Andrei Tarkovsky belongs to that handful of filmmakers (Dreyer, Bresson, Vigo, Tati) who, with a small, concentrated body of work, created a universe. Though he made only seven features, thwarted by Soviet censors and then by cancer, each honored his ambition to crash through the surface of ordinary life and find a larger spiritual meaning, to heal modern art’s secular fragmentation by infusing it with metaphysical dimension. To that end, he rejected Eisensteinian montage and developed a demanding long-take aesthetic, which he thought better able to reveal the deeper truths underlying the ephemeral, performing moment.
Since Tarkovsky is often portrayed as a lonely, martyred genius, we’d do well to place him in a wider context, as the most renowned of an astonishing generation—Larisa Shepitko, Alexei German, Andrei Konchalovsky, Sergei Parajanov, Otar Iosseliani—that effected a dazzling, short-lived renaissance of Soviet cinema. All had censorship problems. In the early 1970s, Tarkovsky, unable to get approval for a script that was considered too personal-obscurantist, proposed a film adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s novel Solaris, thinking it stood a better chance of being green-lit by the commissars, as science fiction seemed more “objective” and accessible to the masses.
His hunch paid off, and Solaris (1972) went on to take the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes. Tarkovsky had arrived on the world stage with his most straightforward, accessible work. While hardly a conventional film, Solaris is less long-take-driven, and stands as a fulcrum in Tarkovsky’s career: behind him were his impressive debut, Ivan’s Childhood (1962), and his first epic masterpiece, Andrei Rublev (1966); ahead of him lay The Mirror (1975; brilliantly experimental and, yes, personal-obscurantist), Stalker (1979; a great, somber, difficult work), and finally, two intransigent, lyrical, meditative pictures he made in exile, Nostalghia (1983) and The Sacrifice (1986). He died shortly after completing this last film, at age fifty-four.
We know that Tarkovsky had seen Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and disliked it as cold and sterile. The media played up the cold-war angle of the Soviet director’s determination to make an “anti-2001,” and certainly Tarkovsky used more intensely individual characters and a more passionate human drama at the center than Kubrick. Still, hindsight allows us to observe that the two masterworks are more cousins than opposites. Both set up their narratives in a leisurely, languid manner, spending considerable time tracking around the space sets; both employ a widescreen mise-en-scène approach that draws on superior art direction; and both generate an air of mystery that invites countless explanations.
Unlike 2001, however, Solaris is saturated with grief, which grips the film even before it leaves Earth. In the moody prelude, we see the protagonist, a space psychologist named Kris Kelvin, staring at underwater reeds as though they were a drowned woman’s tresses. Played by the stolid Donatas Banionis, a Russian Glenn Ford with five o’clock shadow and a shock of prematurely white hair, Kris looks forever traumatized, slowed by some unspeakable sorrow. His father and aunt worry about his torpor, chide him for his plodding, bookkeeper-like manner. He is taking off the next day for a mission to the space station Solaris, a once thriving project that has gone amiss; it will be his job to determine whether or not to close down the research station. In preparation, he watches a video from a scientific conference about the troubles on Solaris (allowing Tarkovsky to satirize bureaucratic stodginess).
Humans seem in thrall to machinery and TV images, cut off from the nature surrounding them (underwater reeds, a thoroughbred horse, a farm dog). In his haunting shots of freeways, Tarkovsky disdains showing any but contemporary cars, just as Godard did with the buildings in Alphaville (1965): why bother clothing the present world in sci-fi garb when the estranging future has already arrived?
At Solaris, Kris finds a shabby space station, deserted except for two preoccupied, if not deranged, scientists, Snaut and Sartorius. A colleague Kris expected to meet has already committed suicide, leaving him a taped message warning of hallucinated guests who have “something to do with conscience.” Sure enough, Kris’s dead wife, Hari, materializes at his side, offering the devoted tenderness for which he is starved. Kris, panicking, shoves her into a space capsule and fires it off; but Hari II is not slow in arriving. As played by the lovely Natalya Bondarchuk, this “eternal feminine” is the opposite of a femme fatale: all clinging fidelity and frightened vulnerability. We learn that the real Hari committed suicide with a poison Kris had unthinkingly left behind when he left her. The hallucinated Hari II, fearing Kris does not love her, takes liquid oxygen and kills herself as well. By the time Hari III appears, Kris will do anything to redeem himself.
Solaris helped initiate a genre that has become an art-house staple: the drama of grief and partial recovery. Watching this 166-minute work is like catching a fever, with night sweats and eventual cooling brow. Tarkovsky’s experiments with pacing, to “find Time within Time,” as he put it, have his camera track up to the sleeping Kris, dilating the moment, so that we enter his dream. As in Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), to fall asleep is to risk a succubus’s visit. This time, however, the danger comes not from any harm she may do the hero. True horror is in having to watch someone you love destroy herself. The film that Solaris most resembles thematically is not 2001 but Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958): the inability of the male to protect the female, the multiple disguises or “resurrections” of the loved one, the inevitability of repeating past mistakes.
The real power of the film comes from the anguish of Kris’s reawakened love for Hari—his willingness to do anything to hold on to her, even knowing she isn’t real. (Like Mizoguchi’s 1953 Ugetsu, this is a story about falling in love with ghosts.) The alternation between color and monochromatic shots conveys something of this ontological instability, while the jittery camera explorations over shelves and walls suggest a seizure. Hari wonders aloud if she has epilepsy, and later we see her body horrifically jerking at the threshold between being and nonbeing. A gorgeous, serene floating sequence, when Kris and Hari lose gravity, offers another stylized representation of this transcendence borderline.
Meanwhile, Tarkovsky peppers the dialogue with heady arguments about reality, identity, humanity, and sympathy, buttressed by references to civilization’s linchpins—Bach, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Goethe, Brueghel, Luther, and Cervantes. The Soviet censors, who demanded that the filmmaker “remove the concept of God,” may have been mollified by the absence of the G-word, but Tarkovsky took the standard science-fiction theme of spacemen establishing “contact” with other forms of intelligence and elevated it implicitly to Contact with Divinity (the planet’s ocean, granted sentient powers).
Both the Eastern European Lem and Tarkovsky were critical of what they saw as Western science fiction’s shallowness and wanted to invest the form with intellectual and emotional depth. Tarkovsky took a good deal directly from Lem’s book, but he also expanded, reordered, and beclouded it (if there is a dubious side to Tarkovsky’s achievement, it is that his spiritual agenda can seem pompous and simplistic, and his messages do not always ascend to the level of his visionary visuals).
As it happened, Lem did not much care for Tarkovsky’s elliptical reworking of his material and was looking forward, before he died, to the remake by Steven Soderbergh. The Soderbergh version, starring George Clooney in the leading role, proved to be an intelligently restrained, uncluttered, if becalmed, version of the Lem novel. Soderbergh had promised a cross between 2001 and Last Tango in Paris, but the resulting film was measured, not nearly as sensationalistic as threatened. Just as Tarkovsky had sought to reverse Kubrick and ended up extending him, so Soderbergh’s version could not help but honor his majestic predecessor. It was a fittingly filial, Freudian coda to Tarkovsky’s Solaris, which concludes with the space station’s claustrophobic concavities yielding to the rain-sodden beauty of this island Earth, and the returning Kris embracing his father’s knees.
Phillip Lopate's most recent books are Two Marriages (fiction), Notes on Sontag (nonfiction), and At the End of the Day (selected poems). This piece previously appeared in the Criterion Collection’s 2002 edition of Solaris.