Everything that happens depends on us, says Stalker. The relationship between pilgrims – even the most sceptical or outright cynical, even those who don’t consider themselves pilgrims – and the Zone is absolutely reciprocal. To be in the Zone is to be part of the Zone. It may be impossible to tell whether a given action is initiated by people or place but the feeling that the Zone is an active participant in whatever occurs becomes increasingly tangible. Stalker is framed against a green so dark it is almost black – what Conrad, with his irresistible urge to over-egg any and all puddings, would have called an impenetrable darkness. This darkness makes Stalker’s face and blue eyes burn more brightly as he speaks. With what? With the intensity of his belief, but also – and it is this which distinguishes him from jihadists and born-again Christians – with the intensity of his despair. The Zone is not simply a source of solace, the heart of Marx’s heartless world, it is a source of torment, a system of traps that constantly tests, teases and threatens not just his clients but Stalker himself. No-one is immune to the capriciousness of the Zone. And another thing, too, separates him from the jihadists. One of Tarkovsky’s strengths as an artist is the amount of space he leaves for doubt. In Grizzly Man, Werner Herzog looks into the eyes of the bears caught on film by Timothy Treadwell and decides that the chief characteristic of the universe – or ‘the jungley’ as he metonymically termed it in the Burden of Dreams – is ‘overwhelming indifference’. For Tarkovsky the artist, despite his Russian Orthodox Christian faith, despite his insistence that the epic scenery of Utah and Arizona could only have been created by god, it is an almost infinite capacity to generate doubt and uncertainty (and, extrapolating from there, wonder). This, it hardly needs saying, is a far more nuanced position than Herzog’s. The story of Porcupine, Tarkovsky said later, may have been a ‘legend’ or myth, and spectators ‘should doubt … the existence of the forbidden Zone’. So to give oneself entirely to the Zone, to trust in it as Stalker does, is not only to risk but embrace betrayal by the principle from which he draws his life. That’s why his face is a ferment of emotions: everything he believes in is threatening to turn to ashes, the ledge he clings to poised to crumble beneath the weight of his need for it, the weight that also supports it.
Zona: A Book about a Film about a Journey to a Room