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Vague Visages Is FilmStruck: Jeremy Carr on Andrei Tarkovsky’s ‘Solaris’

“Don’t turn a scientific problem into a common love story” – Dr. Snaut

Andrei Tarkovsky valued the science fiction foundation of Solaris. He just wasn’t committed to it. Since the time of its release, when it was widely sold as an Iron Curtain alternative to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), much of the judgment placed upon Tarkovsky’s 1972 film centered on its standing as a viable, variable or wholly irregular sci-fi movie. Aside from Kubrick’s groundbreaking work, Tarkovsky also had to contend with comparisons to the film’s source, Stanisław Lem’s 1961 novel of the same name: How faithful was it, what changed, and why? This similarly restricted Solaris to a discussion mainly revolving around its placement in the hallowed halls of the genre. Could one talk about Solaris as anything but a science fiction film? Could it transcend its genre and take on a singular life of its own? Tarkovsky himself felt Solaris was a failure in this regard (compared, for instance, to his 1979 film, Stalker), stating, “I do feel that Solaris is the least successful of my films because I was never able to eliminate the science-fiction association.” That said, however, Tarkovsky was a sci-fi fan, and in a sense, he acknowledges his deference to the field of the Polish novelist by noting in the opening credits that Solaris is not just based on the novel by Stanisław Lem, but “based on the science fiction novel by Stanisław Lem.” A minor point perhaps, but it does signal that for all its ambiguities and generic deviances, Solaris is, at minimum, a fundamental work of science fiction. Beyond that, though, it is so much more.

At first, Solaris is science fiction in concept, and by implication only. During an Earth-bound prologue not in Lem’s novel, there is little to nothing that suggests an entirely futuristic or fantastical setting. Eventually, recognizable tropes promote the picture’s generic arrival (extraterrestrial insinuations, the gradual use of high-tech gadgetry), but even then, despite its superficial sci-fi qualities, the tone and premise of Solaris alludes to something other than a simple “space mission.” Divided into two parts, Solaris opens in an imprecise region of the world, presumably the Soviet Union, where psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) is joined by his father and mother — neither are instantly identified as such — as well as Henri Berton (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky), a former space pilot newly returned from a station orbiting the ocean planet Solaris. Berton arrives with quite the tale to tell. Apprehensive and cagey, primal indications of the trauma he experienced in space, Berton plays a video testimony to ascertain the reasons for his peculiar state and his visit with Kris. It seems an organic phenomenon has been unleashed near Solaris, which has irrevocably twisted the psyche of those exposed. With his evident torment forging a portentous face of things to come, Berton talks of sentient humanoids materializing out of thin air aboard the station. These beings could stem from hallucinations, or are perhaps derived from erratic atmospheric anomalies; or maybe it’s a psychological product of isolated depression. Whatever its genesis, the crew of 85 is down to three, the concrete apparitions continue and Kris is entreated to evaluate the situation.

Before observing these celestial occurrences, the pragmatic Kris embodies one of the essential themes of Solaris. There are clearly unusual happenings at the Solaris facility, but logic submits the reasons are reinforced in affirmed reality. Even with Berton’s revelations, Kris approaches his story with scientific skepticism, at least until he can bear first-hand witness. Solaris (the film and the planet) tests this border between — and the intersection of — human knowledge and human experience. Tarkovsky assumes a theoretical stance that hinges on the wavering fear of the unknown and the comfort of the common. The science fiction icons that promptly denote something otherworldly or mechanically advanced are scarce during the early part of Solaris, so the focus is instead on a tangible presentation of naturally occurring biotic elements, particularly Tarkovsky’s systematic motifs of wind, water, grass and trees. These biological features also obsess Kris, who gazes at the enveloping greenery and basks in the purity and simplicity of a sudden downpour, literally soaking in the rain, absorbing the natural and the normal before setting off to face the inexplicable. Even on the ship, where the incomprehensible and confusing reign, the men cling to these same environmental features, as when one of the remaining crewmen shows Kris how to replicate the sound of rustling leaves on his air vent. It’s a way to stay grounded, as it were, even when hovering in a remote stretch of space.

Kris’ penchant for the habitual is evidentially shared by his father (played by Tarkovsky regular Nikolai Grinko), who notes their house is like his grandfather’s, declaring in quite the contrary comment for a science fiction film (one likely based on Tarkovsky’s own position), “I don’t like innovation.” It’s a statement that carries even more weight at the film’s conclusion, when one is left to question the structural validity of even this seemingly orthodox residence. Just as those in Solaris embrace and retain an affection for the qualities of Earth’s customary ecosystem, they also display an attachment to the more intimate aspects of their everyday lives. Indeed, as will be seen, a personal desire for the accustomed is partly what induces the inscrutable condition near Solaris — it feeds on such familiar fondness. Though the impact of the planet’s material manipulation is based on this attachment, the sweeping insinuation is contradicted somewhat by Kris himself. He has a conflicted relationship with his past, at once packing a collection of mementos for his voyage while also burning samples of his research, engaging in the willful destruction of history and allocating space for, and therefore placing value in, memorial souvenirs.

This tentative advancement in many ways mirrored the demands placed upon Tarkovsky at the time of Solaris’ production. In addition to a number of editorial changes (changes he largely managed to ignore), Soviet authorities requested the film contain a certain amount of special effect imagery, enough to play up its science fiction angle and stake a reasonable claim in this Cold War cinematic contest. Ironically, though, the film’s budgetary restrictions hindered anything too elaborate. So, just as Jean-Luc Godard did with Alphaville (1965), and like Tarkovsky would later do with Stalker, he creates a cursorily futuristic world by capitalizing on innovative aspects of contemporary society. It was to be the future, but only so far as the present allowed. In this, the most curious example is a five-minute sequence where Berton drives through some ultramodern city (actually Tokyo, raising further questions about where these early portions of the film are supposed to be set). Accentuated by Eduard Artemyev’s ambient electronic score, which does a good deal to lend the film an aural space-age strangeness, Tarkovsky’s necessarily clever use of preexisting architecture, signage and urban development is itself an example of how Solaris’ spatial and temporal core is contingent upon overlap and concurrent influence, from the past, present and the conception of the future.

Finally arriving at Solaris, where the film fully resembles a science fiction picture for the first time (after nearly an hour has passed), Kris enters into an obvious realm of menace. There should only be three grown men residing on the station, but Kris witnesses an array of indicators to the contrary: an infantile drawing, a child’s ball rolling down a corridor, the quick glimpse of a pubescent girl as she turns a corner. He encounters the unnerving Dr. Snaut (Jüri Järvet), who appears fearful, simply surprised, or both. The perturbed scientist tells Kris about the suicide of Dr. Gibarian (Sos Sargsyan), which supposedly leaves just he and Dr. Sartorius (Anatoli Solonitsyn, another recurring Tarkovsky actor) aboard the ship. In Snaut’s fitful explanations, and in Gibarian’s pre-recorded message, the two speak vaguely of apparent “disturbances.” “If you see something out of the ordinary,” cautions Snaut, “try not to lose your head.” “What would I see?” asks Kris. “That sort of depends on you,” comes the cryptic reply.

Whatever occurred here, these men are not alone — all vainly attempt to conceal a bizarre guest — and with that, Solaris succeeds on the basis of prevailing sci-fi intrigue. Mastering the formulas of the genre as well as anyone (maybe even despite his best efforts), Tarkovsky crafts an effective and deliberate unease, building on the palpable anxiety of Snaut and Sartorius, the mere presence of their unexplained visitors and a puzzling volley of secrets, lies, half-truths and foreboding interpretations. The ship’s state of disarray and its eerily ominous stillness evokes a calm both before and after the storm, and Kris, like the viewer, is left with more questions than answers. The apparently sane and composed communication from Gibarian does little to shed light on the veracity of the situation; he suggests that what happened to him could happen to anyone, and proposes that it is (was) likely just the beginning. It’s “not madness,” he says, but has “something to do with conscience.”

Sure enough, Kris acquiesces to the baffling phenomenon, as his deceased wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk) appears to him one evening. He registers the peculiarity of her depiction, responding in a disheveled sweat of panic, and instinctively attempts to get rid of this alien imposter. But when she returns, after he had launched her into the void of space, he is besieged by the competing forces of temptation (a chance to again be with his dear departed) and his well-honed lucidity (he knows what “she” is). Tarkovsky firmly establishes the uncanny scenario of Solaris, so it is now when he diverts interest away from the conventions of the genre and begins to probe the film’s more resonant, empirical repercussions.

The initial bewilderment is gripping, with Tarkovsky steadily dropping in enigmatic reports about this evasive ocean planet and its “distinctive brain,” and with Kris functioning as a correspondingly perplexed observer and a sympathetic point of spectator association. Both Banionis and Bondarchuk give powerful performances, especially with their restrained, blank-faced expressions, which obscure true thoughts and motivations but invite emotional projection. Forgoing shock cuts and suspenseful musical cues, Tarkovsky’s Solaris settles into a sedate, contemplative narrative. Though the slow motion image of Hari bursting through a steel door does illicit a visceral bloody terror, the outburst is not there to generate any sort of horror-thrill, but rather to expose her fear and, more than that, expose the notion that she can even experience fear. Presumably like the other “guests,” Hari is no automaton; she is capable of feeling, learning and adapting. This realization burdens Kris, conflicting his sense of certainty with his sensitive yearnings. His perspective is rapidly skewed, and the interstellar psychosis demonstrates love’s power to surpass science and logic. When Sartorius speaks of Hari as a “specimen,” Kris is quick to retort: “That’s my wife!” She is no vacant “mass of jelly” — she has already “invaded” his soul. As Kris and Hari reminisce (if she actually “remembers” anything in the first place), it becomes unclear if they are in fact sharing memories or if she is somehow extracting them from him. And yet both seem to know exactly what they’re doing. Kris’ cognizance of the situation’s irrationality is thus matched by Hari’s own evolving self-awareness. In this regard, while 2001: A Space Odyssey gets the regular filmic comparison, as Phillip Lopate argues, Solaris most recalls Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 masterpiece Vertigo, what with Kris’ desperation to cling to a lost love, even knowing she is a fabrication, or Kenji Mizoguchi’s haunting 1953 work Ugetsu, insofar as characters are likewise “falling in love with ghosts.”

Speculation abounds concerning the purpose of these boarders, why and how they develop as they do, as personal remnants of the crew’s enduring recollections or latent fantasies. Is Solaris enacting revenge of sorts, stemming from the prohibited radiation blasted to the planet’s surface, or is it conducting its own experimentation? Is the resulting appearance of these figures a form of “torture” or a “favor”? In any event, the revelatory endgame echoes a dominant Tarkovskian concern. When Snaut asks why worry about other worlds — what good would that do? — he alternatively posits that humans should be more concerned with holding up a mirror to themselves, which is what Solaris does to these interplanetary travelers. The introspection subtly generated by these beings divulges more about the susceptible humans than the productive alien brain. Lem was unhappy with Tarkovsky’s adaptation partly for this reason, feeling the filmmaker stepped away from his focus on interspecies communication and instead shifted the emphasis inward, centering on grief, love and painful self-examination. That Tarkovsky extended this to issues of scientific morality (assuming Solaris is a living, cogent entity, the men are essentially trying to murder it with radioactivity), is also why Solaris is about preserving humanity in what the director says is an “un-human” condition. The film goes beyond strict and narrow generic classification and touches upon something universal, something profound about undying affection and the unreliability of reality. As Tarkovsky saw it (even if the author didn’t), “The depth and meaning of Lem’s novel are not at all dependent on the science-fiction genre, and it’s not enough to appreciate his novel simply for the genre.”

Debate surrounding Solaris and genre doesn’t stop with the film’s relationship to science fiction. If, as Tarkovsky has argued, cinema does not have genres but rather “is itself a genre,” then he regularly exhibits the best the genus has to offer. And this film in particular, with its concentration on the persuasive power of recreation, and the willingness to accept the impossible if the reproduction is convincing enough, reflects the very basis for cinematic illusion. Few filmmakers have produced such patently unique and ingeniously impressive imagery as Tarkovsky has. His style is focused, polished and impeccable; no formal decision is the least bit arbitrary. With elaborately long takes, fluid camera maneuvers, a detailed set design and elegant cinematography by Vadim Yusov (who also shot Tarkovsky’s prior three films), Solaris flaunts the director’s definitive aesthetic. At the same time, as he transitions from one sensation or scene to the next with a steady matter of fact curiosity, Tarkovsky forgoes predictably linear cause-effect progression, favoring an elliptical chain of events and the potency of suggestion and ambiguity. Lingering on props and images, many disclosed with significant regularity, Tarkovsky’s brand of cinema invites (and rewards) passionate analysis, yet he often denies inner meaning and discourages interpretation.

Solaris premiered at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Grand Prize of the Jury. Its subsequent United States run, on the other hand, did not go over so well. Thirty minutes were excised from the picture, many of its political undertones were lost on western audiences and its languid pace and unresolved inquiries left casual crowds disengaged. Still today, with its challenging philosophical provocations in lieu of traditional sci-fi “action,” there remain a number of contentious angles from which to approach Solaris. It presents the rudimentary hallmarks of its generic packaging, but it also has the pronounced impression of Tarkovsky’s inimitable grace. If it is a science fiction film, it is one only as much as it’s an Andrei Tarkovsky science fiction film. And that makes it something quite exceptional.

Jeremy Carr (@jeremyrcarr) teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Vague Visages, Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI’s Notebook, Cinema Retro, Movie Mezzanine, Cut Print Film and Fandor’s Keyframe.

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