Cahiers Du Cinéma’s review published on Letterboxd:
Serge Daney: Stalker
(First published in Libération on November 20th, 1981. Republished in Ciné-journal 1981-1986, Cahiers du cinéma, 1986)
Stalker is a Soviet film (it is Tarkovsky's sixth and, in my opinion, his best) but "to stalk" is an English verb (and a regular one at that). To be precise, to stalk is to "pursue at close range," a way of closing in, a walk, almost a dance. In "stalking" the part of the body which is afraid lags behind and the part which is not afraid is compelled to move forward. With its pauses and its terrors, the stalk is the walk of those who make their way through unknown territory. In Stalker danger is everywhere, but it has no face. The landscape too is without end, without horizon, without North. There are plenty of tanks, factories, giant pipes, a railroad, a corpse, a dog, a telephone which still works, but the whole thing is being overrun by nature. This fossilised industrial landscape, this corner of the twentieth century which has become a strata (Tarkovsky was a geologist in Siberia from 1954 to 1956, and it is still a part of him), this is the Zone. One does not go into the Zone, one has to creep in because it is guarded by soldiers. One does not walk there, one "stalks."
In the cinema we have seen cowboys who move towards each other with coquettish steps before they shoot, the stagnation of crowds, couples dancing and urban motion; we have never seen the stalk. Tarkovsky's film is first and foremost a documentary about a certain way of walking, not necessarily the best (especially in the USSR) but the only one left when all reference points have vanished and nothing is certain any more. As such, it is the first of its kind: a camera follows three men who have just entered the Zone. Where have they learned this crooked walk? Where are they from? And how did they become so familiar with this no man's land? Is their familiarity the false familiarity of the tourist who doesn't know where to go, what to look at or what to be afraid of? One of them has come with only a bottle of vodka in a plastic bag: he's just come off a drinking binge among high society. Meanwhile, the second one has something secret in a small traveling bag. The third one, who has nothing but his furtive glances and his quickly extinguished bursts of enthusiasm, is the Stalker. And before pouncing on the countless interpretations which this kaleidoscope of a film leaves open, one should watch closely as these three excellent Russian actors (Alexander Kaidanovsky, Anatoly Solonitsyn and Nikolai Grinko) "stalk" in the Zone.
The film doesn't begin so abruptly. It is a bit more orderly, but not much. Tarkovsky, in a liberal adaptation of a science fiction novel by the brothers Strugatsky, imagines a world in which a mysterious accident has left part of the planet alien, dangerous and closed off from access. The Zone is that forbidden corner, returned to its primitive state. It's a last reserve of fantasy and a territory of macabre beauty. Shadowy characters, for a little money, give "tours" of it. They are the Stalkers. These transitory people live a miserable existence between two worlds. This time, the Stalker (part sage, part tour guide, very much hoodlum) has brought with him a Writer and a Professor. The Writer (with his plastic bag) speaks little, but has an idea in mind. For there is a goal to this trip à trois: In the middle of the Zone there is a "room" which, they say, fulfills the wishes of those who enter it. So they say.
At the entrance to the room, the Stalker and his two clients back down: no one will step inside. First of all, out of fear, then out of wisdom. Out of fear because if the room is a hoax, it would be humiliating to let on that one had believed in it; and if it really does fulfill all wishes, nothing will be left to wish for; and if it answers unconscious desires, one doesn't know what to expect. Out of wisdom because no life is liveable without the absolute, of course, but the absolute is not a place, it is a movement away: a movement which diverts one, which deports one (in every sense of the word), which makes one "stalk". It matters little in the end what's put on the plate, or even that one believes: that one believes in believing or in others capacity to believe. What matters is one's movement.
As a spectator, one cannot resist "stalking" in the forest of symbols which the film becomes. Tarkovsky's scenario is such a diabolical machine that it does not exclude any interpretation a priori. In a kaleidoscope, one can see what one wants. Perhaps the Zone is planet Earth, the Soviet continent, our unconscious, or the film itself. The Stalker could easily be a mutant, a dissident, a crazed psychoanalyst, a preacher looking for a cult or a spectator. You can "play symbols" with the film, but it's a game you shouldn't overdo either (no more with Tarkovsky than with Fellini or Buñuel, other great humorists of interpretation.) Besides, the freshness and the beauty of Stalker lie elsewhere.
When the film is over, when we are a little tired of interpreting, once we've eaten everything on the plate, what is left? Exactly the same film. The same compelling images. The same Zone with the presence of water, with its teasing lapping, piles of rusted metal, nature at its most voracious, and inescapable humidity. As with all films that trigger a rush of interpretation in the viewer, Stalker is a film which is striking for the physical presence of its elements, their stubborn existence and way of being there, even if there was no one to see them, to get close to them or to film them. This is not a new phenomenon: already in Andrei Rublev there was the mud, that primal form. In Stalker the elements have an organic presence: water, dew and puddles dampen the soil and eat away at the ruins.
A film can be interpreted. This one in particular lends itself to it (even if in the end it hides its secrets.) But we are not obliged to interpret it. A film can be watched too. One can watch for the appearance of things which one has never seen before in a film. The watcher-viewer sees things which the interpreter-viewer can no longer make out. The watcher stays at the surface because he doesn't believe in depth. At the beginning of this article, I was wondering where the characters had learned the stalk: that twisted walk of people who are afraid but who have forgotten the source of their fears. And what of these prematurely aged faces, these mini-Zones where grimaces have become wrinkles? And the self-effacing violence of those who wait to receive a beating (or maybe to give a beating if they haven't forgotten how?) And what of the false calm of the dangerous monomaniac and the empty reasonings of a man who is too solitary?
These do not come only from Tarkovsky's imagination. They cannot be invented, they come from elsewhere. But from where? Stalker is a metaphysical fable, a course in courage, a lesson in faith, a reflexion on the end of time, a quest, whatever one wants. Stalker is also the film in which we come across, for the first time, bodies and faces which come from a place we know about only through hear-say. A place whose traces we thought the Soviet cinema had lost completely. This place is the Gulag. The Zone is also an archipelago. Stalker is also a realist film.