Stalker, released in 1979, is a Russian science fiction film directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. It’s an enigmatic film, almost devoid of special effects and characterised by long takes and even longer silences, punctuated by strange images and philosophical dialogue. It’s creation was a troubled affair – the original film was damaged beyond repair and it had to be reshot by Tarkovsky and his crew. In addition, the setting of the film – mainly abandoned but toxic industrial powerplants – was said to have contributed to the early deaths of many of the film’s creators, including Tarkovsky himself.
Much of the film was shot in and around Tallinn – today, the capital city of Estonia, but back then still part of the Soviet Union. The city is famous for its remarkably well-preserved medieval core; but Tarkovsky used another aspect of Tallinn for his film, that is, the effects of the Soviet policy of rapid urban industrialisation. Beyond the old city walls, the Soviet city remains – brutally modernist tower blocks infilled with countless brick and red-and-white striped chimneys. One of these – part of the Flora chemical factory – looms aggressively directly in front of the church towers of the old city (1 & 3). This was the site chosen by Tarkovsky for the heavily-fortified entrance to the Zone – a restricted area in Stalker where supernatural forces are at work (2). The factory has now been taken over by an artists’ collective, who use its decaying spaces for exhibitions, studio space and cultural events that draw on the iconography of Stalker in relation to contemporary life in Estonia.
I came into Tallinn on a high-speed ferry from Helsinki, landing at a makeshift harbour and walking into the old city via the chemical factory. Between these two spaces lies a vast, concrete wilderness – an enormous abandoned multi-level terrace that links the sea with the city centre, but which has long since been abandoned to the elements (4). Inside the concrete walls is an enormous empty hall without any obvious function (5). As enigmatic as any of the locations in Stalker, it is an inexplicable place: was it built long ago in preparation for a flood of visitors that never materialised? Or a relic of Soviet propaganda now left to rot? Whatever the explanation, it’s now a place where people wait to board the ferry back to Helsinki and viewing platforms have been recently constructed to mitigate this waiting time (6). In this space, the spirit of Stalker still resides – its meaning is incomplete, leading to reverie, which is only heightened by the activity of waiting.