[Author’s Note: If you’ve never seen Solaris, I strongly recommend you read nothing about the film before you watch it. Enter Tarkovsky’s world with no preconceptions. It worked for me, and I wish you the same exhilarating discombobulation.]
“Insane? That would be a relief.”
Pop quiz. There were two great science fiction films made in the late 60’s / early 70’s. Both involved first contact with alien intelligences. Both began with memorable pieces from the classical music repertoire. Name the two films.
If you didn’t immediately identify Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) you’re either too young, or I’d really like to know what you were doing in the Sixties. If you picked the great Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) as your second choice, let’s go out for coffee. Maybe you should be writing this column.
Before videos came along, Andrei Tarkovsky’s seven films made up one of the great “undiscovered countries” of cinema. One had to be in the right place at the right time to catch any of his works in even their fleeting manifestations in art house theatres. One of the very best times and places was movie-mad Paris in the early Eighties. Presented on large screens to match the grandeur of their visions, Solaris, Andrei Rublev, Stalker, and The Sacrifice left me bewildered, awed, stunned, grateful. Grateful? Oh yes, hugely grateful that a director could infuse cinema with the suggestive spiritual and human depths of great poetry. One walks away from Tarkovsky’s films like one does from a reading of William Butler Yeats or T.S. Eliot—dazed but jubilant.
Solaris is a 167-minute science fiction meditation on what might happen if our first encounter with an alien life form turned out to be more psychological than technological. Solaris itself is a planet inhabited by a single entity: a sentient ocean that covers the entire planet in endlessly shifting patterns of ebb and flow. Good science fiction writers have always emphasized that one of the most challenging problems facing humanity in its potential exploration of space is simply recognizing what constitutes alien life. Polish writer Stanislaw Lem (called by some critics “the most important SF writer on the continent of Europe”), on whose novel Solaris is based, was outraged by writers who couldn’t see beyond “anthropomorphic banalities.” No such animal here. This is life as we do not know it.
Set up in a floating research station, “solaristics” experimenters are testing for reactions to various types of transmissions beamed into the world-ocean. An x-ray experiment seems to initiate contact, but the results are catastrophic. The research station is depopulated as its inhabitants suffer various forms of psychological collapse. With only 3 members of a complement of 88 left on the station, a psychologist, Kris Kelvin, is sent to Solaris to try and determine if the project needs to be terminated. Kelvin has his own unresolved conflicts. In the prologue to the film we see him at the idyllic country home he shares with his father and young daughter. The beauty of the setting contrasts sharply with Kris’s restless, brooding frame of mind. He accepts his new mission with the stoic indifference of a man with little to lose. He burns his papers and photographs before leaving, as if to say that should he not return the world will be the purer for having no memory of his existence.
There are odd symbolic touches even in the country prologue, but Tarkovsky demonstrates the uniqueness of his vision in the sequence showing Kelvin’s journey from his home to the launch site. Actually filmed on location in Tokyo, Kelvin travels through a phantasmagorical time-condensed sequence of tunnels, freeways, overpasses, corridors, and traffic streams that appear to be our world’s anti-organic matrix of non-flesh & blood. If the planet Solaris is a conscious entity, seen through Tarkovsky’s eyes our own earth seems in danger of becoming mere structure.
When Kris Kelvin arrives at the research station, he discovers that the one scientist he’d once known well has committed suicide and left him a warning of “monsters” and something more terrifying than madness. The other two men on the station, astrobiologist Sartorius and cyberneticist Snaut, are leading double lives with “guests” whose origins, identities and roles are inscrutable to outsiders. The “guests” have been generated by the planet itself in response to its evolving awareness of its visitors’ guilts, hopes, nightmares and fantasies. Pretty soon Kelvin has a guest of his own–a flawed (or too perfect?) double of the wife he’d lost.
I’ll say nothing more of the plot. The less you know, the more you’ll discover. It would be pointless anyhow. Imagine my trying to paraphrase Yeats’ “Byzantium” for you before you’d read it. I can, however, talk about some of the aspects of the film that contribute to its power. The first is the excellent casting, particularly Donatas Banionis as Kris Kelvin and Natalya Bondarchuk as his wife, Hari. The second is that the viewer is on the same journey as Kelvin. Trajectory and destination are unknown. Along the way, something is surely learned about what makes us human, or not. Yet at the end, all that is certain is how strange the trip has been.
(Contrast this with the mechanical didacticism of a recent Hollywood film on a similar theme. In Contact, director Robert Zemeckis is so busy setting up plot elements (brilliant-young-orphan-on-a-quest, science vs. religious faith, faith vs. skepticism, benevolent (!) super-capitalist vs. narrow-minded bureaucrats, religious terrorism, love interest) that the 2 1/2-hour film can devote no more than five or ten minutes to the actual encounter with alien life. Not even a memorable five or ten minutes at that. Contact is paint-by-numbers, everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink filmmaking in the time-honored Hollywood tradition of plot over ideas. In Solaris, Sartorius could have been predicting the cinematic future when he said, “We don’t want to conquer the cosmos, we want to expand earth endlessly. We don’t want other worlds; we want a mirror. Man needs man.”)
The third thing which works so well in Solaris is the main setting. The centrifuge-shaped research station looks the way the spaceliner Orion might have looked in 2001 if HAL had managed to get the crew to join in his madness instead of deciding to terminate them. Working on a very limited budget, Tarkovsky managed to create an eerily convincing environment of high-tech, isolation, desolation, and ordinariness. The environment is further shaped through sound. With the exception of Bach’s F Minor Choral Prelude there is no musical soundtrack. But every individual sound (of water, footsteps, sliding doors, breaking glass, etc.) has been electronically enhanced to achieve unnatural clarity. In tandem with razor-sharp sound, moments of silence (Tarkovsky was one of the few directors unafraid of silence) have an unnatural impact. The overall effect is somewhat like hearing a still life painting. Equally disorienting are Tarkovsky’s shifts from color photography to black & white or sepia. These shifts work to confound past and present, mind’s eye and body’s eye.
Given the strictures of Soviet censorship under which Tarkovsky worked, and the fact that all his work had to get the fastidious approval of various state committees on culture, a final product like Solaris is miraculous. To borrow the words of W.H. Auden, Tarkovsky’s cinema was an affirming flame for those defenseless under the night. Cancer claimed Tarkovsky at the age of fifty-four. Of all his battles against the darkness, it’s the only one he lost.
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
If I had my way, I’d see to it that anyone who watched Solaris came into it cold—no reviews beforehand, no introduction, no commentary. That’s why I added the note to the top of my original review. Approached in this way, Tarkovsky’s film is the closest anyone has ever gotten to capturing true dream time on a movie screen. Seeing Solaris for the first time almost 40 years ago, knowing absolutely nothing about its director or his films, remains one of my indelible movie-going memories. I’d compare it to reading a section of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land aloud for the first time, without any annotations. Solaris also remains one of the coolest science fiction films ever made, “possibly the nearest the cinema has yet come to capturing the complexities of contemporary speculative fiction by its intermingling of time and memory, its dark undertone and uneasiness, its emphasis on elegance and style.” [quote from Brian Ash’s The Visual Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, 1977]
One of these days, I’m going to show Solaris at one of our Community Centre Monday Marquee movie nights. No intro. Then I’ll wait to see who storms out in frustration after the first 20 minutes, and who (if anyone) is left sitting stunned in their seats when the final credits roll.
If you’ve already watched Solaris, you’re free to check out some of the commentaries. There’s a fine essay on Solaris in Roger Ebert’s Great Movies II, also available online rogerebert.com and the Imdb Solaris page. Here are links to three YouTube commentaries that cast their own lights on the enigma:
Sculpting Time: Introduction to Tarkovsky’s Solaris by Will Self [who’s watched the film once a year for almost 40 years]
Solaris (1972)-Explained & Analysed, by LondonCityGirl
Solaris: The Consciousness in Outer Space, from Renegade Cut
I’m also including some quotations from Tarkovsky’s own writings in the section below. These first selections are from Sculpting in Time, translated by Kitty Hunter-Blair. The book isn’t light reading, with 240 pages of Tarkovsky’s reflections on cinema, literature, and art. If you haven’t seen Tarkovsky’s films, this might not be the best place to start.
In a non-developing, constant state of tension, passions reach the highest possible pitch, and manifest themselves more vividly and convincingly than in a gradual process of change. It is this predilection of min that makes me so fond of Dostoievsky. For me the most interesting characters are outwardly static, but inwardly charged with energy by an overriding passion. (p. 17)
I find poetic links, the logic of poetry in cinema, extraordinarily pleasing. They seem to me perfectly appropriate to the potential of cinema as the most truthful and poetic of all art forms. Certainly I am more at home with them than with the traditional theatrical writing which links images through the linear, rigidly logical development of the plot. (pp. 18-20)
An artistic discovery occurs each time as a new and unique image of the world, a hieroglyphic of absolute truth. It appears as a revelation, as a momentary, passionate wish to grasp intuitively and at a stroke all the laws of this world—its beauty and ugliness, its compassion and cruelty, its infinity and limitations. (p. 37)
The only condition of fighting for the right to create is faith in your own vocation, readiness to serve and refusal to compromise. (p. 39)
It [a quoted passage from Dostoievsky’s The Possessed] is a brilliant insight into the confused state of soul, its decline and inadequacy, that are becoming an ever more chronic syndrome in modern man, who could be diagnosed as being spiritually impotent. (p. 42)
The poet has nothing to be proud of: he is not master of the situation, but a servant. Creative work is his only possible form of existence, and his every work is like a deed he has no power to annul. (p. 43)
History is still not Time; nor is evolution. They are both consequences. Time is a state: the flame in which there lies the salamander of the human soul. (p. 57)
Cinema was the first art form to come into being as a result of a technological invention, in answer to a vital need. It was the instrument which humanity had to have in order to increase its mastery over the real world. For the domain of any art form is limited to one aspect of our spiritual and emotional discovery of surrounding reality. (p. 82)
I still remember the first film I managed to see at the Institute on the eve of the entry exams—The Lower Depths by Renoir, based on Gorky’s play. I was left with a strange, puzzling impression, a feeling of something forbidden, clandestine, unnatural. (p. 90)
The dominant, all-powerful factor of the film image is rhythm, expressing the course of time within the frame. (p. 113)
It has often been pointed out, quite rightly, that every art form involves editing, in the sense of selection and collation, adjusting parts and pieces. The cinema image comes into being during shooting, and exists within the frame. During shooting, therefore,, I concentrate on the course of time in the frame, in order to reproduce it and record it. Editing bring together shots which are already filled with time, and organises the unified, living structure inherent in the film; and the time that pulsates through the blood vessels of the film, making it alive, is of varying rhythmic pressure.
The idea of ‘montage cinema’—that editing3brings together two concepts and thus engenders a new, third one—again seems to me to be incompatible with the nature of cinema. Art can never have the interplay of concepts as it ultimate goal. The image is tied to the concrete and the material, yet reaches out along mysterious paths to regions beyond the spirit…. (pp. 114-116)
And here are a few samples from Time Within Time: The Diaries 1970-1986., translated by Kitty Hunter-Blair. Begun during Tarkovsky’s work on Solaris, I find these journal entries compulsively readable. Here is the man, warts and all—obsessing about money, complaining about doltish bureaucrats, reading Hermann Hesse, fretting over his child’s flu, dreaming of future projects. There are also chapters devoted to Solaris, Mirror, The Idiot, and Hamlet.
12th July, 1970
Yesterday I got drunk. And shaved off my moustache. I only realized this morning. And on all my document photographs I’ve got a moustache. I’ll have to grow it again.
I do love my Larochka, she is wonderful. Why, when I love her, do I go on the booze…presumably because what is missing is that notorious thing, freedom.
15 August 1970
Not a word from Dushanbe about the treatment we sent on Belyaev’s instructions. We’re depending on it for cash. Penniless. And appalling debts. What’s going to happen? I just can’t imagine.
26 August, 1970
Things at the studio are awful. It’s a reflection of the general situation. Where is it all heading? God alone knows. There are idiots in charge.
1 September, 1970
Read Vonnegut’s Children’s Crusade. Yes, he’s a pacifist, and a good man. Writes with verve.
But where are our senseless, useless, great, Russian depths?! How sad.
7 September, 1970
If only I had finished Solaris, and it isn’t even started. A whole year to go; and what a miserable year…there’s no one to work with.
I’ve sacked the production manager. And the wardrobe mistress as well. And who is going to take their place? There’s no one at all in the studio.
12 September, 1970
I’m not a saint and I’m not an angel.
What I am is an egoist, who is afraid more than anything else in the world of pain suffered by those he loves.
I’m going to go and read Hesse.
18 September, 1970
Just read Zamyatin’s Us. Feeble and pretentious. All that would-be racy, ‘dynamic’ prose. It’s somehow a nasty little book.
Today I saw Bondarchuk’s Waterloo. Poor old Seryozha! It’s embarrassing.
17 November, 1970
Is there ever going to be order in Russia, or will there never be anything until the whole thing disintegrates?
There has never before been such universal, total repudiation of order. They’ve all become inveterate liars, time-servers, crooks. Life is impossible.
12 January, 1972
Yesterday Sizov dictated comments and criticisms of Solaris collected from various bodies—the cultural department of the Central Committee, Demichov’s office, the Committee and the governing board.
I have made a note of some thirty-three of these observations. Here they are. There are a great many of them, and if I were to comply with them (which is not actually possible) the whole basis of the film would be destroyed. In other words, it’s even more absurd than it was with Rubyov. [examples: (5) Cut out the concept of God, (19) There should be a written introduction to the film (from author Stanislaw Lem) explaining it all)