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The Russian Riddle

by Harshit Verma

The conspiring trio.

TLR Rating: 9 Reels.




In his book, Tarkovsky tries to tell his readers what the “zone” was. He said zone didn’t signify anything. “It’s just a zone”, in his words. It’s a tempting answer to a question that is open to so many interpretations. I think it was somewhat insincere or a bit convenient on his behalf to say this. Well I don’t know about you but I don’t believe him however it is tempting to; although any assessment made too early about this second attempted sci-fi/mystery (after Solaris) of Tarkovsky would be inappropriate. This is a movie that grows on your mind with time and the viewings you provide it with.

This is a story about three strangers on a quest to the zone in search of “the room” – an enclave that grants its visitors its deepest and darkest wishes. This 1979 classic is loosely based on the novel “Roadside Picnic”. It is the auteur’s one of the densest, complex, contradictory and a pliable allegory of human sub consciousness. This movie somewhat describes how important faith is in our lives and why we need to preserve it in this developing and rational world.

Secluded and deserted by the military, ‘The Zone’ is the destination of this trio; ‘The Writer’ (Anatoli Solonitsyn), ‘The Professor/Scientist’ (Nikolai Grinko) and guided by ‘The Stalker’ (Aleksandr Kajdanovsy). ‘The Stalker’ is a sort of tour guide for both of them who knows everything about it. ‘The Writer’ is in search of inspiration; an inspiration to write. ‘The Professor’ is adamant to make a discovery and ‘The Stalker’ is a man who just wants to escape from his home from his frustrating wife and disabled kid to the journey of finding and giving people ‘hope’.

The riddle begins

As the three of them start the journey to the zone they tackle some obstacles but eventually go through them. Now a striking feature in this movie for me is that as soon as they reach the zone, the movie suddenly changes from monochromatic to colorful. This effect can make viewers think of different interpretations. It reminded me of ‘The Wizard of Oz’, making me wonder if it was all a dream. Here in lies the beauty of the movie being open to endless interpretations. As these characters make progress into the lush green scenario of ‘The Zone’ we see many tanks, cars and even human skeletons which form a part of Tarkovsky’s disturbing imagery also shown in ‘Solaris’. As the plot proceeds we see a bit tension between ‘The Writer’ and ‘The Stalker’ which goes on to show the difference in their ideologies. The stalker seemed to be very serious and showed respect to ‘The Zone’ but writer’s approach seemed more like as if he was on a stroll which is a bit contradictory to his aim. Although The Professor was the character whose motives were not clear till the end when they reach the room. Finally when they reach the room The Scientist unveils his plan to blow up the room in the fear of someone using it for evil purposes. This results in the fight, both physical and philosophical, between faith and science which eventually ended in a tie. In the last scene which shows the three men back in the bar where the stalker’s wife and daughter meets them, the colors have disappeared again. The thing that struck me was the dog which followed them back. The stalker had said to his wife previously that he couldn’t leave him behind. The dog here maybe a metaphor for the memories that came back with them from the room, which the stalker couldn’t just leave behind. In the final scene the stalker says he doesn’t want to go back to ‘The Zone’ anymore when his wife expressed her desire to go, because he wasn’t sure if her wishes would be fulfilled.

A Dog and the Wilderness

The movie has a hint of neo realism to it which shows how the citizens were affected by various nuclear tests that Soviet Union carried out in the 50’s. Although the movie never went on the usual neo realistic theme which is explicit and literal, it had a touch of surrealism with its long shots and almost haunting background score. ‘Stalker’ is a movie that tries to tell us about the society through its characters. All the three characters signify the three pillars of society. The Professor had a more scientific approach to the things while The Stalker signifies the faith which helps people to believe in something and gives them a reason to live. The Writer represents the philosophical section which is a bridge between the two. We see a huge contrast in the beliefs and nature of these three people and that is exactly how the society is. The fight between The Professor and The Stalker showed the difference in opinion between faith and science. The Professor was hell bent to destroy the room because he thought if the rumors were then it should be destroyed but the stalker thought of the room as the source of hope and the reason to be alive.

In the early stages of the movie The Writer remarks to The Professor that the world is ruled by ‘cast iron’ which is insufferably boring. This just might be Tarkovsky’s subtle way of mocking the society which tries very hard to make a controversy out anything that suits the circumstance. As tempting it may seem to reach a definitive conclusion of the movie’s innumerable allegories and symbolism, the analysis would probably be futile because of director’s constant refusal of any comprehendible explanation. Perhaps, it is best to leave it at the unsolved part. Some mysteries should remain in the unknown.

The Stalker

All the symbols, feelings, objects and the narrative somewhat tries to capture the essence of what a man is made of – memories, fears, nightmares and always reaching for the unknown without caring about the result. What is actually the thing that keeps us going? Is it hope? Is it faith? Or is it, as said by The Stalker’s wife in the last monologue, devotion? Tarkovsky sums it up with a single message that in the end the only thing that a person; any person can rely upon, is the feeling of love.

The author is a huge movie buff with special interest in neo-noir and sci-fi genres. When he gets tired of watching movies, he watches more of them.


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