Zona: A Book about a Film about a Journey to a Room [NOOK Book]


From a writer whose mastery encompasses fiction, criticism, and the fertile realm between the two, comes a new book that confirms his reputation for the unexpected.

In Zona, Geoff Dyer attempts to unlock the mysteries of a film that has haunted him ever since he first saw it thirty years ago: Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, widely regarded as one of the greatest films of all time. (“Every single frame,” declared Cate Blanchett, “is burned into my ...

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Zona: A Book about a Film about a Journey to a Room

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From a writer whose mastery encompasses fiction, criticism, and the fertile realm between the two, comes a new book that confirms his reputation for the unexpected.

In Zona, Geoff Dyer attempts to unlock the mysteries of a film that has haunted him ever since he first saw it thirty years ago: Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, widely regarded as one of the greatest films of all time. (“Every single frame,” declared Cate Blanchett, “is burned into my retina.”) As Dyer guides us into the zone of Tarkovsky’s imagination, we realize that the film is only the entry point for a radically original investigation of the enduring questions of life, faith, and how to live.

In a narrative that gives free rein to the brilliance of Dyer’s distinctive voice—acute observation, melancholy, comedy, lyricism, and occasional ill-temper—Zona takes us on a wonderfully unpredictable journey in which we try to fathom, and realize, our deepest wishes.

Zona is one of the most unusual books ever written about film, and about how art—whether a film by a Russian director or a book by one of our most gifted contemporary writers—can shape the way we see the world and how we make our way through it.

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Editorial Reviews

J. Hoberman
At once audacious post-postmodernist memoir and après-DVD monograph, Zona considers…the last movie the great Russian director [Tarkovsky] would make in his native land…Dyer's evocation of Stalker is vivid; his reading is acute and sometimes brilliant…Zona is extremely clever…
—The New York Times Book Review
From the Publisher
“Testifying to the greatness of an underappreciated work of art is the core purpose of criticism, and Dyer has delivered a loving example that's executed with as much care and craft as he finds in his subject…he finds elements along the way that will keep even non-cinéastes onboard. While he dedicates ample energy to how the movie's deliberate pacing runs contrary to modern cinema, its troubled production and the nuts and bolts of its deceptively simple parts, Dyer's rich, restless mind draws the reader in with specific, personal details.” –Los Angeles Times   
“Dyer’s evocation of Stalker is vivid; his reading is acute and sometimes brilliant…Dyer is giving a performance, and it’s another Russian genius who presides over his book, namely Vladimir Nabokov…Zona is extremely clever.” –New York Times Book Review

“Walter Benjamin once said that every great work dissolves a genre or founds a new one. But is it only masterpieces that have a monopoly on novelty? What if a writer had written several works that rose to Benjamin’s high definition, not all great, perhaps, but so different from one another, so peculiar to their author, and so inimitable that each founded its own, immediately self-dissolving genre? The English writer Geoff Dyer delights in producing books that are unique, like keys. There is nothing anywhere like Dyer’s semi-fictional rhapsody about jazz, But Beautiful, or his book about the First World War, The Missing of the Somme, or his autobiographical essay about D. H. Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage, or his essayistic travelogue, Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do it. Dyer’s work is so restlessly various that it moves somewhere else before it can gather a family.  He combines fiction, autobiography, travel writing, cultural criticism, literary theory, and a kind of comic English whining. The result ought to be a mutant mulch but is almost always a louche and canny delight.”—James Wood, The New Yorker

“The multifarious writer’s scene-by-scene dissection of cinematic meditation Stalker eveolves into a series of colorful digressions about the nature of time, youth, infatuation with great art, threesomes and one irreplaceable Freitag bag. Remarkably, this lucid trip is effective whether or not you’ve seen Tarkovsky.” –Time Out New York Best of 2012 

“There is no contemporary writer I admire more than Dyer, and in no book of his does he address his animating idea—The Only Way Not to Waste Time Is to Waste It—more overtly, urgently, empathetically and eloquently.” David Shields, author of Reality Hunger

“A national treasure.” –Zadie Smith  
“One of my favorite of all contemporary writers.” –Alain de Botton
“I’d never engaged quite so intensively with a book and a movie at the same time…Though it’s only 228 pages long, Zona manages to feel sprawling. Dyer is an enormously seductive writer. He has a wide-ranging intellect, an effortless facility with language, and a keen sense of humor…irresistible.” –Slate

“A true original…[Dyer] never ceases to surprise, disturb and delight.” –William Boyd

“Few books about film feel like watching a film, but this one does. We sit with Dyer as he writes about Stalker; he captures its mystery and burnish, he prises it open and gets its glum majesty. As a result of this book, I know the film better, and care about Tarkovsky even more.” Mark Cousins, author of The Story of Film

“Dyer, blessed with limitless range and a ravishing ability to bend and blend genres, is coming out with a peculiar little book about a 30-year obsession…the result is an entertaining and enlightening joy.” –The Millions

“A personal meditation on Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker—though, this being a Dyer book, it’s about plenty more besides…A digressive but impassioned mash note to a film that defies easy summary.” –Kirkus

“The pleasures of reading Dyer are found in personal asides that connect his ostensible subject to a myriad of tangential subjects... Dyer's lightly carried erudition leads to an entertaining rumination on a cinematic masterpiece.” –Shelf Awareness    
“A pellucid scene-by-scene ramble through Tarkovsky’s sci-fi head trip, alive to the film’s textures as much as its ideas…so addictive. The pleasure of Zona lies in Dyer’s method, in its constant sense of discovery, as if he had just stumbled out of a screening and was sharing his thoughts with you after a beer or three…a marvel of tactility.” –MovieMorlocks.com
Dyer’s language is at its most efficient in this book, conversational and spare…Mr. Dyer is our Stalker. He guides us through the film, imbuing each shot with meaning or explaining why, in some instances, their nonmeaning is actually better than meaning… Cultural artifacts worthy of this degree of obsession are rare and it’s a pleasure to read Mr. Dyer’s wrestling with one.” –New York Observer 

“Dyer is at his digressive best when stopping to consider something that captures his fancy…The comedy and stoner’s straining for meaning is always present. And, when it is rewarded, as it so often is with rich associative memoir and creative criticism in Zona, we feel complicit, we celebrate the sensation at the end of all that straining, alongside with him…For a stalker, or an artist, it is essential to step out of the shadow of your mentor. As a writer, Dyer commits this artistic patricide regularly and more elegantly than most. He does it by writing all the way up to his heroes, documenting his approach to their material, wrestling with them, and leaving this totemic memento at their feet. The mentorship is concluded along with the book and he is free to go off in search of new Rooms, and new Stalkers to take him there.” –Daily Beast 

“Dyer’s Zona makes an impenetrable film accessible and relateable.” –New York Magazine
“It's fascinating to see [Dyer] take on this master of stillness, timelessness and heavy self-regard. Consciousnesses collide, overlap, meld—and if nothing else, the book is a mesmerizing mashup of sensibilities…Dyer remains a uniquely relevant voice. In his genre-jumping refusal to be pinned down, he's an exemplar of our era. And invariably, he leaves you both satiated and hungry to know where he's going next.” –NPR.org
“Geoff Dyer is at his discursive best in ZONA.” —Stephen Heyman, New York Times Magazine

“Rich with dramatic nuance but sparse on action, the film moves slowly, methodically, but Dyer breezily free associates and his diversions and frank admissions candied with self-deprecation tunnel into your own thoughts. In doing so, the book transcends being an examination of a film or an established author’s confessional, anecdotal indulgence…Again and again Dyer’s caroming thoughts trigger your own associative leaps that take you away from Dyer’s text. But it works. What is memorable about this particular reading experience is that even if you’ve never given a second thought to quicksand, tried LSD, or watched The Wizard of Oz (Dyer hasn’t), his read of Stalker permits you to square your life with a film that you may or may not know anything about.” –The Millions.com
“If any film demands book-length explication from a writer of Geoff Dyer's caliber, it's surely Stalker…Dyer is, as the book amply demonstrates, the perfect counterpart to Tarkovsky. Where the film director is stubbornly slow and obscure, Dyer is a fleet and amusing raconteur with a knack for amusing digressions…budding Tarkovskyites might understandably wish they could buy a copy of Dyer's Zona bundled with an exquisitely restored version of Stalker.” –Richmond Times-Dispatch

“Dyer has been just under the radar for many years now, but this UK author deserves the widest of audiences as he writes books that are funny, off-beat and hugely informative. This latest is ostensibly about the Russian filmmaker Tarkovsky, but it's really about life, love and death—with many jokes and painful-but-true bits along the way.” –Details Magazine
[Dyer] combines a rigorous scholarship and criticism with whimsical digressions, both fictional and autobiographical, to create the light but heady concoction that’s become his signature.” –Time Out NY
Zona is an unpretentious yet deeply involving discussion of why art can move us, and an examination of how our relationship to art changes throughout our lives. It's also funny, moving and unlike any other piece of writing about a movie.” –Huffington Post

“An unclassifiable little gem…very funny and very personal.” –San Francisco Chronicle  
“You can read this book in 162 minutes and come away refreshed, enlivened, infuriated, amused, thoughtful, and mystified. An invigorating mixture of responses, but this is a Geoff Dyer book…the most stimulating book on a film in years.” –New Republic

“It's hard to understand why a major publisher would release a book-length study of Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker, a film few have seen. But then you look at the dust jacket of Zona and realize it's written by Geoff Dyer…An engaging piece of writing that asks questions about the nature of art and provides a new way to write about film.” –The Atlantic online

“With Zona, Dyer not only illuminates his personal artistic experience through engaging with film, he may well have ushered in a new genre of nonfiction.” –Critical Mob

“Perhaps Dyer’s value lies in how, with rigor and play, he engages his obsessions…an Eros-driven reading adventure, courtesy of contemporary literature’s best muller.” –The Rumpus

“Dyer is one of those rare geniuses who writes well about everything…‘Would we regard this landscape of fields, abandoned cars, tilted telegraph poles and trees as beautiful without Tarkovsky?’ he asks. There’s a beauty, too, in the asking, and a satisfaction from seeing that beauty brought into existence by this particular asker…the best way to grasp the movie’s essential slowness is simply to luxuriate in Dyer’s insanely companionable zeal.” –New Haven Review 

 Zona doesn’t interpret Stalker as much as it transforms it into something wholly new …Fans of Dyer’s witty genre-bending will be hooked from the start.” –CultureMob 
“Geoff Dyer's book is ostensibly a commentary on the Russian movie Stalker, but is actually a sweeping meditation on culture, meaning and getting old. Philosophy for those who prefer to live it, rather than understand it.” –Huffington Post, “Best of 2012”
“If W.G. Sebald had locked himself in a movie theater and started drinking before breakfast, he might have written something like Zona: a critique of a cult film that’s also a meditation on time, love, art, threesomes, and messenger bags.” –New York Magazine, “Top 10 of 2012”

“Fascinating…Dyer's unpredictable and illuminating observations delighted and amused me all the way through.” –Minneapolis Star-Tribune   
“The definitive work of an author whose work refuses definition…wickedly funny…The mood of the film may not be one of divine comedy, but Dyer's rendering of it frequently is.” –Austin American-Statesman

“I didn’t expect a book as formally aware and graceful as Zona. A little study of a single film, it does so much: steadily expanding to serious heights without becoming ponderous, and constantly digressing without losing focus…a small book that contains multitudes…The unspooling of interests and impressions and realizations and jokes is an attempt to depict a response to art, the effect of which is art itself.” –Full Stop 
“Every scene’s been so smartly described that no matter how long it’s been since readers have seen the film, it comes back in vivid detail. The digressions mirror the pathway of the film’s trio: To approach the film, Dyer has to make his own circuitous path, connecting scenes with childhood memories or Chernobyl, as the case may be. Doing so lets him build to climactic musings on faith and desire as serious as the movie he’s exploring.” –AV Club 

“We’re in the realm of the sustained gaze where the same thing can be, if you look long and close enough, of interest many times… And that’s a nice way to think about it maybe, Stalker on the one hand, and Zona on the other, the two equivalent in their ramshackle way. Different scales perhaps but some common seed between them. The two linked as a seamless running text. There’s eye-contact with the camera and it’s a long gaze, both ways. The same thing. Interesting twice.” –Impose Magazine

“Dyer’s musings on everything from on-set disasters to his desire to join a threesome make for a rich and wacky sojourn.” –Mother Jones
Zona is an essential book about a remarkable film…it is an ideal companion piece and, like much of Dyer’s writing, worth reading again and again.” –Fandor.com
“[Dyer] still writes in the same charming, scholarly free-associative register, and his ability to synthesize arts criticism and memoir remains nonpareil…essential for anyone looking to discover the origins of his extraordinary voice and career.” –Quarterly Conversation

Zona is a wonderful companion piece to the film, a must-read for fans of Tarkovsky and the study of cinema itself.” –Twi-NY.com  

“Geoff Dyer has tricked up Tristram Shandy, cross-bred it with Lady Gaga, and come up with an insightful, audacious, deeply personal, often hilarious and entertaining approach to literature in a world which doesn’t much appreciate art or even the book itself. He is one of the most interesting writers at work today in English.” –Wichita Eagle
“Dyer is an impressive writer with a extensive, expansive body of work, but to my mind it’s important to note how warm and inviting his writing can be…for an incredibly engaging experiment in nonfiction, analysis, and art.” –Full Stop
“Deeply rewarding…quite remarkable…In reading Zona, I no longer felt the need for a screening: Dyer's excitement was able to shape my hazy memories of the film into something astonishingly real.” –About.com

“Do we need an entire book to explain a movie to us? Frankly, when the movie in question is Tarkovsky’s Stalker that’s exactly what we need. Zona will have you, finally, nodding in time with the flow of the film and understanding the story in a way that you wouldn’t otherwise upon cold watching. Here’s what I suggest: If you’ve not seen “Stalker,” see it. Invest the two-plus hours (or more, if you nap intermittently). Then, read the book. After that? See the movie again. And like Dyer, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to stop at second viewing.” –Word & Film  

The Barnes & Noble Review

Toward the middle of Zona, Geoff Dyer's book-length treatment of Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky's film Stalker, the author quotes the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty. The passage, taken from the obscure theorist's intensely intimidating, 700-page Phenomenology of Perception, is direct and affecting, as though it were written by Kafka. It reads in part, "once I was a man, with a soul and a living body and now I am no more than a being.... I hear and see, but no longer know anything.... I now live in eternity."

Dyer is mining Merleau-Ponty for insight into what schizophrenia might feel like, which in turn offers insight into what the three protagonists of Stalker must be feeling as they cross over into "the Zone," a depopulated, militarily guarded, surreal landscape that seems to hold the truth of existence within it. Dyer's invocation of Merleau-Ponty shows us why he has become a leading, celebrated critic/artist: he speaks eruditely about the most challenging of subjects in an Everyman's language. He never condescends, and he's unpretentious, but he gives readers the impression that they are receiving the finest insight available. For the past two decades he has delivered subtle, acute reflections on art in an original, engaging voice, actively pioneering a mode of writing that blends autobiography, criticism, and travel narrative. In this hybrid genre Dyer stands alongside writers as varied as Nicholson Baker, John Berger, and Roland Barthes, all their work flowing out of the insight that all art is really commentary on other art.

Dyer has written a whole lot of commentary, and some of it is indeed art. Last spring he released a career-spanning volume of collected criticism that recently earned a National Book Critics Circle Award; before that he published very good books on photography, D. H. Lawrence, and jazz. Zona is his self- professed "amplification and expansion" of Stalker, which he assures us is his favorite film of all time. The format of Zona is simplicity itself: Dyer traces the plot of the movie from beginning to end, skipping over the parts he finds uninspiring, lingering over those that strike him deeply, riffing heavily throughout. Although the form of Zona implies just one viewing of the film, reading the book actually feels like many: it comes across as a pastiche of the scores of times Dyer has watched Stalker, plus the scores more times when something in his life made him reflect on the film.

Occasionally Dyer's riffs on Stalker are amazing. In a six-page footnote (there are many lengthy footnotes in this book), Dyer digresses through "the subject of quotation within film," zeroing in on a hilarious set piece in the Turkish film Distant. In this set piece the intellectual Mahmut is visited by his "clodhopping" cousin Yusuf, but the two men can't decide what to watch on TV. As Dyer puts it, "Mahmut is not about to compromise his high aesthetic standards just because a dull-witted cousin has come to stay." The film that Mahmut forces Yusuf to watch turns out to be none other than Stalker, but eventually the latter gets bored and goes to bed, upon which Mahmut promptly switches from Stalker to porn. Yusef later comes down, and Mahmut, "who has not budged, who is not jerking off, whose fly is not even open, just about has time to flip to a broadcast channel." Eventually the men settle on a kung fu flick, and now it is Mahmut who gets bored. He switches the TV off, thus ending the scene. "If you wanted a definition of deadpan," glosses Dyer, "you could do a lot worse than choose this sequence to illustrate your point." After taking us through this "joke in all its precise levels of denotation," Dyer goes on to make his case that Austrian director Michael Haneke also quotes Stalker in his post-apocalyptic film Time of the Wolf, albeit in a distinctly different manner. Dyer concludes that Haneke "can allude to Stalker without doing so — and, by the same token, can't not do so." This is classic Dyer: a premise opened up through a hilarious anecdote that deconstructs itself charmingly, then an expansion of the premise that zeroes back to the subject at hand, leaving us sighing in quiet wonder. Here is Dyer's signature capacity to make a work of art his own without diminishing the source material, nor seeming diminished.

Alas, for all the talent Dyer brings to this book, it never becomes anything more than a series of pleasant riffs. Zona recalls Roland Barthes's book S/Z, wherein the French poststructuralist takes readers word by word through Balzac's short story "Sarrasine." Richard Howard has referred to S/Z as "the most sustained yet pulverized meditation on reading I know in all of Western critical literature," and Zona similarly foregrounds the act of watching film. Dyer's constant movement in and out of Stalker mirror Barthes's movement through "Sarrasine," implying that Zona is more a book about watching film than about watching Tarkovsky. The problem is that Dyer never makes this purpose — if this is indeed the purpose of the book — central enough to be persuasive. In fact, nothing comes to ground this book — it registers only as Dyer meandering through the film. To compare to S/Z once again: Barthes shatters "Sarrasine" into exactly 561 fragments, classifying each one into one of five different categories and examining them as under a microscope. He takes a text and submits it to his method, in the process dredging out insights that feel substantial enough to strike to the core of what reading and writing are about.

Zona, by comparison, feels like an improvisation. This is obviously Dyer's aim — at one point he even flatly states that he considered dividing Zona into 142 sections, one for each shot in the film, but he realized this would not be true to his experience of watching and remembering the film. Fair enough, but in previous, similarly chaotic works, like Out of Sheer Rage and The Ongoing Moment, Dyer attains a palpable sense that the book is about something, despite his ad hoc method. Those books mesh with the idiosyncrasy of Dyer's enthusiast personality; they receive their persuasiveness from the very intimacy and literariness of a voice that makes art from its commitment to not being scientific.

But with Zona Dyer has misfired. Too much of its prose is flabby, too many of its conclusions are easily won. Perhaps it was a mistake to follow the film on a linear course instead of rearranging the material to suit his argument, as he did in Out of Sheer Rage and The Ongoing Moment. Lacking a structure to give them greater force, Dyer's riffs, though generally interesting, feel insubstantial and are easily forgotten. Dyer himself seems to recognize this. Toward the end of the book, wondering whether his exercise in "summary" has been worthwhile, Dyer writes, "whether [this summary] will add up to a worthwhile commentary, and whether this commentary might also become a work of art in its own right, is still unclear." He goes on to make a case for commentary as a valid pursuit on the level of writing novels, but at this point it feels too little, too late. In Dyer's strongest work he never makes the case for commentary as an art because the books themselves are the best argument that could be made. Here one senses his uncertainty surrounding the project, his occasional quips and self- inflicted insults feeling not like good old Dyerian braggadocio but the faltering steps of a writer who has not found his form. Sometimes art leaves us with a sense of its grandeur but also with an inability to articulate just what we find so grand, no matter how hard we try, nor how articulate we've been elsewhere.

Scott Esposito is a critic, writer, and editor whose work has appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Los Angeles Times, and many other publications. In 2004 he created the widely praised literary website Conversational Reading, which can be found at http://conversationalreading.com.

Reviewer: Scott Esposito

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307907011
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/21/2012
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 192
  • Sales rank: 1,354,044
  • File size: 3 MB

Meet the Author

Geoff Dyer

Geoff Dyer is the author of four novels (most recently Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi); a critical study of John Berger; a collection of essays, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition; and five highly original nonfiction books, including But Beautiful, which was awarded the Somerset Maugham Prize, and Out of Sheer Rage, a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. He lives in London.

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Read an Excerpt

An empty bar, possibly not even open, with a single table, no bigger than a small round table, but higher, the sort you lean against—there are no stools—while you stand and drink. If floorboards could speak these look like they could tell a tale or two, though the tales would turn out to be one and the same, ending with the same old lament (after a few drinks people think they can walk all over me), not just in terms of what happens here but in bars the world over. We are, in other words, already in a realm of universal truth. The barman comes in from the back—he’s wearing a white barman’s jacket—lights a cigarette and turns on the lights, two fluorescent tubes, one of which doesn’t work properly: it flickers. He looks at the flickering light. You can see him thinking, ‘That needs fixing’, which is not the same thing at all as ‘I’ll fix that today’, but which is very nearly the same as ‘It’ll never be fixed.’ Daily life is full of these small repeated astonishments, hopes (that it might somehow have fixed itself overnight) and resignations (it hasn’t and won’t). A tall man—a customer!—enters the bar, puts his knapsack under the table, the small round table you lean against while drinking. He’s tall but not young, balding, obviously not a terrorist, and there’s no way that his knapsack could contain a bomb, but this unremarkable action—putting a knapsack under the table in a bar—is not one that can now go unremarked, especially by someone who first saw Stalker (on Sunday, February 8, 1981) shortly after seeing Battle of Algiers. He orders something from the barman. The fact that the barman’s jacket is white emphasizes how not terribly clean it is. Although it’s a jacket it also serves as a towel, possibly as a dishcloth, and maybe as a hankie too. The whole place looks like it could be dirty but it’s too dingy to tell and the credits in yellow Russian letters—sci-fi Cyrillic—do not exactly clarify the situation.
It’s the kind of bar men meet in prior to a bank job that is destined to go horribly wrong, and the barman is the type to take no notice of anything that’s not his business and the more things that are not his business the better it is for him, even if it means that business is so slow as to be almost nonexistent. Far as he’s concerned, long as he’s here, minding his own business and wearing his grubby barman’s jacket, he’s doing his job, and if no one comes and no one wants anything and nothing needs doing (the wonky light can wait, as can most things) it’s all the same to him. Still smoking, he trudges over with a coffeepot (he’s one of those barmen who has the knack of imbuing the simplest task with grudge, making it feel like one of the labours of a minimum-wage Hercules), pours some coffee for the stranger, goes out back again and leaves him to it, to his coffee, to his sipping and waiting. Of that there can be no doubt: the stranger is defi nitely waiting for something or someone. 
A caption: some kind of meteorite or alien visitation has led to the creation of a miracle: the Zone. Troops were sent in and never returned. It was surrounded by barbed wire and a police cordon. . . .
This caption was added at the behest of the studio, Mosfilm, who wanted to stress the fantastical nature of the Zone (where the subsequent action will be set). They also wanted to make sure that the ‘bourgeois’ country where all this happened could not be identified with the USSR. Hence this mysterious business of the Zone all happened—according to the caption—‘in our small country’, which put everyone off the scent because the USSR, as we all know, covered a very large area and Russia was (still is) huge too. ‘Russia . . .’, I can hear Laurence Olivier saying it now, in the Barbarossa episode of The World at War. ‘The boundless motherland of Russia.’ Faced with the German invasion of 1941, Russians fell back on the traditional strategy, the strategy that had done for Napoleon and would do for Hitler too: ‘Trade space for time’, a message Tarkovsky took to heart.

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