New uses for old bunkers #16: a post about a book about a film about a journey to a bunker

This NUFOB# series is ploughing a psychological furrow at the moment – looking at the reverberation of bunkers and bunker imagery in a variety of manifestations. It won’t last forever, a more detached perspective will reappear soon, but here I’m staying in that moody place, and will be looking at the resonance of abandoned bunkers as places of mythic pilgrimage.

To do so I’m going to focus upon Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 file, Stalker and Geoff Dyer’s recent book Zona (2012) which I’ve just finished reading. Dyer’s book is a dreamy reflection upon how Tarkovsky’s film has weaved through his life and thoughts since he first saw it in the early 1980s. I will be doing likewise, linking Stalker, the roots of my bunker-awareness and interest in melancholic male wandering.

Dyer’s book is subtitled ‘A book about a film about a journey to a room’. And that neatly sums up what he has achieved. Except, that the room that the questers finally reach at the heart of the post apocalyptic ‘Zone’ is actually a bunker (one of the questers refers to it – in translation at least – as ‘Bunker 4’). Whether this large room is a bunker for containing the unspecified abnormality within, or protecting it from the normality that lies outside is never made clear. But the journey of the raggerdy middle aged questers is to this place. Everything builds up to the arrival there, and it is where the questers hope that everything will make sense.



I have only seen Stalker all the way through – in a single sitting – on one occasion. That was in the early 1980s, on TV. I was 12 and staying at my dad’s house. I remember thinking that this film was very strange. Much of it is in black and white and consists of three threadbare men shuffling their way towards ‘The Zone’. There are occasional tension points. But much of it is chilling for the absence of clarity about what is happening. Think Alien crossed with Waiting for Godot crossed with the melancholy spirit of a terminally slowed down Joy Division. In the rain.

One image stuck in my mind. The three characters clambering through a derelict factory in sodden clothing, looking small, frail, lost, abject against the backdrop of gnarled girders, corroding silos and pools of indeterminant industrial dross.

It was their dejected questing that struck me most – the travel – rather than the arrival. I think that frame, plus a few others, were the early seed for my interest in urban exploration and wandering. Other formative punctum were images of derelict Liverpool (it seemed always to be Liverpool) in circulation in gritty early 1980s TV dramas like Boys for the Blackstuff. Emasculated ex-labourers now picking over the carcass of former worksites (for a more light hearted version of this trope see the canal scene at the start of The Full Monty: an early instance of metal theft on film).

Then closer to home, there were my drawings aged five of complex interconnecting bunker-like complexes. A page wide array of tunnels, turrets and technicality. In those days ‘cuttaways’ were a common feature of print media, they seem less prevalent now. But then there seemed to be drawings and plans everywhere interpreting how things looked inside.

And there was a recurrent early childhood dream of a complex mechanical enfolding – an ambulant crush-monster that seemed to have some connection to a zebra crossing. Later-on a feverish dream one night of corroded tank cockpits the day before I was due to visit Salisbury Plain firing range with my dad. That visit didn’t happen, or if it did it didn’t leave much impression. But that dream-image lingered.

And then, me aged about six listening to my dad’s amateur dramatics group practising lines from a play he’d written for them. It was a play about the end of the world. The reason for that ending was unspecified, but the line that stuck in my young mind was “we ate Mrs Jones’ crackling yesterday”.

An innocuous line on one level – but only if you take Mrs Jones to have been the cook, rather than the cooked…


About lukebennett13
Reader & Course Leader, BSc Hons Real Estate, Sheffield Hallam University, UK. I TEACH: built environment law to construction, surveying, real estate and environmental management students. I RESEARCH: metal theft; urban exploration & recreational trespass; occupiers' perceptions of liability for their premises. I THINK: about the links between ideas, materialities and practices in the built environment. I WAS: an environmental lawyer working in commercial practice for 17 years before I joined academia in 2007. I EXPLAIN: the aims of my blogsite site here: LINKS: Twitter: @lukebennett13; Archive: EPITAPH: “He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances.” James Joyce, Dubliners

6 Responses to New uses for old bunkers #16: a post about a book about a film about a journey to a bunker

  1. liminal city says:

    Good stuff. Two things spring to mind about that film, firstly the amazing granular texture of it all, the decay and detritus are all so very tangible, and secondly that shot of ‘the room’ is astonishingly beautiful as the camera lingers and the water pours down.

    • Thanks Liminal City. Yes – the sheer materiality of the shots. Every grain, colour, shade: a whole rich landscape summoned up out of mundane ruins and scrubland. And the sound recording is equally rich in that detail too. It would almost work on the soundtrack alone (if the listener knew Russian). For me it’s the ‘waterfall’ scene that takes the biscuit. The great tracking shot that combines a visual AND an audio reveal – the emergence of floods of water gushing through the ruins, the sense that that water had always been there, but hadn’t at first been noticed.

  2. dianajhale says:

    I’m getting a bit worried about all these bunker associations I identify with! Tarkovsky is my all time favourite film director. Stalker is one that has always haunted me, so much so that I have avoided seeing it again for a long time. I want to read Dyer’s book but again am a bit afraid of – disillusion? Stalker definitely opened my eyes to the beauty of dereliction, but I also love the enigmatic nature of it. It is the most extreme of his films I think, The others are much more nostalgic and gentler. I do remember the rain!

    • Hi Diana – sorry if the NUFOB# series is having that effect. If it’s any consolation this psychological furrow that I’m currently in is getting a bit dark ‘n’ deep even for me. I need to find an instance of a bunker turned into something light and fluffy to clear the air! Incidentally, Dyer’s book is a pleasant read, but it’s quite light and Dyer focussed. From what you’ve said, I’d suggest giving it a miss, otherwise you might end up coming away underwhelmed. All the best, Luke.

  3. Ian Waites says:

    Hi Luke – we met at the RGS conference a couple of weeks ago. Very interesting all of this – I was taken by you referring to resonance. There’s a recording by Jacob Kirkegaard called 4 Rooms (on Touch Records) where he made recordings of empty, deserted spaces at Pripyat (Chernobyl) – a church, a swimming pool etc – he would record these very silent rooms for a few minutes then rewind it and record the space again on tope of the first recording, and then again a few more times. Eventually, sounds ‘appeared’ (or manifested themselves) – usually quiet drone-like resonances. Very strange but worth a listen – I wonder if your bunkers would do the same? Cheers, Ian

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