In Stalker Tarkovsky foretold Chernobyl
From Komsomolskaya Pravda, 23 March 2001
[ Russian original ].
Photograph caption: On the set Tarkovsky demanded that the Zone
look as real as possible...
In the film Stalker one of the explanations given
for the Zone's origin was a breakdown at the fourth
bunker. In six years the fourth energy block of the
Chernobyl power plant would explode... This film,
the last one Tarkovsky shot in his homeland, is
full of prophecies and premonitions. Exactly 20 years ago
Stalker debuted on screen.
...In a country unnamed neither by the
Strugatskys nor by Tarkovsky there suddenly appeared
the Zone... A mystery arose and together with
it there appeared people wishing to investigate it.
And Stalker appeared as well. According to the Strugatskys
he is a marauder selling Zone's mysteries to tourists
wandering about. According to Tarkovsky he is a guide whose
destiny is to lead lost souls to the Zone and whose goal
is their possible salvation.
...From the time of releasing Stalker into the
Zone of the viewing public's unabating attention twenty years
have passed. Alas, almost none of the film's
main contributors are still living. The great Russian
artist Andrei Tarkovsky lies in the cemetery
Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois. His wife Larissa has also left
us, she worked on Stalker as the second director.
The editor Lyudmila Feiginova has tragically died in a fire.
No more with us are the brilliant cameramen: Georgi Rerberg
who began shooting Stalker, and Aleksandr Knyazhinsky
who later reshot it. The performers in the main male roles
have died: prominent actors Aleksandr Kaidanovsky,
Anatoly Solonitsyn, Nikolai Grinko... One of the few surviving
contributors to Stalker, the sound designer
Vladimir Ivanovich Sharun, tends to think it was Stalker's
long and exhausting shooting schedule that influenced the
condition of some of the cast and crew and contributed
to their untimely deaths... But, let's start from the beginning.
The unbearable Tarkovsky
"Nobody would go to work with Tarkovsky by accident,"
Vladimir Sharun remembers. "Everybody knew what kind of
Personality he was. On the one hand they were afraid of his
exacting demands. On the other, Tarkovsky productions were known to
have taken a long time on occasion and during the Soviet times the crew
were not paid for the idle periods. And the most important of Tarkovsky's
"faults" was that
this great artist tried to do everything himself. After all he was
even the set designer for Stalker. In all shots every blade of
grass would be positioned by his own hand. When I signed up to work
on Stalker my colleagues warned me: «When the re-recording
they'll get ready for printing you'll get into big trouble. At the
last moment he'll get some new idea in his head and he'll leave you
all alone redoing everything.»"
Composer Eduard Artemyev recalls:
"My first meeting with Tarkovsky — that was back on Solaris
— left me perplexed. He stated that what he needed was not music
but a series of musically arranged noises. In addition he announced
he could not imagine a better composer than Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov
who had composed the score for Andrei Rublov and for Ivan's
Childhood. A feeling of the lack of confidence never left me
while I worked with Tarkovsky. On every picture I felt like I was
taking an exam and was trying to do everything the best I could..."
Tarkovsky and UFOs
"Tarkovsky believed in miracles, no question about that", continues Vladimir
Sharun, "he firmly believed in the existence of flying saucers and he
even claimed he saw one near his home in Myasnoe, in the Ryazan province.
One absolutely could not convince him otherwise. Tarkovsky wouldn't allow
any doubts in the existence of extraterrestials. Incidentally,
it all harmoniously combined with his faith in God, he knew the
Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Luke practically by heart and could
quote whole paragraphs.
"Thanks to Tarkovsky's passion for anything out of the ordinary
a man called Eduard Naumov somehow
ended up within our circle. He had made popular films about paranormal
phenomena, organised lectures on the subject and I think he actually
spent some time in prison for illegal sale of tickets for those mass
gatherings of his. Tarkovsky's circle helped him as much as they could.
Once Naumov showed us one of his films. The film showed Ninel Sergeyevna
Kulagina who was a well-known psychic at the time. During the war she
was a gunner-navigator on a fighter plane and she was shot down with the
pilot by the Germans. Then she married that pilot and had three children.
After her third child she discovered she had an ability for telekinesis
— she moved objects with her sight. On the screen Kulagina,
surrounded by a group of people looking like scientists, was sitting
behind a table with a transparent top — to avoid any claims
of forgery. On the table there was a lighter, a spoon, some other items.
Kulagina's face darkened with exertion, she fixed her unblinking stare
on the lighter which followed her gaze. Tarkovsky attentively watched
Naumov's film and after it was finished he immediately exclaimed:
«Well, what do you say, here is the ending for Stalker!»
"We had no psychics on the set. The cup which was supposed to move
under the half-demented gaze of Stalker's daughter was tied with a dull
invisible thread and we pulled it across the table. I attempted to take care
of this gripping business but Tarkovsky shooed me away — by sending me
to record the dog's bark — and pulled the cup all by himself."
The torments of Stalker
"Stalker had problems. The picture's fate was strange somehow.
There was this producer Gambarov in West Berlin. He had the world
distribution rights to Tarkovsky's films and supplied him with the
Kodak stock which was scarcely available in those days. For Stalker
he sent some kind of new Kodak film that had just been introduced.
Georgi Rerberg was then the cameraman on Stalker, he'd photographed
The Mirror for Tarkovsky. But then the disaster struck.
The artesian well at Mosfilm broke down and they had no artesian water
needed to process the film. They didn't tell us anything but the material
sat unprocessed for 17 days. And film which is exposed but not processed
loses quality, it loses speed and it otherwise degrades. In a word, the whole material
for the first part ended up on the scrap heap. On top of that — here
I'm repeating what Andrei himself told me — Tarkovsky was certain
the film was swapped. This newer Kodak which Gambarov sent specifically
for Stalker was stolen and in some way or another ended up in the
hands of a certain very well-known Soviet film director who was Tarkovsky's
adversary. And they gave Andrei a regular Kodak except that nobody knew
about this and that's why they processed it differently. Tarkovsky considered
it a result of scheming by his enemies. But I think it was just the usual
"The review of the ruined footage ended in a scandal. Tarkovsky,
Rerberg, the Strugatskys, and Tarkovsky's wife Larissa were all
sitting in the projection room. Suddenly one of the Strugatskys
turned towards Rerberg and asked naively: «Gosha, and how come I
can't see anything here?» Rerberg, always considering himself beyond
reproach in everything he did, turned to Strugatsky and said: «And you
just be quiet, you are no Dostoievsky either!» Tarkovsky was beside
himself with anger. But one can understand Rerberg. Imagine what it
means for a cameraman to see the entire material turning up
defective! Rerberg slammed the door, walked to his car and drove
away. He wasn't seen on the set again. Then the cameraman Leonid Kalashnikov
appeared on the scene, unquestionably a master. He spent two weeks with us
and subsequently he honestly admitted he could not understand what
Tarkovsky wanted from him. Kalashnikov left the picture on his own and Tarkovsky
thanked him for such an honest, courageous action. And then Aleksandr Knyazhinsky
From the recollections of the former deputy Chairman of the Goskino USSR
"It was obvious that if Tarkovsky was not given the opportunity to reshot
the film it wouldn't be made at all. The governing body decided: reshoot the film, give
the necessary means (something like 400 thousand roubles)..."
The unexpected shooting day
The shooting in Tallinn started anew but the crew were not doing too
well. One day in June it snowed. All leaves fell off the trees
and the crew lost the location shoot. Again the question of shutting
down the production arose.
"The crew had been sitting idle for two
weeks and out of boredom many grew fond of the bottle," recalls
Vladimir Sharun. "Tarkovsky knew well how threatening this situation
was and decidced to act. We stayed in a rotten hotel in the suburbs
of Tallinn and I was the only one with a telephone in my room. One
time in the evening Tarkovsky called me and asked to tell everybody
that we'd start shooting the next morning at 7 o'clock. But it's
easy to say! My assistant during this period got out of boredom into
drinking the cologne "Troinaya" spicing it up with sugar! When I
entered Solonitsyn's room I saw that Tolya and his make-up man were
also totally out of it. When I told him about the shooting the next
morning he panicked!! He treated Andrei Arsenyevich like
God. His make-up man knew his craft well and urgently demanded three
kilograms of potatoes, to prepare them on a grater and then to apply
to the face swollen after the two-week binge. But where can one get
potatoes in a hotel at three o'clock in the morning? I ran to a
security guard at some store outside, she entrusted me with her
guarding duties while she went home to fetch the potatoes. I grated
a whole bowl for Solonitsyn with so much dedication I was bleeding
from the cuts in my hands, and with the feeling of a job well done
I gave it to my assistant. Then I come back and what do I see?!
The make-up man is lying on the floor completely drunk while Solonitsyn
is applying the potato lotion to his face!"
A story about skeletons
"There was in our group an administrator named Vitya. Not a bad guy but a bit
unpredictable. One day Tarkovsky was preparing for a long time a scene in
which the characters find in the bushes a pair of skeletons
intertwined as if at the moment of making love. An eerie woman's skeleton —
with white hair on the naked skull — and lying on top of it a skeleton of a
man. That was all that was left of them after the explosion or whatever it
was that created the Zone. Tarkovsky for a very long time was preparing the
scene, he searched for the wig himself, the skeletons weren't easy to find
and they were expensive. Finally everything was ready for shooting, we
spread a white sheet, put the two skeletons on it and prepared for filming.
But at this time the administrator Vitya showed up on the set, saw the
sheets, lied down and immediately fell asleep. He didn't notice the
skeletons and he broke them. Tarkovsky's four days of work were gone. Having
suffered through other whims of the wild administrator Andrei Arsenevich couldn't
take it anymore and sent him packing back to Mosfilm.
They drove the guy to the airport but Tarkovsky walks up to me and asks:
"Listen, go and bring this idiot back, he'll be in trouble otherwise." So
I'm driving Vitya back. The whole crew were delighted at this show of
Tarkovsky's good will. But the skeleton scene in the film now is not what it
could have been."
The breakdown at the fourth bunker
It is never fully explained in Stalker what the Zone really
is or what created it. Several reasons for the appearance of the Zone
are mentioned in the film: it was left behind by some extraterrestials,
it was created by a falling meteorite, it was caused — so claims
Writer (Solonitsyn) — by a breakdown at the fourth bunker.
In interviews Tarkovsky said the plot interested him the least
and that strictly speaking the only fantastic element was the film's
point of departure. Six years after the completion of the film the fourth
energy block in Chernobyl exploded and the 30-kilometre Zone became
reality. Unfortunately this was not the only prophecy in Stalker
that came true.
As the film's art director Tarkovsky himself designed the complicated
panoramas of the Zone's wasteland landscape. In one such shot
we can see submerged in water a card torn from a calendar with the date
28 December. This day was the last day of Tarkovsky's life, he died
on 29 December 1986.
"We were shooting near Tallinn in the area around the small river
Piliteh with a half-functioning hydroelectric station," says Vladimir
Sharun. "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. 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 Larissa Tarkovskaya died from the same illness in Paris...
"After his death Tarkovsky suddenly got many friends. I did not consider
myself to be among them. We simply worked on Stalker together, the last film
Andrei shot in his homeland. He invited me and Artemyev to work
on Nostalghia but, unfortunately, he was forced to work with
a fully Italian crew."
20 years after the screen debut
Careers of those involved with Stalker who are still alive
have turned out very well. Alisa Freindlikh who played Stalker's wife
continues her triumphant acting career. Composer Eduard Artemyev
is very busy both in Russia and abroad (Andrei Konchalovsky's Odyssey,
Nikita Mikhalkov's The Barber of Siberia). Neither Freindlikh
nor Artemyev took part in the location shoot in Estonia.
Vladimir Sharun is a lecturer at the VGIK and as one of the world's
leading sound designers he is a frequent guest at international seminars
and conferences devoted to Stalker and Tarkovsky's work in general.
Unlike in Russia, the prophetic aspect of the film is a subject of
systematic study in the West.