LET US TAKE YOU WITH US TO SOLARIS, PLANET OF MYSTERY, EMBODIMENT OF MAN’S LATENT CONFLICT WITH THE UNKNOWN. MAN, FACE TO FACE WITH HIS CONSCIENCE, AND WITH HIS PAST.
He’s admired now, but in the late 1960s Andrei Tarkovsky wasn’t doing so well. His second film, Andrei Rublev, had not been released due to controversial themes that did not please the Soviet dictatorship. He had written a script that was rejected (but later filmed as The Mirror (1975)). If he was going to put bread on the table he needed to get something approved fast. Polish writer Stanislaw Lem’s science fiction novel ”Solaris” seemed like a good book to adapt; Tarkovsky was interested in the genre and Lem was a respected writer in the Soviet Union. His project was approved.
In the end, Lem didn’t like the movie because it strayed from the novel; in Tarkovsky’s view the writer didn’t seem to understand how an adaptation of a novel for the cinema must differ from the original. Solaris became the director’s most famous film, an enduring genre classic that was shown for many years in Soviet cinemas.
The lead character is a psychologist, Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), who’s hired to go to a space station that has spent years studying an oceanic planet called Solaris. But Earth has lost contact with the space station. As soon as he arrives there, something strange has obviously happened – and is still in progress. The station is in disarray and he learns from the two men stationed there, Snaut and Sartorius (Yuri Yarvet, Anatoly Solonitsyn), that the third crew member, Gibarian, killed himself some time ago. Kelvin finds a tape containing a message from Gibarian, but also realizes that they’re not alone on the space station – soon, his dead wife Khari (Natalia Bondarchuk) makes an appearance.
Cold and unemotional
Tarkovsky was never a fan of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). He may have admired the film’s obvious technical qualities, but he found this masterpiece too cold and unemotional. 2001 and Solaris ended up having a lot in common though; both are set in space, slow (with long takes) and mysterious, with plenty of room for fanciful interpretations. What seems at first like hallucinations at the space station are much more tangible and can be seen by everyone; it’s not just an individual experience. At the same time, these apparitions are clearly coming from an individual mind; in Kelvin’s case it’s his dead wife who looks exactly like she did when she died and doesn’t seem aware of her situation. Kelvin gets rid of her by ejecting her into space but she reappears, generated by Solaris, which is an energy field quite impossible for the human mind to understand. The film digs deep into our experience as human beings; there’s a memorable scene, a kind of birthday party for Snaut, where the three men and Khari discuss philosophical issues, and Snaut says, ”We don’t need other worlds. We need mirrors”. A statement that could serve as a symbol of the entire film.
Memory plays a huge role, not only in the way Khari is regenerated by Solaris, but also how Kelvin’s parents are featured. That’s one of the most emotionally powerful moments in the film, a scene where his mother takes care of his wounds, and then the finale that takes us back to where the movie started, the family’s country home where Kelvin’s father still lives – and a twist that underscores the fusion between Solaris and the mind.
The film may be slow, but it’s also fascinating and eerie at times, a space odyssey where we don’t seem able to trust anything we see. The enchanting ocean on Solaris keeps swirling in the background. And we can certainly sympathize with Kelvin, struggling with himself, as we all do.
Solaris 1972-Soviet Union. 165 min. Color. Widescreen. Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. Screenplay: Fridrikh Gorenshteyn, Andrei Tarkovsky. Novel: Stanislaw Lem. Cinematography: Vadim Yusov. Cast: Natalia Bondarchuk (Khari), Donatas Banionis (Kris Kelvin), Yuri Yarvet (Snaut), Anatoly Solonitsyn (Sartorius), Nikolay Grinko, Vladislav Dvorzhetskiy.
Trivia: Original title: Solyaris. Remade in the U.S. as Solaris (2002).
Cannes: Grand Prize of the Jury.
Last word: “Yesterday Bibi Anderson was introduced to me. I spent the entire evening wondering if she would make a Khari. Of course she’s a marvellous actress. But she’s not that young, although she looks very well. I don’t know, I haven’t yet decided what to do about her. She’s willing to work for our currency. She’s going to be filming for Bergman through the summer and she’ll be free in the autumn. We’ll see. For the moment I haven’t made any decision.” (Tarkovsky, June 13th, 1970, “Time Within Time: The Diaries 1970-1986”)