Andrei Tarkovsky | Solaris

“When we love someone, who do we love? That person, or our idea of that person?” Roger Ebert

Solaris is a 1972 Soviet science fiction art film based on Stanisław Lem’s 1961 novel of the same name. The film was co-written and directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, and stars Donatas Banionis and Natalya Bondarchuk. The electronic music score was performed by Eduard Artemyev and features J.S. Bach chorale prelude for organ Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ, BWV 639 as its main theme. Source

Solaris was seen as a Cold War-era response to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Both movies are mind-altering deep-space epics that raise more questions than they answer.Source But Kubrick’s film is outward, charting man’s next step in the universe, while Tarkovsky’s is inward, asking about the nature and reality of the human personality. Source

Solaris is about a space station that orbits a sentient planet that causes hallucinations in the cosmonauts. The hyper-rational protagonist, Kris Kelvin, is thrown for a loop when he is confronted by a doppelganger of his dead wife who killed herself years earlier. Source This duplicate is not simply a physical manifestation, however. She has intelligence, self-consciousness, memory, and lack of memories. She does not know that the original Khari committed suicide. She questions Kelvin, wants to know more about herself, eventually grows despondent when she realizes she cannot be who she appears to be. To some extent her being is limited by how much Kelvin knows about her, since Solaris cannot know more than Kelvin does. Source The logical side of Kelvin knows that this guest is a hallucination but he falls in love anyway, only to lose her again. Kelvin is caught in a hell of repeating the mistakes of his past.Source

When we love someone, who do we love? That person, or our idea of that person? Some years before virtual reality became a byword, Tarkovsky was exploring its implications. Although other persons no doubt exist in independent physical space, our entire relationship with them exists in our minds. When we touch them, it is not the touch we experience, but our consciousness of the touch. To some extent, then, the second Khari is as “real” as the first, although different.Source

The simulation of Being becomes a central concern in Tarkovsky’s Solaris. The film grapples with the implications posed by the blurring of boundaries between the human and the inhuman, between reality and artifice. (…) The hyperreal situation in Solaris – where visitors or guests manifest themselves in response to the thoughts of the disoriented crew of the space station orbiting the Solaris planet – directly confronts the growing cultural uncertainty concerning the ability to define the boundaries of reality, specifically in relation to advancing technologies that define our interactions and even production of that reality. The events depicted in Solaris serve to challenge the principle of human reality through the existence of a real simulated Being. Source

Tarkovsky also explored temporality in a manner not unlike Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark who, just moments after seeing his father’s ghost and realizing the earthly and spatial planes are not aligned, observed, “time is out of joint”. Given the perceptive nature of time and its relation to space in cinema, more than merely time is out of joint in film; the spatiotemporal form remains displaced, illusory, assembled through the filmmaking process of image-making and editing. Over the seven feature-length films to his credit, Tarkovsky’s cinema explores the time-space disconnect to engage the shifting and non-linear relationships between people, places, time, and memory. This is surely the case for the protagonist of Tarkovsky’s penetrating science-fiction odyssey Solaris (1972), a film in which space and time exist in a constant state of displacement through subjective memory, fantasy, and emotion.  Source Solaris exists on several spatial, temporal, and fantastic levels at once and, while watching the film, it becomes “less important (or possible) to distinguish reality from imagination than to manage the various levels of memory or fantasy.” Tarkovsky uses images to transcend space and time, to render the elusive connection between the human mind and an alien planet whose consciousness invades the film’s characters. Source

Tarkovsky’s films are often said they’re too long, but that’s missing the point: He uses length and depth to slow us down, to edge us out of the velocity of our lives, to enter a zone of reverie and meditation. When he allows a sequence to continue for what seems like an unreasonable length, we have a choice. We can be bored, or we can use the interlude as an opportunity to consolidate what has gone before, and process it in terms of our own reflections. (…) His later films are uncompromised meditations on human nature and the purpose of existence, and they have a profound undercurrent of spirituality–enough to get him into trouble with the Soviet authorities, who cut, criticized and embargoed his films, and eventually drove him into exile. He consciously embodied the idea of a Great Filmmaker, making works that were uncompromisingly serious and ambitious, with no regard whatever for audience tastes or box office success.Source


Solaris premiered at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Grand Prix Spécial du Jury and was nominated for the Palme d’Or. In the USSR, the film premiered in the Mir film theater in Moscow on February 5, 1973. Tarkovsky did not consider the Mir cinema the best projection venue. Despite the film’s narrow release in only five film theaters in the USSR, the film sold 10.5 million tickets. Unlike the vast majority of commercial and ideological films in the 1970s, Solaris was screened in the USSR in limited runs for 15 years without any breaks, giving it cult status. In the Eastern Bloc and in the West, Solaris premiered later. In the United States, a version of Solaris that was truncated by 30 minutes premiered at the Ziegfeld Theatre in New York City on October 6, 1976.Source

Although Lem worked with Tarkovsky and Friedrich Gorenstein in developing the screenplay, Lem maintained he “never really liked Tarkovsky’s version” of his novel. Tarkovsky wanted a film based on the novel but artistically independent of it, while Lem opposed any divergence of the screenplay from the novel. Lem went as far as to say that Tarkovsky made Crime and Punishment rather than Solaris, omitting epistemological and cognitive aspects of his book. But Lem also said in an interview that he had only seen part of the finale, much later, after Tarkovsky’s death. Tarkovsky claimed that Lem did not fully appreciate cinema and expected the film to merely illustrate the novel without creating an original cinematic piece. Tarkovsky’s film is about the inner lives of its scientists. Lem’s novel is about the conflicts of man’s condition in nature and the nature of man in the universe. For Tarkovsky, Lem’s exposition of that existential conflict was the starting point for depicting the characters’ inner lives.Source

In the autobiographical documentary Voyage in Time (1983), Tarkovsky says he viewed Solaris as an artistic failure because it did not transcend genre as he believed his film Stalker (1979) did, due to the required technological dialogue and special effects. M. Galina in the 1997 article Identifying Fears called this film “one of the biggest events in the Soviet science fiction cinema” and one of the few that do not seem anachronistic nowadays.Source

A list of “The 100 Best Films of World Cinema” compiled by Empire magazine in 2010 ranked Tarkovsky’s Solaris at No. 68. In 2002, Steven Soderbergh wrote and directed an American adaptation of Solaris, which starred George Clooney. Source

Sources and more

Leave a Reply