A psychologist is sent to a station orbiting a distant planet in order to discover what has caused the crew to go insane.
Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) was dubbed “Russia’s answer to 2001” by The Spectator when it went on UK release in 1973. That particular shibboleth has haunted Tarkovsky’s film ever since. This hyperbole surrounding competing science fiction blockbusters boiled down to a lot of Cold War provocation at the time, but at its essence the film is one of many answers to Kubrick’s much vaunted film. It’s just not the answer most audiences were expecting at the time, and it remains so to anyone who seeks out Criterion’s current high-definition re-release of Solaris.
The director thought Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was “phony on many points, even for specialists. For a true work of art, the fake must be eliminated.” Tarkovsky’s attitude to science fiction as literary and cinematic genres was always ambiguous. Not for him the spectacular technical prowess the genre had achieved by the end of the 1960s, nor Kubrick’s dispassionate admiration for humankind’s achievements and its destiny in outer space. Rather, Tarkovsky adapted the original 1961 novel by Polish author Stanislaw Lem as a philosophical exploration of inner space. Lem’s book was mainly concerned with the effects on humankind of a first contact situation, but Tarkovsky wasn’t entirely inclined towards this narrative and set off down a different path.
Battling to complete his medieval epic Andrei Rublev (1966), he struggled for five years to get it released when Goskino (the State Committee for Cinematography that oversaw production and censorship) rejected two cuts of the film. Rather fed up with Goskino’s bureaucratic administration, he felt adapting a science fiction subject as his next film would be the safer, more populist option, and perhaps Goskino would then cut him some slack. Therefore, in October 1968, he proposed an adaptation of Lem’s novel to the State Committee.
However, science fiction evolved as a form of philosophical dissent in the Eastern bloc, where the fantastical elements of the genre allowed writers like Lem “to carry symbolic messages critical of government authority in a way that the more ‘serious’ mainstream media were not able to, owing to strict censorship laws.” Lem was one of many artists, writers, and directors (including the Strugatsky brothers, Tarkovsky, and Tengiz Abuladze), whose works would eventually come to offer “an alternate way of assessing Soviet reality.”
Lem’s novel begins with psychologist Kris Kelvin’s arrival on a space station orbiting the planet Solaris. Scientists on the station — including Snaut, Gibarian and Sartorius — have been observing the planet’s apparently sentient ocean for some time. Prior to Kelvin’s arrival, and without authorisation, the scientists bombarded the ocean with high energy x-rays. The ocean’s response is to trawl the minds of these human interrogators and transform their repressed memories and subconscious anxieties into physical phenomena, including the manifestation of people and objects.
Strange, unseen visitors torment Snaut, Gibarian, and Sartorius. His wife Rheya, who died many years ago after committing suicide, visits Kris. She gradually becomes more aware of her transient nature and is doomed to repeat her tragic demise, eventually convincing Sartorius to use a device on her that destroys visitors from Solaris at a sub-atomic level. Even though the intelligences on Solaris have used the visitors not to torture but to communicate with humankind, the first contact situation fails because of the limits of human thinking and perception.
Lem collaborated with Tarkovsky and screenwriter Friedrich Gorenstein on the script, but then as writing progressed the differences between their approaches became more apparent. Whereas Lem wanted to stay with the novel’s exploration of communication, cognition, and the extent of human knowledge, Tarkovsky was more interested in the metaphysical and spiritual journey of the characters.
“Inner, hidden, problems, moral problems always engage me far more than any questions of technology,” Tarkovsky told an interviewer. “My prime sources are always the real state of the human soul, and the conflicts that are expressed in spiritual problems.” Lem later described his frustrations with this process: “We were like a pair of harnessed horses — each pulling the cart in the opposite direction.” They argued about Tarkovsky’s inclusion of an entire prologue set on Earth that concentrated on Kelvin’s family and home rather than the extremes of first contact. Lem saw this as his departure point from the adaptation: “Tarkovsky took sides and favoured ‘home, sweet Earth’ against the ‘Cold Cosmos’.”
Tarkovsky finished the script in June 1969 and then spent nearly a year awaiting the go ahead from the State Committee. By May 1970 he started to cast the film and was still looking for an actress to play Kris Kelvin’s wife Rheya, now named Hari in the script. He briefly considered Swedish actress Bibi Andersson and his ex-wife Irma Rausch for the role as preparations for location shooting commenced. He spent most of the summer and autumn of 1970 trying to start work on the film at a house the production had found in Zvenigorod and at the river Ruza for the opening sequence of the film. The film was beset with arguments between Tarkovsky and his cinematographer Vadim Yusov about how to shoot it. Yusov, who shot Ivan’s Childhood (1962) and Andrei Rublev with Tarkovsky, would not work with him again after their experience on Solaris.
He was also negotiating to travel to Expo ’70 — Osaka Banpaku — in Japan to try and shoot some sequences that would describe the city of the future and was fighting administrative nightmares that saw his budget eventually slashed from RUB 1,850,000 to RUB 900,000. Lithuanian actor Donatas Banionis was cast as Kris Kelvin, the nearest that Tarkovsky would get to working with a recognisable star in Soviet cinema, but Banionis struggled with a director whom he felt was more interested in making actors hit their marks and count their moves precisely than providing psychological motivation.
For the scientists on the space station, Tarkovsky cast Estonian actor Jüri Järvet as Snaut, while one of his regular acting collaborators, who’d just worked with him on Andrei Rublev, Anatoly Solonitsyn, returned to play Sartorius. Another Tarkovsky alumnus Nikolai Grinko was cast as Kelvin’s father. Natalya Bondarchuk, who had first recommended Lem’s novel to Tarkovsky and had been a student with him at the State Institute of Cinematography, so impressed the director with her performance in Larisa Shepitko’s You and I (1971) that he decided to cast her as Hari.
He did manage to shoot some sequences in Tokyo, and these make up one section of the film — perhaps its least successful — as Vida Johnson and Graham Petrie point out in the commentary on Criterion’s disc, because the Soviet audience’s concept that motorways and skyscrapers were futuristic was, at the time, accepted as commonplace in the West. The stark motorway journey that follows the naturalistic opening of the film at the dacha, where Kris Kelvin meets astronaut Henri Berton (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky) to share his testimony about Solaris before Kris leaves for the space station, does however offer a resonant aesthetic statement. It now seems more about the coldly inhuman surroundings of cities compared with the memory filled home environment of the dacha situated by its pond and trees. By extension, this is the same juxtaposition made between Earth and the space station.
When Tarkovsky submitted the film to Goskino for approval, they responded with a catalogue of questions and demands. To them the film didn’t fulfill the science fiction genre’s expectations. There were no clear images of a future Earth, the flight to Solaris wasn’t evocative enough, and the concepts were hard to understand. They demanded of Tarkovsky everything from a written explanation by Lem to open and explain the film, to requests to cut out the concepts of God and Christianity, then remove shots of Kris walking around without his trousers on. Tarkovsky’s comment about this list in his diaries sums up his frustrations: “I might as well give up.”
Tarkovsky did make small changes and was surprised when the re-edited film was accepted. It went on to represent the USSR at its 1972 Cannes premier and it won the Grand Prix Spécial du Jury. It was released in Russia without incurring too many delays on 5 February 1973. The director was initially pleased with the film but, in later years, reconsidered it as his least successful effort. This does a disservice to it and to the ideas that he clearly embraced in Lem’s novel when he set out to make the film in 1968.
Let’s not beat around the bush: Solaris is a very slow, meditative watch. It’s not concerned with audience expectations of the genre, and offers instead a stately and often hypnotic experience that explores human frailty, memory, and selfhood. The film spreads across several sections — the pre-flight scenes on Earth where Kelvin is preparing to leave at his father’s house in the country and meets Berton to discuss the nature of Solaris, the motorway sequence as discussed, his flight and arrival on Solaris, and the film’s enigmatic ending. Essential to all these are Tarkovsky’s ongoing obsessions with home, family, art, and the memories that bind these things together within the human, spiritual experience.
From the beautiful crane and tracking shots of the dacha and its surroundings by the pond, with its waving reeds, horses, dogs, birdsong, trees, and mist, the opening of the film underscores Tarkovsky’s affinity with nature, the natural world, and spirituality. Nature is always a character in his films and the elements of water, fire, air, and earth are often highly symbolic. Here, they come bound up within Kris Kelvin’s own experiences of home life, his memories of Earth, and the relationship with his estranged father.
By contrast, the space station is in a state of disrepair. Tarkovsky’s production designer Mikhail Romadin was, ironically, years ahead of his time in depicting the futuristic environs of the station full of broken and exposed machinery, dirt, and detritus. It’s in stark juxtaposition to the natural landscapes of Earth. Initially, Romadin suggested “transferring the Earth’s conditions to outer space and creating a space station that looked like a familiar Moscow apartment with square rooms and bookshelves.” This was rejected by Tarkovsky, although some of this emerges in the library set on the station where the painting by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, “Hunters in the Snow”, joins a number of art objects and books central to the film’s ideas about nostalgia and memory. The rest of the station’s dilapidated state emphasises Tarkovsky’s determination not to follow Kubrick’s aesthetic, having told Romadin “let’s make our space station look like a broken-down old bus… and not like some futuristic space utopia.’’
Images of zero gravity and levitation are also scattered throughout the movie, not only in space flight and on the station, but also in pictures of balloons, the presence of caged birds, clouds, and the free flow of water, poetically captured in those reeds swaying in the currents at the start of the film. Many objects seen in the opening of the film (bottles, books, pictures, plants) that provide the aesthetic of Kris’s father’s home also mysteriously reappear on the space station. The hauntology of the film is symbolised by these shifting objects and the ghosts that manifest themselves out of the past. They blur the boundaries between Earth and Solaris. The ocean is recreating Kelvin’s home out of his subconscious.
The relationship to art and music in Tarkovsky is also essential to this hauntology. The artificial visitors are surrounded by the creative wellspring of humanity on the station. As Mark Bould has noted, Tarkovsky regularly returns to a group of composers and artists (Bach, Beethoven, Brueghel, Dürer and Rublev to name a few), and in Solaris he certainly concentrates on Brueghel and shows several paintings in a sequence set in the station’s library. “Hunters in the Snow” is central to when Kelvin and Hari experience a moment of weightlessness. Hari’s memories are reactivated by the picture, ghostly images of the Earth that evoke a self-conscious spiritual connection in Tarkovsky’s work. Memories of Earth are also signalled by the use of Bach on the score, particularly the Choral Prelude in F minor, and more importantly, how the visitors from Solaris are stimulated to explore the subconscious memories of the scientists.
Tarkovsky also worked with composer Eduard Artemyev, who wove in electronic music with classical pieces to offer distinct soundscapes that represented the Earth and Solaris. The familiar sounds of our planet, the naturalistic tones of water, birdsong, and rustling leaves, give way to the surging, dissonant electronic tones played over the cityscapes and motorways. The Bach pieces blend and mutate with electronic tonalities as the film progresses and Artemyev manipulates them to suggest the breaking of boundaries between the human and the alien Other.
The film therefore becomes a study in recollecting selfhood and creating an autobiography from memory. The way memories might constitute a living, breathing person seems to be Tarkovsky’s route into adapting Lem’s novel and he concerns himself with this rather than Lem’s exploration of the implications of first contact. Kelvin journeys into his memory during his visit to the space station and we undertake an exploration of self-knowledge through the materialisation of his dead wife Hari out of the memories scanned by the ocean on Solaris.
It is Hari’s reincarnation and her gradual understanding of her own corporeal manifestation through love and human connection that is Tarkovsky’s derivation from Lem’s text. As the ghost of Hari self-destructs and renews herself several times on the station she becomes increasingly real, not only as a product of Kelvin’s guilt and grief but also from the memories of each of her visits. Memories overlap, intersect or are borrowed to create Hari’s autobiography anew.
Autobiographical memory is one of Tarkovsky’s major themes and he associates it with the growth of the self, as an intrinsic part of our identity. Hari does not come from nowhere, as she states at one point. She emerges from a soup of memories associated with Kelvin’s guilt over the original Hari’s suicide. We learn as much about Kelvin as we do about Hari through this interaction, through her uncanny continuation courtesy of Solaris’ ocean. We come to understand how Kelvin’s neglect of his wife is reconfigured by Solaris and the new Hari offers Kelvin a way to expiate his pain and guilt.
Solaris’s concerns with personhood and memory are also tied closely to the way the ocean digs into the minds of the station personnel to create physical bodies. We get brief glimpses of the creations brought to life out of the dark recesses of Snaut and Sartorius’ memories. They are clearly frightened by these creations and Snaut appears to have a violent relationship with his ghostly clone. By their very nature these scientists seek to create both a scientific explanation and then a method for destroying these clones. They seem to dismiss the human equation that Kelvin repeatedly grasps for and that emerges from his childhood memories of his family home and mother.
The curious ending of Solaris, where Kelvin finds himself back at the dacha reconciled with his father in Winter rather than Spring, recalibrates our understanding of Kelvin’s physical presence in the universe, his relationship to object, experience, and memory. As the camera pulls away into the air, the dacha is shown sitting on an island in the middle of the Solaris ocean. Is Tarkovsky suggesting that this experience of home and the Earth will go on forever, that those who come into contact with Solaris are given a form of immortality? Or is everything we’ve seen just seen only a memory or a simulation conjured up by the ocean, a cinematic reproduction of the characters emerging from this environment to construct their own autobiographies? Solaris remains one of Tarkovsky’s many enigmatic cinematic dreams.
Criterion’s high definition Blu-ray improves upon previous releases and there is good detail, colour and contrast throughout. The release is accompanied by a thoroughly detailed if rather dry commentary from academics Vida Johnson and Graham Petrie. There are deleted and alternate scenes that were removed when the film premiered at Cannes and a series of video interviews with lead actress Natalya Bondarchuk, cinematographer Vadim Yusov, production designer Mikhail Romadin and composer Eduard Artemyev which reveal further details about working with Tarkovsky on Solaris. There’s also an excerpt from a Polish TV documentary about Stanislaw Lem, his original novel and the Tarkovsky adaptation.
As ever I’m indebted to several text sources:
director: Andrei Tarkovsky
writers: Friedrich Gorenstein & Andrei Tarkovsky (based on the novel by Stanisław Lem).
starring: Donatas Banionis, Natalya Bondarchuk, Jüri Järvet, Vladislav Dvorzhetsky, Nikolai Grinko & Anatoly Solonitsyn.