Andrei Tarkovsky’s the name and Solaris is the experience…………Oh such is the effect of Tarkovsky’s cinema that he leaves me at a complete loss for words. Solaris is a mystifying and perplexing film, but it is wholly captivating, and I felt compelled to afford it an immediate second viewing in order to truly come to terms with it. Now that I feel comfortable with it, I’m suffering from an inability to connect my thoughts…….
Tarkovsky’s work is characterized by spirituality and metaphysical themes, long takes, lack of conventional dramatic structure, and distinctively authored use of cinematography. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest film-makers of all time.
Ingmar Bergman said of Tarkovsky for me is the greatest director, the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream.
Solaris, contrary to its setting, is interested in inner as opposed to outer space – namely, the realm of our consciousness. Much like he did with Stalker- Tarkovsky manipulates the basic framework of the sci-fi genre to express his own thematic concerns, refusing to bow to generic conventions. Subsequently, space exploration becomes an apt metaphor for an examination of the human soul and Solaris’ epic scope weighs in on the dilemma of the individual’s existence. What is love? What is reality? What makes a ‘human’? Tarkovsky confronts his audience with these solemn questions, whilst never privileging us with any direct answers.
The “Solaris” of the title is a sentient ocean residing somewhere deep in the cosmos. This mass of ‘jelly’, as one character describes it, not only possesses the power to probe a human’s subconscious, but also has the capability to materially duplicate the persons involved in those intimate thoughts. The film’s protagonist, Kris, after initially disbelieving Solaris’ immense potential, is thrown into turmoil when he discovers that the ocean has replicated his former wife, Hari, who committed suicide.
Hari is an extraordinarily complex character, who invokes as much perplexity from the viewer as she does from Kris. Born out of the latter’s memory, Hari is evidently not Kris’ ex-wife in spite of her apparent physical resemblance – she lacks the recollections of life with her husband that the real Hari would possess. What is she then? Is she simply Solaris’ perception of whom Hari was, or is she Kris’ idealization of what she should be? Are the two even mutually exclusive? Tarkovsky uses Hari as one angle to tackle the question of what it means to be human. Later in the film, Sartorius, a chillingly rational character symbolic of the director’s distaste for science, relegates the fake Hari’s existence to the domain of the purely physical. Tarkovsky shrewdly lets Sartorius’ implication speak for itself: if material being is not a valid measure of one’s humanity, then surely something else is – and what else is there besides the human soul? With her tenderness and empathy, Hari certainly seems more in touch with her soul than the impenetrable Sartorius, and thus a deliciously wicked irony unfolds. She may not be innately human, but Hari certainly seems to have evolved into one.
A significant portion of Solaris is spent dwelling on Kris and Hari’s relationship. The former’s initial response upon meeting this replication of his wife (he sends her away in an escape vehicle) serves as a critical depiction of man’s destructive impulse. This idea extends towards the ocean itself: Kris’ mission, to evaluate whether or not Solaris should be obliterated, is representative of our own fear of the unknown. Tarkovsky suggests that our instinct upon encountering alien environments is to simply annihilate them. This implicitly contributes to the reasoning behind Kris’ original reaction.
Another part of this reasoning is a distinct fear of confronting the past. The concept of remembering is a prevalent theme in Solaris, rearing its head most notably in the form of Hari who is effectively an anthropomorphized anamnesis. A persistent motif, first demonstrated via Berton’s character, finds Tarkovsky flashbacking to Kris’ youth, reinforcing the notion of one’s inescapable history. It should be noted that earlier in the film, we encounter Kris burning photographs and documents on Earth in a plain attempt to dissociate himself from his past. Once aboard the austere space station however, he is under Solaris’ subjugation and is accordingly required to face up to his guilt. The set design is used to reaffirm this, consisting as it does of concaved rooms, locked doors and enormous windows that literally look out to Solaris but figuratively look in to the soul. Such spatial deficiency coerces Kris into introspection, insisting that he tackles his conscience about Hari’s suicide. The aforementioned scene where he sends her away in an escape vehicle is pivotal. As the rocket begins launching, every door bolts and Kris becomes trapped – forced to endure the consequences of his actions. He suffers burns because of this, and his purpose essentially fails as Hari is simply resurrected by Solaris. Tarkovsky seems to be demanding that we make peace with the past, before we proceed with the future.
Probing the subconscious isn’t exactly the easiest of tasks, and Solaris’ copying technique is not perfect. In its own way, the ocean acts as an appropriate reflection of human memory – it can recall general outlines, but pays little attention to detail. For example, while Hari’s basic physicality is correct, the buttons on her dress cannot be undone due to the ocean’s inaccuracy. The film highlights the fact that we recollect our perception of people, as opposed to their reality, and Tarkovsky uses this concept as a basis to investigate the texture of love itself. He suggests that the emotion leads to consecrated memories (possibly the fake Hari?), that blind us from the truth (the real Hari?). Is it our consciousness of someone that we’re in love with, or is it the person themselves?
Pessimism drenches the issue of romance in Solaris . Kris claims to love the new Hari more than the old one, knowing that she isn’t real. His need for affection, on top of his active willingness to delude himself, would verge on the pitiable if it didn’t mirror our own natural desires. The director scrutinises the lengths that we’ll go to in the name of passion, and the issue of the past resurfaces as he indicates that we cannot escape from our mistakes. Accordingly, the fake Hari outdoes her human counterpart by committing suicide a number of times, only to be constantly resurrected in order to mercilessly illustrate her existential crisis.
Technology, an required feature of the sci-fi genre, isn’t ignored here so much as it is dismissed. It’s used to highlight spiritual destitution, most remarkably in the notorious ‘freeway’ scene where Tarkovsky films a ‘futuristic’ car journey without dialogue for several minutes in order to show how it is effectively taking us nowhere. Alongside this aversion to technology, the director shows a clear propensity for nature. Note the fondness with which the camera glares upon Kris’ life on Earth – Tarkovsky allows the audience to relish in these scenes of environmental beauty. Contrast this with the space station, where strips of paper are tied to a ventilation shaft in order to recreate the sound of rustling leaves, emphasizing the disparity between the two worlds. Modes of travel are also brilliantly evaluated – there’s the obvious space travel, and the cars in the freeway scene, but there’s also a recurring image of a horse, elegant and graceful. Guess which one Tarkovsky favors…
Solaris is a dense and expansive piece of work that’s riddled with intricacies and contradictions that are impossible to fully comprehend. A more accomplished writer could apply a Freudian analysis to the text – and it’s certainly screaming out for one with its preoccupation with the subconscious, oceanic feeling and a surprise mother complex. Numerous interpretations can be brought to this film however, and no one theory is more right than the other. Complete with a shock ending that throws everything that came before it into disarray, Solaris is an enigmatic but nonetheless astonishing experience – a mood piece that soars to giddy heights thanks in part to the director’s masterful brand of visual poetry. It’s a challenge for sure, but one that’s completely worth hunting down.
Solaris won the Grand Prix Spécial du Jury in the 1972 Cannes Film Festival and the FIPRESCI prize. The film is often cited as one of the greatest science fiction films in the history of cinematography
- Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky
- Produced by Viacheslav Tarasov
- Written by Fridrikh Gorenshtein & Andrei Tarkovsky
- Based on Solaris by Stanisław Lem
- Casting: Natalya Bondarchuk (Hari), Donatas Banionis (Kris Kelvin), Jüri Järvet (Dr Snaut), Vladislav Dvorzhetsky (Henri Berton), Nikolai Grinko (Kris Kelvin’s Father), Olga Barnet (Kris Kelvin’s Mother), Anatoli Solonitsyn (Dr Sartorius), and Sos Sargsyan (Dr Gibarian)
- Music by Eduard Artemyev
- Cinematography: Vadim Yusov
- Editing by Lyudmila Feiginova
- Distributed by Visual Programme Systems (UK, 1973)
- Release dates: May 13, 1972 (Cannes Film Festival) & USSR-March 20, 1972
- Run time of 165 min.
- Country: Soviet Union
- Language: Russian