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Film, the ultimate tool for the allegorist

Film, the ultimate tool for the allegorist

Allegoric representation in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker

Much has been written about allegory in the visual arts and even more has been written about allegory in literature. The main contributor to the wealth of theory about allegory is the German philosopher Walter Benjamin. But when Benjamin wrote most of his monumental work on allegory film was still in development and not really considered as a form of art (Cook, 2003). “Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels” was submitted in 1925 and is considered as the starting point of his writings on allegory (Cowan, 1981). This was at a time when film was as mentioned before still in an infancy state of development. Thereby it is sometimes hard to apply the most appreciated writings on allegory unto film. The subsequent writings concerning allegory in the visual arts also have the tendency to focus on photography, sculptures, installations and other forms of static art. For example the highly influential “The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism” of Craig Owens heavily features photography (Owens, 1980). I will illustrate the potential of allegory in film with an analysis of the film Stalker(1986). But allegory and allegoric representation are very complex subjects, so first we need a conceptual framework to conduct or analysis later on.

Allegory as a way of watching

I argue that film is the ultimate form of allegorical representation that emerged out of the baroque symbol of the 17th century. Allegorical representation was heavily discussed by Benjamin but he on his part was influenced heavily by the writings of Aby Warburg. Warburg describes a shift in the way objects are represented throughout the renaissance. The starting point was a magical-associative mode of representation, a primitive symbolic mode of representation (Rampley, 1997). But this gives way to a logical-dissociative mode of representation, a semiotic allegorical way of representing images. This is not only a way of presenting images but also a way of looking at images. For looking at images Walburg relies heavily on the empathy theory of Fischer (Fischer, 1994). In looking we have two modes available while perceiving things. One is seeing and the other is looking. Seeing is just a passive glance at an object without really defining it. Looking on the other hand is actually observing the object and define the meaning of this image. This is way more physiological process of stimulus reception and is basically seeing on a higher level to give meaning to the world. Seeing changed dramatically with the birth of modernity. The most striking example in the work of Warburg is the transition of astrology into astronomy in 16th century Europe. And more importantly the way the people interpret signs. On one hand we have the magical way of interpreting astrological signs that reads omens as acts of god or godlike figures so to speak. But this way of reading signs slowly gives way to an attitude of scepticism illustrated in this passage about the concerns about omens.

“God’s signs and the warnings of the angels are confused with the messages and signs of Satan….. such that         everything becomes intermingled and no distinction between them can be made(Luther). Yet if Luther’s primary concern is the with the difficulty of reading omens correctly, Warburg sees in the work of Albrecht Dürer a further degree of scepticism, whereby the omens and astrological symbols are transformed into self-consciously allegorical figures or curiosities of natural history (Rampley, 1997)”

Allegory hereby becomes synonymies with the self-evaluating individual that observes every object with a sense of self-consciousness, closely related with de dialectic way of thinking that rose in the same period. Warburg and Benjamin would name it the inner and religious liberation of the modern individual. If we speak about the truth in allegory, Benjamin quickly comes to mind.

The affirmation of the existence of truth, then, is the first precondition for allegory; the second is the recognition of its absence. Allegory could not exist if truth were accessible: as a mode of expression it arises in perpetual response to the human condition of being exiled from the truth that it would embrace (Cowan, 1981).

The continuation of this thought consists of placing truth in the action, in the form, so in allegory truth is in the representation of the ideas. Benjamin even goes as far as stating that philosophy is an allegory of the truth (Cowan, 1981). Allegory in a work of art thereby consists of representing a subjective form of reality to the observer, pointing to the truth but never revealing it. In allegory an object can mean anything and is open to debate. In the Baroque this mode of representation was being abused to a level that every image, novel and theatre piece was packed with allegoric representation (benjamin, 1925). Still religious and godlike signs pointing out to decay and in the end saviour dominated the aesthetics, in this way the magical-associative way of looking at things was never far away (Rampley, 1997). It was still a transitional phase in the end. It took the phrase “god is dead” by Friedrich Nietsche to truly liberate the modern individual and embrace the logical-dissociative mode of representation (Cowan, 1981).

Allegory as a way of creating

So we have allegory as an attitude, but allegory in visual arts could simply be described as reading a text through another text. The allegorist appropriates imagery to create another image (Owens, 1980).

“The allegorist does not invent images but confiscates them. He lays claim to the culturally significant, poses as its interpreter. And in his hands the image becomes something other (allos =other + agoreuei = to speak). He does not restore an original meaning that may have been lost or obscured; allegory is not hermeneutics. Rather, he adds another meaning to the image. If he adds, however, he does so only to replace: the allegorical meaning supplants an antecedent one; it is a supplement” (Owens, 1980).

The allegoric image is in this view a hieroglyph, a writing composed of images. In this way allegory as a mode of representation crosses genres, and becomes both a visual as a verbal piece of work. Owens also argues that allegory is a supplement; the piece of art does not change without the allegoric meaning detached from it. It is what we can vertically read unto the horizontal text that is the allegorical meaning. In that way allegory does not have to be arbitrary (Owens, 1980).

Multiple frames

Now we can return to a former statement; film is the ultimate form of allegoric representation in visual arts. Film and allegoric representation have the most potential to stay out of the usual traps of allegory. But film as a visual medium does have some problems concerning allegory. The problem with film and allegory lays in the fact that photography and painting consists of essentially one frame of content. Film on the other hand consists of 25 frames a second if we talk about a modern film (Cook, 2003). One minute of film contains 1500 frames of content and a full-feature film of one and a half hour contains 135.000 frames of content. By analysing a photograph or a painting in an allegorical sense you have to completely take the individual elements of the image apart. In this way you can identify the unified theme or thought behind the represented image in a very methodical way. Of course it is possible to take apart a film like this by doing a shot-by-shot analysis, but here a problem arises. The individual shots have a very important relation to one another, and if we discuss allegory we need to find to allegorical meaning behind the entire work of art, not the individual scenes. Thereby it would be nonsensical to approach an allegorical view of a film in the same way as a photograph or painting. More suited would be the approach of the film as a novel, analysing the complete story while highlighting certain moments in the film to strengthen the analysis. We have to keep in mind though that the focus must remain on the visual representation of the elements instead of the story. But as mentioned before allegory crosses boundaries between the verbal and visual dimension (Owens, 1980). Therefor it is not harmful to talk about film like a novel.

Elements in the cinematic image

We have already spoken about the elements within the work of art, but here lays the big difference between the photograph or painting and the film. The elements within a photograph consist of the different objects within the photographed situation. How these objects are portrayed, what do they communicate to us, and most importantly what are they trying to tell us (Vanhoutte, 2012). In allegoric representation we also have to discuss the hidden meaning behind the entire picture. In a photograph or painting we dissect the entire image and look for its hidden meaning by discussing the individual elements of the picture. In film however this process does not work at all, one scene can have an entire different meaning than another and the representation from the story can evolve to produce an entirely different representation in one scene from another. One only has to look at Nicolas Winding Refn’s film Drive (2011) for a striking example. The film starts out very slowly and feels like a love story between the two protagonists but in the midpoint of the film it evolves into a violent tale about revenge. To give meaning to the first part of the story without taking into account what happens later on would be damaging to the analysis.

The elements of film thereby are the scenes and a second level consists of the objects and subjects within the scene. Instead of discussing one image and dissecting it you discuss multiple images in relation to one another. In that way the approach of film like a novel is justified. Because of this multitude of elements a filmmaker has at his disposal allegory can be applied way more subtle than at for example one painting or one photograph. It is possible to play with the elements in a photograph and create a subtle form of allegoric representation but in film there is way more time at your disposal. A filmmaker does not have to completely engulf its film in allegory to create allegoric representation. For example a filmmaker can give a small hint in one scene, another hint in the next scene and in the end when you piece everything together you find the hidden meaning of the film. The vertical reading of the work of art happens in 135.000 frames instead of 1.

Andrei Tarkovsky

One of the films that used allegoric representation at its finest is Stalker (1979) of the late Russian director Andrei Tarkovsy (1932-1986). The son of the Russian poet Arseni Tarkovsky was already a legendary filmmaker when he started on Stalker. He studied at the VGIK(Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography) and won his first prize at the New York Student Film Festival with his graduation project Steamroller and Violin. His first feature film Ivan’s Childhood (1962) won the Golden Lion at Venice 1962 (Cook, 2003). After this triumph he made more award-winning pictures and his reputation was established. The style of Tarkovsky is described as ‘trance’ cinema, charatirized by slow, dreamlike pacing created by slow camera movements, classical music as soundtrack, static montage (Dempsey, 1981). Tarkovsky pursues a degree of uncertainty in his work, or as he said it most strikingly in one of his notebooks.

“Never try to convey your idea to the audience – it is a thankless and senseless task. Show them life, and they’ll find within themselves the means to assess and appreciate it. (Goodreads, 2018)”

This attitude did trouble him with the Soviet authorities who did not rate his experimental films highly. Film was supposed to be an efficient tool for the masses, and Tarkovsky’s work was a bit hard to comprehend. Some films have been cut and other films were not exported out of the Soviet Union (Dempsey, 1981). But more importantly Tarkovsky commented directly on symbolic or metaphoric representation.

“We can express our feelings regarding the world around us either by poetic or by descriptive means. I prefer to express myself metaphorically. Let me stress: metaphorically, not symbolically. A symbol contains within itself a definite meaning, certain intellectual formula, while metaphor is an image. An image possessing the same distinguishing features as the world it represents. An image — as opposed to a symbol — is indefinite in meaning. One cannot speak of the infinite world by applying tools that are definite and finite. We can analyse the formula that constitutes a symbol, while metaphor is a being-within-itself, it’s a monomial. It falls apart at any attempt of touching it. (Goodreads, 2018)”

One can say that Tarkovsky in this sense embraces allegorical mode of representation and attitude of looking at images. He gives them a horizontal story and lets a multitude of vertical reading be possible. This is possible because of the subtle approach to allegory and metaphorical representation in his films. Stalker was a change of pace for Tarkovsky, he diverted the recurring theme about his own childhood and turned to other themes.


Stalker is a science-fiction dystopian tale about a world in decay. It is in fact based on the novel Roadside picknick by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. It is a tale about tree main characters, a stalker, a writer and a scientist. The stalker is the main protagonist and lives with his wife and kid in a gloomy neighbourhood. His job is to escort people to “the zone”, a forbidden and mysterious place where the normal laws of physics and reason don’t apply anymore. He gets approached by the writer and the scientist to take them to the centre of the zone where a room is that grants the most deeply desired wish of an individual. The story ends when the three men find the room and it turns out not be to full fill the deepest wishes of an individual (Martin, 2011). This is represented story onscreen without looking at hidden meanings or allegoric representations. The beauty of Stalker lies in its vague allegoric depiction. The film has been read so many times that a new reading from my part will not add much new insights in this matter. Thereby I suggest analysing a few different allegoric readings of the film to illustrate the potential of allegory in film. I indeed said multiple readings because apparently different authors have found multiple ways to look at the hidden meaning behind this picture. This is a testimony to Warburg’s logical-dissociative mode of representation.

Stalker as allegory about human conciousness

Stalker could be an allegory about human consciousness (Schager, 2006). This is the most frequently described allegory concerning Stalker and if we look at the way the story is represented to us this makes sense. First of all the three main characters do not have names but instead are being referenced to as “stalker”, “writer” and “professor”. The professor stands for a rational approach to life, the writer stands for the unintuitive approach to life and between them is the man of faith, the stalker. The contrast between the characters is immediately apparent when they meet for the first time in a bar. The writer orders alcohol while the professor drinks a cup of coffee.

The conflict between these two intellectuals continues throughout the entire movie, neither of them eventually reaching their goal. The stalker stands between them, symbolizing the necessity of faith in the modern society. The Stalker is always placed at the centre of screen most of the time calm and at ease with the situation. The film hereby becomes a landscape of the soul occupied by the three characters each representing a way of life. This allegoric representation is based on the narrative of the film and less on the images we observe. This is also the duality of film, which is at the same time a verbal experience as it is a visual experience. This together with the style of Tarkovsky gives way to multiple interpretations of the story and allegoric representation.

Stalker as allegory about faith

If Stalker is an allegory about faith than the main storyline could also be compared with the search for the grail (Martin, 2011). The knights or in this case the three men set out to find the grail. The grail in this story represents the room in the centre of the zone. In their journey towards this spiritual goal the knights are met with magical and mysterious events that stand in the way of their goal. This summary of a grail story suits Stalker like a glove and the medieval superstition of the characters in the story about the pagan threats in the zone reflects medieval beliefs even more. In the zone modernity is absent and the men have to rely on faith to get them through. The zone is depicted with a green, black, grey colour pallet giving it a sombre and melancholic feeling.

The strangeness of the zone is captured mostly in the chaotic sequences when the three characters seem to be at multiple places at once when even the characters themselves seem surprised about the nature of the zone. The zone also seems to change by the minute representing the human mind in modern society. When the room is eventually discovered the three characters engage in a sort of meditative experience of contemplation. For minutes on end we see the trio sitting in front of the room while rain starts pouring down. They have found the room and it seems like the grail in this story was contemplation and rediscovery of faith. The characters end up doing nothing in the room in the end but with the rediscovering of their faith in a way they have succeeded after all. Tarkovky is outspoken about this theory in the sense that he himself has said that is important to have faith and love. And that faith is essential for the salvation of not only oneself but the entire society.

Stalker as allegory about the Soviet Union in 1979

The setting in the film is not identified as the Soviet Union but the imagery within the film does hint towards the state of the once great nation in decay. Or as Maya Turovskaya described “this is not a world of tomorrow, but rather today or the day before yesterday” (Martin, 2011). Turovskaya hints towards the science-fiction dystopian depiction of the film that usually represents a distant future in the genre. In Stalker however the landscape(the movie was shot in Estonia) might as well been from a Eastern European country behind the iron curtain in that day. The unseen threats in the zone could easily represent the secret police in everyday life in the Soviet Union. The constant lingering control of the government is most strikingly portrayed by the main character himself who remarks at one point “I feel Imprisoned everywhere”.

The Gulags in the Soviet Union where being called the zone, a fact that would certainly not have been lost on Russian audiences watching the film. But even more so the depiction outside of the zone seems almost a direct representation of the Soviet Union in the late seventies. A superpower in decay, vast polluting industrialized cities depicted in a very bleak black and white that hints towards sepia. The movie switches to colour as soon as the three main protagonists enter the zone. The film switched back to black and white when they exit the zone again. Only in the end when a certain level of salvation is achieved the film converts to colour outside of the zone. This salvation lays in spirituality and faith, the anti-thesis of Marxism, but this is done so subtle that the Soviet authorities probably did not notice it when reviewing the film. The film was never succumbed to any cuts or censorship, unlike other films of Tarkovsky (Cook, 2003).

Stalker as allegory about failed future

Some say Stalker has prophases the real life disaster at Chernobyl which created a similar “zone” of depopulation (Riley, 2017). This reading is retrospectively about the nearing end of the Soviet Union in 1989. This theory is the perfect example of the allegoric meaning as supplement to a work of art, because Tarkovsky could have never known that ten years later the Soviet Union would come to an end. The concept of the end of the Soviet Union is added by another author after reviewing the film. Here the concept of the ruin is central to this interpretation, a concept that is very much mentioned in allegory also. The ruins represent the future that was promised but never arrived. The ruin is mentioned by Benjamin as the ultimate form of allegory. Nature vs history, as in the manmade structures being dissolved by nature again (benjamin, 1925).

Tarkovksy uses the ruin in this film to tell the story of the promises being made at the start of the Soviet Union’s existence. The promise that communism would eventually win over capitalism and unparalleled wealth would bestow the once Russian nation. This promise however never came true and in 1979 the Soviet Union is in decay, a nation full of the ruins that was once promised. The zone represents the fairy-tale that never came true, the promises that were never fulfilled and in the end will lead to an spiritual and contemplating moment where the once great nation has to reinvent itself. Stalker hereby becomes the story of the partition of the Soviet Union at the end of the cold war and the unstable situation that followed it. Every film Tarkovsky had made was of course placed within the context of the geopolitical situation at the time, and Stalker breaths above all the looming fate of the super state in decay represented bij the allegorical ruins the three characters find themselves in. The imagery when the three main characters enter the zone fits this description most strikingly however. The heavily guarded border conveys images of the Berlin wal, and the three characters wishes to escape all the more embodies the sentiment in the Soviet Union at the time. It almost feels like we are watching checkpoint Charlie in Berlin rather than a dystopian tale in a fictional world.


Allegory in Stalker has proven that film has the possibility of creating multiple viewpoints on a same text. One can say a multiple vertical analysis of the same horizontal text. This is the very essence of the transition from a magical-associative mode of representation to an allegorical-dissociative mode of representation as discussed at the start of this paper. The observed object can mean anything and is a very subjective experience. Allegory in film can be applied very subtle and thereby create a very complex structure similar to that of a novel. If you add the dual quality of film, a verbal dimension and a visual dimension and we can conclude that film is the ideal medium for allegorical representations. This also describes the supplemtary nature of allegory to a certain extend. The original piece of art does not change but is interpreted to a multitude of different lenses. The comparison between Stalker and Karen Hanssen’s allegorizing of Gerard ter Borch is an interesting one to make. Karen Hanssen could never have achieved here multitude of representations within just one piece of art. That’s why she has created a series of manipulated paintings of Gerard ter Borch. Stalker is essentially one piece of art that achieves the same multitude of representations just by enlarging different elements of the film. Allegory in film is a supplement even more so than in other forms of visual arts. A one and a half hour long film gives many opportunities of interpretation that a photograph or sculpture does not offer. There lies the strength and weakness of the moving picture concerning allegory.

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