STALKER. Tarkovsky’s Science Fiction Masterpiece

The history behind the creation of “Stalker” is as complex as the film itself.

Filip Jalowski

6 June 2024

STALKER. Tarkovsky's Science Fiction Masterpiece

Tarkovsky met the Strugatsky brothers, the authors of the original novel, in the early 1970s while planning an adaptation of their Hotel ‘At the Dead Mountaineer’. This project fell through, and Tarkovsky suggested the idea to Mikhail Kalatozov, the director of The Cranes Are Flying. When the Strugatskys’ Roadside Picnic was published in 1972, Tarkovsky was determined to put his name on the film adaptation. In 1976, the film was greenlit for production.

The Strugatskys wrote at least three versions of the screenplay for Stalker, which differed significantly from what eventually appeared on screen. Tarkovsky heavily modified the texts provided by the authors, who did not protest, considering him a great authority. However, the script issues were minor compared to the problems that arose on set. Early in the production, it became clear that Tarkovsky couldn’t communicate effectively with the cinematographer, Georgy Rerberg. Rerberg accused Tarkovsky of losing control over the script and criticized the production’s mismanagement. The breaking point came when over sixty percent of the footage had to be discarded due to film processing errors. Some sources suggest this was just an excuse for Tarkovsky to get rid of Rerberg and the shots that didn’t fit his evolving vision for the film.

Andrey Tarkovsky

After securing additional funding, Tarkovsky resumed the film with a partially new crew. Leonid Kalashnikov, known for his work on Alexander Zarkhi’s Anna Karenina (1967), replaced Rerberg. Despite using a lot of film, Tarkovsky was dissatisfied with the results and decided to halt production when winter came. In April 1978, Tarkovsky suffered a heart attack but continued with a revised crew to complete Stalker. The final version was completed at the end of the year, with Alexander Knyazhinsky as the cinematographer. After a series of earlier dismissals, Tarkovsky took on the roles of director, screenwriter, and production designer.

The curse of Stalker didn’t end with the final film take. Most of the shooting took place in Estonia, near the Jägala River, which was being polluted by local chemical plants at the time. Prolonged exposure to this contaminated area likely led to the later deaths of several crew members, including Tarkovsky and his wife, who both died of lung cancer. The Zone claimed its victims.

Stalker The Zone

The Zone

Unlike Solaris, where Tarkovsky retained elements that clearly linked it to science fiction, Stalker, despite being based on Roadside Picnic, only briefly references cosmic themes. In an early monologue, it’s mentioned that the Zone might be the result of extraterrestrial intervention. All tangible evidence of the Zone being created by aliens, such as artifacts described in the book, disappears in the film, indicating Tarkovsky’s intention not to make Stalker a science fiction story. This choice suggests that the Zone’s mystery lies not in its origin but in its interaction with people.

Given the time and place Stalker was made, it’s hard not to project certain ideas onto the fenced-off, reality-detached space. The famous Tunguska event and the Dyatlov Pass incident, deeply embedded in Russian tradition of mysterious phenomena, come to mind. The Tunguska event of 1908 involved a massive explosion that flattened trees over a forty-kilometer radius in Siberia, likely caused by a meteorite. The Dyatlov Pass incident in 1959 involved the mysterious deaths of nine hikers in the Ural Mountains, with their bodies found in conditions suggesting both hypothermia and severe trauma. These events contribute to the concept of a Zone as a contaminated, mysterious area threatening death to those who enter.


In Soviet reality, such Zones could include gulags and restricted areas for military or political reasons. Stalker was made long before the Chernobyl disaster, yet the exclusion zone around the reactor explosion would be a perfect example of such a space. All these areas are torn from reality, surrounded by mystery, with numerous hypotheses about their nature but no definitive answers.

From today’s perspective, the gulag might seem an odd inclusion, but it’s essential to remember that during Tarkovsky’s time, people disappeared and died in these places without a trace, much like victims of the Zone. Stalker isn’t directly inspired by any specific area or event, but these elements help understand Tarkovsky’s story. The uniqueness of the Zone lies in its boundaries. If someone set them up, they had a purpose, but we don’t know what it is, leaving us with only projections. Until credible evidence emerges about the Zone’s nature, it remains a projection, only truly becoming something in its interaction with people.


This relationship may explain why Tarkovsky avoids the science fiction elements. His Zone is transparent, indistinguishable from familiar fields and post-industrial ruins, to avoid imposing interpretations but leave it to the viewer entering the Zone. Including Roadside Picnic artifacts would force us to conclude alien intervention or military experiments. Stalker is crafted for each person to find their meaning, although Tarkovsky likely embedded his own experience with the Zone.


In texts dedicated to Stalker, Seweryn Kuśmierczyk rightly notes that the titular character bears the traits of the Russian jurodiwy, which is often translated into “Christ’s fool”. The kinship between these two figures is indisputable. The jurodiwy is a person who devotes their life to faith, choosing to live in poverty, setting aside accumulated knowledge, and lamenting the state of the world while making people aware of their sins and vices, which are the result of being intoxicated by the false greatness of humanity. In the surroundings and behavior of the film’s Stalker, we can see all the attributes of the jurodiwy. Upon returning home, he laments the worldviews of the Professor and the Writer, openly criticizing their approach to life, pride, and lack of faith. Although the protagonist behaves like a madman or a person of rather low intelligence and erudition for most of the film, in one of the final scenes, we can see that practically the entire wall of his dilapidated cottage is filled with a sizable library. This is a clear rejection of book knowledge. In one scene, the Professor calls Stalker a jurodiwy, while his wife calls him blessed. His mission, taking people to the Zone and confronting them with their own selves, also fits into the ethos of a saint who lives to bear witness and convert those who stray. But what then is the Zone in this context?


It is impossible to separate Tarkovsky from Christian iconography. Such attempts can certainly be made, but they are in clear opposition to what happens within his cinema. Stalker is, of course, no exception, as evidenced by the previously mentioned jurodiwy theme. An Orthodox icon is one of the easiest objects to recognize that the director shows us during the slow camera movement over the stream flowing through the Zone. Among the dozens of items hidden under the water’s surface, it is the icon that has managed to maintain its identity, resisting the destructive force of the stream that distorts the appearance of artifacts landing in it. In the film’s finale, Stalker heading towards the river with his daughter on his shoulders closely resembles St. Christopher, and the Professor, Writer, and titular character sitting at the bar table can evoke Andrei Rublev’s famous icon. In this context, the golden light, which significantly contrasts with the cold colors of the Zone’s world, must signify the presence of God. The journey through the Zone thus becomes a test of faith, a kind of purgatory where the soul of the daredevil is contested by forces of good and evil. In the room at the end of the path, Tarkovsky would certainly want to find God, and this is possible only by looking into oneself, which occurs during the journey through the labyrinth of the Zone.


Is there, however, a hundred percent certainty that the journey of the Professor, the Writer, and the Stalker indeed took place? Is the black dog sitting near their bar table after their supposed return the ultimate proof that the Zone exists as depicted on the screen? And even if so, since the journey through it is a subjective journey into oneself, seeking hope and faith, whose eyes are we seeing its interior through? Tarkovsky’s? One of the characters’? Whose projection imposes the appearance and character of this strange space on us? We do not know, though many shots suggest that the camera’s eye identifies with the eye of the Stalker himself, who as a jurodiwy knows what he wants to find at the end of the journey. The viewer, however, is not confined to this perspective.


Ultimately, the Zone is the same as reality; it is the necessity of crossing the boundary or the boundary itself that makes us perceive it as a strange and mysterious space. No one said, however, that the very existence of the boundary equates to the extraordinariness of the Zone, which may still be nothing more than a swath of land that, for some reason, slowly begins to overgrow and consume the remains of buildings once erected within it. Moreover, this turn of events does not exclude the activity of the Stalker himself, for whom the ritual associated with maintaining its myth and guiding unfortunate people through it may be synonymous with the very act of faith. The two subsequent, and thus final, films by Tarkovsky presented a very similar dependency. In the finale of Nostalgia, the protagonist believes that walking through a dried-up pool with a lit candle will contribute to the salvation of the world; in The Sacrifice, preventing its destruction involves burning down the Russian dacha, a kind of sanctuary of Tarkovsky’s own world. These entirely irrational, utterly mad gestures are synonymous with an act of blind, uncalculated faith. The characters compulsively try to prove to themselves that faith and hope never die. If the Zone has no supernatural properties, Stalker’s gesture belongs to the same order.


Depending on whom we believe, whether we believe, and what we believe in, the Zone evolves. Jacek Kaczmarski captured the essence of its existence in a song dedicated to Tarkovsky’s film:

And yet the enclosed zone still attracts us
And enclosed – not without purpose – we want to believe
It’s not us in the Zone – it’s the Zone taken from us
We measure it with our own uncertain steps
As long as the bitterness of hope doesn’t overcome us.


The Zone, as a space seemingly torn from us, surrounded for an incomprehensible reason by boundaries whose crossing requires unimaginable risk, in itself is a place that holds the hope of regaining faith weakened by reality, lost innocence, stolen happiness. That is the essence of its real or metaphorical existence. People have nothing left but faith, so why destroy it? says Stalker. Indeed, why?