wishes are granted. The latter plot point is crucial, because the room sees through superficiality and grants not what you may think you desire, but the desires of your soul. The Stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky) is someone trained as a guide for people willing to risk their life to reach this wish fulfilling room. His latest ‘clients’ are a Writer (Tarkovsky favorite Anatoly Solonitsyn) and a Scientist (Nikolai Grinko). For these weary travelers, stripped of their self-confidence, faith and ability to love, the room represents, perhaps, their final hope.

The Three Travelers Meet

After weathering the death traps along their path (rendered through mood and anticipation rather than cinematic, science-fiction pyrotechnics), the men arrive at the threshold of the room (symbolically enough, the gutted remains of a church). We learn that the Scientist, fearing that the wishing room may be misused for evil intention, had planned all along to destroy the room with a bomb he smuggled into the Zone in his knapsack. The Stalker makes a frantic plea to let the room exist, as it represents for many the last depository of faith. Shaken and crying, the Stalker is reduced to a pathetic state (what else would you expect from a Tarkovsky ‘hero’?). Somehow the Stalker’s desperate pleas move the Scientist, and he dismantles the bomb. Exhausted, the three men sit quietly outside the room, with neither the energy to continue their philosophical spatting, or the courage to venture into the room and test their inner selves. As if to reflect their sorrowful epiphany, a gorgeous sunshower spontaneously falls into the water-filled room.

The three men return to their urban wasteland as they left, seemingly bereft of spirit or hope. The three men sit still and quiet in the café where they met at the beginning of the film. In fact, outside of the black dog that identifies the Zone, it could appear as if they never even left the bar. The Stalker’s wife (Alyssa Freindlikh), along with their crippled, mutant daughter ‘Monkey’ (Natasha Abramova), comes to collect her husband at the café. Upon returning to their squalid home, the Stalker burdens his wife with his growing despair in the face of the cynical travellers. If people become so cynical to the point of losing all vestige of hope, what will come of him? The film concludes with the Stalker’s mute daughter performing what appears to be a magical feat of telekinesis by willing a group of glasses to move across the kitchen table.

A Metaphor for Faith?

The DVD presents the film in a correctly rendered full-frame aspect ratio (1.33 to 1), with crisp definition and excellent contrast between the film’s complex color/tonal scheme. This is where the DVD gains most from the previous Fox Lorber VHS copy, making the thematically motivated transitions between black and white, monochrome, color (still subdued), and sepia much more striking. The first such transition is from the drab monochrome and black & white of the city to the introduction of color in the Zone, and it is far more demarcated in the DVD than in the VHS copy (as it was in the 35mm print I’ve seen on a few occasions). The three men travel to the Zone by way of a stolen flatcar that they drive along a train track. This visual transition from b/w to color is further underscored aurally by the mesmeric soundtrack during the flatcar journey (clanking of the steel wheels on the tracks, and an oscillating electronic pitch) which places us in a somnolent state (much like the travelers) that makes the change that much sharper to the full sensorial system. Where this DVD is most welcome is in the darkly lit, low-key scenes, namely the scenes in the bar and in the Stalker’s bunker-like apartment, where we can now make out so much more detail of the film’s painstaking production design. The cut from the Writer in the bar (in b/w) to the color shot of the Stalker’s daughter Monkey in color, is even more striking than the initial transition to color when they enter the Zone. Her gold head scarf stands out dramatically, as it should, since the shift to color now assumes important thematic significance – the power, magic, ‘color’ of the Zone – now emerges in the drab cityscape. In fact, in the VHS version the scene in the bar is more sepia than b/w, and to be precise, it is only the daughter who ‘lives’ in color in these post-Zone city scenes, rendering her a specific magical quotient in the film’s philosophical system, which is in keeping with Tarkovsky’s ideas on the purity of children and their ability to intuit reality over and above the culturally/socially conditioned adult. So while the scenes between the whimpering, self-loathing Stalker and his wife are in b/w, the final ‘telekinetic’ scene with the table top glasses, passing train, and daughter is in full color.

By far the most striking aspect of this DVD is the options in sound selection between the original mono soundtrack and a new Russian 5.1 Dolby. In fact the DVD in my possession is the second printing. Ruscico first released the film with the Russian 5.1 soundtrack, which was not only technologically different from the original, but contained different sound and music elements entirely. I am not sure of the complete story behind these changes, but Ruscico claims that they relied on original sound cues which, it would appear, were not ultimately used by Tarkovsky. As you would expect, fans who received this ‘altered’ version complained about the changes and Ruscico graciously gave their customers the option of exchanging their version for the second pressing. Thankfully, rather than including only the original soundtrack in the second pressing, Ruscico gives us both soundtracks on the follow-up pressing.

The 5.1 version is understandably fuller and more nuanced but, shockingly, contains different sound cues from the original. This is nowhere more striking than in the flatcar scene. What a shock it was to watch this scene, which was etched in my memory with only the sound effects of the wheels and the oscillating pitch, and also hear a Tangerine Dream-like synthesizer melody, choral voices, and other percussive sounds! If we compare the two different soundtracks as they affect the flatcar scene, the 5.1 version is texturally more varied than the original, and interesting in its own right, but is less rhythmically spellbinding and trance-like than the original, and ultimately less effective in rendering the scene’s subjectively extended temporality.

The Mesmeric Trolley Scene

Although the rights for Stalker may one day be picked by a North American company for distribution (as did Criterion for Solaris, another Tarkovsky title released by Ruscico), they will be hardpressed to surpass the curious and fascinating supplementary material on this DVD. The only negative factor is that, like Solaris, the Ruscico film is split across two DVD’s, recalling the bulky laserdisc days. Along with the first part of the film, side 1 contains a five minute clip from The Steamroller and the Violin; about a dozen or so Stalker set photos, the most interesting being one that shows the double track set-up for the flatcar journey; a biography of Andrei Tarkovsky; and a curio entitled "Tarkovsky’s House." "Tarkovsky’s House" is a six minute montage of images of architectural spaces from Tarkovsky’s films, intercut with other architectural images which are similar, but clearly not from any Tarkovsky movies. The non-intertextual images are filmed in a Tarkovskian style, making it hard to distinguish the documentary from Tarkovsky’s fictional world. This is an apt gesture given how closely intertwined the autobiographical was to Tarkovsky’s art. At the end of the short we see the following intertitle, "In this house the great film director Andrei Tarkovsky spent his childhood and adolescence, Zamoskvorechye, 1st Schipkovsky Lane, 1997." The short was directed by Serghei Minenok and shot by cinematographer Victor Dobronitsky.

Tarkovskian Images from Tarkovsky’s House

Tarkovskian Images from Tarkovsky’s House

Side two contains the second part of the film, a complete filmography of principal actors and crewmembers, interviews with cinematographer Alexander Knyazhinsky and Production Designer Rashit Safiullin, and two other treats not noted in the supplementary listing, an interview with composer Eduard Artemyev (a highlight of the extras) and a three minute trailer of Solaris (letterboxed). The brief (5’30") interview with Knyazhinsky is the least interesting of the three. This was the last interview he gave, as he died on June 14, 1996, and we sense a self-awareness of this in his depressed state. Far more upbeat and thoughtful are the interviews with Safiullin and Artemyev. Safiullin’s recollections are extremely personal and touching, and we sense a profound love and admiration for Tarkovsky. When asked what the Zone meant to him, he explains that it is a place where people can talk about the most important things, and live out their innermost self, without lies or masks. He then adds, "When Andrei was no more I was bereaved of a person with whom I could talk about the most important things. It was like my "room" vanished." His final, tear-filled words embody the sense of loss he feels over Tarkovsky’s death: "They say you should not pray to an idol. Christ, we have run out of idols."

Nestled in the Artemyev filmography is a link to the Solaris trailer and a 21’00" interview with Artemyev, who composed the music for Solaris, Mirror, and Stalker. The interview is a fascinating discussion of the complex working relationship he had with Tarkovsky who, unlike Safiullin, he admits to not knowing intimately. In keeping with the subject, the director of this interview cleverly introduces snippets of Artemyev’s musical work for Tarkovsky, at times as it appears in the films and other times adulterated. Also intercut into the interview are never before seen b/w stock footage of a young Tarkovsky, including one striking slow motion shot of a dapper, handsome Tarkovsky walking along a busy Moscow sidewalk, with the finale music of Mirror swelling on the soundtrack.

Don’t miss out on these ‘hidden’ features of the DVD. In keeping with the Ruscico tradition, this DVD is a linguist’s delight: subtitles are available in no less than 11 languages (English, French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Japanese, Swedish, Portuguese, Hebrew, Arabic, and Chinese)!

Stalker: DVD Review

Donato Totaro has been the editor of the online film journal Offscreen since its inception in 1997. Totaro received his PhD in Film & Television from the University of Warwick (UK), is a part-time professor in Film Studies at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada) and a longstanding member of AQCC (Association québécoise des critiques de cinéma).

Volume 6, Issue 9 / September 2002 Blu-ray/DVD   andrei tarkovsky   russian cinema   science fiction