Ruin Porn: What Tarkovsky’s ‘Stalker’ Teaches us About Nature

The 1979 Soviet sci-fi classic teaches us about confronting our own finality in light of environmental degradation.

angela (анжела)
19 min readMar 2, 2022

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Screenshot from Stalker (1979). Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky.

Despite Andrei Tarkovsky’s famous condemnation of science-fiction as overly commercial and superficial, he had managed to bookend the 1970s with two of his most famous films, Solaris and Stalker. The 1979 film, Stalker, has garnered widespread interest and praise. At the time of its release in the Soviet Union, it was well-received and was distributed in the West, where it garnered a cult following. Stalker was Tarkovsky’s last film to be produced in the Soviet Union, after which he exiled himself to Western Europe, landing himself in a migrant camp in Italy for a short period. His last two movies were filmed in Italy and Sweden, his final film, The Sacrifice, being released in 1986, the year of his death.

The Film that Almost Killed its Director

The mythos around the film is as significant as the film itself. The script was finished in 1976, but the filming would become one of Tarkovsky’s most tortuous and troubled of his career. The initial plan was to film in Tajikistan, but an earthquake ruined their ability to film there. In response, Tarkovsky searched for other areas to film in the Soviet Union, looking into Uzbekistan, Georgia, and Ukraine, but ultimately decided on Tallinn, Estonia. Tarkovsky chose a handful of former industrial areas around Tallinn, notably a ship repair yard, an abandoned oil-processing factory, and most famously, an abandoned hydroelectric station, destroyed in the Second World War. These areas would make up the fenced-off Zone, with all locations being treated as found, regardless of the pollution or contaminated water.

In Spring and Summer of 1977, the exterior scenes were shot, and the film was processed. However, all the film was tinted a dark green colour, effectively ruining the movie. All shots that were done would have to be re-done, meaning another season of filming on a budget that was already maxed out. Tarkovsky ended up firing his cinematographer and condemned the production of Stalker as cursed following a minor heart attack in 1978. The film was changed into the longer two-part film we know today to secure the funding to re-shoot.

Catering to the mythos that the production of Stalker was cursed is the fact that three of the people who participated in production would die a few years following the release of the film, all of the same disease. Tarkovsky, his wife Larisa, and Anatoly Solonitsyn, who played the Writer, all died of lung cancer within the decade after production. Sound recordist Vladimir Sharun believed that the deaths of these three were exacerbated by working in the contaminated conditions, particularly in wading through the oily, polluted waters the film spends so much time focused on.

Setup and Plot

The film is loosely adapted from the 1971 novel, Roadside Picnic, written by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. The book is a dark satire of the Soviet Union and was heavily censored by Soviet authorities upon release. Tarkovsky, however, was fascinated with the book and worked for years writing what would ultimately become Stalker, taking inspiration from one section of the book that follows a Stalker into the Zone.

Stalker is a bit looser with its sci-fi connections. The book it referenced took place in a fictionalized country, unnamed, surrounding one of six Zones left behind by extraterrestrials. Much like the film, however, there are disturbances in the Zone, disrupting the rules of nature and “confronting brave visitors with their true selves and granting their deepest wishes.”

The film sets up the nature of the Zone differently, leaving it purposely ambiguous so that at the end of the film, we’re uncertain whether the Zone has powers at all. The film opens with text — a supposed interview with Nobel Prize-winning Professor Wallace and an RAI correspondent. We’re never told who Professor Wallace is, but he recounts this uncertainty of what it was that created the Zone and whether cordoning off the Zone was beneficial, as he states:

Was it a meteorite or a visitor from outer-space? Whatever it was, in our small country, there appeared a miracle — the Zone. We sent in troops. Not one returns. Then we surrounded the Zone, with a security cordon. We did right… although I’m not sure. I’m not sure.

This sets the tone of the film and establishes its sci-fi elements with some ambiguity. Were the visitors from outer-space aliens or just a meteorite? Following the opening text, we are presented with the film proper. In simplest terms, the movie follows a Stalker and his companions on their singular journey into the Zone, towards a room that grants wishes. However, while the Strugatsky’s journey into the Zone is more akin to a dystopian road-trip story, Tarkovsky’s takes the form of a sombre, spiritual quest. With this setup, we are introduced to our characters.

Characters

There are three main characters in Stalker. All are referred to by aliases or nicknames. Even Stalker’s wife and daughter remain obscured in fake names or titles, but the most telling are the main three: Stalker, Writer, and Professor. There is a scene in a bar before the three enter the Zone, where the Writer attempts to introduce himself to the Professor, but Stalker intervenes with the remark, “He will be referred to as Professor.” The Zone requires anonymity, and in that vein, we are to engage with these characters through their titles and archetypes.

The Stalker, played by Alexander Kaidanovsky, is a former convict, intense and demanding discipline from his companions. Nevertheless, he relishes in the Zone and exclaims upon entering the Zone proper, “Here we are, home at last.” As the film repeatedly states, he is one of God’s fools and sits as the spiritual center of the film. He is one of the first characters we meet as he sneaks off from his home and leads the Professor and Writer deep into the Zone. While he is a former convict, he feels trapped and imprisoned everywhere outside of the Zone and laments that only in the Zone can one find freedom.

The Writer, played by Anatoly Solonitsyn, is a famous writer, although we are not told what he was written. He’s a drunk and seems to be on the verge of a crisis, as he seems to have lost his inspiration but only isn’t entirely convinced that it is inspiration that he needs. He acts as a foil to Stalker, often rejecting the ideas of miracles or the dangers of the Zone, notably represented in his first monologue when we’re introduced to him: “My world is so unutterably boring. There’s no telepathy, no ghosts, no flying saucers. They can’t exist. The world is ruled by cast-iron laws. These laws are not broken. They can’t be broken.”

The Professor, played by Ukrainian actor, Nikolai Grinko, is a physicist who enters the Zone supposedly for study and is accused of using the Zone to acquire a Nobel Prize from the Writer. It is later revealed that the Professor had entered the Zone to get revenge on a colleague and blow up the Room with a 20-kiloton bomb to prevent the Room from falling into the wrong hands. He abandons this plot when it is revealed that the Room only grants your most secret desires, not specific wishes. He is the most familiar with the history of the Zone and has a vague knowledge of the background of our Stalker and reveals that the daughter “is a mutant, a so-called Zone victim.”

Monkey, or Martyshka, played by Natasha Abramova, is the Stalker’s daughter. She gets little screentime but is a child of the Zone, a mutant, but the miracle at the film’s end. She presents the twist that miracles don’t just exist in the Zone but are present as home. She is always framed in colour, similar to the Zone, which reinforces the connection that she is a product of the Zone. Unlike the rest of the monochrome sepia world outside the Zone, she is somehow connected to inside the Zone.

The Stalker’s Wife, played by Alisa Freindlich, is a long-suffering woman that introduces us to the concern of time in the film, with the question of her watch and her wasted years. However, she breaks the fourth wall at the end of the film, telling the audience why she married a Stalker and that she doesn’t regret the sorrow because, without sorrow, happiness would not exist.

The film dives deep into the Zone with these five characters, playing with images of restriction, spirituality, and introspection. The film is incredibly meditative with its longshots and lingering gaze onto the natural world, and it feels more like poetry on-screen, with Tarkovsky giving you no easy answers to what the film is trying to say. Tarkovsky purposely denies restrictive interpretations of his work, and, as a result, his films are complex and rich with analogy, metaphor, and in the case of Stalker, poetry.

Themes and Interpretations

In response to the complexity and nuances of Tarkovsky’s film, Stalker has many interpretations and theories as to what the film is about, and I don’t have time to go into all of them in detail. Still, I want to highlight some of the most popular interpretations of the themes depicted in the film.

The first interpretation is that the film is about pursuing desires and finding hope and faith through arduous journeys. We see this in the fight at the end when the Stalker accuses the Professor of destroying the hope. We also see this tension in the Writer refusing to accept the strangeness of the Zone, his agitation at miracles, and his eventual condemnation that the Room grants wishes. Tarkovsky was, famously, quite spiritual and religious, and we see these images in parts of this film, as with many of his other ones. While this is a significant part of the film, however, it would be remiss to claim that the film’s only message was one of believing in miracles and faith. The film depicts a sombre, spiritual journey, but it covers more.

Another possible interpretation of the film is an analogy and subversion of the haunted history of the gulags and prison camps the Soviet Union is infamous for. Ryan Madson, in his excellent article on the film, “Post-Stalker: Notes on Post-Industrial Environments and Aesthetics,” addresses this interpretation and dismisses it as too restrictive, stating:

Film critics have proposed reading the Zone allegorically, perhaps representing the gulag or the militarized borderlands between the Soviet bloc and the West. But such readings are ultimately too restrictive, and Tarkovsky famously resisted overtly symbolic or single-metaphor interpretations.

While it is hard to miss the references to gulag and camp life in Stalker, as is represented in the language of “Zona” and “the meat-grinder,” and Kaidanovsky’s gaunt features and characteristic Zek shaved-hair, the reading is a bit reductive to the film and it ignores the way the film subverts this idea of freedom. The Stalker exclaims, “They took everything from me behind the barbed wire. Everything I have is here. Here, in the Zone”. Instead of freedom being found in the world outside of the Zone, the Stalker finds his home, his freedom, and comfort in, amongst nature inside the barbed wire of the Zone.

Another possible interpretation is that the film is about asylum-seeking. All three characters are on the run from something in their lives, the Stalker is a convict, the Writer chafes under a restrictive government, and the Professor risks detention for his attempted destruction of the Room and the Zone. This film was the last film made in Russia by Tarkovsky before he became an asylum seeker. However, even this reading feels too restrictive even for Tarkovsky, who was known for his autobiographical characters and his insertion of his philosophies into his films.

A theme that has gained the most traction both academically and popularly is the connection between the environments in Stalker and that of the environmental disasters within the Soviet Union. Some have even gone as far as to argue that Stalker prophesied the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. While that argument is a bit dubious, the belief that Stalker was prophetic does hold water in that it gave us the language to discuss these post-industrial landscapes and disasters — much like the landscape of the Zone. In addition, Tarkovsky was invested in nature and fascinated by it, going as far as stating in an interview:

Often we remove nature from films because it seems useless. We exclude it thinking we are the real protagonists. But we are not the protagonists because we are dependent on nature. We are the results of its evolution. I think to neglect nature, from an emotional and artistic point of view, is a crime.

As a result, we see how the environment can be hostile yet beautiful. There is a haunting beauty in the Zone that is concerned with environmental degradation and could be extrapolated further onto radiation. The argument of radiation and ecological degradation isn’t unfounded, as Tarkovsky would address similar issues in his last film, The Sacrifice.

Radiation and Environmental Degradation

In our earlier discussion of characters, it can be argued that I left someone out of the list, and that character is the character of the Zone. The Zone takes on a central role within the film, almost surpassing our sickly and agitated protagonist, the Stalker. The entire colour palette of the film shifts once our ensemble enters the Zone, shifting from a monochromic, industrial sepia filter to these rich, vibrant scenes of lush environments over-taking melted and moss-covered tanks, oily wells, rushing pipes, and dark-brown foam rippling uneasily on the surface of the water. The setting is polluted but is also beautiful. As Ryan Madson puts it eloquently,

Tarkovsky’s landscapes are alive with elemental forces. Sun and rain, wind and fire, and tangles of vegetation animate his long takes and complex tracking shots. His cinematographer’s fixation on limpid currents of water is a notable example. Nature is a real and vital force in Tarkovsky’s cinematographic language.

We see nature’s vital force exacerbated in Stalker, as the Zone is an actively hostile place with warnings, such as the Writer’s false voice telling him to stop and the hawk diving towards the group in the room of sand, and active threats such as misleading the Stalker and Writer. These threats are invisible, however, creating a labyrinth of hidden landmines that could kill and trap a man within the Zone — supposedly the disappearing of soldiers and travellers due to such dangers. The Stalker tells us early on that the trip is short, but one rarely goes the shortest way; there is too much risk.

This closed Zone is most similar to a concept in Russian and Soviet ecology, known as a Zapovednik. “Zapovednik” — a Russian term literally meaning an “area given special legal protections” that has more broadly come to mean “nature preserve” in discussions of Russian ecology. Russia currently has 102 zapovedniks with some being implemented before the 1917 Revolution and having been sustained throughout the tenure of the Soviet Union and beyond. Unlike American or Canadian National Parks that sought to preserve the environment “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people,” as was declared when the first American National Park, Yellowstone, was established, Russian conservationists instead sought to protect nature from people. Vast portions of the Russian environment were closely guarded, restricted, and observed to ensure that the nature within was uninterrupted by human interactions or interventions. These ideas would’ve been familiar and well-known amongst the popular consciousness in the Soviet Union, and it would be remiss to think that Tarkovsky was not inspired by such concepts in his development of the Zone.

The Zone we see our three main characters journey deep into can be interpreted in this vein. It is most literally an area that is given special legal protections and protected from humanity, whether to protect people from what’s inside or to protect what’s in the Zone from humanity. Both arguments can be made given the actions of the film. The Writer and Professor are hostile to the Zone, interrupting, disrespecting it, and ultimately trying to destroy what is miraculous in it. But we also see that the Zone is also hostile, full of invisible hazards and as Madson describes, it is a maze-like space full of imperceptible landmines.

These invisible threats can be interpreted as analogous to hazards of radiation or pollution, ironic since the film was filmed in heavily industrial and polluted areas. In the 1970s and earlier, concerns about environmental degradation and contamination were rampant throughout the Soviet Union. Much like in the West, environmental movements were gaining traction and, while Tarkovsky made no direct comments on the ecological issues of his time, it would be hard to believe that he wasn’t aware of the environmental concerns floating around in the 1970s, especially as a member of the intelligentsia.

Twenty years before the film’s production, there had been catastrophic nuclear crises and problems in the Urals surrounding the closed city of Ozersk and the Mayak Plutonium Plan. The plant contaminated the surrounding area to the point that children were suffering mutations and severe cancer. The area around the closed city eventually became its own kind of Zone, in a way, not as dramatic as the Zone of Alienation following the Chernobyl disaster but significant regardless. A good book on the topic is Plutopia by Kate Brown, as she delves into the nature of these invisible environmental threats and Zones not just within the Soviet Union but also within the United States.

While it is unknown whether Tarkovsky was influenced directly by what had happened in the Urals, especially since much of the details were classified, or whether such stories made it back to him indirectly, the scenario does present a touchstone as to where he would’ve gotten inspiration especially since much of what happened in Ozersk was during his lifetime, throughout the 1950s and 60s. Furthermore, the ‘mutated’ children are referenced in the character of Monkey, the Stalker’s daughter, as she has no use of her legs, has a shaved head that remains covered, and is quite sickly. Therefore, it can be extrapolated that the children of the Zone are those who suffer from a specific sickness. In this case, it can be inferred that it is radiation-induced childhood cancer or disabilities.

Many children born with radiation-induced deformities often came from parents who had high levels of exposure. In the case of Monkey, her father is a Stalker, sickly himself, and it can be interpreted that the invisible threat in the Zone is not just these miraculous landmines, but also high levels of radiation brought on by a meteorite or visitor from outer space. Which is what uranium is, as a product of supernovas. This knowledge is treated as well-known. The Stalker’s wife mentions that she was well aware of the kind of children Stalker’s have before she married him, and the Professor and Writer casually discuss the mutations and risks brought on by the Zone. It’s a method to bring the audience closer to the characters. Still, it also suggests that the audience watching this film in the USSR would’ve been aware of where these metaphors are coming from, whether directly or indirectly.

The most popular way Stalker is used in the discussion of Soviet environments and radiation is in the conversation about the Chernobyl disaster, particularly in how we engage with these post-industrial environments and how Stalker provided us with the language and aesthetic framework to understand such crises.

Ruin Porn and Aestheticized Destruction

In the film, we are provided with a landscape with a backstory. As the Professor explains to the Writer:

About 20 years ago, they say, a meteorite fell here. It razed the settlement. They searched for it, but they found nothing, of course. Then people began to vanish. Finally, it was decided that this meteorite was not quite a meteorite. So, as a start, they put up barbed wire to stop the inquisitive taking risks […] They started to guard the Zone, like a treasure.

We are presented with an environment that has, in recent, memory been destroyed and abandoned by humanity. In an aesthetic sense, the land is labelled as post-industrial, which is reflected in nature, reclaiming the space left by humanity. We see overgrown fields, knocked over power poles, and buildings flooded and left open to the elements. Tarkovsky lingers on these scenes, letting the audience soak up these vibrant and harrowing environs.

The film has been lauded as the progenitor of the aesthetic movement called Ruin Porn. Madson provides a solid description of Ruin Porn, what Tarkovsky got right, and why it is attractive. He explains that ruin porn

…offers dereliction and decay where the romance of the picturesque ruin is amplified by the absence of people. Civilization has apparently forsaken or forgotten these places.

In essence, Ruin Porn is best described as finding pleasure through engaging with sites of destruction and decay. This is the aesthetic language and framework that has since been used to understand and engage with places of post-industrialism.

Madson argues that Tarkovsky’s immersive, beautiful, and horrifying world of Stalker had opened up new ways to conceive of our finitude, our anxieties and fears “around abandonment, failure, and the unknown.” Moreover, it had managed to do that, creating a dangerous yet banal post-industrial Zone that can be confronted with three bolts tied with bandage cloth. As he elaborates:

Within a post-industrial landscape that turns banal and lethal, the Stalker appears to possess some limited agency. The Zone is a minefield, a labyrinth, a trap. The Stalker guides his companions through a post-industrial wilderness with its own rules and rites of passage. And their passage is physical, an embodied experience that relies on all the human senses and not just the visual. Tarkovsky’s camera lingers upon the trio as they glide along a railroad track, wade through industrial canals, and trudge through tunnels. An earthiness and pervasive dampness are conveyed throughout, helping the viewer to empathize with the characters and experience their journey more viscerally.

We are soothed because, while this Zone is labyrinthine, it can be tackled, and there are specialists who journey into the Zone, Stalkers. We are further comforted in Stalker’s embrace of the nature of the Zone, the flowers, the puddles he wades through, and the mossy patches he chooses as his bed for a quick nap. Nature is celebrated for its regenerative properties. It is free to reclaim its space, unlike the Stalker, who inevitably has to return from behind the barbed wire. This place also feels like a holy place, a place that can only be traversed by one of “God’s Fools”, by those who enter the Zone with no other desire than to lead people to hope. There is an optimism in that.

Madson claims that Stalker “anticipated a recent emphasis on regenerative landscapes and the increasingly popular acceptance of unmanicured nature in cities.” There is an optimism prompted by Tarkovsky’s humanist philosophies and “our entanglements with the post-industrial world.” Madson posits locating a new kind of post-Stalker humanism or metaphysics that focuses on the regenerative properties of urban and industrial ruin. There is a relief in the idea that nature will do what it always does and reclaim its rightful space in the world when we are gone.

I want to take Madson’s point further, however, and argue that in some ways, we have found our post-Stalker form of humanism, as exemplified in the narratives that surround post-industrial environments like the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Within the realm of ‘ruin porn’ when discussed Chernobyl, there is a wary acceptance of the ultimate fate humanity can expect to encounter.[1]

In this sense, ruin porn becomes a valuable method to approach the finality of humanity by removing death somewhat from the imaginary terrain and forcing it into reality. No longer is the apocalypse reserved for the future, but it becomes part of the here and now.[2]

Chernobyl, and Stalker by extension, force us to encounter the inevitable. While we can be optimistic about nature’s return to the Zone, we do have to grapple with our extinction in that same vein. Perhaps there is a comfort found in the fact that in both Stalker’s Zone and Chernobyl’s Zone, humanity could not survive in these places, and we can be optimistic that our finitude isn’t the end of the world. We can take lessons from the post-humanist space on our planet — that there is a future beyond us.

If you don’t accept that there is comfort in post-humanist or post-industrial spaces, don’t worry, you’re not the only one — and even Tarkovsky, I don’t think, would argue that the Zone is a reassuring place. But, if we apply the lessons of Stalker to Chernobyl, New York Times writer Mark O’Connell describes our relationship with this post-industrial landscape as ironic and uneasy. As he states:

This is the colossal irony of Chernobyl because it is the site of an enormous ecological catastrophe. For decades now, this region has been void of human life; and it is effectively a vast nature preserve because it is void of human life. To enter the Zone, in this sense, is to have one foot in a prelapsarian paradise and the other in a post-apocalyptic wasteland […] It was astonishing to behold how quickly we humans became irrelevant to the business of nature.[3]

Similar can be said about Tarkovsky’s Zone, and it is both apocalyptic and a post-humanist paradise. We are trespassers, after all, just experiencing the Zone for a few hours as we watch three men journey through sopping landscapes and fight over hope. However, as we pass through this Zone, Tarkovsky challenges us with these questions about our post-industrial world, questions of how it presents itself, and how we deal with catastrophes that threaten our existence. These questions are only more pressing as we now have to grapple with our Zone and what we want our post-industrial world to look like.

On a more practical level, Stalker provided those who had to work on the ground in Chernobyl a language they could understand. The Zone was an obvious one, an area that had obvious invisible threats, and was maze-like in the way radiation could shift and make once safe areas incredibly dangerous. In a similar vein, liquidators, those sent in to clean up the reactor, level nearby villages, and bury irradiated forests started, in some cases, referred to themselves as Stalkers. It was a cultural touchstone, and while the film provides a new aesthetic language, it also provided the framework to understand the Chernobyl disaster on a different level. This was an area touched by disaster, that emptied villages, and caused some to vanish and only those who could enter were those trained on how to navigate the maze of Chernobyl — not with bolts and bandages, however, but with Geiger counters.

Conclusion

Even though this film almost killed him, Tarkovsky managed to create a new way of thinking of our environments, clearly influenced by the world that he was living in at the time — coming to terms with its environmental problems and concerns. As Madson claims, “He unintentionally developed an aesthetic of the post-industrial, an aesthetic which still feels contemporary” and I would argue that the timelessness of aesthetics and themes of the film are only exacerbated with the existence of our Zone and our confrontation with catastrophe as we face climate change.

Tarkovsky purposely left interpretations of Stalker open, refusing audiences any easy answers to their questions. Still, audiences, critics, and academics have latched onto the ecological qualities of Stalker and how it managed to provide us with a language to deal with crises and Zones almost a decade before the world had to grapple with such a catastrophe. It offers an uneasy glimpse into a world without us, especially when our home and everything we’ve ever loved sits beyond the barded wire within the Zone. The film even depicts the futility of fighting the Zone because it is part of nature and cannot be destroyed once it arrives. So, we are left with this challenging vision of our role in a future post-industrial world we’ve created where miracles can exist, but they come at a cost.

This was originally a lecture presented at the University of King’s College on February 3rd, 2022.

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angela (анжела)

Journalism student and news editor. Scholar and freelance writer. Former contributing writer with The New Twenties. Studied Soviet environmental history ✨