Released in 1979, Stalker is at the end of the career of Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky. It is a poetic and atypical story of a guide, a stalker, taking an artist and a scientist, to a forbidden area called the “Zone” to find the “Room”, which is said to grant the wishes of anyone who enters. Despite being ranked in the sci-fi category, the strength of Stalker lies in its simplicity, notably thanks to its cinematography coordinated by Gueorgui Rerberg and then by Aleksandr Kniajinski when an incident lead to reshoot the film. Stalker is above all an atmosphere in which one immerses himself without needing to understand it.
The opening sequences of the film that take place in the urban areas outside the Zone were shot in sepia, giving the imagery a old dust feel. This tone is mostly used when the stalker and the three men are in their village, contrasting with the Zone rendered in color. This natural / industrial duality is a recurring theme in Tarkovsky’s work.
After the three men reach the zone, the use of color comes depict these rich tones, magnifying the grip of nature, also making viewers more aware of the set in a new world of misty landscapes. Rusty industrial detritus litters the ground as witnesses of time going, and the way these wrecks are engulfed in the landscape suggests a personified nature. Moreover, over their journey, the characters give the impression of being engulfed by their environment, with more and more close-ups.
We can notice a great use of obtrusive close-ups, causing the emotions to emerge with the details of the facial expressions of the characters. The camera then becomes an invisible but omnipresent observer, accentuated by the approach from behind into the characters’ necks.
A good example is when the three men leave for the zone on the trolley: they look out at the scenery, the movie gives us a headshot of each character. One can also note that the writer and the teacher tend to look back first, the past, while Stalker looks ahead. The deliberately paced narrative relies on the slowly moving or static camera, giving Stalker a meditative aspect, and imposing the rhythm of nature.
Natural elements are very present in Tarkovsky’s films. In Stalker, everything is invaded by water: the rooms of the area are flooded, the walls ooze, rain falls. It is a widely used pattern, whether in motion or stillness: it isolates the characters who sometimes soak in it. Here again, it contributes to the idea of this overwhelming nature. In this water soaks memories of the past, luminous objects, we throw stones… Tarkovsky plays with its photogenic qualities and its symbolism.
In an article on Cinephilia & Beyond that I highly recommend, Sergei Bessmertniy, hired as a trolley mechanic, delivers interesting facts about the lighting process: “Most of the scenes were filmed in the evening, in that short part of the day, when the sun had set behind the horizon, but it is still light.The director of photography Georgi Rerberg mostly didn’t illuminate the scene. He rather limited the light coming from the sky and put big black cloth shaders behind the camera or under the heads of actors, so that’s how the required lighting was achieved. Here with sometimes only a small light fixture worked. It slightly illuminated the actors’ faces below in filming close-ups. Thus, the quantity of light was at the limit of possibility.
“Most of the scenes were filmed in the evening, in that short part of the day, when the sun had set behind the horizon, but it is still light”.
We had been waiting for a few days when high-aperture lenses Distagon would arrive from Moscow that were needed for such conditions. Of course, we had to film with full open lens aperture (1,4) that created great difficulties for the focus assistant: there was almost no depth of field in close-ups. Actually Rerberg preferred to use lenses with constant focal length and also camera geared head. Camera was old: the american Mitchell NC. Without doubt Rerberg was one of the best masters in the country at that period.”
Stalker is full of slow rhythms, visions close to hallucination, and cinematography plays a key role in shaping that sensation. The story is timeless and stripped of all artifice: simple. Andrei Tarkovsky himself said: “I only aspired to the simplicity and discretion of the entire architecture of the film”. Despite the mishaps surrounding the shooting, this project is one of his masterpieces. Rewarded at the Cannes Film Festival, it will inspire many artists from all backgrounds. By the way, did you know that Andrei Tarkovsky also took photographs?