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The Brutal History of One of the Greatest Sci-Fi Films Ever

The Big Picture

  • Stalker
    almost didn’t get made due to challenges with Soviet government funding and censorship.
  • The film received mixed reviews upon release, criticized for its slow pacing and lack of dynamics, but has since gained popularity.
  • The production was fraught with challenges, as multiple crew members, including the director, died from the toxic shooting locations.



Some artists risk their lives for their art, and some even give their lives. This Soviet-era director did both. Stalker is a Soviet-era science-fiction masterpiece directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. It is considered to be one of the greatest films of all time. In 2012, The British Film Institute ranked Stalker 29 on its list of the “100 Greatest Films Of All Time.” It is a beautiful piece of cinema by a true artist sculpting in time. Yet this beautifully bleak film was beset with production issues, battles with the Soviet government over funding, and shrouded in a dark cloud of death.

Stalker poster

Stalker

A guide leads two men through an area known as the Zone to find a room that grants wishes.

Release Date
May 25, 1979

Director
Andrei Tarkovsky

Cast
Alexander Kaidanovsky

Runtime
162 minutes

Main Genre
Sci-Fi



‘Stalker’ Was Almost Never Made

It’s hard to imagine the cinema-scape without Stalker, which is widely considered the most influential sci-fi movie of all time. If it were not for the tenacity of the film’s director, the film probably would never have seen the light of day. At the time, all the films being produced in the Soviet Union were the government’s property. Funding for films was approved by the USSR State Committee on Cinematography, or GOSINKO, which also had a significant influence over the types of films made. Films that didn’t meet the standards of Soviet censors would have to be re-shot, re-cut, or pulled from production altogether. These were challenging conditions that Andrei Tarkovsky was operating under, but he persevered and managed to secure funding.


According to the film’s production designer, Rashit Safiullin, in the Stalker (Criterion Collection) DVD, outdoor principal photography took one year; after completion, they returned to Moscow, where Tarkovsky and cinematographer, Georgy Rerberg, discovered that the film stock had severely deteriorated due to an issue with the processing facility. The film had been shot on Kodak 5247 stock, and soviet processing labs were just not familiar with it. Tarkovsky was furious at the error and fired Reberg. This resulted in a re-shoot, requiring more funding, but the Soviet Film Board wanted to shut the film down instead. Tarkovsky fell into despair and nearly gave up on his film. But then, he formulated a plan to acquire the new funding by convincing the Soviet government that he was making a two-part film. Luckily, the director’s plan worked. He was given additional funding and new deadlines and re-shot the entire movie.

‘Stalker’ Had Mixed Reviews


GOSINKO released Stalker in May 1979. According to Segida, Miroslava, and Sergei Zemlianukhin, in their book Domashniaia sinemateka: Otechestvennoe kino 1918–1996, the film sold 4.1 million tickets to mostly bad reviews. GOSINKO did not like the movie at all. They thought the film lacked dynamics and was too slow. This is a reasonable critique on the part of GOSKINKO because the film is plodding; many shots last more than four minutes. The camera movement is slow and subtle. According to The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue, there are 142 shots in the film’s 163-minute run-time with a sluggish average shot length of more than one minute. His shots frequently linger in nature, the trees, grass, and water. All that frigid and filthy-looking water reflects a muted sun. It’s uncomfortable and wraps the viewer in the cold, dragging them along for a slow-burn ride through the Zone. The director’s response was slightly less poetic than the one offered here. Geoff Dyer paints a humorous picture of the exchange in Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room. Tarkovsky shrugged it off and, perhaps trying to appease Soviet pragmatism, responded, “The film needs to be slower and duller at the start so that the viewers who walked into the wrong theatre have time to leave before the main action starts.”


It must have been disheartening to put in all that work to have people more or less hate the film. So much lost time and effort is terrible enough — but then people started dying. Perhaps the most brutal fact of all is that the director and several people involved in the film’s production suddenly died from a mysterious illness. Crew members attribute the deaths to the extended shooting schedule in totally toxic locations.

Several People Died Making ‘Stalker’


The bulk of the film takes place in a watery marsh-like area within the Zone. Initially, the plan was to shoot in Tajikistan, but an earthquake ended that, so they were forced to relocate. The crew shot near the town of Tallinn, Estonia, at two deserted hydroelectric stations on the Jägala River, and people got wet. The actors were constantly damp, sloshing around in the muck, and so was the crew. But there was a big problem. The hydroelectric stations were upriver from a chemical plant. The white foamy substance visible in the water is toxic chemicals. Vladimir Sharun, the sound designer, recalled:

“We were shooting near Tallinn in the area around the small river Jägala with a half-functioning hydroelectric station. Up the river was a chemical plant and it poured out poisonous liquids downstream. There is even this shot in
Stalker:
snow falling in the summer and white foam floating down the river. In fact, it was some horrible poison.”


Crew members were affected by allergic reactions to their faces and bodies. Tarkovsky died from cancer of the right bronchial tube, as did actress Larisa Tarkovskaya, who was also the director’s wife. Three people in total died making this film as a direct result of the toxic shooting locations. Tarkovsky died in Paris on December 29, 1986, after a brutal battle with cancer. Larissa would bury her prolific husband in the Russian Cemetery in Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois in France. His headstone reads “To The Man Who Saw The Angel.” Larissa followed a few years later, passing away in 1988, and being laid to rest beside her dear husband.

Despite the brutal history of the film and its weak reviews upon release, the film grew in popularity into the much-celebrated work of art that it is today. Stalker is a unique film in that the tragedy surrounding it does not eclipse the masterful work of art it has become. Yes, the film is bleak, but it is beautiful and the magnum opus of a man who gave his life for his art. When watching the film, people see its beauty and not the darkness surrounding it, which is a monumental achievement not to be overlooked.


Stalker is available to stream on Max in the U.S.

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