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Stanisław Lem’s science fiction masterpiece, Solaris (1961), begins “at 19.00 hours, ship’s time” with the psychologist, Kris Kelvin, arriving at a spacecraft being readied to carry him to a space station orbiting a mysterious planet known as Solaris. Kelvin is departing to investigate some strange occurrences that have happened there and the disturbing effects they’ve had on the crew. In Andrei Tarkovsky’s classic film ‘based on’ Lem’s novel (1972), which was screened at the Cannes Film Festival this month fifty years ago and selected for the Grand Prix Spécial du Jury prize, Kelvin isn’t blasted into space until more than 40 minutes into the 166-minute epic. The earthly scenes Tarkovsky appended to Lem’s story, and which Lem was decidedly not a fan of, is one of the features that gives the film its Tarkovskian anti-sci-fi character—as sf was not a genre that interested him, in creating such a visually breath-taking and profoundly philosophical film.

Tarkovsky’s use of editing and montage in the film’s opening sequence cuts between images of nature starting with undulating aquatic plants beneath gently flowing water, to the edge and the emergent reeds and grasses growing there, before panning to a man standing in quiet contemplation at the edge of the stream—a world animated by transmotion. The montage continues with the introduction of the sounds of birds and another cut to the man, whom we soon learn is the protagonist, Kelvin, now in a stand of cottonsedge with the camera panning up as he walks away. The scene takes us further into a landscape that begins to feel like a fairy tale as a horse trots by while Kelvin traverses a landscape that is clearly no longer wild. He comes to the edge of a pond with a quaint house across in the background—Kelvin’s father’s dacha.

These trappings of human culture and the domestication of nature are met with the sound of an arriving car, pulling Kelvin, and the viewer, from their meditations. It’s a brilliant opening sequence in which the sublime images of a bucolic environment establish the centrality of the natural world, with the film’s protagonist cast as a thoughtful man of duty ready to travel through the nebulous regions of space for the betterment of scientific knowledge. More broadly, the scene conveys a more portentous edge by drawing subtle attention to humanity’s estrangement from the natural world and our disruptive place in this order.

That Kelvin and the other characters we encounter in these scenes stand as unified figures within this environment, like those of Japanese Zen Buddhist landscape paintings or Pieter Bruegel’s sprawling series of panels, Months, depicting the activities of commonplace Belgian villagers in the 16th century (more on this later), highlights the unassuming splendor of the natural world. Images that further emphasize features of a noumenal physical reality animated by the miracle of life and the wonder of physical existence.

Tarkovsky provides more framing for his new foundation when the camera shifts to the inside of the house. This interior is dominated by objects and images that harken to the past, such as a bust of Aeschylus, a series of 19th-century prints featuring hot-air balloons, including one depicting the first crossing of the English Channel by air balloon of Jean-Pierre François Blanchard, along with an assortment of books, and photos of his deceased mother and wife. Objects, artifacts and mementos that speak to the endurance of human accomplishments and the evanescence of human life.

Adding to this, Tarkovsky repurposes an archived bit of testimony that Kelvin reads on the space station within Lem’s novel, transforming it into a dialogic tête-à-tête that imposes on the serenity of the natural world. The intrusion of this retired cosmonaut by the name of Berton—Lem’s play on André Breton, a co-founder and major figure of surrealism and, perhaps, inspired by the elusive female love interest of his novel, Nadja—as the visitor who arrived in the car has been reinscribed in Tarkovsky’s plot to share his experiences at Solaris with Kelvin. Thus, warning him of what he will encounter before his departure.

This is done through the viewing of video testimony Berton gave, it seems, at least a decade before based upon his appearance, to a group of technocrats of the Solaris Space Council. Tarkovsky further molds the affective force of this scene, and the story, by filming it in black and white through a blue filter. This stylistic choice sets the bureaucratic space of scientific institutions apart from the vibrancy of the natural world, while functioning as a subtle critique of Soviet/government intractability.

Intensifying these implications, Berton’s spectral appearance on film was recorded in a futuristic architectural space in which he is surrounded by stencils etched into glass panels with the likenesses of heroic figures of the Soviet space program, including Konstantin Tsailkovsky, Dmitri Kozloz, and Yuri Gagarin. And while Berton’s testimony is certainly interesting, as Walter Benjamin usefully reminds of film in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1935), “what matters is that the part is acted not for an audience but for a mechanical contrivance.” Thus, through another of Tarkovsky’s newly created settings, the burdens of idealized history and a fictional past mediated by the gaze of the camera become as important as Berton’s account of the strange events he witnessed during the rescue mission into the clouds of the planet’s ocean in search for a missing crew member named Fechner.

Berton recounts peculiar and uncanny details of the strange and ever-changing surface of Solaris that “sparkles like glass.” It then morphs into what appears as a garden but made of plaster, hinting at a mysterious entity’s awareness and imperfect replication of the memories of human visitors. Berton goes on to describe an inexplicable encounter with an “unusually large, gigantic” baby, which he at first mistakes for Fechner’s space suit, floating above the Solarian Ocean.

Natalya Bondarchuk and Donatas Banionis

Natalya Bondarchuk and Donatas Banionis

The chairman of the Council responds with a brief statement dominated by clinical cant in which he dismisses Berton’s experience as “the result of a hallucinatory complex . . . exacerbated by the inflammation of the associative zone of the cerebral cortex.” This seemingly presumptuous view is countered by a Professor Messenger, in furtherance of Tarkovsky’s critique of insular bureaucracies, who states, “I would like to offer another opinion. We stand on the brink of an enormous discovery. Our decision should not rely on the observations of a man without any scientific qualifications.”

The implicit ‘message’ in this exchange is that we cannot merely reach for the stars through the power of our technologies and machines, and especially not guided by narrowminded concerns of bureaucratic administrators acting on their own hidden agendas. For such bold aspirations as space exploration to be truly transcendent, we must seek to match our capacity for mechanical innovation with a corresponding elevation of the human mind and spirit, and with an attitude steeled with an unwavering posture of fearlessness in the face of the unknown.

Although Berton’s story is fantastic and strange, the response from the council, much of which seems based on little more than conjecture, stands as an ironic example of unscientific, if not dogmatic, thinking. This is the idea conveyed in Messenger’s exasperated retort to the chairman, which goes far beyond the study of just the planet Solaris, “we're talking about the boundaries of human knowledge. Don't you think that by establishing artificial barriers we deliver a blow to the idea of limitless thought? By limiting our movement forward, we facilitate moving backwards.” And hence, a retreat to a place of comfort, or ignorance much like the desire of Plato’s prisoner to flee back into the cave—in a return to some half-remembered state of bliss that was always already an illusion of our own creation anyway.

Hunters in Snow 1200

These motives and intentions are reinforced when Berton asks the chairman to what degree Messenger’s view will have on the Council’s decision, to which his response is, practically none. Through this exchange Tarkovsky presents us with a crude example on how phenomena and experiences beyond the realm of the understandable are routinely disregarded as pathological. From this and other scenes, the tensions between science and the realms of philosophy and spirituality become increasingly significant, while almost completely overturning the meaning and intentions of Lem’s novel. No wonder he hated it . . .

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Kelvin’s blasé response to Berton further reinforces Tarkovsky’s narrative realignment as he seeks to cut off discussion claiming the controversy “has reached an impasse as a result of irresponsible daydreaming.” He offers up the laziest of all answers, suggesting they simply destroy Solaris by “bombarding the ocean with heavy radiation.” Shocked by a perspective he considers guided by apathy and fear, Berton replies, “you want to destroy that which we are presently incapable of understanding . . . Knowledge is only valid when it’s based on morality.” These words, of course, hold up a mirror to humanity in calling out the preference to ignorance as it always seems easier to destroy that which one doesn’t understand, and fears, rather than to try gain new knowledge.

Kelvin’s cynical and patronizing response that “man is the one who renders science moral or immoral. Remember Hiroshima,” is followed by Berton’s profoundly clear response, “then don’t make science immoral.” Despite the scorn, Berton maintains the veracity of his testimony and ends his appeal by noting that “it’s strange,” placing Tarkovsky’s story into the realm of philosophical speculation. The tension between the ideas offered by these characters spans the cosmic abyss from Lem’s hard science fiction with its exaltation of data and machines, back to Tarkovsky’s explorations in the realm of human feelings, knowledge, experience and beingness-in-the-world. This movement emphasizes the realities and potentials of the respective characters, cohering into an array of images and ideas that form the essential crux of the film.

As Kelvin prepares to depart for his mission on this ominously identified “last day” before his farewell, Berton video calls Kelvin’s father from his car to share a final piece of his story: that from visiting Fechner’s wife on his return, he learned that the inexplicable thing he saw near Solaris was identical to Fechner’s orphaned son. The conclusion of Berton’s testimony is amplified by a TV program the family was watching that his call cut into in which it is speculated that Solaris exists in the form of a “distinctive brain,” with “the ocean” functioning “as a thinking substance.” Solaris is, thus, presented as an “alien” consciousness and presence of parasitic thought, an idea that inspired subsequent sf films such as Paul W.S Anderson’s Event Horizon (1997) and Sunshine (2007) by Danny Boyle.

While Kelvin continues his preparations unphased by these interruptions, Berton continues his lonely journey via automobile, in what has become one of Tarkovsky’s classic scenes, back to a chaotic urban world, traversing a crowded, spiraling highway that literally swallows him up within structures typified by speed, anonymity and an architecture that confines and isolates. The combination of Tarkovsky’s creative additions is the vehicle that initiates his radical shift from the narrative trajectory emplotted by Lem as a paean the power of technology, the mysteries of outer space and humanity’s insignificance in the maw the universe’s sheer boundlessness, onto the profound mysteries of the human heart, the substance of memory and their capacities to remake the world around us that were reflective of his interests and concerns.

It's a shift that becomes apparent at the point where novel and film align once Kelvin gets to outer space. But even here, the visual images of an unkempt and run-down space station reinforce an uncanny sense that something just isn’t right. As much as Tarkovsky may have wanted to overturn the strictures of Lem’s novel, his cinematic compositions responded to the film industry with even more vigor. The mise en scène of Tarkovsky’s space station, for example, stands in stark contrast to exquisite order and sterile efficiency presented by Stanley Kubrick in his epic space opera, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Where Kubrick visually transports us to a sf universe created by another prominent figure in the hard sci-fi scene, Arthur C. Clark, accompanied by the grandiosity of Gustav Holst’s percussion driven orchestral suite, The Planets, Tarkovsky eases us into the aural environs of his film with a modern electronic score composed by Eduard Artemyev, which he supplements with Johann Sebastian Bach’s delicate chorale prelude for organ, Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ in the film’s climactic levitation scene.

When considered in the context of the elements Tarkovsky utilizes to tell his radically different story, from the still life compositions and objects of art present in the opening sequence, as well as the busts of the Greek storytellers and philosophers, Aeschylus and Aristotle, adorning the interior of Kelvin’s father’s dacha and the space station’s library, a remarkably cohesive vision starts to emerge. This is fueled by the oppositions Friedrich Nietzsche asserts in The Birth of Tragedy whereby “the Apollinian art of sculpture, and the nonimagistic, Dionysian art of music” are reimagined as “the separate art worlds of dreams and intoxication.” Thusly conceived, we might say that the world from which Kelvin emerges is that of dreams while that of Solaris—a veritable synonym for Apollo, the deity that, as Nietzsche reminds, is the “ruler over the beautiful illusion of the inner world of fantasy—is rightly, then, a world of intoxication.

Hence, aside from their common settings somewhere in the vast reaches of outer space, in style, cinematography and sound, the films of Kubrick and Tarkovsky could not be starker. And while there is much than can be said of Kelvin’s interactions with the specter of his dead wife—Rheya in Lem, Hari in the film—my concern is in Tarkovsky’s use of art as an effective means of carrying forth his message. This is a theme that culminates in the appearance of Pieter Bruegel’s selection of paintings forming the series, Months, on the wall of the space station’s library, with a special focus on his Hunters in the Snow (1565).

Andrei Tarkovsky

Andrei Tarkovsky

Whereas the formulation of the Greek tragedy as expressed through the dramas of Aeschylus typically addresses the folly of hubris, while also elevating it to epic terms at the same time, Bruegel’s landscapes, through their focus on the ordinary lives of peasants, reflect an experience of life that speaks to a reality much closer to what most experience. Tarkovsky forwards this idea through the cultivation of an aesthetic vision that becomes evident through his film’s merging with Bruegel’s art. And it is Hunters in the Snow that Tarkovsky sharpens that focus and through which both his and Bruegel’s allegorical messages can be best delivered, not by the pyrotechnics of Aeschylus or Kubrick, but in the understatedness of the details this work depicts.

Benjamin maintained that the “aura” of an original work of art “is never entirely separated from its ritual function,” and when that art loses its authenticity through the act of reproduction, its “function . . . is reversed,” thus, severing its relation to ritual. In transporting Bruegel’s Hunters in the Snow, and the other three works in the series, into an otherworldly place by their relocation to the space station, Tarkovsky restores both their aura and ritual function by returning to them the status that Benjamin asserts to be lost in the process of reproduction, namely, “its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.”

The world portrayed by Bruegel in the paintings of the Months stand in stark contrast to the epic and spectacular, the horrific and terrible, that typify his earlier works such as The Fall of the Rebel Angels, Dulle Griet (Mad Meg), The Triumph of Death or The Suicide of Saul (all 1562). Hunters in the Snow, by contrast, turns the focus away from the tremendously bleak, which some may see as inescapable and crushing in much the same way as Kelvin’s example of Hiroshima on the morality of science, in presenting an assortment of scenes in which the human condition is more accurately presented via the trifling flaws and petty transgressions of human nature.

It is an image that conveys a situation closer to truth, confirming Dr. Snaut’s advice that “we don’t need other worlds, we need a mirror.” The banal scenes of peasant life Bruegel gave the world are transformed by Tarkovsky through the magic of film into that mirror. For his panels presents landscapes of a place where a multitude of scenes dance in a harmony and conflict that is at once so full of the simple joys of children’s games, the pleasures of food, the sharing of a kiss, the liberation of sleep and many other everyday activities, while also turning a focus to the traps of pettiness, jealousy and vice, with the ever-present specter of death watching over it all.

Both a call and a plea that we should live the happiest lives we can, the best we can, and for as long as we can. This is precisely the truth Tarkovsky wants to draw his viewers’ attention to in the levitation scene in which the camera pans across close-ups of Hunters in the Snow that dissolve into close-ups, laying bare the truth that the achievement of perfection or objective truth are futile ventures—as relevant in 1972, or 2022, as it was in 1565.

These are the ideas, insights and understandings Tarkovsky wants to lead us to in his Solaris, that unlike Kelvin who lives under the grim shadow of his wife’s suicide, we are not defined by the actions, beliefs or fates of other people. This is a truth, as we know, that Kelvin, for all his high-minded objectivity, intelligence and understanding of the human mind just cannot come to terms with. Hence, in the end he chooses that other path and retreats into the simulated world, the “copy” and “matrix” Dr. Sartorius warned about, and that Kelvin well knew to be illusory and false, too. That one made up of the dreams, regrets and phantasms of the past, for which he condemns himself to a lonely island on the surface of Solaris so that we may escape it.