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Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky

USSR, 1979

HOM, 2 June 2016


Three men leave a grey, humdrum town for the Zone.

They have to evade armed guards to get away. One man is a writer, another a scientist, while the third is their guide, a stalker. What they are hunting – even whether they are hunting – is unclear. There is a lot of conversation, plenty of existential chit-chat, and about this juncture one feels that the film would be less enigmatic if the subtitles were more nuanced.

At one point, for example, someone says: ‘The future is the present yet people still starve.’ Now is this an allusion to Stalin’s project of accelerating history (or History), having been left with a crock of shit courtesy of Lenin, that crock of shit being, to wit, ‘Socialism in one country’? This project led to the starvation of about three million peasants in the Ukraine (as outlined, for example, in Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands), amongst other terrors.

Or, again: at another point there was reluctance (I would say: a real fear) among the men as to who would go first into a sort of tunnel. None of them wanted to. A situation that made me think of the Red Army’s policy of ‘Not one step backwards!’ During the war against Germany, retreat was insubordination and soldiers who stepped back would be fired upon by those behind. Not to fire was also insubordination and would be met with a shot from behind too. This was the basis of the Red Army’s indefatigable spirit. Hence, in this film, the men had an understandable reluctance to go first.

Tarkovsky’s films will always be difficult to suss out and, frankly, that is a large part of their appeal. But, really: he, above all, deserves a decent translation when it comes to what’s being said on the screen. Anyway, it would be a boon.

Stalker is a deep albeit idiosyncratic meditation on the Soviet experience: the Terror, collectivisation, the Great Patriotic War (a Rassenkampf for the lovable Germans), the Gulags. It’s a stone-cold masterpiece.