[Note: This review is of the Artificial Eye release of Stalker, which is identical to the second Ruscico release in every way apart from the DVD labels and box artwork. The first Ruscico release should be avoided as it lacks the original mono soundtrack – crucial with this film as the 5.1 remix is significantly different. ]
Forgive the nostalgia, but it’s impossible for me to watch Stalker without being vividly reminded of the first time I saw it, on its original UK release in 1981, at the tender age of thirteen, having been drawn to the long-defunct Academy Cinema in Oxford Street by a review that suggested that it was the first post-Star Wars film to reclaim the mantle of intelligent speculative science fiction – and as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters of the Third Kind were the two most mentally stimulating films I’d seen up to then, I decided to give it a go, even though I’d never seen a subtitled film before. And I’d never seen anything like it.
In fact, even now, I’m still not sure I’ve ever seen anything quite like Stalker. It’s obviously by Andrei Tarkovsky – I don’t think you could mistake it for the work of any other film-maker – but more than any of his other films, let alone anybody else’s, it’s completely bound up in its own strange, utterly distinctive universe. And despite the generic billing I’m not sure it qualifies as “science fiction” in the accepted sense – apparently Tarkovsky’s “first draft” (almost uniquely in film history, Stalker had to be shot a second time after the lab in Moscow ruined the footage) was rather closer to the novel but when he revised the screenplay for the present version he’d eliminated virtually all the sci-fi trappings.
What’s left is rather closer to the kind of spiritual quest that relates to rather older art forms – Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress or Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, for instance, or indeed the whole theme of quasi-religious pilgrimages to holy shrines, shot through with a generous dash of Kafka and Beckett (especially the latter: you can relate Stalker to a whole range of Beckett works from Waiting for Godot to How It Is, the latter a bleak parable about people crawling endlessly and fruitlessly through mud and slime).
The shrine in this case is a mysterious Room which apparently contains the power to grant one’s innermost desire, and it’s at the heart of the Zone, a cordoned-off landscape riddled with pollution and the detritus of modern civilisation, rigged with physical and psychological booby-traps. The Stalker of the title (Alexander Kaidanovsky) is one of a tiny band of men who knows the secrets of the Zone and how to traverse it to reach the Room. He is hired by the Writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn) and the Professor (Nikolai Grinko) to take them there, and most of the film concerns their tortuous journey, their experiences and dreams en route, endlessly and usually fruitlessly speculating about what they’re likely to find at the other end – which, needless to say, is nothing like what they expected.
Throughout their journey, we learn the cautionary tale of a man named Porcupine, who travelled to the Room specifically to cure his terminally ill brother, only to find himself made immensely wealthy – because the Room realised that that was what he really wanted, for all his protestations of charity. Porcupine hanged himself out of shame – and his shadow looms over everything the Writer, the Professor and the Stalker say and do, as they try to come to terms with what they really want as opposed to what they merely believe they do before they find out the answer the hard way.
Much like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stalker very much has its own pace and rhythm, and how one responds to it depends largely on one’s engagement with the film in general. I’ve always found it so hypnotic that I barely notice the running time – the scene on the trolleycar as they approach the Zone being typical: for some three minutes (a surprisingly long time in practice) we do nothing but look at the men’s nervous, expectant faces in extreme close-up as we hear the wheels clanking in what seems like the far distance.
It sounds unbearably tedious, and yet in practice the sequence is curiously gripping, triggering off all kinds of questions and emotions that a more conventionally-paced scene wouldn’t have come near. Similarly, the scene where the men sit outside the Room, too terrified to go in, is a single take of several minutes, during which it starts to rain and we wait with them for it to finish.
Most of Stalker contains similar moments of inexplicable beauty and power – Tarkovsky turns the most ravaged, polluted, Godforsaken landscape imaginable (it has a weirdly post-Chernobyl feel to it, even though it was shot almost a decade earlier) into something bizarrely ravishing. The dream sequences in the middle sound pointless in bald description, seemingly endless tracking shots across a riverbed covered with the detritus of an entire civilisation: industrial components, money, even what looks like a medieval icon – but they clutch at the heart in a way that’s virtually impossible to describe or explain. So sensitive is Tarkovsky to the surroundings and the tactile detail that it’s tempting just to watch the background – once you’ve seen the film once you know what happens, so the endless philosophising becomes largely irrelevant.
One of Tarkovsky’s greatest gifts is his ability to devise unforgettable endings - Solaris, Nostalghia and The Sacrifice close with images that sear themselves into the mind on two levels: they’re extraordinary from a purely aesthetic viewpoint, but they also contrive to sum up everything the films have been about, their visual, narrative and philosophical complexity notwithstanding, in a single breathtakingly simple idea. Stalker may well have the most totally satisfying ending of any Tarkovsky film – I don’t want to give away spoilers, but it manages to be simultaneously haunting, mysterious and utterly logical, with an emotional charge that rivals anything else in Tarkovsky’s canon.
With a film as uncompromising as Stalker, it’s inevitable that not everyone will respond to it the way I do. Those who tend to over-rationalise will probably find it baffling, while those who favour narrative-based action over meditative contemplation will most likely be bored out of their skulls (the Internet Movie Database provides a useful selection of responses).
Personally, I think it’s not only Tarkovsky’s masterpiece but one of an infinitesimally tiny number of films that really does make you look at the world in a different way after you’ve seen it – it transformed me personally by showing me what the film medium was capable of in the hands of an artist with seemingly limitless ambition, and every subsequent spiritually revelatory moment I’ve had in the cinema since then, from Kieslowski’s Decalogue to the complete works of Robert Bresson, reminds me of that day twenty-one years ago when I first saw Stalker. It’s opened my eyes and changed my life more than any other single work of art I can think of in any medium – and for that I can't thank it enough.
Like Solaris and quite a few of the longer films in Ruscico’s collection, Stalker has been split across two discs, presumably to maximise the transfer quality, though the need seems less pressing for Stalker, which is shorter than Solaris and which has been transferred at a lower bitrate (though it’s a still adequate 7 MB/sec or so) – and it only has two soundtracks (and one of them mono) in place of the three 5.1 soundtracks of the earlier disc. Whatever the reason, though, the break has been made at the right point – the film was originally exhibited in two halves, and the second disc begins with the same ‘Part Two’ title card that I recall from the first time I saw the film (the Academy Cinema ran the film in one go, but kept the ‘Part Two’ announcement).
I’ve seen Stalker quite a few times over the years, and by the time I last caught it in the mid-1990s the print, which had almost certainly been in circulation since the original UK release in 1981, had definitely seen better days. So the virtually pristine condition of the Ruscico print came as a very pleasant surprise – there are a few blemishes, but you have to look quite hard for them, especially in the opening monochrome section (there’s a tramline at the 25-minute mark, but it’s clearly inherent in the original shot as it vanishes with the cut to the next one).
The two unequal halves of the film look strikingly different – the first is in sepia-tinted high-contrast monochrome, the second in ostensibly more realistic (albeit somewhat desaturated) colour. I had virtually no complaints at all about the monochrome section, which looks better than I’ve ever seen it before. It’s razor-sharp, exposing all the fine detail the DVD format is capable of resolving, and despite the high contrast there’s plenty of shadow detail, creating the strong impression that what you can’t see is meant to be invisible.
Ruscico’s Solaris transfer had problems with mild moiré shimmering, and there’s a golden opportunity very early on as the Stalker turns around slowly while wearing a roughly textured pullover, but the transfer resolved every fibre to perfection with no side-effects. I was also specifically looking for the kind of digital glitches that have bedevilled other Ruscico transfers (notably a tendency for parts of the image to freeze momentarily), but they’re conspicuous by their absence. In short, it looks absolutely gorgeous - comfortably the best transfer of a Tarkovsky film I’ve come across to date, and the closest any DVD has come to resolving the sheer textural depth of the 35mm version. Criterion will have their work cut out to match this when they prepare their own DVD later this year!
The colour section is a slightly different matter, though I suspect most of its faults can be blamed on the original materials: Tarkovsky complained at the time that the colour film stock he’d been supplied with was of inferior quality. The print is in excellent condition – again, you really have to look hard for blemishes – but the image is slightly softer than the monochrome one, somewhat grainy, and shadow detail is distinctly lacking in parts. I was also none too impressed with the way the transfer coped with the mist that drifts across most of the shots: some of it looks decidedly processed and artificial in a way that I certainly don’t recall from the 35mm version.
It’s certainly not a bad transfer – it’s comfortably ahead of Kino’s The Sacrifice or Fox Lorber’s Nostalghia, for instance – but compared with the extraordinary lustre of the first half hour it can’t help but be a bit of a letdown (especially as the monochrome returns from time to time to emphasise the difference in quality). The final score of 8 is an average of 9-10 for the monochrome material and 6-7 for the rest, reflecting the difficulty of giving a fair single rating to the whole film.
Eyebrows have been raised over the aspect ratio, and I agree it does seem unusual that a 1979 cinema film would be in 4:3 – but I’m happy to confirm that this is indeed the case: indeed, it’s obvious by eye that the film should be 4:3, as Tarkovsky’s images are so precisely composed that any cropping would seriously unbalance them. As a result, anamorphic enhancement is unnecessary – indeed, it would arguably have an adverse effect on the amount of fine detail. There are just twelve chapter stops – six per disc – which is only barely adequate, especially as they don’t cover many of my favourite scenes (the first water-dream, for instance).
As for the sound, this has been the subject of considerable controversy – to the point where Ruscico’s original release had to be replaced after its initial purchasers complained that the Dolby Digital 5.1 remix was so different from Tarkovsky’s original that it was deeply disturbing to those who knew the film well. The disc was subsequently reissued with the same remix, but with the option to select the original mono soundtrack as well – and full marks to Ruscico for taking such prompt action.
Frankly, those who complained were absolutely right, as the 5.1 remix is little short of disastrous if you’re at all familiar with the film, as it makes significant changes to the original soundtrack that go well beyond merely adapting it for six speakers. In one of the supplements, composer Eduard Artemyev confirms that Tarkovsky insisted on certain details such as the subtle blending of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with train sound effects. The blend is still there, but it’s crushingly unsubtle in the new mix, with the Beethoven far too upfront, destroying the effect Tarkovsky apparently spent some considerable time trying to achieve (you can check for yourself by watching the second disc at the 91-minute mark and switching from mono to 5.1 on the fly).
Other significant changes include the scene where the three men are travelling into the Zone on the trolleycar – Tarkovsky specified no music, just electronically reprocessed sound effects, but for some reason music has been added to the scene in the 5.1 version (reference: disc one at about the 35 minute mark), changing its entire tone. Since these changes specifically go against Tarkovsky’s wishes, one wonders who authorised the alterations and why. Rather worryingly, it also raises question marks over some of Ruscico’s other remixes given that the original mono tracks usually aren’t present – switching back and forth between mono and 5.1 tracks reveals that, in many instances, the sound effects in the 5.1 version are clearly different from the ones in Tarkovsky’s original, and for a director who is right up there with Bresson and Lynch in terms of the level of care in his orchestration of pure sound that’s a pretty big deal.
The mono track is never more than adequate – there’s a distinct wobble right at the start, and recording quality throughout is somewhat compressed – but one thing that struck me when watching it this time round (given that I’ve never watched it for technical evaluation purposes before) is how little it mattered: Tarkovsky’s images are so eloquent that they barely need a soundtrack to support them, and although it’s important that we hear what Tarkovsky intended, it’s far less so that they’re delivered with pristine clarity. My final mark of 5 for sound covers both tracks – the 5.1 version is technically superior but aesthetically suspect, while the mono track is true to Tarkovsky but relatively basic.
The extras look fairly sparse at a first glance, but that’s largely because they’re spread over both discs: in actual fact, this is a pretty decent package, if not quite up to the standard of the best Ruscico discs (Viy, for instance), offering over 40 minutes of interviews (and solid, information-packed interviews at that) and a couple of short films on top of the standard package. And the menu designs are absolutely stunning – animated typescript redolent of secret intelligence reports overlaying sepia-tinted images from the film.
The usual Ruscico extras are included: a stills gallery – selectable, as ever, via thumbnails – and the filmographies cover Andrei Tarkovsky, writers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, cameraman Alexander Knyazhinsky, composer Eduard Artemyev, production designer Rashit Safiullin and actors Alexander Kaidanovsky, Anatoly Solonitsin, Nikolai Grinko and Alissa Friendlikh. Unusually for a Ruscico disc, each filmography is also accompanied by a brief biography – which amongst other things reveals that virtually everyone who worked in the film on a major creative capacity: the director, the three lead actors, the cinematographer - has since died, despite the film being less than twenty-five years old.
The Eduard Artemyev biography/filmography also contains not only a hidden trailer for Solaris but also a 21-minute interview in which Artemyev discusses his three collaborations with Tarkovsky (Solaris, Mirror, Stalker), specifically on what it was like working with a director who believed that the composer’s role was essentially to organise sound as opposed to composing original music. Just to make things somewhat harder, Tarkovsky was a fairly accomplished musician himself, which had advantages and drawbacks, especially when he started requesting the sound of obscure ethnic instruments that hardly anyone could play. Every so often the interview dissolves to a montage of Tarkovsky images (both from his films and footage of the director himself) accompanied by examples of Artemyev’s music. He’s an engaging and articulate interviewee, and there’s a lot of worthwhile material here – what’s particularly interesting in the light of the 5.1 remix controversy is his confirmation that Tarkovsky insisted that snatches of Beethoven and Bizet accompany the trains passing the Stalker’s dwelling.
There are two more interviews on the disc – a relatively brief (five-and-a-half minutes) one with cinematographer Alexander Knyazhinsky and a longer one (just under fifteen minutes) with designer Rashit Safiullin. The Knyazhinsky interview is relatively brief, and was clearly made under conditions of some difficulty – he died shortly after making it, and it gives the impression of having been literally shot on his deathbed. It’s well worth a look, though, as there are some fascinating anecdotes about the shooting (interspersed with on-set footage of Tarkovsky directing: I’d have liked to have seen more of this) and a very funny story about the difficulties encountered in getting the dog to perform (“He was an Estonian dog and only understood Estonian”).
The Safiullin interview is rather more informative about the actual shooting – and not just of the film that we’ve seen: he also describes the experience of spending a year shooting the first version and Tarkovsky’s reaction when he discovered that the footage had been destroyed (to this day, no-one knows if it was a genuine accident or deliberate sabotage on the part of the authorities who disliked what he was shooting). As a result, reshooting Stalker was understandably fraught with tension – the budget was much lower, most of it having been blown on the first version, and the shooting schedule much tighter: Safiullin and Tarkovsky had to work miracles of improvisation when materials became scarce. Watching this interview makes it clear that the men’s tortuous journey in the film was mirrored in every way by the agonies suffered while making it – especially as Tarkovsky was determined not to repeat the first version in any way: according to Safiullin, the current Stalker doesn’t bear the faintest resemblance to the first draft.
And finally, there’s a tantalisingly short extract from Tarkovsky’s graduation film, The Steamroller and the Violin, made when he was at the VGIK film school in Moscow. I’d have much preferred the whole thing, as at 40 minutes there seems to be no good reason why they couldn’t have squeezed it onto one of the discs, and this five-minute extract makes me keen to see more (NB: the complete film has been released by Image Entertainment on a Region 0 NTSC disc - apparently it's pretty bare-bones, but the transfer is reputedly as good as the somewhat elderly original materials would permit). I haven’t seen any more than this clip and another brief extract from a documentary about Tarkovsky, but it appears to be about the relationship with the driver of a steamroller and a young boy, the latter a would-be violinist, and on the evidence of this excerpt I imagine the film compares and contrasts their various skills, revealing that beauty can be produced even from an act as seemingly destructive as the demolition of a building. Unsurprisingly, it’s much more conventional than Tarkovsky’s later films, but his gifts are still all too apparent even at this early stage: the fascination with water, stone and texture and the physicality of objects. The clip and the interviews are in Russian with optional subtitles in English, French, Dutch, Italian and Spanish.
All in all, this DVD set is a mixed bag. At its best, it’s truly the great Stalker DVD that I’d been praying for, and I’d certainly recommend it to anyone – the visual transfer is superb and the extras favour quality over quantity in the way that I much prefer. But the soundtrack controversy is irritating (not least because it makes me retrospectively suspicious of the bona fides of some of Ruscico’s other DVDs), and I’m also not convinced as to why the main feature had to be split over two discs – this would be less of an issue if you didn’t have to sit through copyright notices in three languages and the Ruscico logo before getting down to part two.