“People now nothing of their subconscious desires.”
Where they are now building on the ‘boiler’ was the gate to the Zone in the film ‘Stalker’ by Andrei Tarkovski. In the industrial estate between Old Narva and Leningrad Avenues all the trips using the flatbed railway truck were filmed. At the bridge over the River Pirita the flatbed truck halted, that’s where they got off and headed in a northerly direction. The Zone itself started in the riverbed of the Pirita. There were four tanks standing there that looked as if they’d been destroyed, a few machine guns and a couple of armoured vehicles. On top of one a soldier’s skeleton was placed behind a machine gun. This was the world of the Stalker where none of the soldiers dared to enter any further.
At that time filming was also carried out 200 metres from the Viru Hotel, the place where the building of the Nordea Bank now stands, in the in the yards of the state grain elevators in the Rotermanni Quarter, at the old oil tank on the Kopli Peninsula and in two power stations on the River Jägala. Only the interiors were filmed in Mosfilm’s largest studio. The final scenes were filmed in an eastern suburb of Moscow.
At first Uzbekistan was intended to be the location for filming ‘Stalker’ but in the spring of 1977 there was an earthquake there.
In 1975, when Tarkovsky showed his film ‘The Mirror’ in Estonia, he had made friends with the Director of the Tallinn Film Studio, Enn Rekkor. In 1976 Rekkor offered Tarkovsky the chance to collaborate as an artistic adviser on the anthology film ‘Karikakramäng’ (‘Daisy Petal Game’), on which [the directors] Peeter Simm, Peeter Urbla and I [as a cameraman]were working. During this work he mentioned that the business in Uzbekistan had fallen through and he preferred to have a look round here.
The script was still being changed on set
When Tarkovsky started filming, I was permitted to be there as an intern. I didn’t have any tasks during filming because I was already officially finished with college [studying to be a cameraman at the Moscow Film Institute]. But my right to be on set was something I used to the full during the two summers. I was permitted to stand beside the director and to take my own pictures - something that was otherwise completely forbidden - and to follow how things were done, how things were staged, lit and developed.
Three cameramen succeeded one another on set during filming. During the first summer Georgi Rerberg was there, in September and October it was Leonid Kalashnikov and the next summer Alexander Knyazhinsky. At the time of ‘The Mirror’ Tarkovsky maintained a good working relationship with Georgi Rerberg, but with ‘Stalker’ it didn’t work out so well. Leonid Kalashnikov had worked a lot with Solovyov and made romantic films with very beautiful imagery. With ‘Stalker’ he was only there for three weeks and then filming was halted because the script was constantly being changed. They wouldn’t have been finished during the course of the autumn, nature was already starting to assume yellow tones. During the winter Andrei had a heart attack, he spent almost a whole month in hospital, and the next summer, from the end of May and in June, the whole movie was filmed all at once. Where during the first summer they were already working on the seventh version of the script, in the end the story was filmed based on the eleventh version. It wasn’t usual to produce so many versions. And another thing that was extremely unusual was the fact that the script was still being changed during filming.
Only two takes were needed
Knyazhinsky refilmed absolutely all the material again because the old material had been ruined because of an error in the Mosfilm laboratory. More than 2,000 metres of negatives from Kodak had been developed to a disgusting browny green colour, that was something that Peter Simm and I could see ourselves on the cutting table. This was a new type of Kodak film and Mosfilm’s chief engineer, Konoplyov, had ‘rationalised’, he hadn’t purchased a particular chemical, he was saving money. But - looked at another way - if that hadn’t happened, we wouldn’t have the ‘Stalker’ we now have. According to the first scripts ‘Stalker’ would have predominantly become an adventure film with a violent recidivist as the main character, but in the course of time he became more and more like Prince Myshkin from Dostoyevsky’s book, ‘The Idiot’. A person who tries to help others, whose life is dedicated to helping those who are unhappy.
Tarkovsky completely reinterpreted the book ‘Roadside Picnic’ by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, which served as the basis for the movie. One of the brothers even stayed quite a long time in Tallinn, Andrei often gave him the next scene and explained what direction he wished the revision to go. Filming took place only for two to two and a half hours a day, during the period that’s called the ‘magic hour’ in English, but ‘rezhimnaya vremya’ (regime time) in Russian, when there isn’t any direct sunlight anymore, only the cool silver light of the heavenly canopy.
A movie like an old Dutch painting
Tarkovsky looked through the camera himself and determined the settings down to the last millimetre. Normally two takes were filmed. Just two, because they were using Kodak film and in Soviet times that was worth its weight in gold. But more weren’t necessary in any case because everything was just right. So the day was largely taken up with preparations. The power station in Jägala was originally peach-coloured. It was pained twice - first with antique green like in the old Dutch paintings, then it was allowed to dry. After that used motor oil, soluble glass and copper dust were mixed into the paint and then moss was stuck on top. Tarkovsky’s attitude was that even a setting where no actors were to be seen should always be interesting for the viewer. Thus all factors [Fakturen] were very elaborate, vibrant, often they have water flowing in them.
Within the picture frame everything was composed very precisely, there were no chance elements, except for the wind moving the bushes. Everything else was precisely aligned, the time for the light was set with a precision of five minutes, the cameraman always had to measure it with a colorimeter in order to get the right light temperature. Everything was like a painting. Every element had to be right, so, for example, we picked all the flowers of other colours, only the white ones remained, in extreme cases also a few blue ones, the yellow ones and the red ones had to go, so that you had only the pure, cool green and white. The multicoloured elements were destroyed. And if the green leaves were too bright, for example, when viewed from an interior, they were sprayed a darker colour.
In the film the painting is simply carried out using light, in other words, that’s the way it is in good movies…
In each of his films Tarkovsky had an artistic concept. ‘The Mirror’ was freely swimming in the ocean between at least three time levels: the year 1936 the war period and 1974 – and then there was archive footage.
The concept for ‘Stalker’ was based on the traditional unity of time, place and space. Concrete spaces, 24 hours during which the whole trip took place. Tarkovsky tried to avoid having any large leaps in time between the takes, so the takes in this film are also exceptionally long. Strange as it may sound, with ‘Stalker’ the French painter Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) was taken as a model. Poussin’s paintings frequently have mythological subjects and in principle ‘Stalker’ is also based on a myth. On faith. On the ethical teaching that says that you should help your fellow human beings as much as you can, but when doing so, you ought to know the following: When you reach the threshold of the secret place where your innermost desires will be fulfilled, it’ll turn out that people know nothing of their subconscious desires. Tarkovsky has never used the word ‘God’ but the film contains a religious message. When people stand before God, God sees through them; He knows more about us than we do ourselves. People may follow their ideals, but they can never be certain what dark powers are lurking within themselves.
That was like a journey to your own conscience where everything accidental fell away during the journey. People looked into their consciences as if into a dark well and were purified. In spite of the fact that he was punished and had spent years in prisons , that his wife was waiting for him and that his daughter was a mutant because of the Zone, Stalker couldn’t avoid helping people because he had the feeling that otherwise nobody was able to help them.
He always did what he thought was right
In the soviet Union there were various attitudes towards Tarkovsky. On the one hand people were inspired by the master, but for the authorities he was a difficult character, who never listened to anybody and always did what he himself thought was right. Of the movies he made in the Soviet Union ‘Stalker’ had the clearest message. Anybody who wasn’t lacking in intelligence certainly understood that it was a sort of religious one. It wasn’t necessary to talk of a God; God was there, that was something that everybody felt.
In his innermost being Tarkovsky was deeply religious, but not in a way that everybody would have definitely seen it. At home he only had on heavy crucifix made of steel by Ernst Neizvestny and a couple of small icons.
In the West the dissident elements in ‘Stalker’ were emphasised. Anybody who has eyes sees, anybody who has ears hears and anybody who can empathise receives a very positive energy boost. I believe that Tarkovsky’s best films have a gold seal. A high-carat one.
Arvo Iho is a cameraman and film director
The article appeared in the newspaper ‘Kultuuripealinn’ (‘The Capital of Culture’) on 5 August 2011
Translation from Estonian to German: Liis Kolle
Translation from German to English: Einde O’Callaghan