Tarkovsky is the Soviet director responsible for two masterpieces of SF film: Solaris (1972), based on the book of the same title by Lem, and Stalker (1980), adapted from the Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside Picnic.

The Science-Fiction Films of Andrei Tarkovsky1

by Simonetta Salvestroni

Translated and Edited by RMP

Tarkovsky is the Soviet director responsible for two masterpieces of SF film: Solaris (1972), based on the book of the same title by Lem, and Stalker (1980), adapted from the Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside Picnic. Working primarily in terms of images, Tarkovsky organizes these films (like his previous ones) around a bipolarity: between Solaris and the contemporary USSR (or, more broadly, the technologized world) in the one film; between the monochromatic quotidian world and the colorful, marvelous Zone in the other. But while taking the polarities of a binary logic as his starting point, his films finally negate that antinomial logic as their concluding images indicate a tertium datur: that figured in the house of Kelvin’s father, an object of this world which nevertheless, drenched by rains, recalls (and then dissolves into) Solaris; and perhaps most movingly, that which transpires at the moment when the black-and-white mechanical world of Stalker, suddenly, miraculously, appears, as seen through the eyes of the paralytic girl Martyška, in vivid color, thus breaking down the neat logical division between the everyday world and the Zone and what each of them had stood for. It is in these respects especially that Tarkovsky’s films have creative affinities with the fantastic strain in Russian and Soviet literature, with the visions of Bulgakov, Dostoyevsky, Gogol, and the Strugatskys. (RMP)

Andrei Tarkovsky’s SF films, Solaris (1972) and Stalker (1980), have precise and creative affinities with the fantastic strain in Russian and Soviet literature. The metaphoric interactions, the bipolarities, the relationships with an Otherness at once external to and inside the characters, the anticipa­tion of ambiguous miracles, and the sense of being on the “threshold,” that we meet with in Bulgakov, Dostoyevsky, Gogol, and the Strugatskys we also encounter in Tarkovsky.2 There is, however, a difference. The “magical role” assumed by the word in Gogol’s Petersburg tales3 or in Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, say, Tarkovsky transfers to the image, which he endows with a power not inferior to that of the word. It is within the power of the image to surmount spatial, temporal, and biological barriers, materi­alize memories and psychic realities, and bring alien places near and humanize them to the point that they come to life and participate in an extra-verbal communicatory relationship.

In Tarkovsky’s Solaris, the dialogue between humankind and the planet transpires exclusively through images, and so finally does that between the director and his public, along with the process whereby Harey—an adult alien but at the start devoid of consciousness—becomes humanized. The Soviet director’s first film thus exemplifies, in an original and complex way, the manner in which the image communicates and contributes to the development of cognition.4

Typifying all of Tarkovsky’s films to date, from The Childhood of Ivan (1962) to Nostalgia (1983), is a binary spatial organization. Each sets a quo­tidian world, grey, monological, and violent, against an anti-world which is dynamic, malleable, and full of color, the dominion of possibility and of choice. In his 1962 film, the luminous dimension of the dream and of mem­ory presents a stark antithesis to the tragic greyness of the war, which one of the characters defines as the suspension of the vital flux and of commu­nication. A similar antinomy is implicit throughout Tarkovsky’s next film, Andrei Rublev (1966). This immediately becomes evident to the viewer towards the end, when the black-and-white footage reserved for a Medieval Russia devastated by pillagings, acts of repression, and massacres gives way to the colors of the final frames dedicated to the vital force of art and of a nature uncontaminated by violence and by the obtuse mechanicalness which human beings, according to Tarkovsky, tend to be guilty of. After the scenes of ruinous incursions by enemies, of the tortures which the authorities inflict on the Russian people, and of the blinding and killing of artists at the behest of princes to prevent them from beautifying the palaces of rivals, there finally appear on the screen images of another world: that of Rublev’s icons and then of the living water of a rainfall and of a great river traversing grassy expanses where horses move in natural freedom. Relating the two spheres is a matter entrusted to the film’s addressees or, in The Childhood, implicitly to Ivan, who contemporaneously inhabits both dimensions and whose point of view the spectator gathers from images culled from his thoughts and sense perceptions.

While repeating this binary structure, Solaris introduces a substantial element of difference. There the dialogue between world and anti-world undergoes a concrete materialization inasmuch as one of the direct, first- person interlocutors, thanks to its peculiarities, is the planet itself. It is here that the originality of Tarkovsky’s spatial treatment of Lem’s materials manifests itself: in the director’s metamorphosing of an animate space—or rather, the living planet inhabiting it—as one of the protagonists of the cin­ematic text. The other partner to the dialogue is, of course, Kris Kelvin, who has been given the assignment of investigating certain strange happen­ings at the Solaris space station and of deciding on the basis of his findings whether to destroy the alien entity or try to establish contact with it.

As in The Diary of a Madman or The Master and Margarita, the film Solaris centers upon a problematic communicative relationship—one which, in its context, is perilously beyond normal bounds. No less than the fictive worlds of Gogol and Bulgakov, the terrestrial society of the future as Tarkovsky envisions it—which has similarities to what was actually his own—is characterized finally by its rigid organization. Founded on the premise that truth is univocal, this social order refuses to accept diversity, which it proceeds to destroy whenever it becomes too prominent to be ignored. This is exactly the parabolic meaning connected with the Earth in its relations with Solaris—an import first instanced in the dogmatic refusal of scientists to verify the testimony of the astronaut Berton, and then in the wish to bombard the planet once the goings on at the space station prove to be too disquieting.

It is significant that Tarkovsky decided to have his film begin on Earth, thereby departing from Lem’s fiction, which from its opening page imme­diately situates the human actors in the vicinity of Solaris. While thus focussing on the social system of the future, however, the director offers information about it only indirectly. It is up to the viewer to infer its charac­teristics: from the inquest concerning Berton’s declarations; from the unin­terrupted file of automobiles that appear to whirl by endlessly, thus metaphorically representing the mechanical world which Burton returns to after his stay at the home of Kris’s father; and from the posturings of Sartor- ius, that bureaucrat of science, who holds it a duty to annihilate whatever does not correspond to its objective laws, which admit of nothing beyond themselves. Revealing itself obliquely, the Earth of the future emerges from a singular process involving not only the future expressly imaged in the film but also Tarkovsky’s own present, Soviet reality in the 1970s.

His Solaris begins and ends with the scene of the house which Kris’s father has built, in opposition to the purely technological developments of his time, to be in contact with a living and unmechanized nature. As the father himself underscores, he has designed the building so that its structure recreates that of his grandfather’s house—a project that required research into his own roots on the land and in his familial past. Here the director also resorts to other images reinforcing that metaphoric significance: of a lake whose living waters exhibit a concentric movement complicated by a rain­fall, and of a horse trotting freely in a manner reminiscent of the final frames of Andrei Rublev.

Old man Kelvin, then, lives an anomalous life with respect to the rest of the world; and by comparison with a son profoundly incapable of under­standing him, he (along with Berton) vindicates Solaris’s right to exist. (As he asserts, it should not be suppressed merely because it is different.) The father’s dimension accordingly adds a third point of view to the dialogue between antinomial opposites which otherwise dominate this work of Tarkovsky’s as they do his preceding films. Old Kelvin’s point of view assumes a basically mediatory function, making fruitful on Earth young Kelvin’s experience of two unknown dimensions: one cosmically distant and embodied in the ocean-planet; the other, nearer but no less accessible, constituted by the depths of his psyche.

The anti-world of Solaris is disturbing to terrestrial minds because as a living entity, it invalidates the fixed laws and rules to which they are mechan­ically accustomed, standing at once outside and within the purview of such. This double valence, which scientists find logically unacceptable, has its cor­relative in their confrontations with the planet, in regard to which they are both hosts and guests. Their space station orbits above the waters of Solaris, but that thinking magmatic mass at the same time enters into them, insinuat­ing itself into their minds as they sleep. From this position, the planet con­ducts its attempts to communicate with them, taking on a role analogous to, but more powerful than, that of the Unconscious. It does not limit itself to transmitting mental messages; it also succeeds in materializing them.

At this point it begins to become clear that the true center of the anti­world of limitless possibility which the three scientist-astronauts are explor­ing is not external, but instead lies inside them, in depths that terrestrial experience, confining as it is, has never allowed them to reach. The dia­logue with the alien from here on transforms itself into an auto-communica­tive relationship, doubly parlous from the standpoint of any cultural code of earthly provenance. Indeed, it compels human beings to come to terms with a Difference which can neither be distanced nor evaded.

Tarkovsky and Lem, no doubt influenced by Freud, have endowed Solaris with a “symmetrical” logic, one capable of nullifying spatio-temporal distances along with the distinctions between life and death, part and whole, thinking and being.5 A homogeneous mass with the capacity for enveloping everything, the planet generates the monstrous midgets that populate Sartorius’s Unconscious, for example, as well as reproducing the obsessive mental picture that Kris has of Harey, down to the mark of the injection she took to kill herself ten years earlier.

For this explosion from the Unconscious, which the monological and dogmatic Earth of the future would condemn to non-existence, the scientist- astronauts are quite unprepared; and that makes their dialogue with the Alien difficult, tense, even on the subjective level. In what is perhaps the most tragic case, the fear and shame that Gibarian discovers in himself are strong enough to drive him to suicide. On the other hand, the tendency towards violence that seizes the bureaucrat Sartorius seeks (though only apparently) an external outlet: the single means he determines on for get­ting free of and annihilating the most obscure and unsupportable part of himself is to destroy the planet. Nor does Kelvin, for all his specialist train­ing in social psychology, prove to have brought totally adequate intellectual equipment from Earth. His first response, like that of his fellows, amounts to an act of rejection: he endeavors to do away with the new Harey, the dis­quieting material message which the planet has sent him; and he thus accomplishes the cruel deed for which in the past he was only indirectly responsible.

Even so, troubled as he is in his monological certainty about contact with the dimension his father inhabits, Kris is the one personage in the film capable of an evolution which concludes with the hard-won recovery of his human integrity. Towards that end, his alien companion takes on the same function that the anti-world has for the viewer: that of a model interaction with the primary field of investigation—in this instance, of the memory- object which was the terrestrial Harey—thereby assisting to bring to con­sciousness new realizations, new connections (cp. Black). Rendering this interaction productive is the fact that the model, though apparently identical to her original, lacks knowledge and memory—an adult just come into the world and therefore resembling an infant of extraordinary plasticity.

Traditional logic alone is of no use for comprehending the film and in particular Solaris’s messages. Here the key to interpretation is the same principle of “symmetry” that governs the Unconscious, including dreams and emotions. With that idea in view, we can observe that Harey, Kris, and Solaris are autonomous beings, distinct from one another, and at the same time elements in which the part is identical to the whole. Thus Kelvin is a temporary visitor to a planet “out there” which is also his Unconscious, a part of himself. So, too, Harey, something external which he finds in his . room upon awakening, at the same time is a part of him, a reproduction of the image stored in his mind, rather than a totally independent creature.

As a result of the collaboration between Kelvin and Solaris, Harey con­stitutes for them a point of encounter, of contact, a materialized message which man and planet alike participate in as senders and intended addressees. Thanks to its peculiarities, the “text” that they produce together can inform each of them about the partner. Harey brings together the human traits derived from Kris’s memory of his woman and an Otherness she shares with Solaris (evinced by the fact that her cells are of a type unknown to Kelvin and his colleagues).

One of the most important moments of Solaris—the moment in which the potentialities and ductility of the language of images reach their apex— is when Harey, a materialized image and at the same time a message result­ing from the iconic exchange between Kris and Solaris, in turn develops an interactive process, using images that she visually perceives.

Typical of Tarkovsky’s films is an insistent use of quotations: verbal ones (of the sort which we shall consider in regard to his next work, Stalker), but also—and above all—visual ones. In Solaris there are the copies of famous paintings, hanging on the walls of the space station and repeatedly focussed on, and three film inserts: the one documenting the Berton inquest; the audio-visual message which Gibarian records before his suicide for Kelvin’s benefit; and the short of Kris as a child filmed by his father. The interpolation of these three makes for an implicit and suggestive paral­lel between the magical operations of Solaris and the possibilities which the cinema holds out for human beings. Like the products of the Unconscious materialized by the planet, the three film sequences bring the remote near and cause the past and even the dead to return (Gibarian, Kris’s mother, the dog Kris had as a child).

These iconic moments make for the kind of dialectical interaction which goes along with intertextuality. The situation of intertextuality, as Juri Lotman points out (p. 10), carries with it an “awakening of the text” and “a sense of the multiplying of meanings.”

In Tarkovsky’s Solaris, the most important of these moments concerns the short dealing with Kris’s childhood (the only sequence among the three mentioned filmed in color). It works on a double level. As we shall see, it initiates in Harey the process by which she moves towards knowledge and humanization. At the same time, it has an indirect effect on Kris, who, thanks to her progress, modifies his vision of reality, a vision which he dis­covers to be penurious and dogmatic.

The only moving images that Harey observes on the screen as the short is being shown are the leaping, warm, red flames of a fire around which Kris’s family is gathered in a snow-covered winter landscape. It is after viewing this footage that she regards the reproduction of Pieter Bruegel’s Hunters in the Snow with intense concentration. It has hitherto frequently figured in the confines of the space station; but, as she attends to it now for the first time, it assumes for her a polyvalent significance, which Tarkovsky forcefully brings home through a synthesis of images.

Certain comments that Ludwig Wittgenstein makes about visual percep­tions prove to be especially helpful in explaining this peculiar, indeed unique, operation which takes place in Tarkovsky’s film. The peculiarity lies in the fact that the author of the operation is an extraterrestrial possessing the natu­ral language and cognitive capacities of an adult, but devoid of worldly expe­riences. The Austrian philosopher writes: “I contemplate a face and suddenly notice its likeness to another. I see that it has not changed; and yet I see it dif­ferently. I call this experience ‘noticing an aspect’” (Philosophical Investiga­tions, p. 193e [II. xi]). And again: “I meet someone whom I have not seen in years. I see him clearly; but fail to know him. Suddenly I know him, I see the old face in the altered one. I believe that I should do a different portrait of him now if I could paint” (ibid., p. 197e [II. xi]).

This process exactly applies to Harey’s case in regard to Hunters in the Snow. She notices the element which the painting has in common with the short she has viewed—snow—and this triggers an associative process that permits her to see the Bruegel in a different aspect. Here she is in the same position as the viewer of Solaris confronted with the phenomenon constitut­ed by the planet’s magmatic mass: faced with an image novel to her, she isolates certain of its properties, associates them with other images, and at the same time synthetizes their shared details so that they clarify and illumi­nate one another. Through the eye of the camera, which follows Harey’s line of vision, the viewer sees on the screen segmented images of Bruegel’s painting and footage from the short about Kris’s childhood.

Unlike the latter’s iconic message, the Bruegel, with its grey tonalities and its icy greens and whites, transmits a sense of cold, of solitude, of incommunicability. We see on the screen hunters (and their dogs), lugubri­ous and dark, men for whom the violent impulse which killing presupposes has nothing to do with a will to live, is not dictated by the necessity for sur­vival; rather, they seem enclosed in an armor of ice which prevents contact with or comprehension of the Other. This central subject of the painting thus has a connection to Harey’s own case: it relates to her impending dis­solution in Sartorius’s annihilator as victim of a cold ferocity that she obscurely senses but does not understand.

It is in this way that the “quotation” of Bruegel brings home to the viewer certain secondary meanings not evident in the painting by itself. Even more important, however, is the function that the painting has for Harey. Not only does it offer her a means (as the short does as well) of approaching a world and a past not her own. The use of a model, in this case the short on Kris’s childhood, also allows her to connect the painting’s message with her situa­tion as victim and prey. At the same time, it permits her to organize a series of impressions and intuitions hitherto left without a unifying center (e.g., Kris’s tender attitude and Sartorius’s fixed destructive resolve).

The result of this process—silent only in the sense that it is not verbal­ized—is the resolution expressed in her explosive attack on the bureaucrat Sartorius. This is the desperate protest of a being who senses that day by day she is becoming more and more human, but, like the planet that sent her, sees her right to live about to be abrogated in the name of the kind of science which upholds its dogmatic stasis by destroying the Alien.

The birth and death of Harey form part of the message that the planet transmits for the exclusive benefit of Kelvin. She is the living model which causes him to become aware of the obtuse and mechanical cruelty dominant in the world from which he originates. Yet the “cruel miracle” he passively awaits after losing a being whom he loved despite her Difference is not her resurrection, possible though that would be in this dimension. Instead, it is the unexpected materialization of another mental image, equivalent to the Unconscious because transmitting, through displacement, an analogous message.

This second, and again imperfect, model which the planet sends—and which Kris is able to decipher immediately—brings the viewer back to the initial scene of the film. As we look at what seems to be the water of the lake of the opening frames (it exhibits the same concentric movement), the camera slowly draws distant so that we perceive that what we are now see­ing is an aquatic island, enveloped in its turn by the waters of Solaris, and on the island, old Kelvin’s house drenched inside and out. The subsequent embrace between men from two generations is an event occurring far from Earth, on the space station, as the materialization of Kris’s mental image; and this signals his acceptance of an Otherness less fantastic than Harey or the planet, though one that would have been incomprehensible to Kris before his extraordinary double experience.

This synthetic and polysemous final image has not been understood by those who claim that it represents “a submission to authority and to tradition­al social institutions” or “the archetype of power, the father figure,” “a dour entity wrapped up in his logic of conservatism.”6 Instead, the image’s mean­ing is twofold, oscillating between the necessity of entrusting oneself to reas­suring superior entities capable of performing miracles and the opening of a new vision of the world, a vision which discovers the richness of a reality full of possibilities. This ambivalence, central to the work of Gogol, Dostoyev­sky, Bulgakov, and the Strugatskys,7 is what Tarkovsky recaptures in his film. The Soviet director apparently recovers both poles, utilizing one to the advantage of the other. His protagonist, through the planet’s “cruel miracles” and the temporary escape into a “symmetrical” way of seeing which releases him from his too confining existential condition, projects himself towards a dynamic future in which there are no static and absolute verities.

Thanks to the film’s artistic multidimensionality, the voyage embracing at once the cosmos and psychic reality is open to different interpretations. If Solaris is both a thinking planet and Kelvin’s Unconscious, and if his dia­logue with it is thus also a self-communication, then he is at once the intend­ed addressee of a miracle and the active protagonist of a search beginning in the depths of his being but finally, once the dialogue gets under way, leading also to the Other. In this regard, it is significant that Kelvin is able to attain the infinite and creative potential hidden in himself only with the help of a fantastic and miraculous entity beyond him which compels him to establish with it a contact which he was not prepared for in advance.

Compared to Solaris, Tarkovsky’s next film, freely adapted from the Strugatskys’ Roadside Picnic, appears decidedly pessimistic. Absent from it is the kind of autonomous development which the preceding film repre­sents as difficult, but not impossible—witness, for example, the indepen­dence that Kris’s father attains.

Fundamental to the 1980 film is a complex interaction which amounts to what might be called the “Solaris-ation” of Picnic, and whose operation begins at the level of the scenario composed by a Tarkovsky who is the active and creative recipient of both books (i.e., Lem’s and the Strugatskys’). Stalk­er resembles the Soviet director’s version of Solaris in proposing a voyage into an animate space at once external and internal to the protagonist and modifiable according to his state of mind.8 That enterprise in this instance is not, however, imposed upon the characters, forced willy-nilly to come to terms with themselves; rather, it is an adventure desperately sought, yet use­less; for no contact is established with the Alien and the world remains “a prison” governed by “iron laws” which “cannot be violated.”9

In considering Stalker, we can distinguish various phases of the film’s conception. In the first, the director has utilized Lem’s Solaris as a “subsidiary subject” or as a filter through which to see his main subject: the Strugatskys’ novel serving as his point of departure. Thanks to the process of intertextual connection that Tarkovsky as Lem’s and the Strugatskys’ addressee performs, the technological treasures which in Picnic were retriev­ed from the Zone do not figure in the film’s scenario. Nor do the black mar­ket, Red’s weight of guilt, or the episode wherein Pilman explains his vision of the world along with the extraterrestrial mysteries. Furthermore, the eight years of the novel Tarkovsky compresses into a single day, one which has a double and antinomial valence: as the brief and decisive moment of the mira­cle which is simultaneously one of daily mechanical routine. The 24 hours lived by the Stalker are not fundamentally different from countless others repeatedly spent waiting-searching for something which never will happen. Then, too, the film deviates from Picnic (and also from Lem’s Solaris) in regard to the status of the Alien; for as Tarkovsky himself stresses (pp. 48­51), it cannot certainly be concluded from Stalker that something actually can happen in the Zone—i.e., that the protagonist does not imagine everything.

For all its departures from the Strugatskys’ book, the film nevertheless centers upon and reorganizes the last episode of Picnic, the one wherein Red, desperate over his daughter’s illness, goes in search of the legendary Golden Ball, which according to rumor can grant everyone’s deepest wish­es. The Zone conceived by the Strugatskys impels introspection, just as Solaris does; and it is on this point which the Polish and Russian stories have in common that Tarkovsky concentrates Stalker (after abandoning a version “more faithful to Picnic” because he found it unsatisfying).10

In the second phase of the film’s conception, Tarkovsky draws not only upon Lem and the Strugatskys but also on passages from Dostoyevsky, Tjutchev, Lao Tze, the Gospels, and the Book of Revelation, all of which act as filters or magnifying lenses capable of bringing out new meanings and discoveries. With reference to Max Black’s suggestive metaphor (see his p. 41), we can say that in Stalker it is as if “the night sky,” or the field of reality, were observed by Tarkovsky—and through him by viewers of his film—not with the naked eye directly but “through a piece of heavily smoked glass on which certain lines have been left clear.” Thereby one “shall see only the stars that can be made to lie on the lines previously pre­pared upon the screen, and the stars…[one] do[es] see will be seen as orga­nized by the screen’s structure.” Everything else is immediately eliminated.

The Stalker of the film, thanks to an interactive process within the film itself, is transformed from the simple and weak character whom the Stru­gatskys portray as attracted to adventure and lucre into a “ridiculous man.” In his desire to escape from his existential prison, he is akin to Gogol’s Poprishchin, to certain of Dostoyevsky’s male personages, and in some ways to Bulgakov’s Master. As his wife, addressing herself to the camera and thence to the spectators, says of the Stalker:

Probably you have already understood that he is not normal. Everybody laughed at him and he was so lost, the poor thing….But what could I do? I was sure I would have been okay with him. I knew there would be some bitter moments, but a bitter happiness is better than…a grey, boring life….And if there weren’t any suffering in our life, it wouldn’t be better; it would be worse. Because then there wouldn’t be any happiness either, and there wouldn’t be hope even…. (Stalker, p. 53)

What Stalker‘s protagonist has in common with the Russian tradition of the fantastic in its Gogol-Dostoyevskian strain is his location at the margin of a rigid and ossified system, in a no man’s land susceptible to centrifugal vio­lent forces. Here a strong pressure against automatization exerts itself on the Stalker, also in the person of his wife. By her reflections on suffering, she articulates that impulse of a dialectic of opposites towards breaking the monotony of a mechanical and grey existence, an impulse previously given voice by the devil who is Ivan Karamazov’s alter ego and then by Bulgakov’s Woland.

The apparent alternative that presents itself in the face of the Stalker’s despair is between an escape into a thaumaturgic dimension wherein to await an unforeseen resolutive event and an act of faith in the human possi­bilities hidden in the depths of one’s being. In Stalker, however, the weight of everyday life is so crushing as to preclude that alternative. The threshold of the room where the protagonist believes the most secret desires can be fulfilled will not be crossed, and will not because no one dares confront the double risk that crossing it involves. If the miracle does not transpire, there will be nothing to believe in or hope for any longer. If, on the other hand, entering the room means acceding to the darkest part of oneself, the peril is of not being able to bear the shame of what one discovers.

In contrast to the Stalker’s attitude, the reactions of the two intellectuals for whom he is supposed to act as guide—uncreative bureaucrats of science and literature—recapitulate the behavior of certain characters in Tarkov­sky’s Solaris. Like the Sartorius of that film, the scientist in Stalker wants to bomb out of existence an Otherness which does not fit the laws of his system. The writer, instead—who is closer to Gibarian—draws back so as “not to pour on anyone’s head the loathing he has within,” whereupon he would have “to put his head in a noose” (Stalker, p. 50).

The Stalker, meanwhile, deprived of the possibilities allowed Kris Kelvin, restricts himself to dreaming of the Apocalypse and of a regeneration for which he would be not the architect but the Christ-like mediator;11 yet he cannot find within himself the courage to believe in this dream completely.

Still, one possibility remains open in the film. Its indicator is a passage from Lao Tze on the plasticity and flexibility of children. As Tarkovsky cites it in the Stalker filmscript (p. 37), that quotation runs as follows:

People are born weak and flexible; they die strong and obdurate. A growing tree is delicate and flexible; it perishes dry and strong. Rigidity and strength are the companions of death; weakness and elasticity express the freshness of being; what is unrigid will not be vanquished.

That idea, occupying in Stalker a place similar to the thought of Pilman’s inserted in the middle of Picnic and then picked up at the end from Red’s point of view, is likewise similarly crucial to understanding—in this case, particularly of the final frames of the film.

There, in a movement whose circularity, though only apparent, is none­theless reminiscent of The Childhood of Ivan and Solaris, Tarkovsky ends the film where it began. From the luminous and colorful world of the Zone, we are returned to the squalor of an everyday existence rendered in black-and-white footage shading into tones of brown. Yet if the filthy and bemired village, the stagnant waters of the lake, and the house of the Stalk­er are essentially the same we see at the outset, they are not exactly so. For now the color footage which Tarkovsky (significantly enough) reserves for the sequences taking place within the Zone, with exception made (equally significantly) only for those moments when the point of view switches from the adults to the Stalker’s daughter, Martyška, again briefly comes into play. As the mute and mutant Martyška, deprived of the use of her legs, is carried home on her father’s shoulders from the bar where she had been taken to wait for him, we are suddenly and temporarily allowed to see the quotidian world completely transformed through her eyes. The hitherto pol­luted and dead surface of the lake, shot from above and as the girl sees it, suddenly appears bright and colorful, like the Zone.

The connection made here between Martyška and the lake ties Stalker in with Tarkovsky’s previous films. It instances once again the “intratextu­al” association recurrent in the Soviet director’s oeuvre between images of water and childhood. His conjoining of the two, moreover, has an analogi­cal basis—as he himself hints in his quotation of Lao Tze—which also points to the privileged status of childhood as a sanctuary from the mechan­ical rigidity of adult life. Hence the expanses of water so insistently present in The Childhood of Ivan and Andrei Rublev and transforming themselves into an entire living planet in Solaris have a metaphoric meaning. They image the elasticness, the inarrestibility, the dynamism which human beings are bom with—the potential, also for apprehending the new, which figures in Stalker‘s last scene.

Following the intervention of black-and-white, the color stock Tarkovsky has employed to shoot the lake from Martyška’s point of view reappears. By that medium, we finally witness the long-awaited miracle. It takes place not within the Zone but outside it, in the realization of a wish capable of subduing the “iron laws” that none of the adults has been able to violate. What makes the miracle possible is not a material transference to forbidden territory (viz., the Zone), but the momentary escape into the world of art achieved by Martyška, who though she is, like Harey, an alien, is also a child and hence possesses a child’s “elasticity.”

In the sequence immediately preceding her “escape”—one of the last in the film—she appears silently absorbed in a book while on the soundtrack a voice, objectivizing her interior monologue, recites a lyric (untitled) by Tyutchev (pp. 59-60):

I love your eyes, my love,
Their wonderful, passionate play
When suddenly you raise them
And boldly cast your glance,
Like skybom lightning, about you.
But there is a mightier magic:
Of eyes to earth cast down
All through a fervent kiss,
And through the lowered lashes
The sullen faint flame of desire.

The miracle performed by Martyška’s glance, her eyes turned downward like the woman’s in the poem, was the realization, through a process of dis­placement, of a desire which this alien, deprived of the use of her legs, is never able to fulfill otherwise. What she accomplishes by the exertion of mental energy is alone, from the standpoint of the dead mechanical world in which she lives, a prodigious feat, even if the result is equivalent to the effect produced on a glass by the noisy vibrations of a train in an opening scene of the film.

The small miracle that Martyška performs solely for her own benefit makes it clear to the viewer that the Zone is not some magical territory to be physically attained by passing through barbed-wire barriers. Rather, it is something existing everywhere, outside us and within, though this is lost sight of by the adults in Stalker, who are prisoners of a shabbily and rigidly one-dimensional world.

The Strugatsky s’ novel and Tarkovsky’s film, though they differ from one another in language and point of view, share the same nucleus. Both problematically address the need to break out of the rigidity and automa­tism produced by all-encompassing dogmatic certainties and by models pretending to fit all situations. While pointing in somewhat different direc­tions, the two works are thus instructively complementary. Picnic projects its search outwards via the indications of a scientist (Pilman) who, rather than seeking unshakable certitudes, wants to construct dynamic hypotheses, ones which can be extended and modified to explain ever new phenomena. Tarkovsky, instead, directs his investigations towards the interior of the individual above all, seeking to discover those uncontainable and infinite possibilities of a “symmetrical” being without which scientific and artistic creativity, and cognitive advances generally, could not occur.


1 The foregoing essay represents a translation of a part of the sixth chapter of S. Salvestroni’s Semiotica dell’immaginazione. Dalla letteratura fantastica russa alla fantascienza sovietica (Venezia: Marsilio, 1984)—RMP.
2 For a discussion of the relationships among these artists, see my book.
3 “Petersburg tales” (or “stories”) is a term (which Gogol apparently did not approve of) collectively designating “The Overcoat,” The Diary of a Madman, “The Nose,” “The Nevsky Prospect,” and “The Portrait”—RMP.
4 This and other theoretical problems I treat at some length in chapter 6 of my book on the “semiotics of the imagination.”
5 Here and subsequently I use the term symmetrical (or symmetry) in the sense developed by psychologist Ignacio Matte Blanco. For him it names the prin­ciple on which the Unconscious’s logic is based—the principle according to which asymmetrical relationships behave as if they were symmetrical. (By logico-mathematical definition, symmetrical relationships are those which hold even when the phenomena or terms related are reversed, whereas asymmetrical relationships do not. Thus, for example, “John is the brother of Paul” formulates a symmetrical relation, “The arm is part of the body” an asymmetrical one.) By consequence of the principle of symmetry, Matte Blanco emphasizes, all the elements of a class come to be considered as identical in a way which annihilates such traditional logi­cal distinctions as that between subject and object, part and whole, thought and action, and past, present, and future. What I mean to suggest, then, is that Solaris in effect operates on that principle and hence is explicable in its terms.
6 See Frezzato, pp. 65-70. Soviet critics who discuss Solaris do not seem any more open than he to the comprehension of the rich meanings of the film. They affirm that Tarkovsky “did not follow the logic and the spirit of such a good book” as Lem’s (quoted from a round-table discussion in Voprosy Literatury, no. 1 [1973]).
7 For a further discussion of this bipolarity/ambivalence, see Salvestroni, “The Ambiguous Miracle in Three Novels by the Strugatsky Brothers,” SFS, 11 (1984): 291-303.
8 “The Zone,” the Stalker affirms, “might seem capricious, but it is at any given moment exactly what our state of mind makes it….Some have died on the threshold of the room. However, everything that happens here depends not on the Zone but on ourselves”: Stalker, p. 36.
9 “The world,” the Stalker is told by the Writer, “is infinitely monotonous, and therefore neither telepathy, nor fantoms, nor flying saucers have a place in it….None of that; the world is governed by iron laws, and hence is unbearably bor­ing. And those laws, alas, are not violated, cannot be violated”: Stalker, p. 26.
10 According to Tarkovsky, the remaking of the film was not wholly a matter of design. After half of the first version had been shot, it was ruined in the lab. “I couldn’t do the same thing over again. So, together with the authors, I started rewriting the scenario….The accident took place just when the film in its original conception was in danger of becoming insufficiently profound”: “Interview,” pp. 48-51.
It is here, in connection with the Stalker’s Apocalyptic dream, that quota­tions from the Book of Revelation and the Gospels figure.


Black, Max. Models and Metaphors. Ithaca, NY: 1962.
Frezzato, A. Tarkovskij. Firenze, 1977.
Lotman, Juri. “Mozg-tekst-kul’tura-iskusstvennij intellekt,” trans. by S. Salvestroni as “Il cervello-il testo-la cultura-l’intelletto artificiale,” Intersezioni, no. 1 (Apr. 1982), pp. 5-16.
Matte Blanco, Ignacio. The Unconscious as Infinite Sets. An Essay in Bi-Logic. London, 1975.
Tarkovsky, Andrei. “Interview” (by L. Capo), Scena, 5 (1980):47-51.
___ . Stalker (Directorial Filmscript), in Rassegna sovietica, Nov.-Dec. 1980, pp. 24-53.
Tyutchev, F.I. Poems and Political Letters of…, trans. Jesse Zeldin. Knoxville: Tennessee UP, 1973.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe. Oxford, 1953.

Original title: Simonetta Salvestroni. Les films de science-fiction d’Andrei Tarkovsky.

Published in Science-Fiction Studies #43 = Volume 14, Part 3 = November 1987


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The interview is transcribed from taped material obtained during the shooting of Nostalghia. As well, there are excerpts from conversations that were never recorded, and a brief excerpt from their first 1962 conversation, along with a few other statements made by Tarkovsky

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