Vida Johnson and Graham Petrie recall the genesis of Tarkovsky’s original Solaris
by Vida Johnson and Graham Petrie
Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 film of Stanislaw Lem’s science-fiction novel Solaris has stood the test of time as a visually stunning masterpiece that offers both challenges and rewards to those willing to engage with it psychologically and philosophically. So why has Steven Soderbergh chosen to remake it 30 years on? Advance reports indicated that the new film would be a more faithful adaptation, but in fact Soderbergh deviates even further from the source than Tarkovsky, focusing on the incipient love story at the expense of almost all the wider themes. His happy ending is totally at variance with Lem’s admonition that “the age-old faith of lovers and poets in the power of love is a lie, useless and not even funny.”
Much to Lem’s indignation, Tarkovsky transformed his novel into something completely his own, as he did with all the source material he drew on. The young Russian film-maker had earned international acclaim and a Golden Lion at the Venice film festival for his first feature Ivan’s Childhood (1962). Here he turned a realistic World War II story of a 12-year-old orphan who joins the Russian army into an experimental exploration of the boy’s inner life, with vivid added memories and dreams of his mother and sister. This first film contained autobiographical elements to do with Tarkovsky’s complex relations with his family that would recur throughout his work. The boy’s mother is played by Tarkovsky’s first wife, and this wife-mother dualism would reappear both in Solaris and in his next film Mirror (1974, originally titled Bright, Bright Day).
Ivan’s Childhood aroused controversy both in the Soviet Union and abroad. The Soviet government actively sought international recognition for films that presented the country in a favourable light, and despite its visual complexity—which the film bureaucrats neither understood nor approved—Ivan’s Childhood is a film about the heroism of simple Russians. But in Italy the hardline Communist Party newspaper L’Unità accused the film of being “petit bourgeois” (presumably for its delving into one individual’s inner being) though Jean-Paul Sartre cemented Tarkovsky’s reputation as a noteworthy new talent by defending his “socialist surrealism” in Le Monde.
The film’s success put pressure on Tarkovsky to produce a follow-up. Andrei Rublev, his most ambitious and arguably greatest film, took ten years from the original proposal to its release in the Soviet Union. This time the controversial religious subject matter—the life of an acclaimed icon painter set against the cruelty and passion of medieval Russia—made getting government approval a more laborious process and resulted in funding cutbacks which required abandoning some of the grandest planned scenes. The film was finished in 1966 and screened at Cannes in 1969, where it won the prestigious International Critics’ Prize. But its release in the Soviet Union was delayed until the end of 1971 by demands for the deletion of scenes of cruelty and violence and disagreements among the bureaucrats about how to interpret this dark national epic.
Frustrated by these problems and disappointed that the autobiographical Bright, Bright Day had so far failed to receive approval, Tarkovsky turned to the relatively safe option of science fiction. There’s still disagreement over whether or not he liked the genre, though Solaris composer Eduard Artemiev claimed he had a case of science-fiction books. Was the choice simply a matter of expediency or was he drawn to Lem’s novel for the opportunities it offered to delve into the moral and ethical issues surrounding space exploration?
Despite the usual bureaucratic problems, including delays in granting visas to shoot the city-of-the-future scenes in Japan and 35 requested changes to the finished film, Tarkovsky completed Solaris in less than a year in 1971. In their rush to use the film to represent Soviet cinema at Cannes, the bureaucrats abandoned many of their demands, which included clarifying if the hero Kris Kelvin was a communist, socialist or capitalist; shortening the scenes on Earth and adding more of the space journey; providing an optimistic socialist-realist ending showing Kris had fulfilled his mission; and downplaying the messy personal and human complications. The silliest requests were typical of Alexei Romanov, the puritanical head of the state cinema committee Goskino: to shorten the bed scenes and not show Kris without trousers as he wanders in a daze through the space station.
Solaris won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes and received a wide release in the Soviet Union, garnering good reviews and attracting a large audience. Although in diary entries written at the time Tarkovsky called it his best film, “clearer and more harmonious” than Andrei Rublev, later he claimed it was his least favourite and least successful and that the science-fiction element was too prominent. Perhaps he was just uncomfortable with bureaucratic approval.
The plot follows Lem’s novel in its basic structure. Psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) is sent to a space station orbiting the planet Solaris, whose whole surface consists of a conscious, thinking ocean. The Ocean reacts to the scientists’ exploratory probings by sending ‘visitors’ to the station—living beings plucked from the men’s innermost fears and desires. Kris’ ‘visitor’ is a reincarnation of Hari (Rheya in the book, played by Natal’ya Bondarchuk), a woman he loved who committed suicide as a result of his neglect. He tries at first to rid himself of her, but gradually falls in love and talks of taking her back to Earth. Realising she can exist only on the space station and that their love is doomed, she agrees without his knowing to an experiment by the scientists that destroys her permanently. Kris is left longing for her return yet aware she will never reappear.
Lem’s novel takes place solely on the space station and is filled with convincing detail about the nature of the planet and its interaction with the minds of the scientists. For him the love story is essentially a pretext for exploring the philosophical and psychological problems humans might encounter when they escape the confines of the Earth. But Tarkovsky was attracted primarily by the moral issues the novel raised and especially by the idea that Kris was being given a chance to remedy his mistakes. Deviating strongly from Lem’s original, he wanted to introduce the theme of family relationships he’d planned to pursue in Bright, Bright Day and to contrast the beauty of the Earth and its culture with the relative sterility of the space station.
When Lem was shown Tarkovsky’s first script—perhaps as a courtesy to a writer who had become internationally famous with this novel—he was appalled to discover that the opening two thirds of the film were set on Earth and that Tarkovsky had introduced a second female character in Kris’ wife Maria, to whom he would return after Hari’s disappearance. In an interview excerpted on Criterion Film’s DVD of Solaris Lem recounts how he spent three weeks in Moscow arguing with this stubborn “idiot” before retreating in despair. Nevertheless, Tarkovsky did shorten the Earth scenes to a quarter of the film and eliminated Maria.
Lem claimed Tarkovsky was afraid of space, finding it “terrible”, whereas he saw the unknown as a fascinating challenge to known ways of thinking. Though the interior of the space station with its circular corridors and (generally malfunctioning) equipment in Tarkovsky’s film is visually striking, the perfunctory treatment of both the journey through space and future society on Earth reflects the director’s suspicion of Science and dislike of Stanley Kubrick’s newly released 2001, which Tarkovsky found cold and sterile. His characters yearn constantly for Earth even after decades away—they surround themselves with physical mementoes of what they’ve left behind and their nostalgia is made palpable by long, uninterrupted tracking shots of the Earth’s natural beauty. In Lem’s novel the space-station library is simply a scientific resource centre but Tarkovsky crams in paintings, sculptures and illustrated books to suggest the scientists had tried to bring with them reminders of earthly culture. Kris himself carries a mysterious box whose contents—a living plant—are revealed only near the end of the film.
He also has a video of his parents and himself as a child that provides brief glimpses of the original Hari.
The film begins with lingering shots of water weeds and then follows Kris on his last day on Earth as he walks in the countryside near his father’s house, delighting in the beauty of a pond, trees, a horse running loose, even allowing himself to be soaked in a downpour. He meets former astronaut Burton, whose puzzling report on the Solaris Ocean fills in the background for both the audience and for Kris himself. His relationship with his father seems tense and uneasy; his mother, who is presumably dead (Tarkovsky was often remarkably casual about such details), is seen only in a mysterious photograph later in this scene, in the video and in a hallucinatory scene near the end. Kris gets into an argument with Burton about the moral responsibility of the scientist, with Burton claiming that scientific investigation is valid only when it is based on morality and Kris contending that Science must follow wherever its discoveries lead. Kris’ father arrives and accuses his son of being the kind of person who has helped to ruin Earth and will now do the same in space.
Very little of this has any direct connection with Lem’s book. Though Tarkovsky shares Lem’s interest in using Science fiction to explore moral and philosophical issues, he retains an essentially humanist outlook. Through his experiences on Solaris Tarkovsky’s protagonist is forced to re-evaluate his attitudes to morality and his past behaviour, and is given the opportunity to atone. Lem is less concerned with Kris’ ‘redemption’ (he leaves him in an emotional and moral limbo) than with emphasising the limitations of human thinking in general when brought into contact with something hitherto unknown. Various justifications are given for the Ocean’s actions—it’s trying to communicate with the scientists, to torment them, to please them, to make fun of them or is simply engaged in a scientific experiment of its own—but no firm answer seems possible.
The mysterious ‘visitors’ are intriguingly different in the book and the film. Snauth’s visitor is never fully identified in the film though he’s obviously terrified of it and is constantly nursing wounds received from it. Gibaryan’s visitor in the book is a huge black woman; in the film she’s a nubile teenage girl in flimsy clothing. Gibaryan (who committed suicide shortly before Kris’ arrival) tells him in a videotaped message that their visitors have something to do with “conscience”. Is he being punished for forbidden sexual urges? Is this the reason for his suicide? Sartorius’ visitors in the book are children; in the film he shares his room with a powerful dwarf whom he struggles to control (though he has photographs of babies on his laboratory window).
Perhaps Tarkovsky’s Ocean aims to please but doesn’t properly understand human beings (just as for Lem humans will never understand the motives of the Ocean). So knowing that Sartorius secretly wants children, but not really understanding what they are, the Ocean sends him a small-scale human being instead, just as it sends Hari to Kris clothed in a dress that cannot be unfastened except with scissors (on her reappearance she brings some with her). This interpretation may help us with the enigmatic and much debated ending when Kris appears to return to Earth. On the day he left he burned documents in a bonfire, there was a rainstorm and a yellow balloon was seen floating above his father’s house. When he comes home, weeks, months or even years later, the bonfire is still burning, the yellow balloon is still there and it’s raining inside the house. It seems that Kris’ reconciliation with his father in fact takes place on an “island of memory” created by the Ocean but that the Ocean got the details subtly wrong.
Ambiguous endings are part of Tarkovsky’s narrative strategy in most of his films. His elliptical narratives, propensity for philosophical discussions and at times seemingly cavalier attitude to narrative continuity and clarity challenge audiences to be active co-creators. He stated on a number of occasions that his films must be seen several times to be properly understood, and Solaris, running at 165 minutes, invites the viewer to study every visual and aural element to fit the pieces together. No explanation is offered of Kris’ apparently problematic relationship with his mother or with the original Hari, for instance, though his identification of Hari and his mother is presented visually in his hallucinations.
Soderbergh’s film too attempts ambiguity and mystification, especially in its ending. But it remains to be seen whether this will enchant or alienate contemporary audiences more attuned to the clear motivations, easy-to-follow storytelling and straightforward genre conventions of standard Hollywood cinema.
Sight & Sound, February 2003; pp. 17-18