Stas Tyrkin

In Stalker Tarkovsky foretold Chernobyl

From Komsomolskaya Pravda, 23 March 2001 [ Russian original ]. Photograph caption: On the set Tarkovsky demanded that the Zone look as real as possible...

In the film Stalker one of the explanations given for the Zone's origin was a breakdown at the fourth bunker. In six years the fourth energy block of the Chernobyl power plant would explode... This film, the last one Tarkovsky shot in his homeland, is full of prophecies and premonitions. Exactly 20 years ago Stalker debuted on screen.

...In a country unnamed neither by the Strugatskys nor by Tarkovsky there suddenly appeared the Zone... A mystery arose and together with it there appeared people wishing to investigate it. And Stalker appeared as well. According to the Strugatskys he is a marauder selling Zone's mysteries to tourists wandering about. According to Tarkovsky he is a guide whose destiny is to lead lost souls to the Zone and whose goal is their possible salvation.

...From the time of releasing Stalker into the Zone of the viewing public's unabating attention twenty years have passed. Alas, almost none of the film's main contributors are still living. The great Russian artist Andrei Tarkovsky lies in the cemetery Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois. His wife Larissa has also left us, she worked on Stalker as the second director. The editor Lyudmila Feiginova has tragically died in a fire. No more with us are the brilliant cameramen: Georgi Rerberg who began shooting Stalker, and Aleksandr Knyazhinsky who later reshot it. The performers in the main male roles have died: prominent actors Aleksandr Kaidanovsky, Anatoly Solonitsyn, Nikolai Grinko... One of the few surviving contributors to Stalker, the sound designer Vladimir Ivanovich Sharun, tends to think it was Stalker's long and exhausting shooting schedule that influenced the condition of some of the cast and crew and contributed to their untimely deaths... But, let's start from the beginning.

The unbearable Tarkovsky

"Nobody would go to work with Tarkovsky by accident," Vladimir Sharun remembers. "Everybody knew what kind of Personality he was. On the one hand they were afraid of his exacting demands. On the other, Tarkovsky productions were known to have taken a long time on occasion and during the Soviet times the crew were not paid for the idle periods. And the most important of Tarkovsky's "faults" was that this great artist tried to do everything himself. After all he was even the set designer for Stalker. In all shots every blade of grass would be positioned by his own hand. When I signed up to work on Stalker my colleagues warned me: «When the re-recording begins and they'll get ready for printing you'll get into big trouble. At the last moment he'll get some new idea in his head and he'll leave you all alone redoing everything.»"

Composer Eduard Artemyev recalls:
"My first meeting with Tarkovsky — that was back on Solaris — left me perplexed. He stated that what he needed was not music but a series of musically arranged noises. In addition he announced he could not imagine a better composer than Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov who had composed the score for Andrei Rublov and for Ivan's Childhood. A feeling of the lack of confidence never left me while I worked with Tarkovsky. On every picture I felt like I was taking an exam and was trying to do everything the best I could..."

Tarkovsky and UFOs

"Tarkovsky believed in miracles, no question about that", continues Vladimir Sharun, "he firmly believed in the existence of flying saucers and he even claimed he saw one near his home in Myasnoe, in the Ryazan province. One absolutely could not convince him otherwise. Tarkovsky wouldn't allow any doubts in the existence of extraterrestials. Incidentally, it all harmoniously combined with his faith in God, he knew the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Luke practically by heart and could quote whole paragraphs.

"Thanks to Tarkovsky's passion for anything out of the ordinary a man called Eduard Naumov somehow ended up within our circle. He had made popular films about paranormal phenomena, organised lectures on the subject and I think he actually spent some time in prison for illegal sale of tickets for those mass gatherings of his. Tarkovsky's circle helped him as much as they could. Once Naumov showed us one of his films. The film showed Ninel Sergeyevna Kulagina who was a well-known psychic at the time. During the war she was a gunner-navigator on a fighter plane and she was shot down with the pilot by the Germans. Then she married that pilot and had three children. After her third child she discovered she had an ability for telekinesis — she moved objects with her sight. On the screen Kulagina, surrounded by a group of people looking like scientists, was sitting behind a table with a transparent top — to avoid any claims of forgery. On the table there was a lighter, a spoon, some other items. Kulagina's face darkened with exertion, she fixed her unblinking stare on the lighter which followed her gaze. Tarkovsky attentively watched Naumov's film and after it was finished he immediately exclaimed: «Well, what do you say, here is the ending for Stalker!»

"We had no psychics on the set. The cup which was supposed to move under the half-demented gaze of Stalker's daughter was tied with a dull invisible thread and we pulled it across the table. I attempted to take care of this gripping business but Tarkovsky shooed me away — by sending me to record the dog's bark — and pulled the cup all by himself."

The torments of Stalker

"Stalker had problems. The picture's fate was strange somehow. There was this producer Gambarov in West Berlin. He had the world distribution rights to Tarkovsky's films and supplied him with the Kodak stock which was scarcely available in those days. For Stalker he sent some kind of new Kodak film that had just been introduced. Georgi Rerberg was then the cameraman on Stalker, he'd photographed The Mirror for Tarkovsky. But then the disaster struck. The artesian well at Mosfilm broke down and they had no artesian water needed to process the film. They didn't tell us anything but the material sat unprocessed for 17 days. And film which is exposed but not processed loses quality, it loses speed and it otherwise degrades. In a word, the whole material for the first part ended up on the scrap heap. On top of that — here I'm repeating what Andrei himself told me — Tarkovsky was certain the film was swapped. This newer Kodak which Gambarov sent specifically for Stalker was stolen and in some way or another ended up in the hands of a certain very well-known Soviet film director who was Tarkovsky's adversary. And they gave Andrei a regular Kodak except that nobody knew about this and that's why they processed it differently. Tarkovsky considered it a result of scheming by his enemies. But I think it was just the usual Russian sloppiness.

"The review of the ruined footage ended in a scandal. Tarkovsky, Rerberg, the Strugatskys, and Tarkovsky's wife Larissa were all sitting in the projection room. Suddenly one of the Strugatskys turned towards Rerberg and asked naively: «Gosha, and how come I can't see anything here?» Rerberg, always considering himself beyond reproach in everything he did, turned to Strugatsky and said: «And you just be quiet, you are no Dostoievsky either!» Tarkovsky was beside himself with anger. But one can understand Rerberg. Imagine what it means for a cameraman to see the entire material turning up defective! Rerberg slammed the door, walked to his car and drove away. He wasn't seen on the set again. Then the cameraman Leonid Kalashnikov appeared on the scene, unquestionably a master. He spent two weeks with us and subsequently he honestly admitted he could not understand what Tarkovsky wanted from him. Kalashnikov left the picture on his own and Tarkovsky thanked him for such an honest, courageous action. And then Aleksandr Knyazhinsky joined us."

From the recollections of the former deputy Chairman of the Goskino USSR Boris Pavlyonok:
"It was obvious that if Tarkovsky was not given the opportunity to reshot the film it wouldn't be made at all. The governing body decided: reshoot the film, give the necessary means (something like 400 thousand roubles)..."

The unexpected shooting day

The shooting in Tallinn started anew but the crew were not doing too well. One day in June it snowed. All leaves fell off the trees and the crew lost the location shoot. Again the question of shutting down the production arose.

"The crew had been sitting idle for two weeks and out of boredom many grew fond of the bottle," recalls Vladimir Sharun. "Tarkovsky knew well how threatening this situation was and decidced to act. We stayed in a rotten hotel in the suburbs of Tallinn and I was the only one with a telephone in my room. One time in the evening Tarkovsky called me and asked to tell everybody that we'd start shooting the next morning at 7 o'clock. But it's easy to say! My assistant during this period got out of boredom into drinking the cologne "Troinaya" spicing it up with sugar! When I entered Solonitsyn's room I saw that Tolya and his make-up man were also totally out of it. When I told him about the shooting the next morning he panicked!! He treated Andrei Arsenyevich like God. His make-up man knew his craft well and urgently demanded three kilograms of potatoes, to prepare them on a grater and then to apply to the face swollen after the two-week binge. But where can one get potatoes in a hotel at three o'clock in the morning? I ran to a security guard at some store outside, she entrusted me with her guarding duties while she went home to fetch the potatoes. I grated a whole bowl for Solonitsyn with so much dedication I was bleeding from the cuts in my hands, and with the feeling of a job well done I gave it to my assistant. Then I come back and what do I see?! The make-up man is lying on the floor completely drunk while Solonitsyn is applying the potato lotion to his face!"

A story about skeletons

"There was in our group an administrator named Vitya. Not a bad guy but a bit unpredictable. One day Tarkovsky was preparing for a long time a scene in which the characters find in the bushes a pair of skeletons intertwined as if at the moment of making love. An eerie woman's skeleton — with white hair on the naked skull — and lying on top of it a skeleton of a man. That was all that was left of them after the explosion or whatever it was that created the Zone. Tarkovsky for a very long time was preparing the scene, he searched for the wig himself, the skeletons weren't easy to find and they were expensive. Finally everything was ready for shooting, we spread a white sheet, put the two skeletons on it and prepared for filming. But at this time the administrator Vitya showed up on the set, saw the sheets, lied down and immediately fell asleep. He didn't notice the skeletons and he broke them. Tarkovsky's four days of work were gone. Having suffered through other whims of the wild administrator Andrei Arsenevich couldn't take it anymore and sent him packing back to Mosfilm. They drove the guy to the airport but Tarkovsky walks up to me and asks: "Listen, go and bring this idiot back, he'll be in trouble otherwise." So I'm driving Vitya back. The whole crew were delighted at this show of Tarkovsky's good will. But the skeleton scene in the film now is not what it could have been."

The breakdown at the fourth bunker

It is never fully explained in Stalker what the Zone really is or what created it. Several reasons for the appearance of the Zone are mentioned in the film: it was left behind by some extraterrestials, it was created by a falling meteorite, it was caused — so claims Writer (Solonitsyn) — by a breakdown at the fourth bunker.

In interviews Tarkovsky said the plot interested him the least and that strictly speaking the only fantastic element was the film's point of departure. Six years after the completion of the film the fourth energy block in Chernobyl exploded and the 30-kilometre Zone became reality. Unfortunately this was not the only prophecy in Stalker that came true. As the film's art director Tarkovsky himself designed the complicated panoramas of the Zone's wasteland landscape. In one such shot we can see submerged in water a card torn from a calendar with the date 28 December. This day was the last day of Tarkovsky's life, he died on 29 December 1986.

"We were shooting near Tallinn in the area around the small river Piliteh with a half-functioning hydroelectric station," says Vladimir Sharun. "Up the river was a chemical plant and it poured out poisonous liquids downstream. There is even this shot in Stalker: snow falling in the summer and white foam floating down the river. In fact it was some horrible poison. Many women in our crew got allergic reactions on their faces. Tarkovsky died from cancer of the right bronchial tube. And Tolya Solonitsyn too. That it was all connected to the location shooting for Stalker became clear to me when Larissa Tarkovskaya died from the same illness in Paris...

"After his death Tarkovsky suddenly got many friends. I did not consider myself to be among them. We simply worked on Stalker together, the last film Andrei shot in his homeland. He invited me and Artemyev to work on Nostalghia but, unfortunately, he was forced to work with a fully Italian crew."

20 years after the screen debut

Careers of those involved with Stalker who are still alive have turned out very well. Alisa Freindlikh who played Stalker's wife continues her triumphant acting career. Composer Eduard Artemyev is very busy both in Russia and abroad (Andrei Konchalovsky's Odyssey, Nikita Mikhalkov's The Barber of Siberia). Neither Freindlikh nor Artemyev took part in the location shoot in Estonia. Vladimir Sharun is a lecturer at the VGIK and as one of the world's leading sound designers he is a frequent guest at international seminars and conferences devoted to Stalker and Tarkovsky's work in general. Unlike in Russia, the prophetic aspect of the film is a subject of systematic study in the West.  end block
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