RasmusS’s review published on Letterboxd:
David Conner recommended I start my voyage into Tarkovsky from this (well, I’ve seen Andrei Rublev what feels like ages ago) so here we go continuing the scifi kick with one of if not the most daunting entry in the genre.
I don't know how valid the interpretation of Stalker as a journey deep into one's mind is since external factors such as landscape and industrialization, society's control and push, nuclear threat, and religion are so present in the film, however, you could make a case for many of those large concepts to be part of an individual's internal struggle too. It then becomes a film questioning subjectivity and influence of others as well as where do those two mix. But I would like to remain inside the mind because I'm not very good at noticing or understanding religious allegories for example. I don't get too much out of them unless they're serving as a philosophical ground which Stalker already has regardless of its religious dimensions. Landscape's influence certainly remains strong in my reading but perhaps appears little less prevalent when you think of the movie as a battle of a person's subconsciousness and their outer qualities that they present to the world.
I don't know what led me to this path but it might have been the fact that Stalker is a painfully existential and surprisingly emotional film which made me turn inward. In Stalker the presence of outside factors like the landscape's sounds and its visual scenery stand out insanely strong but they have uncertainty to them which gives into a more dreamlike or nightmarish and internal atmosphere. The Zone is always changing. It's a mind in turmoil where lost battles of the mind are demonstrated as tanks spread across grass fields; where some omniscient voice stops you from entering deeper into your thoughts; where a tunnel of fear and unknown leads you toward a bigger unknown: into the Room, into the subconscious; and all of that is guarded by barbed wires and military personnel, the restrictions of your mind. You're messed with in labyrinthine environments while searching for your limits and your true perspective, believing in yourself but also fooling yourself.
On top of the landscape and Zone as the framework of one's mind we have the characters who could represent a person's conflicting, and why not complementary, sides bound together by stalker (Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy, I'll use lower case s for the character) who guides the others but is simultaneously the most confused and conflicted of the three. A believer, a fool even… your dominant persona. He's attempting to guide you to your subconsciousness but never reaches it himself. Instead he offers it to your other sides. To the scientist and to the artist. Sides who in theory clash with each other so when taken to the subconsciousness, if they dare to enter, their interactions confuse the dominant persona you present to others even more. And is the dominant persona, this believer in you even to be trusted? Are you going to discover what you or the believer in you want or are you going to find out your whole belief system is false? In the film these other sides of you (writer and physicist) come to the conclusion that your subconscious only reveals the darkest desires. Is that something you want to mess with? Would you achieve true understanding of yourself or would you only become more confused by the clash of beliefs and different sides of you? Would you feel closer or more distant from the world?
The answers are left in the dark apart from the kid of stalker who demonstrates something more magical. An attuness to the world but with a cost. What to make of this ending? At the end and at the beginning Tarkovsky expands the playing field to touch on the world outside of your mind. How do your actions affect those close to you? Their skills, happiness, flaws and strengths are affected by your quest inside your mind because as you come in contact with the world the inner you oozes outside. Is the condition of stalker's kid (telekinesis, a deeper connection with her environment) an enforcement of going through with the journey into one's mind, despite the struggles it causes her, or is it a condemnation exactly because those struggles affect others as well (not only the inability to walk but the "inhumane" nature of telekinetic power)?
Whatever the conclusion is, Stalker draws its power not only from the philosophical but from the emotional. Kaydanovskiy's performance is entrenched in both fear and trust. His actions seem practical but his behavior is guided by emotions. His assurement that "this is the quietest place on Earth", his cleanliness, command and trust at the start of the movie begins dissipating when the trio ventures deeper and deeper into the Zone. His facade - the facade of the dominant, naive persona - wears off as he faces obstacles not only from the environment, but from the other sides of one's persona who question his authority in subtle ways through philosophizing and less subtle, direct action. This is where the labyrinthine and even dreamlike qualities of Tarkovsky's sound and image hit the hardest. Tarkovsky puts us into the same position as stalker because stalker essentially is us. We don't know if we can trust ourselves, we don't fully comprehend what the film is trying to tell us about our mind. Where is the non-existent narrative going geographically? Metaphysically? As stalker's trust and our trust in him dissipates all sides of his personality as well as the audience experiences an existential crisis. The philosophical baggage culminates outside the Room, at the brink of our subconscious, in a sudden burst of emotion where stalker (and we) pleads to believe and to be believed. Our inner self couldn't handle the breakdown that would happen if we had to face our inadequacies in a manner like this, to be thrusted into our darkest desires. We want to trust that there is belief in goodness (goodness in the world and its people including ourselves) inside us but what if we are wrong.
Kaydanovskiy's outburst of emotion caused me to sob uncontrollably. At first I was surprised by my reaction. I thought it came out of nowhere (I have never cried during a film this philosophical or from the sheer weight of so many interpretative ideas) but after thinking I realized the heavy weight of the film is constantly pushing the viewer to their emotional edge. Its quietly orchestrated balance of movement, Eastern-inspired music and audiovisual confusion paired with a journey that demands self-reflection and is open to all your desires and wants about its meaning is nothing short of breathtaking. Maybe even heartbreaking in its magnificence and vastness, especially when you have hindsight of what the cast and crew went through and sacrificed to produce this masterclass in filmmaking.