MPieper’s review published on Letterboxd:
The Relationship Between Truth and Humanity in Stalker and in Its Biblical References
Unfortunately, it seems that encountering tragedy is perhaps the swiftest way in which the chaff of life is sifted through, and by which fundamental issues come back into a more universally recognized state of pertinence. Disaster strikes, and in order to process and move beyond the shock, we have to rework our conceptions of truth, meaning, and happiness.
Stalker most blatantly evokes one particular such tragedy: Chernobyl. The great strides that the advancements of industrialism and modernity had brought were, in 1986, matched by something akin to betrayal, and the film's setting and imagery brings to mind the horrifying and eerie devastation this event brought to Pripyat and the surrounding region. Yet, Tarkovsky is also unambiguously concerned with the psychological and philosophical wreckage of this event. The three men at the film's heart embark on a journey with literal and metaphorical layers: traversing the landscape of a worldview-breaking tragedy, navigating its dark mystery in order to come to terms with real truth or meaning, something that can transcend, something firm to hold on to amidst such acute existential disruption.
The film does not offer up much explanation for how or why "the Zone" has come to be (other than indicating it was somehow created as a result of some sort of supernatural or extraterrestrial "arrival"), nor does it attempt to parse out the exact mechanics or behavior of this newly created, forbidden "Zone". However, what is clear is that within the Zone, the fallout has fractured reality itself, causing truth to be slippery and human senses to be unreliable. The men hear voices. We, as viewers, see strange things, incongruous with conventional experiences of space and time.
The parallel of this imagery with the men's conversations make clear Tarkovsky's philosophical aims. During their trek, Professor and Writer discuss and disagree, back and forth, about the nature of science, art, consciousness, and truth. Some of their conversation centers around the Zone and their present circumstances, though most of it resembles the same fumbling, theoretical musings that humans have always had concerning ultimate meaning. All the while, the Stalker is leading them on a precarious and twisty journey on a path that is always in flux. "The way becomes now easy, now confused beyond words," but most crucially, "as soon as humans appear, everything begins to change." The world around them changes exactly when and precisely because they rise to meet it.
All of this evokes the epistemological principle of truth being unavoidably tainted the second it is joined to a singular viewpoint, will, or articulation. And thus there starts to become a mirroring between these characters' conversations and these characters' journey. Both have them fumbling around. Both seem more and more tenuous and opaque with time, as the steps and the words pile up. Both give off the feeling that the truth being sought is too slippery to handle.
Somehow, and so very gradually yet steadily, the realization starts to creep in: this journey isn't really going anywhere.
Stalker, though, doesn't just paint a picture wherein truth is elusive, but one wherein there is some sort of inherent incongruity between human beings and absolutism, one wherein there is something innate to humanity itself that is uninviting towards revelation.
The use of two biblical passages in the film, both clearly selected and employed with intention, especially make clear this idea.
During a period of rest in the men's journey, somewhere near the middle of the film, the Stalker begins speaking the words of the book of Luke, chapter twenty-four, a passage describing the interaction a risen Jesus has with two followers and friends of his who do not know that he has risen, and, more importantly, do not recognize him. Jesus approaches the two men on the road, and essentially spends the entire day with them: they walk and talk together, specifically engaging in discussion about his ministry and his crucifixion and about Hebrew scriptures, before ending the day with a meal together. Only at the exact moment that Jesus vanishes from their site do they finally recognize him. In the film, though the Stalker trails off before completing the passage, he hauntingly interrupts this recitation with his own words, "Are you awake?"
The presence of such a reference, and a knowledge of its context and content, introduces a piercing parallel to Writer and Professor's conversations about truth: two men, walking and pontificating about truth, yet not able and/or interested in actually encountering it (a fact that will eventually be solidified by their refusal to enter the Room). Writer and Professor's talk of truth is in the third-person, as it were, and never progresses to the second, to a "you and I" relationship. And though their intellectual musings are seemingly normal and even interesting, their many words will eventually betray an indicting irony about themselves: so interested in truth, dialectically speaking, and yet so disinterested in the truth, particularly as it would pertain to themselves.
The other biblical passage that plays with humanity's incongruous relationship with truth comes from Revelation chapter six, and is spoken by Stalker's wife as the camera slowly pans over images of broken machinery, splintered earth, and tainted water:
"And there was a great earthquake. And the sun became black as sackcloth made of hair. And the moon became like blood... And the stars of the sky fell to the earth, as a fig tree casts its unripe figs when shaken by a great wind. And the sky was split apart like a scroll when it is rolled up. And every mountain and island were moved out of their places. And the kings of the earth and the great men and the rich and the chiliarchs [generals] and the strong and every free man, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains; and they said to the mountains and to the rocks, 'Fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of His wrath has come, and who is able to stand?' "
The main thing this passage evokes is a fear of judgment, though notice how that fear is expressed: with hiding -- an instinct for but a failing in evasion -- and with the explicit articulation, "Who is able to stand?". Without going down the rabbit hole of Johannine authorship, it will suffice to acknowledge that the author or community that the gospel and epistles of John originated from, as well as the book of Revelation, which may or may not have originated from the same author(s), all share not only very distinct grammatical constructions and vocabulary choices, but also a common and pronounced vein of thought or organizing principle: dualisms, in general, but specifically, darkness and light.
The number of times this dualism is employed within Johannine texts is too many to reference here, but perhaps the gospel of John uses it most emblematically (and most pertinently for the purposes of this essay) in chapter three when it reads, "This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates light, and does not come to the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed."
In this context, and knowing this pet ideology of the Johannine author(s), the line "Who is able to stand?" takes on a sort of punctuative effect within this meditative sequence in Stalker. It paints the arrival of any type of wrath or judgment as incidental to whatever a person's deeds are, and wherever a person's heart lies: in darkness or in light. This is exactly what the fabled Room does. It reveals. It gives a person the contents of their heart, and if those contents give way to pain and judgment, then it is only the pain that was already there and the judgment that had already been procured. Tarkovsky's use of Revelation ensures that we realize this: the Room, and the truth that it brings, does not confer sorrow, it consummates it. It is the light that reveals all.
It is no wonder, then, that the men will not go in. Against such a foreboding, final, awaiting judgment, "who is able to stand?" Yet, this perpetuation of the in-between-space, of being stuck between your desires and the consequences of those desires, even extends to Professor, whose desire to destroy the Room is ultimately quelled by the realization that he will not be able to bear the finality of his actions. They will not go in, and maybe they are right to do so. They will not destroy it, and maybe they are right to do so.
A skeptic, a destructionist, and a believer -- all three possess some sort of hangup that prevents them from really finding out and embracing what they seek, and hence really bringing to bear the truth about themselves and about their place in the world. But, who could blame them? Who could stand? All three are seeking yet stuck, and the image of them sitting at the threshold of the Room, backs to backs, is the image of Stalker. And we sit with them.
This is the film's centralizing idea -- humanity's lot in the liminal space, between faith and doubt, seeking and finding, knowledge and ignorance, destruction and germination. Thematically and tonally, there is an inherent burden and angst to this viewpoint, and this occupies most of Stalker's runtime. Yet, is there only a burden in liminality? Maybe, too, there can be something beautiful and important about owning up to it.
Tarkovsky seems to suggest so. During one of the final moments of the film, after the Stalker forlornly returns to his house and settles down to sleep, his wife delivers a fourth-wall-breaking monologue, speaking directly to the camera, directly to us as an audience. She tells us the story of how she came to marry her husband, and how pressure from her mother specifically and their community in general warned her of the difficult life that such a marriage would ensure for her. But, believing in love with pain over safety with dullness, she married him, and has regretted nothing since. The tearfully delivered words that follow are devastatingly poignant, and masterfully wrap up the honor and the role that Tarkovsky wishes to place upon that universal human angst:
"We had a lot of sorrow, a lot of fear, and a lot of shame. But I never regretted it, and I never envied anyone. It's just our fate, our life, that's how we are. And if we haven't had our misfortunes, we wouldn't have been better off. It would have been worse. Because in that case, there wouldn't have been any happiness. And there wouldn't have been any hope."
Hope -- such a fickle yet persistent thing, a thing which, paradoxically, limitation and suffering and stuckness both antagonize and sustain. And in the final shot of Stalker, we get some form of hope.
It is vague and unexplained, cloudy and alien. The daughter who we have been led to believe was remarkably disabled displays a supernatural telekinetic ability, performed with no observers and within the glorious, the radiant shroud of mundanity. The promised transcendence of the Zone and the Room has come to rest, lightly and covertly, upon a small girl who had been dismissed -- by other characters in the movie as a disabled burden, and likely by us viewers as an unimportant figure. She is, she acts, she evolves, without notice or permission.
Her father's earlier words now roaringly echo back: "For softness is great and strength is worthless ... Hardness and strength are death's companions. Flexibility and softness are the embodiment of life."
May we sit with our softness, with our weakness, and let them lead us.