Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker represents the high watermark of cinematic achievement. However, the director’s final Soviet film, filmed in the post-industrial wasteland in Estonia, may have also killed the director, his wife and some cast members.
Released in 1979, Stalker is at once bleak, magical, and astonishingly beautiful. Set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, the film tells the story of a hired guide – the Stalker – who leads a professor and a writer into the Zone, a forbidden site from an unspecified and ancient disaster. Eventually, they find their way to the Room, which is said to contain one’s deepest desires. As well as being a reflection on religion and contemporary political anxieties, the film seems to predict the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986, which lead to the formation of an exclusion zone around Pripyat, Ukraine.
The prescience of Tarkosvyk’s vision has imbued Stalker with the power of myth, as though it were some ancient warning from the depths of the earth. Although, if it was intended as a warning, Tarkoskvy himself paid no heed. Indeed, the price the director paid to make this astonishing work of art barely stands thinking about. After an earthquake forced him to abandon his plans to shoot principal photography in Tajikistan, Tarkovsky and his crew relocated to an abandoned hydroelectric power station in Estonia, where the dissatisfied director decided to shoot a more minimalist version of the script.
According to sound recordist Vladimir Sharun, the deaths of Tarkovsky in 1986, his wife Larissa and Anatoly Solonitsyn (who plays the Writer) were caused by contamination from the chemical plant located upstream from the set. “We were shooting near Tallinn in the area around the small river Jägala with a half-functioning hydroelectric station,” Sharun recalled in 2001. “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.”
The sound recordist concluded that the deaths of various crew members were a result of Tarkovsky’s decision to shoot in Estonia: “Many women in our crew got allergic reactions on their faces. Tarkovsky died from cancer of the right bronchial tube. And Tolya Solonitsyn too. That it was all connected to the location shooting for Stalker became clear to me when Larisa Tarkovskaya died from the same illness in Paris.”
So many years later, Stalker remains one of the most hauntingly beautiful Soviet films of all time. Many would be willing to go even further and assert that it’s one of the great cinematic masterpieces. One wonders if Tarkovsky, who believed so strongly that man’s purpose on earth was to create great works of art, knew that he was putting his own life and those of his crew in danger and chose to ignore it. Perhaps, he was willing to sacrifice earthly existence for a shot at immortality.