By Anthony Perrotta
Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker follows three men who embark on a journey to a mysterious place called the Zone, where legend has it; there is a room that grants the deepest wish of those who enter it. With a screenplay by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, based loosely on their 1972 novel Roadside Picnic, the movie also alludes to some real-life events in the former Soviet Union’s past, as well as the 1939 classic, The Wizard of Oz..
In Stalker, the unnamed city in the unnamed country at the beginning and the end of the film is surrounded by fences and policed by armed guards. The Stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky) is hired to break the Writer (Anatoli Solonitsyn) and the Professor (Nikolai Grinko) out of the closed city and bring them to the mysterious Zone, which the public is forbidden to enter. The Stalker also has a daughter named Monkey (Natasha Abramova) living in the dilapidated city. She cannot walk or talk, and is referred to as one of the many “Zone Children” who have been born with deformities because their parent(s) were exposed to radiation.
Throughout the middle of the 20th century, there were many nuclear testing facilities throughout the former Soviet Union. Most of them were located in closed cities, like the one in Stalker. Although the public was unaware of these facilities, towns and villages near the sites were closed off, for the authorities feared that radiation might leak out. If explosions occurred, most of the populated areas were evacuated. But those closest to the site often weren’t told. One of the most common excuses given for the explosions’ noise was that a meteor hit, much like the legend surrounding the Zone’s origin.
One such example took place in the city of Ozyorsk, which in 1957 suffered a radiological contamination. This event came to be known as the Kyshtym Disaster, named after the nearest town since Ozyorsk wasn’t printed on any of the maps. While some towns were evacuated within one to two weeks of the incident, the majority of villages weren’t evacuated until months or even years later. As a result, many residents contracted cancer and other diseases caused by radiation. It wasn’t until 1976 that Zhores Medvedev, a Russian biologist and political dissident, made the nature of the problem known to the world. The Soviet government gradually started declassifying documents pertaining to the disaster in 1989.
After World War II, the Soviet Union legged behind the United States when it came to the development of nuclear weapons. So, it wasn’t uncommon for nuclear facilities like the one in Ozyorsk to be build in hast. The Kyshtym Disaster currently ranks as the third worst nuclear disaster, coming in behind Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011.
Although Stalker was released seven years before the Chernobyl disaster, which occurred on April 26, 1986, in the northern city of Pripyat in the former Ukrainian SSR, there are certainly parallels between Tarkovsky’s film and the worst nuclear accident ever recorded. Thyroid cancer rates skyrocketed in Belarus as a result of the accident, abortion requests rose not just in Russia, but also throughout Europe, and the long-term health effects are still being investigated.
Water contamination was also a major concern. Stalker has a clear environmental message, as Tarkovsky’s camera lingers on a wide range of debris, ranging from guns, syringes, and coins that litter the possibly radioactive fluid that at one point or another helps to symbolically baptize all three of the men. Downed telephone poles also resemble crosses, alluding to the lack of faith in both the former Soviet Union and Stalker’s fictional universe.
Chernobyl Diaries, released in 2012, involves a group of American tourists that hire an extreme tour guide, like the Stalker, to sneak them into the condemned site. Also, since the de-population of the surrounding area, now called the “Chernobyl Exclusion Zone,” some of those employed to take care of the abandoned power plant have come to refer to themselves as “stalkers.”
Like Stalker, The Wizard of Oz is based on a work of fiction. L. Frank Baum’s 1900 children’s novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, is believed to be an allegory for political, social, and economic events in late nineteenth-century America; particularly it’s monetary policy. The Yellow Brick Road, for example, can be seen as the arguably prosperous gold standard. The Emerald City, on the other hand, could represent Baum’s views on Greenback paper money, which he possibly saw as fraudulent and pretending to have value when it really doesn’t.
Both Stalker and The Wizard of Oz are frame stories. They begin and end in one place, while the majority of the film takes place somewhere else. This technique was pioneered in 1920 with the silent horror film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, directed by Robert Weine. But where the entirety of Weine’s German Expressionist classic is in black and white, only the “Kansas” portion of Stalker and The Wizard of Oz are shot in a brown monochrome. The “Oz” portions, however, are in full color.
Like Dorothy (Judy Garland), the Stalker travels with a motely group of individuals who seek something that they feel will enrich their lives. The Scarecrow (Ray Bologer), a depiction of American farmers, seeks a brain to overcome the troubles that the modern age has bestowed upon him. The Tin Man (Jack Haley), a representation of steel workers, seeks a heart, which the industrial revolution has stripped him of. And the Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr), a metaphor for populism and social justice, seeks courage.
The Writer in Stalker is suffering from writers block, and hopes to feel the same inspiration that he felt in the beginning of his career. He laments to a woman, who goes unnamed, that living in the Middle Ages must have been interesting because mankind was younger and less cynical, unlike himself. The Godless modern age, however, is boring, and the Zone is a result of this. The Professor’s desires aren’t made clear, but he does tell the Writer that he hopes to win a Nobel Prize through a scientific analysis of the Zone. The group also learns, through an unexplainable phone call, that the Professor’s wife has been unfaithful with a colleague of his. The Professor acknowledges that his emotional disconnect is responsible for her affair.
The Wizard of Oz and Stalker also provide their traveling groups with an animal companion. The American musical gives them Dorothy’s “little dog” Toto. The Soviet art film gives them the stray black dog, which helps to provide the viewer with one of the many striking images in the movie.
While it’s made quite clear that Dorothy’s adventure in Oz was nothing but a dream, an enlightening dream that taught her “there’s no place like home”, but a dream none the less, the Stalker and his clients’ time in the Zone didn’t necessarily occur during sleep. However, there is a scene in the film where the gang rides a railcar out of the city, destined for the Zone. The sequence lasts over four minutes, and feels as though the characters, along with the audience, are being lulled to sleep.
The Soviet Union, which the run-down world of Stalker arguably represents, lasted little more than a decade after the film’s release. Since the fall of communism, the Russian Federation has reinvented itself. This is evident in the films of Andrey Zvyaginstev, Tarkovsky’s arguable successor. Zvyaginstev depicts a “new” Russia, unified not by atheism and socialism—hallmarks of the failed proletarian revolution—but by national tradition and Orthodox Christianity.
The Return, released in 2003, tells the story of two Russian boys whose father suddenly returns home after a 12-year absence. The unnamed father (Konstantin Lavronenko) then takes his sons Andrei (Vladimir Garin) and Ivan (Ivan Dobronravov) on a fishing trip, which ultimately becomes more of an endurance test. The amount of time that the father is gone is rather appropriate, since the Soviet Union had fallen 12 years before the movie was released. The film’s first and final shots of the “father” also reference Italian Renaissance artist Andrea Mantegna’s painting Lamentation of Christ.
Leviathan, released in 2014, tells the story of a hot-tempered auto mechanic (Aleksei Serebryakov) who lives with his second wife (Elena Lyadova) and teenage son (Sergey Pokhodyaev) in the fictional coastal town of Pribrezhny, where the mayor (Roman Madyanov) looks to expropriate his property for purposes that aren’t revealed until the end of the film. The movie’s title translates to “great whale” or “sea monster”, which is referenced in the Book of Job. While Zvyaginstev has stated that his film is inspired by the real-life American story of Marvin Heemeyer, there are certainly parallels between the movie’s main character and the unlucky biblical figure.
Both The Return and Leviathan depict a Russia that has reverted back to its pre-communist ways, a country on the cusp of a spiritual reawakening. But with this comes political corruption and economic stagnation. Zvyaginstev’s characters live in houses and apartment buildings that are falling apart. They work monotonous jobs making very little money, consume large amounts of alcohol, and speak cynically of their current politicians and former Soviet leaders alike.
Nevertheless, back to Stalker. Tarkovsky once said we can express our feelings regarding the world around us in two ways: poetically or by descriptive means.
“I prefer to express myself metaphorically. Let me stress: metaphorically, not symbolically,” the late director elaborated. “A symbol contains within itself a definite meaning, certain intellectual formula, while metaphor is an image. An image possessing the same distinguishing features as the world it represents. An image as opposed to a symbol is indefinite in meaning.”
So, according to Tarkovsky’s own words, his film isn’t necessarily an allegory for the botched Soviet experiment or the dangers of nuclear power; nor is it a Russian rip-off of The Wizard of Oz. The same cannot be said for 2017’s Guardians, which clearly stole from 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy.
Stalker is simply about a trip—filled with ominous peril—to a place called the Zone; a place that is frozen in time, where the succession of images conjure up different emotions and feelings for the characters and audience alike, much like the dream that whisked Dorothy away into the Merry Old Land of Oz.