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Posts Tagged ‘Alexander Kaidanovsky’

As I have suggested before, most western viewers’ exposure to Russian SF cinema is limited to the considerable but imposing films of Andrei Tarkovsky, specifically Solaris and Stalker. This is obviously far from ideal, not least because Tarkovsky himself was no fan of genre as a concept, and the fact that Solaris contained so many conventions of the SF genre meant that it was his least favourite of his own films. Stalker, certainly, shuffles backwards into the SF genre, ending up there because it resembles anything else even less. Russian SF movies did not begin and end with Andrei Tarkovsky – so what do some of the others look like?

Marek Piestrak’s The Inquest of Pilot Pirx was released in 1979, the same year as Stalker, and features one of the actors from that film; it also shares a sort of connection with Solaris, as both films are based on stories by the Polish writer Stanislaw Lem (I should mention that while this is a Soviet film, it is technically a Polish-Russian co-production). One should always be wary of speculating based on too little evidence, but one wonders if the late 70s SF boom extended behind the iron curtain?

Certainly much of Inquest suggests that its makers were aware of what was going on in western SF films. It opens in what looks like some kind of laboratory, with technicians in ‘clean’ suits working on what look very much like parts of human-like robots – androids, in other words. We are clearly in the same kind of narrative territory as Westworld, although the film (like many others) seems a bit unclear about the nature of its synthetic humans – on the one hand, we are told that the androids are so similar to people that only detailed medical tests can identify them; on the other, it is suggested that if you cut one of them open bits of wire and plastic fall out.

Perhaps the first big surprise of the film comes when it is revealed that the android construction facility is in the United States (or so it is heavily suggested), although everybody still speaks Russian there (in the same way that Russian characters in Bond films speak English to each other). Given SF often functions as a critical or satiric commentary on the society that produced it, one wonders if the authorities insisted that the USSR not be featured in the film? (Another possible parallel with Stalker, which had dialogue added to it to make it clear the film was not set in Russia.) We see a meeting between the android construction company and people from the UN, discussing a new space mission – the title character, Commander Pirx (Sergei Desnitsky) is chosen, mainly for his good moral character, although the android makers are not very happy about this.

Soon enough Pirx meets up with someone from UNESCO who explains the job they want him to do: androids (‘non-linears’ in the film’s parlance) are on the verge of going into mass production, and could potentially have a major impact on society. However, before this can happen, the authorities are going to have a little test – there will be a mission to Jupiter, with the ship crewed by a mixture of humans and androids, to see which perform better under the stresses of the flight. The twist is that Pirx will not be told which of his men is organic and which is not, and they are under orders not to tell him. Which could prove awkward, if one of the androids should turn out to be mad and decide to try and kill all the human crew…

This is not an especially long film and one of the problems with it is that the first half of it is resolutely earthbound, taking place in a variety of offices, factories, streets – there’s even a glimpse of a branch of McDonalds. This is fairly drab stuff, it must be said, only marginally recognisable as SF, and the pace of it is leisurely, to say the least. Much of it concerns a cack-handed attempt by the android builders to assassinate Pirx so he can be replaced by someone more sympathetic to their agenda: this is pure filler, not informing the second half of the film at all.

The second half of Inquest is at least easily obviously a science fiction film, as Pirx and his crew set off into deep space to carry out their mission. Again, parallels with western SF are almost inescapable – we are in the same kind of territory as Alien and Blade Runner (although, given the rather primitive special effects and model-work, some people may be more reminded of Blake’s 7). It soon becomes apparent that someone on the ship is up to no good and planning the failure of the mission, although who it is remains a mystery (the film achieves this through the somewhat awkward expedient of having the traitor shuffle around with his back to the camera so his face cannot be seen). Pirx, rather in defiance of his orders, sets out to figure out who is who, or more accurately what, amongst his crew – some of whom, such as ship’s doctor Nowak (Alexander Kaidanovsky, the stalker himself), and pilot Calder (Zbigniew Lesien), happily inform him without needing much pressing – but can they be trusted to tell the truth?

Much potential here for tension and paranoia, of course, along with all the jeopardy of a deep-space mission, but unfortunately it mostly goes unrealised. There are many dour discussions about what’s going on, along with some abstract talk about the nature of what it means to be human (or an android) – at one point it seems like Pirx has reached the conclusion that all androids will necessarily be atheists, and starts asking members of the crew what their religious beliefs are. The conclusion, one of the few things recognisably derived from the original Lem story, is that the main difference between man and machine is that man is fallible, but that fallibility itself can be a virtue under some circumstances. It’s an interesting idea, but the problem with Inquest is that it fails to dramatise it in a consistently engaging way. Too much of this film is slow and talky, with a meandering and underpowered story.

Much of The Inquest of Pilot Pirx is heavy-going, unengaging stuff. It makes an interesting contrast to the more lightweight SF action-adventure films being made in Europe and America at around the same time, and it curious to see the parallels in how it handles the same kind of material and ideas. But as a film in its own right, it’s hard to get particularly excited about: it has a certain novelty value, obviously, but not much more.

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My good friend and occasional presence on the blog, Olinka, is keen to hang onto her Russian identity as far as possible, trying to speak the language and enjoy her culture whenever she can. Although Russian is one of my languages (just about), I haven’t seen that many films made in it, which she seemed vaguely disappointed by when I mentioned that Mirror was one of the few Soviet-era movies I’d watched.

Perhaps as a result, a few weeks later she dropped me a line telling me about a new website she’d found hosting a large number of Russian-language films for streaming. ‘You should watch сталкер,’ she said.

‘You what?’

‘They have сталкер on the site. We were talking about it the other week.’

‘I don’t even know how you’re pronouncing that. Stop talking in Cyrillic, please.’

‘Oh, all right. They have Stalker. You know, the Tarkovsky film.’

This was of some interest to me, because I have been aware for some time of the fact that the USSR produced a number of noteworthy science fiction films. SF is, as you will be aware if you come here regularly, one of my few genuine passions, and this did feel like a real gap in my experience. I’ve seen Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, of course, but then that’s not a particular achievement as it’s one of the very few Soviet SF films to have any kind of profile in the west. One of the others, as you may have gathered, is Stalker, likewise made by Tarkovsky a few years later (1979, to be exact). I remember the first time it was shown on British TV, nearly ten years later – in the middle of the night, pretty much, with a somewhat ambivalent write-up in the TV listings – ‘Either a cryptic SF parable or three men mucking about on some waste ground for two and a half hours, you decide,’ was about the gist of it.

Certainly, Stalker does not resemble the kind of SF film routinely being made in the west at the tail end of the 1970s. Freely adapted by the Strugatsky brothers from their own novel Roadside Picnic, the film is set at some point in the future, in an unspecified nation – probably not Russia, given one of the characters refers to it as a ‘small nation’. This kind of detail is not really important anyway. Soon we meet the protagonist, the stalker of the title (Alexander Kaidanovsky), who lives in fairly primitive circumstances, and not especially happily, with his wife (Alisa Friendlich) and child. He is about to embark on a dangerous and illegal undertaking, not for the first time, and she is not exactly happy. But he is insistent, for reasons which are not immediately apparent.

His clients are likewise left nameless: they are a writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn) and a scientist (Nikolai Grinko). The stalker is to lead them into the Zone, a quarantined area kept under military guard. Years earlier, a meteorite (or something else from deep space…) fell in this region, ever since which it has been sealed off and uninhabited. The story goes that somewhere in the Zone is a room containing some agency which grants the deepest desires of anyone entering it, and the stalker has been paid to take the writer and the scientist to this place…

The early sequences of Stalker are (perhaps intentionally) misleading – long, slow scenes of the stalker getting out of bed and quarrelling with his wife, before talking to the others. Tarkovsky reportedly said he wanted the opening of the film to be even slower and duller so that ‘people who walked into the wrong theatre’ had plenty of time to leave before the film properly got going (inasmuch as Stalker ever gets going, as it is traditionally understood). That said, these scenes are followed by the trio penetrating the security around the Zone, dodging armed guards and other security measures, and for a moment it almost seems like the film is going to be conventional.

But of course it isn’t. Entry into the Zone provides one moment of profound cinematic shock, as the toxic sepia of the opening scenes is replaced by beautiful, natural colour, and also marks the film adopting the mode it will maintain for most of the rest of its duration: the three men travelling through the Zone towards the room, looking at the landscape around them while discussing where they are and their reasons for being there.

As you can probably tell, this is another of those SF films which doesn’t really resemble SF for the vast majority of its length: particularly to a viewer who has come to primarily associate SF with films in the action-adventure idiom. There is not much action-adventure here, no laser guns, no spaceships, no robots or aliens – the alien influences of the Zone are left unseen, perceived only by the stalker. Until the closing moments of the film, I was half-expecting this to function wholly as a kind of psychological study of the stalker’s fractured mind, with the curious properties of the Zone a figment of his imagination. But it seems not: there is something strange at the heart of the Zone, the question being what this anomaly is.

As has been said so often that it has practically become a truism, SF films do not exist to predict the future, but more to comment on the present. Nevertheless, films do occasionally come along which feel almost eerie in their prescience: for instance, there’s Starship Troopers, which is one of the best commentaries of the aftermath of September 11th 2001 ever made, even though it was produced in 1996. And there’s a sense in which Stalker feels inextricably connected to the Chernobyl disaster, even though it preceded those events by six or seven years. The Zone of the film has the feeling of a post-industrial, post-apocalyptic waste, for all that its colours are more natural than those of the wider world. Detritus of modern society is everywhere – syringes are particularly prominent – although there are signs of nature reclaiming the area. It is perhaps worth mentioning that many people have suggested that Stalker was in fact filmed on a dumping ground for chemical waste, and that this was a contributing factor in Tarkovsky’s own premature death; worth mentioning, too, that guides who lead visitors into the real-life exclusion zone around the Chernobyl reactor refer to themselves as stalkers.

There is something profoundly bleak and dismal about the Zone in the film, although quite what it represents is left as ambiguous as much of the rest of Stalker. That the film is intended to be symbolic is established early on, with the switch from sepia to full colour and the fact that none of the characters are named. The writer is hoping the room will give him inspiration, while the scientist is hoping that understanding the room and the Zone will bring him acclaim and respect from his peers (or so he initially claims, anyway). Or, as some have suggested, the two characters represent the artistic and the scientific perspectives on life, neither of which proves fully compatible with the reality of the Zone. What, then of the stalker himself?

It seems to me that this is ultimately a film about spirituality and faith, which is a very audacious choice of theme for a Soviet film and may explain why Stalker is quite as oblique as it is. The others have to place their faith in the stalker, who himself seems to have an almost religious devotion to the room and what it represents: hope, perhaps, an escape from the material squalor of the world. Only those who have suffered can truly appreciate the room, he suggests, while those approaching it with impure motives will be punished. It’s not even as if this interpretation of the film is buried particularly deeply: one poster for the film features a moment where one of the characters affects to wear a crown of thorns.

In the end, though, for all that not very much happens compared to more conventional films, Stalker is so dense in terms of its dialogue, themes and philosophy that it’s entirely possible there are other interpretations with greater validity. It is not the kind of film you can watch once and then move on from – ‘remember, when you watch Stalker, Stalker also watches you,’ was Olinka’s final word on the film, indicating a Tarkovsky-ish talent for suggestive obliqueness. Possibly the clues are all there in the closing scenes of the film, which are strikingly different in style – one character makes a lengthy, casual speech to the camera, there is a sudden display of superhuman faculties from a relatively minor character described as a  ‘Zone mutant’. This is a film to be absorbed and reflected upon rather than watched in the conventional sense. Like the Zone, it resolutely keeps its secrets and demands a leap of faith from those who would approach it. Whether Stalker sufficiently rewards the experience of attempting to decipher it is probably up to the individual viewer, but it is a striking, unforgettable experience nevertheless.

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