their play so passionate and brightening.
When a sudden stare up you send,
And like a heaven-blown lightning,
It’d take in all from end to end
But there’s more that I admire:
Your eyes when they’re downcast
In bursts of love-inspired fire.
And through the eyelash goes fast
A sombre, dull call of desire.”
Tarkovsky’s patient, powerful, hypnotizing sci-fi masterpiece (no, not that one, the other one) is too large and sweeping to even behold fully, much less write about. You’ve got to do it from a certain angle, by considering a certain theme or a certain formal gesture. Its meditative and spiritual effect defies words; Tarkovsky, at his most effective, puts you in a kind of trance where images gain metaphysical power and dialogue seems to become just another element of the visual composition.
The final scene might be the most puzzling and enigmatic of all, despite the fact that it’s not altogether difficult to explain the events of the scene or the scene’s purpose in the plot. In fact, it’s very simple: the Stalker’s young daughter reads a poem to herself at a table with three glasses sitting on it. She uses her telekinetic powers to move those three glasses to the edge of the table. One is filled with a brown liquid, one is a mason jar filled with some junk, one is a tall, clear glass that she pushes off the table, falling to the ground–but we can hear clearly that it did not break. She then puts her head on the table and listens to a train go by, as we hear Ode to Joy, perhaps being played on the train, but perhaps not. Finally, the table rattles, perhaps being shaken by the train, but perhaps not. Fade to black on a close-up of the young girl’s face, hearing only the sound of the rattling table.
Tarkovsky captures this simple event with an equally simple camera setup: a clear right angle on the opposite end of the table (making the glasses move toward the camera), the daughter sitting in profile. He begins on a close-up, zooms out and dollies back to reveal the table in the foreground, and then finishes by zooming and pushing in once again. The whole scene plays out in this single five-minute shot, and its rhythmic pull-out and push back in is consistent with the rest of the film’s pace; Tarkovsky uses shot duration not as manipulation of overall film pacing but as just another element of shot composition. The most significant formal aspect of the scene is its color–it is the only colored scene in the non-zone setting of the film, the rest of the scenes rendered in a hazy yellow-brown flush. The walls of the house mimic that yellow-brown color but the windows outside give us a new, more bluish view of the world. This change in color is generally accepted to be a representation of the girl’s mutated powers from her stalker father – she has brought a little bit of the zone with her into the outside world.
Like all of Tarkovsky’s most striking shots, it’s coated in texture so rich that you feel you could reach out and touch it. There’s the grungy and smudged texture of the dirty windows behind the girl, through which we can’t really see anything, and the rotting wood and harsh stone of the house. To contrast this, there is the dull texture of her scarf and shirt. But there’s also the gentler, more hazy and natural textures lingering in the background: the smoke from the recently blown-out candle and the white particles in the air–either ashes or dandelion scenes, depending on how hopeful you read the scene–which I only noticed on about my fourth or fifth viewing. Tarkovsky is a filmmaker so rich in unspotlighted detail that there is always to jump out at you no matter how many times you’ve watched the scene.
That’s the strange thing about the scene, and essentially the strange thing about the whole film. It’s not like Solaris, which has a (literally) earth-shattering conclusion, challenging us to question if anything we’d previously seen was truly real. It does not offer surrealism on its surface. The film instead traffics in a subterranean tension that threatens to bubble up at any moment. The stalker tells us that the Zone is full of traps and treachery and we believe him; we’re on the edge of our seat for the journey through the Zone even though it’s completely serene and nothing even remotely dangerous happens at any point in the trek to the room. Unlike all conventional sci-fi films and even some sci-fi films made by Tarkovsky himself, it’s impossible to articulate why you’re so tense, or so entranced, by this narrative. There are no ghosts of dead wives, no trashed space stations, no astronauts that you can’t trust, no alien forces that are easy to visualize like the flowing goop of the planet Solaris. There are only the dilapidated human structures reconquered by wilderness, a world slowly resigning itself to collapse, and men who ultimately resign themselves as well. That this final scene is the only unambiguously supernatural event in the film only serves to illustrate this dilapidation: all we can do with the effects of the Zone is move a few glasses across a table.
I find the dialogue in Stalker fascinating to think about but nearly impossible to parse, and therefore think about it as just another texture in the image. What are we to make of the poem that she reads in this scene? What desire is she speaking of? Perhaps it’s the desire that drives men into the zone in the first place, the desire that the room will grant them if the Stalker can bring them all the way there. What, then, are we to make of that dull flame? Does the Zone ultimately dull the flame of one’s desires, putting it out like the candle whose death gives the scene its beginning smoky texture? Perhaps its the daughter’s desire to use her legs, to make herself move. It’s the desire that drives her telekinetic powers, that one day maybe she will be able to use them to move her own body. So much of the film revolves around movement–careful movement of characters through the zone, the patient and ambient movement of Tarkovsky’s tracking camera, the movements of trains and tunnels and military vehicles behind trains. It cannot then be a coincidence that Tarkovsky finishes the film by focusing on the plights of two characters who are stuck, who cannot move in the way the Stalker can. It’s no coincidence that both of these characters are women, the only two named female characters in the film.
That desire, which drives men into the zone, is not the desire that they are consciously thinking about but the desire which they truly believe deep down: their most unconscious desire. Stalker seems to speak directly to the unconscious, offering us so many details in every one of its slow-moving shots, but moving so slowly as to lull the part of the mind that would interrogate those images for direct meaning. It resists the bright bulb of analysis and only sways the dull flickering flame of unconscious emotion, whether that be desire, fear, despair, or some transcendent awe that comes over me during this final scene. Perhaps this is the key to why it works so well: she’s almost looking into the camera, but not quite. That nearly direct address from the innocent eyes of this child illustrates why the end feels like such a declarative and significant scene. Tarkovsky ends the film with a supernatural, telekinetic character looking right at you, moving three reflective surfaces right at you, demanding you to look inward. Her passionate and brightening eyes must be telling you something about the mode of filmmaking itself!
I’ll close with one interpretation of the final scene which I am personally fond of: the journey of the three men is uncannily represented by the journey of the three glasses. The glass with a blown-out candle is the professor, whose flame of desire has been extinguished, leaving him full of only broken, destructive desires that ultimately stop him from ever getting close to the edge. The glass with the brown liquid stands in for the writer, whose internal creativity has been polluted and stressed by the world, who never quite makes it to the edge, who is truly the first to move. Finally, the tallest and most empty of glasses stands in for our Stalker, going all the way to the edge of the zone, traumatized by his emptiness, sapped by the zone of all his energy, falling off but not quite breaking.
Or, then again, maybe I’ve got the glasses matched up to the wrong three characters; maybe you think the tall glass falling off the table stands in more for the professor’s disassembled bomb than it does with the Stalker’s comparatively sedate breakdown in the arms of his wife. Are we meant to read the train as the adventure of the Stalker beginning again, always the same, as predetermined as a train running down a track? Or are we meant to read the little girl’s telekinesis as more than just merely controlling glasses, but controlling the journey of the three men itself, establishing their path through the zone which will stop just before the edge, setting their fates in motion through fatalistic telekinesis? How far do her powers really go? Does it affect narrative itself?
Am I getting anywhere with these questions, or am I only supposed to savor and sink into the feeling of uncertainty and awe? We cannot be sure about any of the swirling, alien, Solaris-like emotions underneath the film’s images, all we can be sure about is the texture of the walls, the windows, the glasses, the chirping of offscreen birds and the non-shattering of offscreen glass. These ordinary objects, and the way they relate to each other in the space of the film, are the true story of Stalker, ultimately truer than anything that happens in the zone. Tarkovsky’s cinema thrives in the slow and entrancing movement of objects, and oftentimes with his patiently tracking camera, the objects gain movement and dimensionality while staying perfectly still. In other words, Tarkovsky’s cinema is the cinema of telekinesis.