Stalking the Stalker
The following article was sent to us by James Norton from ITV in London.
It nicely complements the
of some of the Stalker locations we mentioned in the news item
on September 16, 2006. The images on the left were taken by James
Norton and are linked to larger format photographs.
Tarkovsky died twenty years ago, in December 1986, leaving a body of
work richer in its understanding of the soul and the mysteries of
creation than any recent artist, a cinema of elemental beauty and the
fierce struggles of belief. The religious specificity of Tarkovsky's
work still intimidates and perplexes us. However, it is from such
theological depths that he mined an original poetic of cinematic
space, unsurpassed in its potential for imagining worlds unique to
the medium. Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space, explains
the need for a species of faith when asking a work of art to fully
work for us: "The word "soul" can, in fact, be spoken with such
conviction that it constitutes a commitment to the entire poem." It
is this commitment, regardless of religious inclination, that
Tarkovsky's films demand. The protagonist of his 1979 film Stalker
announces: "What they call passion is not some spiritual energy,
but just a friction between the soul and the outer world." The
inner world that this implies is the one that the film inhabits. It
is the same category of object as a poem or dream, and it is also
pertinent to remember that film, despite being inscribed on the
physical support of celluloid or tape is an entirely immaterial
medium, perceived in the mind between intervals of light.
Stalker, the earth has been struck by a meteorite leaving a
contaminated 'Zone' which contains a room reputedly endowed the
power to grant one's innermost wish- the film's original title
was The Wish Machine. The Stalker, a marginal figure, takes a
writer and a scientist into the prohibited Zone to find this room.
The film is inconclusive, meditative and oneiric, although its
setting would appear to be the worst and most characteristic of
Soviet environments, polluted, dilapidated industrial wastelands and
waterways, relieved only by emerald pastures which are minefields
where discarded artillery leaks its toxins and telegraph poles rot.
is easy to forget when visiting former film locations that one is
conducting a kind of dream archaeology. These are sites not where
something really happened but which were decorated and where a
fiction was enacted, memory of fiction transposed onto reality.
Stalker was filmed in a number of locations near the Estonian
capital Tallinn, which can still be visited today, and because the
film has such a powerful sense of place, and was shot in a location
that has historically been transitional and is very much so today, to
do so is a highly evocative experience.
Stalker had a
repeatedly traumatic production history which began with the search
for locations. Evgeny Tsymbal, assistant director on the film,
remembers: "Tarkovsky filmed Stalker in Estonia because the
original locations, near Isfara and Kanibadam in Tajikistan, became
impossible as the result of a powerful earthquake with many victims.
People lost their homes and were quartered in hotels, schools and
sports-halls. We searched for new locations for almost three months
in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine, the Crimea
and around Moscow. But the location was found when Tarkovsky flew to
Tallinn, where he had connections with Estonian students from the
Advanced Scriptwriting and Directing courses which he had taught
there, and because of his script Hoffmanniana, which had
written been for the Tallinnfilm studio. The main location was found
unexpectedly near the Jägala river, 25km from Tallinn. They went
to see the Jägala waterfall, which they didn't like, but
nearby they found an abandoned electrical generating station which
had been blown up in 1941 by the Red Army retreating through Estonia.
The building belonged to no-one and was the ideal place for the
shoot. We later found a second electrical station downstream, an
overflow weir. These two ruined constructions became the main
locations, providing the style and texture of the whole film, and
helped to create the atmosphere of the strange and mystical events of
the film. We also shot near the railway bridge over the Pirita river
near the road to Leningrad, at a ship repair yard, an abandoned
oil processing plant, at an empty mill, and also near an electrical
station in the centre of Tallinn. The closing episodes of the film
were shot in Moscow."
The shoot began in
spring 1977 and was completed by midsummer. However, during
processing the film was ruined due to a technical error or, it has
been suggested, sabotage. Resisting calls to shelve the film,
Tarkovsky rewrote the script, making the Stalker less of a petty
criminal and more of a holy fool, and extending its length. He had to
replace his cameraman after a falling-out, nearly ran out of funds
and suffered a heart attack. Finally, the film was entirely reshot
from June to November 1978.
has a jewel of a medieval old town, thronged with tourists, shops
selling soviet kitsch, and a main square dominated by the Pizzeria
Fellini. Beside it is a large Indian restaurant called the Maharajah,
which by rights should have been named the Tarkovsky Tandoori. A
fringe theatre in the city recently staged an adaptation of Stalker,
played out in a box onto which were projected images from onstage
video cameras. It was reportedly dreadful. This exquisite World
Heritage Site is nowhere to be seen in the film, although much of its
opening section was shot very close by, on the other side of the
At the beginning of the
film, in black and white, the Stalker and his passengers convene in a
dingy bar beside a shipyard. They drive to an area of dilapidated
warehouses and workshops, a disorienting warren of filthy brickwork.
These are now abandoned, fenced off and marked for demolition and
redevelopment in an area bounded by the walls of old Tallinn and the
mirrored high-rises of its new business centre. The location,
poignantly, is now hidden behind the Coca-Cola Plaza, an
eleven-screen multiplex in whose stairwell, in ghostly reflection,
Tarkovsky's ruined city is mapped onto the Twin Towers in a
monolithic poster for Oliver Stone's World Trade Center.
film continues with the passengers scrambling through a labyrinth of
overgrown passages, murky sheds and railway sidings, fired on by
police, swept by searchlights, escaping from a monochrome prison.
Jumping onto a handcar, they head out along the rails to the Zone.
The railway tracks, now disused, run through a transitional, boundary
area of empty shacks and car parks in the shadow of a hulking and
empty power station and its towering chimney between the old town,
the docks and the vast, bunker-like City Hall which commands a view
of the Baltic. The sheds that line the tracks are now galleries of
vivid graffiti, a metal door sprayed with the image of a cartoon
doll, pockmarked by airgun pellets, syringes lying in the grass.
idea was to give at least the impression that the entire film was one
continuous take, something like an almighty tracking shot into the
Zone. Such a shot accompanies the characters along the rails, and
when the camera angle finally widens it reveals the landscape of the
Zone, now in colour.
waterfall is celebrated locally and sincerely as the 'The Niagara
of Estonia'. It is little wonder that Tarkovsky was so underwhelmed
by this merely seven metre drop in the river, but much of the rest of
the film was shot very close by. The Zone location is an area of
gently rolling pastures and woodland, and that it looks much as it
does in the film, military props having been removed just as the
Soviets have subsequently withdrawn from the country, is a sign of
the invisible threat with which Tarkovsky was able to imbue it. The
river itself transports the visitor back to the idylls of the films,
its lazy tributaries moving at the same pace as a gliding film dolly,
photogenic aquatic plants drifting in the limpid current.
Beyond the vestiges of
one of the hydroelectric stations lies a basin where the river widens
out and which in the film is covered in a thick layer of scum,
whipped up into toxic flakes by the wind. This pool acts as a
memorial to the catastrophic legacy of industrial pollution left by
the Soviet Union. The film was thought to have prefigured the
Chernobyl disaster, which occurred a few months before Tarkovsky's
death, the contaminated area known ever since as the Zone, which was
also the term by which the Gulag was known, as the Russian audience
would have recognised.
The choice of location
and this deadly foam tuned out to be fatal, if sound recordist
Vladimir Sharun's explanation is correct: "Up the river was a
chemical plant and it poured poisonous liquids downstream." To this
he attributes not only allergic reactions from the crew, but the
eventual deaths from bronchial cancer of Tarkovsky himself, his wife
Larissa and the director's favourite actor Anatoly Solonitsyn.
Although Estonia, now a member of the EU, has counteracted much of
this environmental damage, there are pockets of enduring
contamination, such as the town of Sillamäe
near the Russian border, which in Soviet times was a secret uranium
The approaches to the
room, and the dreaming heart of the film, were located in a system of
canals built to channel water to the two nearby power stations. It is
here that the Stalker lies down at the water's edge, initiating the
mystical reverie in which the camera discovers weapons, silverware,
fragments of religious art suspended in the sepia liquid. These
channels have now dried out, and where not overgrown with a tangle of
weeds, the parched mud is strewn with a collection of symptomatic
debris: a vodka bottle, a scrap of American pornography.
The film's principal
location, the disused hydro station, about the size of a large house,
lies hidden at the foot of the system of massive conduits in a hollow
of the riverbank by the side of a ruined aqueduct. The setting is
fairy-tale, the building's shattered interior, distressed concrete
columns, coils of wire, garlands of asbestos, is not. In the film,
Tarkovsky sculpts the setting with mist, and the characters clamber
around torrents of water reduced today to a muddy trickle staining
the cavernous pipes which run beneath the building. The main room of
the hydro station is still recognisable as the chamber filled with
sand dunes where the writer delivers an anquished soliloquy.
wishing room is not shown in the film. The writer dares not enter for
fear of confronting his true desires, the scientist has to be
restrained from blowing it up. Stalker, ultimately, is about a
threshold, the forces that guard the threshold, the irreconcilable
spaces it separates, the fears and desires that inhibit its crossing.
The threshold cannot be crossed, although it is open, because the
expedition, the film itself, like Borges' story The Circular
Ruins, whose title could describe the setting, is a dream within
a dream. The space and narrative of Stalker is a circle that
deceptively appears to be a straight line, curvature of space-time.
and Tarkovsky's last two films, Nostalgia, filmed in Italy,
and The Sacrifice, in Sweden, are sometimes seen as a hermetic
trilogy on the themes of faith and cataclysm. As Estonia sheds its
association with Russia and definitively consolidates its independent
identity, perhaps film historians of the future will consider this to
be a trilogy of films made outside Tarkovsky's native Russia, and
that its most poignant legacy could be the realisation that he had
already left home and begun his exile without knowing it. Film
locations vanish as the imaginary is overgrown by the real, they do
not sustain the marks of history. It is to the films themselves that
we must look to reveal what only film can capture: spectral
voices, the passage of time, traces of psychic wounds, relics of a
sequence of the dream in the film is accompanied by the voice of the
Stalker's wife reciting part of the Book of Revelation. But in
Tarkovsky's original script, the Stalker utters a prayer, itself
then effaced, for the preservation of place: "Grant that it may be
thus forever: that walls remain walls, dead-ends remain dead-ends,
roads remain roads, and nobody remains cheated..."
to Evgeny Tsymbal, Pille Rünk and Tom Lasica.