Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker has become a staple on any film or Russian studies curriculum, and cinephiles would no doubt have celebrated the news that the 35mm original camera negative has been given a 2K digital restoration by Mosfilm, as well as being shown with uncompressed monaural soundtrack. The last film that Tarkovsky directed in the Soviet Union, Stalker immerses the viewer in an ambiguous post-apocalyptic arena and is fascinating and uneasy in equal measure. Based on Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s 1971 science fiction novel Roadside Picnic, the film was released in 1979, shortly before the director emigrated from the Soviet Union permanently, and received an unsurprisingly cold reaction from Goskino upon its release. It was not dynamic enough, the shots were too long, and the audience would undoubtedly lose interest. However, the film sold 4.3 million tickets in the Soviet Union and remains one of the most unique and immersive cinematic experiences of the twentieth century. The film’s protagonist is ‘the Stalker’, an unnamed man hired to guide a writer and professor into the ‘Zone’, an outlawed, inexplicable space of uncertain origin, within which is believed to be found a room in which your greatest desires are granted. The one thing we can be certain of is that within the Zone reality becomes distorted, testing all three men physically, psychologically and philosophically in ways that remain unexplained.
So, what did I make of the digital restoration? Personally, the most striking difference between the original and the restored version is the sound. I found my ears pricking at the harsh sound of birds cawing, jarring me from the silence of the Zone. Had you asked me if there were such birds audible in the original, I would have said no. The characters’ tense breathing, footsteps in puddles, the slightest footfall. The increase in tension is enormous and the cinematic experience is altered for the better. Visually, the difference is clear from the opening scenes. The sepia is warmer, the edges clearer, the once near opaque corners now visible. The visual resolution is further amplified upon entry into the Zone, the colours appearing as never before. Tarkovsky was well known for choosing long shots, and this only gives us more time to explore the smallest details of the Zone, now shown to us in plain view, our eyes devouring the previously unseen. However, it is precisely this seemingly positive result of the digital restoration that is problematic. Besides its enchanting cinematography, Stalker has remained such a phenomenon in large part thanks to the ambiguity imbued within it, both philosophically and visually. The latter has now been shattered, the visuals are sharp and clearer and the Zone is no longer as disconcertingly foreign and ambiguous as it was before.
The digitally restored Stalker won’t draw large crowds and we will never know if Tarkovsky himself would have approved, but for the cinephiles out there, this is an experience not to be missed, and watching it anywhere other than in a cinema would be a discredit to the restoration.