Will we be forced to cut our losses with planet Earth altogether and bond completely with high technology in order to survive? That leaf drifting downstream in frame one of “Solaris” (1972) contains the entire conundrum. Tarkovsky continues to riff on the natural world’s virtues with his third film.
All his films contain poignant ruminations on war and apocalypse. In this one, the spacelab’s declared mission is to evaluate the planet Solaris for exploitable resources. As it turns out, the main character mines a treasure of human potential onboard the ship, even though it is exactly the opposite of his orders.
To bring a previous subject in this movie marathon forward, let us consider, briefly, that Hari represents the problem of conscience. Hari’s first close-up is extreme. We pull back slowly. She puts a hair comb up to her cheek, hinting that she is some artifact combed out of Kris’s past, but nothing could prepare Kris for the shattering his ego receives next. If Hari is conscience, then the planet Solaris is God, or else a much more highly evolved intelligence than our own. Whatever you call it, close contact with its ocean forces Earth’s finest psychologist’s unresolved issues to the surface.
Everyone take a breather before moving on. Go to the support materials on disk B of the Criterion release (2011) and watch the documentary interviews of Vadim Yusov who, more than anyone else, helped the director realize his vision. Then watch Natalya Bonderchuck, who played the role of Hari when she was barely eighteen and went on to act in over 40 roles, declare “Solaris is my favorite film.”
It’s the same sort of sentiment you’ll hear from Vadim Yusov, the man behind the lens that helped juggle the literal and abstract so visually in “Solaris.” If you get hooked on this stuff as I have, you will also find your way to the interview of the film’s composer Eduard Artemyev. Just about everyone in Tarkovsky’s crew talks as though they were of one mind with the director.
Madam Banderchuck goes on to recount a meeting of Tarkovsky’s closest admirers at a film fest in which all of Tarkovsky’s titles were shown over a few short days. “It was like watching a single film…all…about Andrei Tarkovsky.” “When it was over we didn’t want to leave,” she enthuses.
I didn’t personally know the man so, for me, his movies are about the ideas and implications embedded in his images. That is what we’ve been endeavoring to analyze.
Thanks to modern preservation and distribution, I too am able to watch all of Tarkovsky’s films in succession. We’ve been on a Tarkovsky pilgrimage for almost a year now and I don’t want to leave. If you enjoy returning to this same well often, as I do, you can own his entire output for something like $200 even if you’re paying retail.
In “Solaris,” a hotly hued leaf glides through the opening frame. It looks alive as it floats along propelled by the stream. Feast your eyes on that grass below, undulating and green. But, unlike what’s thriving underneath, the leaf is detached from its source, adrift; similar to the way Hari arrives on the scene, drawn back up to the surface by the misty, wet, heavenly abode of Solaris.
Kris is the man they sent up there to take charge of the mission, yet he is confronted with the unfinished business of his past. First, he tries to get rid of her, then he falls head over heels. Grief and denial are wed each time this space shrink’s deceased wife manifests. He wants to take her back to Earth with her, yet ignorance never quite adds up to bliss.
Hari comes to understand she’s just a facsimile but claims she’s gaining authenticity. What an exquisite performance she gives strutting between the two male doctors with that horned tribal mask frowning on the back wall in the background. Indeed, there is never a time she appears more like one of us but she’s merely a mask over Kelvin’s conscience, a disguised deity if you will, a Solaristic apparition, resuscitated in the present from living memory.
In Tarkovsky’s cinematic language, which he calls sculpting in time, we race to outer space like we we’re surrendering to the pull of greater forces, as the leaf does and partly also out of sheer exuberance, like the horse does. But we also do it out of fear, like the child sprinting away from the horse in the same sequence. Whatever the motivation for this race, you can’t elude your emotional baggage on earth or in outer space.
I have not read any other analysis of these film. I simply watch each one a few times, then record my impressions. However, I recently began reading “Sculpting in Time” (1986), Tarkovsky’s compelling journal about art and film making. In it he outlines many of his theories on how cinema has its own poetic language. It is an art form entirely distinct from music, painting or lit, despite the fact that almost every other filmmaker makes a crutch of it.
Tarkovsky’s writing reminds me of a book I read decades ago called “Architecture for the Poor,” by Hassan Fathy. Both men are authors of such deep humanity, I recommend them whether you are interested in their subjects or not.
Tarkovsky’s book confirmed many things. Most of the subjects, themes and ideas that I have discussed in these posts turn out to be addressed in his writings. Part of what has been so satisfying about diving into his art has been being able to make sense of the films after repeated watching and writing, when much of them seemed so impenetrable to me at first.