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On the Threshold

Last year I watched Bergman’s Winter Light after seeing Tarkovsky’s Stalker and Bresson’s Mouchette. Bergman’s film, so marvellous, so towering, seemed somehow fake. The acting was theatrical, which is to say, and I wish I could make myself clearer, somehow aware of itself . This is hard for me to write because I admire Bergman's films very deeply. But I write because of my shock of finding the performances of the great Gunnar Bjornstrand, Ingrid Thulin and Max von Sydow hollow after watching Tarkovsky. They were only actors, whereas Alexander Kaidanovsky in the role of the Stalker is much more. The whole film revolves around his shaven head, his strange mixture of nobility and self-pity, of weakness and authority, of poverty and resplendence.

If Nostalghia looks towards the apocalypse, and The Sacrifice dramatises what happens at its brink Stalker is a film which occurs after the apocalypse has happened.

Somehow, the Zone has appeared. A place one has to cross a national border to enter. What is it? We know it is terrifying and wonderful. Stalkers, semi-criminals, earn a precarious living by leading people into the Zone. There are rumours that there is a miraculous golden ball which can grant wishes hidden in the Zone. We know Kaidanovsky’s character only by his nickname. We begin in his shabby house, where he sleeps with his wife and his paralysed child in a single bed (his wife blames the child’s paralysis on the Zone), and which shudders with the sound of the trains that pass nearby. The Stalker is going to take two people known, in order to protect their identities, by the nicknames Writer and Professor, into the Zone. His wife despairs. But he must go, and he goes. He leads the others into the Zone. He takes them to the threshold of the room with the golden ball. Then what? It is mysterious. We don’t know the outcome.

Tarkovsky, in Sculpting in Time:

People have often asked me what the Zone is, and what is symbolises, and have put forward wild conjectures on the subject. I’m reduced to a state of fury and despair by these questions. The Zone doesn’t symbolise anything, any more than anything else does in my films: the zone is a zone, its life, and as he makes his way across it a man may break down or he may come through. Whether he comes through or not depends on his own self-respect, and his capacity to distinguish between what matters and what is merely passing. (200)

Self-respect? Are we to understand the Zone as this world, our world, through which most of us learn to find our way, however hard it is for some, and however easy it is for others? Tarkovsky seems to suggest that we need to be led, to follow someone. And I wonder, when he writes, continuing his reflections in the paragraph I quoted, ‘My function is to make whoever sees my films aware of his need to love and to give his love, and aware that beauty is summoning him' (200) – I wonder whether he understands his films as a way of guiding us through life. More: are they a way of giving us life?

Stalker finds his way through the meadows by hurling bandages full of nuts into the distance to test for danger. Stalker and his party pass abandoned and decaying technology, broken military equipment. They proceed through a deserted house, through a tunnel, through a room full of sand dunes. A bird seems to disappear into thing air. An Alsation dog joins them, then disappears.

STALKER (picking his words carefully and slowly): The Zone is a highly complex system … of traps, as it were, and all of them are deadly … But people have only to appear for the whole thing to be triggered into motion. Our moods, our thoughts, our emotions, our feelings can bring about change here. And we are in no condition to comprehend them. Old traps vanish, new ones take their place; the old safe places become impassable, and the route can be either plain or easy, or impossibly confusing. That’s how the Zone is. It may even seem capricious. But in fact, at any moment it is exactly as we devise it, in our consciousness …

At one point, Stalker remembers his teacher, the greatest Stalker, one of the first, whom he calls Master. The Master returned from the Zone one day to find himself amazingly rich. But his brother had died in the Zone. The Master had led him to his death. The suggestion is that he found the golden ball and had had his wish granted - a murdered brother, riches. The Master hung himself; thereafter, he was known as Porcupine (why that name?). But the Stalker will not fail. Above all, he has learnt from the episode with Porcupine that he can never give what he gives to himself:

STALKER (frenzied): […] Stalker’s aren’t allowed in the room! They aren’t allowed! […] I am a worm, I never did anything there, now will I ever be able to … I could never provide for my wide and daughter! … And I’ve got no friends there, not can I have. But don’t take away what little I’ve got! Everything I had, there, beyond the barbed wire, that’s all been taken away! Everything I have is here, understand, here in the Zone! My freedom, my happiness … it’s all here … Since I bring people here as unhappy as me, as tormented … it’s their last hope! But I can help them! I can help them! I weep with happiness at being able to help them! Nothing in this whole wide world can help, except for me, a worm! That’s my whole life. It’s all I want. And when the time comes for me to die, I will drag myself to this spot, to this room, and my last thought will be: happiness for all! And let nobody go away empty-handed.

Stalker's whole life is a life in service. What he wants is to serve, to open a path for others. He will lead only those who feel an absolute necessity to reach the golden ball. For himself, he will wait. And when he is about to die, he will seize the golden sphere and speak his wish. Outside the Zone, at the end of the film, he says to his wife of Professor and Writer: 'they are my friends' (his friends - I find this incredibly moving). Then he says he will not enter the Zone again. But we know he will return (he had promised his wife he would not return in the opening scene of the film) and that his friends, his only friends will be those who return with him.

Why does Tarkovsky feel the need to lead us through the Zone? Here is one clue:

Of great significance to me are those traditions in Russian culture which have their beginnings in the work of Dostoevsky. Their development in modern Russia is patently incomplete; in fact they tend to be looked down upon, or even ignored altogether. There are several reasons for this: first their total incompatibility with materialism, and then the fact that the spiritual crisis experienced by all Dostoevsky’s characters (which was the inspiration of his wok and that of his followers) is also viewed with misgiving. Why is this state of ‘spiritual crisis’ so feared in contemporary Russia? (193)

One might remember The Brothers Karamazov, where it is Father Zosima’s dying brother who, in a state of madness, declares, ‘each of us is guilty in everything before everyone, and I most of all’. He continues, ‘Dear mother, I am weeping from gladness, not from grief; I want to be guilty before them, only I cannot explain it to you, for I do not even know how to lover them. Let me be sinful before everyone, but so that everyone will forgive me, and that is paradise’ (289-90). There is something sentimental and indulgent here. Dostoevsky’s work is always marked by hysteria and pathos. But later, when Zosima strikes his orderly Afanasy in baseless anger, he recalls his brother’s words, and undergoes conversion. Of course it is Aloysha Karamazov to whom this phrase is linked (Aloysha’s face reminds Father Zosima of his lost brother).

‘Each of us is guilty in everything before everyone, and I most of all’. How should one read this phrase? As self-indulgence - as masochism in the emphasis on the I who is always more responsible than others? But guilt, here is not a general law, but singularises each of us. This is the point I am guilty before you – you may be guilty before me, this is possible, but that is your affair. Here is what Levinas says in an interview when he remembers Dostoevsky’s phrase:

I am responsible for the Other without waiting for his reciprocity.... Reciprocity is his affair.... It is I who support all, [... as in] that sentence in Dostoevsky: " We are all guilty of all and for all men before all, and I more than the others ." This is not owing to such or such a guilt which is really mine, or to offenses that I would have committed; but because I am responsible for a total responsibility, which answers for all the others and for all in the others, even for their responsibility. I always have one responsibility more than the others.

I don’t want to follow the winding course of Levinas’s thought, which is more difficult and more demanding than it may seem. What is crucial is the asymmetry of the demand. I before the Other – the Other, according to Levinas, is higher than me. I am responsible before the Other who outstrips me. And the Other can be anyone at all, any of you, just as I could be Other for you. This is the opening of the ethical, for Levinas – but it also recalls the opening of the world. The Other is the very light and wondrousness of the world.

How should one understand Stalker's vocation? There is always an ambiguity in Tarkovsky's films - this is an element of their greatness. The films resonate in us. For my part, lost before the worlds of Dostoevsky or Levinas - or even Tarkovsky's Sculpting in Time, I can only write of a threshold at which I remain that is similar to the one before the room of the golden ball, into which the characters of Tarkovsky's film do not seem to enter. I wish I had the strength to affirm, with Tarkovsky, the need for a spiritual crisis. I suppose I feel rather like Kierkegaard's heteronym Johannes de Silentio before Abraham in his Fear and Trembling: a sense of awe that such faith, such obedience, is even possible.

I want to return to the materialism Tarkovsky repudiates. Is it not the case that in the stranded field telephones and plant encrusted tanks, in the ruined houses, and the patches of grass, but above all in the disparate items of Stalker's dream - the syringe and the icon, the coin and the packets - there is a depth or profoundity in things, a sabi, to use the word Tarkovsky borrows from Japanese aesthetics? The Zone is a place in which things affirm their revenge for being made to volatilise in circuits of exchange. And Stalker and his companions, picking their way through the Zone? They are friends of the unknown in things, being claimed by a question that seems to open in the depths of the world - a question that poses itself to us, to human beings, because we have emerged from the immanent domain of nature, a realm closed upon itself like water in water. This is what I see in the Anubian Alsatian who, for a while, attaches itself to Stalker, being near him as he lies hunched like a foetus. The dog is a living question because it seems to arrive from the depths of a nature from which we are exiled. And the bandages full of nuts Stalker throws into the distance to test for dangers are like a counter-question, from our side, from the side of human beings who, in the Zone, can become aware of what they always are: usurpers.

(I am indebted to an article by Val Vinokurov entitled 'Levinas's Dostoevsky')

December 05, 2003 in Tarkovsky | Permalink