Andrei Tarkovsky is a popular filmmaker. This will come as a surprise to those who know the Soviet master mostly by his reputation as a maker of movies so poetic, serious, and deliberate of pace that they alter their viewers’ relationship to time itself. Yet Stalker, which ranks among his very most poetic, serious, and deliberate works, was, as of the recording of the video essay above by Youtuber CinemaTyler, the most streamed movie on the Criterion Channel. Not only that, but the essay itself, “Stalker (1979): The Sci-Fi Masterpiece That Killed Its Director,” has as of this writing racked up more than 1.6 million views.
As CinemaTyler’s most-seen episode, this Stalker exegesis outranks in popularity his analyses of classics like Blade Runner, North by Northwest, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It has also drawn more viewers than his many videos on the work of Stanley Kubrick, from The Shining and 2001: A Space Odyssey to Barry Lyndon and A Clockwork Orange. But for an auteur enthusiast of his kind, one can hardly begin discussing Kubrick without bringing up Tarkovsky, and vice versa. Some points of comparison are more obvious than others: CinemaTyler mentions Tarkovsky’s low opinion of 2001, which played a part in shaping the starkly different look and feel of his own first science-fiction picture Solaris.
There’s also a reference to “Kubrick/Tarkovsky,” a video essay previously featured here on Open Culture that catalogs the subtler visual resonances between their films. “Kubrick is one side of the brain,” as CinemaTyler puts it, “and Tarkovsky the other.” As much as they have in common on a deeper level, on the surface Kubrick and Tarkovsky’s oeuvres both oppose and complement each other. While Kubrick worked only in genres, Tarkovsky mostly eschewed them: Stalker, which came out seven years after Solaris, pulls sci-fi almost unrecognizably far into his own aesthetic territory.
This thrust Tarkovsky and his collaborators into their most arduous filmmaking effort yet: they had to execute complicated setups in real industrial wastelands, make several changes of cinematographer, and even shoot the entire movie twice after problems with the initial film stock. CinemaTyler recounts these difficulties and others, not ignoring the widely held suspicion that these poisonous locations ultimately caused the deaths of several of its creators, including Tarkovsky himself. Kubrick’s shoots were also notoriously difficult, of course, but none demanded quite the sacrifice Stalker did — and arguably, none produced quite an inexplicably compelling a cinematic experience.
You can pick up a copy of Stalker on Blu-ray.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.