Criterion Files #164: Tarkovsky Struggles With Science and Art in ‘Solaris’

By  · Published on August 24th, 2011

Andrei Tarkovsky was openly dissatisfied with his Solaris (1972), even though it has endured as perhaps the master’s best-known work, because he felt he didn’t successfully “transcend” the science-fiction genre as he later claimed he would seven years later with Stalker, a film that truly has few directly identifiable ties with the genre it purportedly emerged from. But knowing Tarkovsky, “transcending the genre” here doesn’t mean new interpretations of a familiar formula, but rather implies that Tarkovsky didn’t felt he accomplished what he sought to do in each of his works: make cinema a high art form comparable with the other arts.

I respectfully disagree with Tarkovsky’s assessment of his own work. In fact, it is the clearly identifiable ties that Solaris has with its genre that helps the film achieve a specifically Tarkovskyan transcendence. While the filmmaker has a gesamtkunstwerk-approach to elevating cinema as an art form by integrating other great works of art into this work of art (an aspect especially apparent here in the film’s library scene), in Solaris Tarkovsky palpably struggles with the legacy of the genre he’s working in, and in doing so, copes with cinema’s own artistic language while putting forth a unique aesthetic that can singularly be experienced in cinema: the controlled experience of time.

On Science and Art

The center of this struggle is Solaris’s status as an adaptation. Polish writer Stanislaw Lem was unsatisfied with Tarkovsky’s adaptation, as he felt the subject matter was interesting because of the science involved, a concern consistent with popular science fiction literature of this time. Tarkovsky’s work is evidently uninterested with the science of it all, and Tarkovsky admitted that he felt burdened by the bells and whistles of the genre that unavoidably entered the film. But somebody like me who has only known the story of Solaris through its adaptations is understandably confused by Lem’s criticism, as it seems the central conceit of the story is an exploration of the limitations of science, or the fact that the unknowable always exists even as we are able to explain more and more about the universe in which we live.

Unlike its counterpart in the cinematic space race, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 (1968), Solaris doesn’t put stock in human innovation to lead us to a triumphant “end” of history, but is concerned rather with the interior, the emotional subjective reality of being human, the inherent flaws of humanity, and the inability to comprehend everything that one experiences. The anti-scientific potential in the story of Solaris is no doubt what compelled the spiritualist Tarkovsky to make this particular adaptation. Science and art, to him, were two sides of the same human need, but with different privileges and results. In his book Sculpting in Time, the auteur states:

“And so art, like science, is a means of assimilating the world, an instrument for knowing it in the course of man’s journey towards what is called ‘absolute truth.’ That, however, is the end of any similarity between these two embodiments of the human spirit, in which man does not discover, but creates…By means of art man takes over reality through a subjective experience. In science man’s knowledge of the world makes its way up an endless staircase and is successively replaced by new knowledge, with one discovery often enough being disproved by the next for the sake of a particular objective truth.”

Tarkovsky is suspicious of science at least, and perhaps sees it as fruitless, as literalized by the dilapidated landscape of the space shuttle. If one discovery and means of understanding the world is simply replaced by another for the sake of objectivity and the pursuit of knowledge, how then can we trust “new” knowledge while recognizing that it will eventually be predictably replaced? The only avenue for genuine knowledge, for Tarkovsky, is that which is acquired by one’s subjective experience of the world.

This central dichotomy is illustrated through the characters occupying the space ship hovering above the Solaris Ocean. Sartorius (Anatoly Solonitsyn) stands on the coldly scientific end of the pendulum. His treatment of the “guests” as specimens is the most “logical” in scientific terms, but the mysterious experiments that go on behind his closed doors also seem cruel and inhuman. Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), by contrast, has a fully human interaction with the extraterrestrial manifestation of his late wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), acting as though she were real even though she is clearly not. While psychologically damaging, such a reaction is honestly and unapologetically human. Snout (Juri Jarvet) is the mediator between these two poles.

On Aura

In the library scene, Sartorius refers to Hari as nothing more than a “mechanical reproduction,” perhaps a reference to Walter Benjamin’s famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Regardless of whether or not there was any intentional extracinematic reference in this declaration, Tarkovsky clearly does not share with Benjamin the notion that the reproduced work loses its “aura.” Quite the opposite. For Kelvin (and, by association, Tarkovsky), subjective experience defines reality regardless of whether any false reproductions exist. For Kelvin, a reproduction of Hari and Hari herself are one in the same, not because he is in any way confused about who the “real” Hari is, but because emotion and memory, not objective scientific inquiry, are the only meaningful means of understanding the experience of the real.

While there are several ways to interpret the film’s chilling ending, the only one that makes sense to me is the notion that Kelvin voluntarily chose a Solaris reproduction over returning to Earth, no longer caring about any distinction between the two. For Tarkovsky, the subjectively real is the only “real.”

On Time

Of the many ways that 2001 and Solaris stand in contrast to one another as respectively American and Russian (not Soviet) interpretations of man’s relationship with the cosmos is their interpretation of time. 2001 is not only linear, but ambitiously so, as it chronicles an entire history of the human race in 144 minutes, with notable progression and definitive structure despite its psychedelic and seemingly esoteric tone upon first glance. Solaris progresses decidedly little in its 164-minute runtime, taking place largely at a space station inundated by stasis, not progress. Like its major hallway, time is cyclical to the point of being indefinite. Hari dies time and again, and in so doing Kelvin likely experiences memories of her death again and again, his emotional memory manifested literally here.

The carefully controlled experience of time was a central component of Tarkovsky’s work, and was perhaps his defining contribution to cinema as a unique art form. In Tarkovsky’s films, time was manipulated, not to ‘manipulate’ the audience per se (Tarkovsky’s work stands in distinct opposition to the montage techniques implemented by that other Soviet cinematic giant, Sergei Eisenstein), but to pursue a sensory aesthetic transcendence, a potential spiritual experience particular to and within cinema.

In contrast to Kubrick’s understanding of time in 2001, Tarkovsky viewed history and evolution as consequences of time, not synonymous with time itself. Time, for Tarkovsky, has a closer relationship with memory:

“Time and memory merge into each other; they are like two sides of a medal.”

Memory, then, can make elements present that may not be so empirically. Kelvin’s memory of Hari and her reproduction are then one in the same. But this is why the film’s hypnotic pace is as essential to the film’s meaning as its narrative elements. In manipulating time, Tarkovsky pulls us away from a conventional linear understanding of it. Instead of a series of successive moments, time becomes a prolonged experience. “Moments” are no longer homogenous, but dilute into and converge with one another, whether it be the intersection of flesh and memory, or the blurring of technology and national borders in the Japanese highway scene, or the impossible fusing together of a house with its surrounding elements (rain) during the film’s final moments.

For Tarkovsky, time becomes art when it ceases to be science.

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